This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section One of the Beginner's Course

Dog Training Basics
Page Two of a twelve-page section

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The Potential of Young Dogs to Master Simple Lessons

On the face of it, one might think that humans would reach their maximum capacity for quick learning at some point in their late teens or early twenties. In contrast, it would seem that babies and young children are not nearly so good at learning. After all, a person in their late teens can learn calculus, and no baby could ever do that. Obviously, there are countless lessons that an older person or a mature dog could learn that a baby or a puppy could not begin to comprehend.

Clearly then, there are severe limits on exactly what a puppy can learn until he gets older. Nonetheless, while there are countless things that a puppy cannot learn, those things that a dog can learn at that age, he can learn with amazing speed, very often with a single correction or a single instance of encouragement.

What's more, at five or six weeks of age, a first response that leads to an unpleasant consequence could very well result in that dog never engaging in that behavior again. In contrast, rewarding a pup's first response, or a still very new response, may very well lead to his becoming a devotee of that particular behavior, and a master of the subsequent sequence of more sophisticated behaviors that grow out of it. We'll be talking much more about the power of first responses in the next section.

In evolutionary terms, think about what it means to a little six-week-old puppy to be suddenly separated from his mother, his siblings, and the only people he has ever known, and brought to only the second place he has ever seen in his entire life, where he is surrounded by creatures whose intentions are unknown and whose capabilities are awesome.

You better believe that he is going to be paying attention under that circumstance, because historically speaking, pups who were slow to learn were dinner, while in modern times they are road kill or fodder for the death chamber.

Being a puppy has always been dangerous work. It is not for the stupid and that is one thing that your little dog is not. Especially between the ages of five to twelve weeks, puppies are little learning machines that can absorb simple lessons quite well. If your puppy can understand the point you are making with your correction, and you offer him some acceptable alternative, then he can learn what you are trying to convey in a profound never-to-be-forgotten, I-won't-be-doing-that-much-before-I-give-it-up sort of way - providing that you begin teaching him his lessons early on.

But beware. The more times you let your dog do something wrong before you correct him, the more difficult it will be to get him to give up that particular undesirable response. So the more times he pees on the rug before you turn it into an upsetting experience, the more difficult it will be to get him to give it up and, instead, pursue an acceptable alternative, like taking his business outdoors, where he need not fear an aversive consequence for answering nature's call.

Click here for more information on the variables that come in to play to determine how tough it will be for you to get your dog to stop doing some particular thing that you do not want him to do.

Starting Early Gives You a Leg Up

You are best advised to begin working with your puppy just as soon as he is old enough to leave his mom and littermates, because that is the key to getting your dog trained to his full potential with as little hassle as possible. However, when working with a dog that young, you need to take meticulous care only to engage in age appropriate training activities, because you can traumatize and forever ruin a young dog by trying to teach him the wrong thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong age.

Therefore, before you begin working with your puppy, please make it a point to read at least the first two sections of the beginning workshop all the way through, as well as all the related links.

The Critical Stage of Development

The critical stage of development takes place during the first twelve weeks of your dog's life. During that brief phase, your dog's potential for future development will either be forever limited by or permanently enhanced by the types of stimulation, and the quality of the stimulation that he receives from the world around him.

Your dog's ability to relate to and interact harmoniously with other dogs, as well as the extent to which he will value human companionship, will depend upon his receiving the right kind of high quality stimulation during that twelve week period. If the requisite stimulation is not forthcoming during that critical twelve-week time frame, it can never be made up for later on, which is why it is called the critical stage of development.

The critical stage of development represents a once in a lifetime window of opportunity in which you can imbue you dog with a profound understanding of what is and is not acceptable, and you can do it in an extremely compressed time frame.

Indeed, a critical stage puppy can very often be dissuaded from ever again engaging in an undesirable response by a single correction. On the other hand, a dog can develop an abiding lifelong love for a given activity by just a small amount of reinforcing encouragement, if it is dispensed precisely, and especially if it is delivered repeatedly during the dog's critical stage.

If you do happenstance work with your dog throughout his critical stage, that will greatly accelerate his social and behavioral development. Not only are critical stage dogs able to quickly learn right from wrong, lessons learned at that phase of growth can be so profoundly absorbed that they tend to have a lasting effect.

It is the puppy's extreme capacity to adapt that makes him an ideal candidate for happenstance training. However, you don't want to do any work with a puppy without first reading up on age appropriate training.

The Power of First Responses

When we say that your dog is making a new response, the word new refers to the fact that he has never done that particular thing before, at least not in that setting and under that specific circumstance. Thus, he is making at least some elements of that response for the first time, which is why a new response is also referred to as a first response.

Any given response could, conceivably, simultaneously be a first response in several different ways. For example, even though your newly arrived puppy has peed before, as he squats to shower your rug with urine for the first time, he has never before urinated:

  1. on a rug

  2. in your living room

  3. in your house

  4. with you watching

  5. without his mother and siblings around

Therefore, in this case we would say that there are at least five levels of newness, or five dimensions of newness to your dog's response, even though, in this case, the response itself (urination), is not completely new.

The greater the newness quotient endemic to the response, the greater will be the capacity of the subject to be influenced in the future by the consequences of that response, as newness lends power to the outcome of any given behavior. To be sure, your dog's capacity to be molded will be strongly influenced by the newness factor, which may be why, in all of behavioral science, there is perhaps no more powerful determinant of future behavior than the consequence of a new response made in new surroundings, in a new social setting, during the critical stage of development.

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This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network