I have gotten a lot of comments recently on the good behavior of puppies coming out of my Super Sniffer® puppy program. These comments are usually followed by the same question—How do you do it? How can you get pups that are 16 weeks old to pass an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluation with flying colors, regardless of the breed of dog? I felt it might be of inter
est to explore the program in sections over the next few blogs to give readers some ideas that they can use while raising their own puppies. This month I would like to focus on PLAY.
Play is a central part of my program. Play teaches a puppy all about dog language, about their body, how to think on their feet, to be tolerant, to be patient, and also to master the rules of engagement. All of this is an important part of shaping and developing the personality and potential of your puppy, but it must be done in a thoughtful and controlled manner to be effective.
One of the first things I added to the puppy play area was a wide variety of obstacles, textures, and visuals for the pups to get a taste of many things the world has to offer. We know from research that puppy brains expand with all the new things they experience during the first couple of months after birth. Starting at 5 weeks, I bring the pups to the play area and encourage them to walk over all the surfaces we have there. They include bricks, gravel, bark mulch, dry leaves, sand, cement, plastic, and fabrics of various kinds, to name a few. The list has endless possibilities depending on what you have available to include. There are also many different things for the pups to climb over or crawl under. You never know what will strike their fancy on any given outing and I have often been surprised at the places I have found them. One obstacle that takes most pups several weeks to master is a deliberately off level tunnel arrangement that teaches how to walk on non level surface with different visuals and egress at either end. I can see big difference in breeds and bloodlines on how the pups handle this one. It appears simple to the human mind but is truly challenging to the puppy in learning mode.
Teeters and elevated walks are great for building confidence. I use my trained older Chihuahua “Boo” to help teach the pups
these skills. He is very patient and loves to work with the young pups that are about his size. I’m always nearby to make sure no one gets hurt but allow them to slip off a ramp up or down if its not too far from the ground as part of the learning experience. As the pups get older and I take them through more of the formal obedience I will continue to teach exercise so they learn to be more aware of their legs. This will help them feel comfortable getting into tight spaces, climbing but also keep them safe while being active. The more formal training is done with FitPaws™ products and is something I learned from studying Dr. Chris Zink’s work on canine fitness. It has been a real positive since I have added this element to the program. By 8 weeks of age, all the pups here have a good command of the obstacles and items in the play area.
Good play vs. bad play
It is now time to introduce the pups to the older dogs and expand the pack dynamics beyond mom and littermates. As a breeder, I have access to my own pack, which makes this part easy. I know the dogs in my pack and know how they act with puppies. More importantly, I know they are not going to teach the pups any undesirable habits. If you don’t have your own pack or know a breeder who will allow you to run your puppy with their pack, then it might be a challenge to find a group of dogs that would be suitable. The key to this step is getting the right group of dogs together. Dogs with bad habits, even small bad habits, will influence the puppy in a negative way. When the pups are introduced to the pack you want them to learn how to play politely with other dogs, to play quietly, to share toys and not show signs of resource guarding—all important things that will make for a better canine citizen.
With the right “teaching” dogs in the pack, the pups will learn how and when to engage in play as the older dogs patiently teach the pups the rules. It’s fascinating to watch them learn too. Again all this builds character, so don’t interfere much here. Let the dogs do the teaching while you take notes.
From my notes on this activity, I will structure the training exercises for the future lessons. If a pup is not very patient or not showing good self-control, then I will use games designed to enhance this skill as we move on with the formal obedience. You can also see learning patterns with the pups during these times as well which can help you choose how to set your pup for success during obedience lessons. If your pup is very visual then you should have training exercises that make allowance for that trait.
One last way in which I also use play when raising the pups is as a stress reliever when the situation calls for it. If you are teaching the puppy something that is very stressful or causes some anxiety, to interject a brief play time can help turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one for your puppy. When I am testing pups during obedience training around increasingly higher distractions, I will often see signs of stress as they are trying to do the right thing in face of something else they want to do more. So after they successfully complete the exercise I will break off into a brief play session to not just reinforce the reward and praise for a good job but to relieve the tension. When stress levels are high, learning is low and retention of the lesson is not as good. This is something to keep in mind as you move on with your pups training. Be carful not to overdo this type of play as the smart pup will soon be running the show, manipulating the situation to their advantage.
Play has its place in the raising of a well-balanced puppy if it is done properly, safely, and for all the right reasons. Remember that good play stimulates the brain, offers positive learning experiences that will help the pup relate to other things in their future, and it strengthens the body too.
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 Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation by M. Christine Zink and Janet Van Dyke available at Caninesports.com