So, if you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram, then you probably don’t know, but I’ve just gotten a new puppy. Noelle, Noelle, the Christmas Dog came to us on Christmas Day. I was driving out to feed my horses and saw someone gingerly dumping her in a ditch. I’ve sort of tentatively been on the lookout for a dog for my husband, and here the universe just sort of dropped her in our laps.
In my time as a dog trainer, I have had the pleasure of helping folks train both older, more mature dogs, and puppies. In my own home, I’ve raised babies from birth, and I’ve brought in older dogs as well. They are all such a joy for me to train, to work with, to love, and I adore every second of it. But, I have found, there are some major differences between living with and training a puppy and an older dog. The amount of patience and reminding yourself not to kill them should be enough, but there are a few others as well
1. Attention Span
When training a puppy, I usually compare his attention span to that of a fruit fly. In fact, a fruit fly may actually have a LONGER attention span than a puppy, depending on the fruit they’re hovering over. When I began working with my newest addition, Noelle, this became so clear to me. She is 10 weeks old at the time of writing this, and she will work her little heart out, her little feet off, her little brain right out of her head, but only for about four and a half minutes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an INTENSE four and a half minutes, but at this tender age, don’t expect much longer than a 5-10 minute session at a time.
As your puppy begins to mature, usually between about four to six months of age, you’ll see that attention span start to lengthen. 10 to 15 minute sessions at a time will wear your pup you, rather than 5 minutes. But you’ll still find that you can only do so much before that attention starts to wander.
And here’s the important part about attention spans. When they start to wander and lose focus, quit while you’re ahead! They aren’t “blowing you off” at this young age, or “flipping you the dewclaw” as we like to say in the business. Those are things that older dogs, usually 9 months and up, will do to you. No, a puppy will lose his focus and you won’t be able to get it back because he is TIRED! When you find your baby wandering off, or ignoring your training commands, that usually means that it’s time to stop training and take a little break. Let your pup outside to play, or let them rest for awhile in the crate or bed. They’ve worked HARD!
As I said above, those four minutes with Noelle are INTENSE minutes! This is different from an older dog because puppies have this sort of excitement and joy in learning from you, bonding with you, and connecting with you that older dogs don’t have. Sure, an older dog LOVES training, usually, and they love to bond with their people as well. But with puppies, it’s just full of this focus and intensity, as if learning these things from you is the most incredible and exciting thing in the world.
I’ve found that in working with puppies, they’ll master a new behavior in the same time, or faster, than a more mature dog, but they do it with such energy and intensity that it is like comparing dynamite to a 4th of July sparkler. Australian Shepherds, Bloodhounds, Yorkies, it doesn’t matter the breed. Just like small children who love to learn and explore new concepts and ideas, young puppies share that same incredible enthusiasm.
Now, to match that intensity, the trainer (you) will have to up your game a little bit to keep up. Sure, keep your sessions super short and sweet, but you’ve got to make them FUN! With puppies, it’s not about obedience, just like in pre-school it’s not about “classroom expectations.” With puppies, it’s about bonding, shared joy, excitement in learning together. Find that same excitement within yourself when you start to work on training with your puppy, and show them that learning is joy.
Now, this does NOT mean that you should be a sour old meanie when you’re training your older dog. Absolutely not. That will usually put you way farther behind than anything else, having a serious and grumpy training face. But it DOES mean that you will turn off a puppy much faster than a more mature dog by being grumpy when you train, even if it’s just your dog who thinks you’re a grouch! I always say “What happens during training class STAYS in the training class,” because when you’re training your puppy or your older dog, you’ll probably need to get a little goofy. Just own that right now!
When I say comprehension, I mean that while puppies are usually very bright little creatures and learn quickly, it may take quite a lot of repetition for your pup to completely understand what you are teaching and to do it every time. Smart, yes, but remember that they are BABIES! It can be easy to forget that sometimes, particularly with puppies of larger breeds. Just because they look like they should be able to perform a behavior correctly every single time does not mean that they’ll remember to do it. Their little brains are still forming, still maturing.
Just have faith that the repetition that you’re doing now at the puppy stage will pay off before you know it. When your dog is older, she won’t forget to wait at the door every time, forget to sit for her dinner, or forget to keep her feet on the floor when she meets a new guest. These are things, though, that you’re going to have to remind her of again and again until she matures and her brain is able to remember those little details!
This one should seem obvious, but sometimes it is not. Especially for those dogs who physically mature pretty quickly. Puppies mature into adolescents by about 6-9 months of age. That means that those first months that you have them, they are babies. I usually tell folks that however many months your pup is, up to about 6 months, you can compare their maturity to a child of that many years. So a 3 month old puppy has about the same maturity level as a 3 year old toddler. Just as you see harried mothers everywhere (I’m allowed to talk…I’m one of those harried mothers) running their three year old child down in the grocery store before they take off into the parking lot by themselves, so the owner of a 3 month old puppy shall live a similar life.
As your pup continues to grow, though, you’ll find the level of assistance, prompting, and reminding that you’ll need to do will become less and less. Until, of course, your dog hits those “teenage months,” where it’s just like raising an unruly teenager and hormones are flying everywhere. That’s fodder for a whole other article, however.
I think that the most challenging part of raising and training a puppy, when compared to living with and training an older dog, is patience. Remembering that, no matter how big or small they are, they are still babies. They are still learning to navigate and understand the world around them, and they are still learning what your expectations are for them. They bring such excitement and joy to your home, and they LOVE to learn new things and to bond with you during the training process. Having a young puppy to raise and train can DEFINITELY be a great experience, as long as you don’t expect them to be a mature dog for quite some time!