The Super Sniffer® Puppy Program: The Importance of PLAY

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

6 week airedale pup

Proper socialization and early training will help a pup reach their full potential

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.

YpupsonBricksOne 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

dog showing pup how to go up ramp

Boo is teaching pups to use the ramp

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[1]. 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.

Pups learning from another dog

Pups learning from another dog

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.

pups climbing bricksPlay 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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[1] Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation by M. Christine Zink and Janet Van Dyke available at

Blogging, Jogging, and Dogging

Happy New Year everyone!

I was completely caught off guard when I read the annual report with statistics for this blog.  There are now hundreds of thousands of followers in 35 countries, I am thrilled at the growth of the blog and very humbled at the same time. Thank you one and all; I sincerely appreciate your support.

2014 promises to be a great year, at least I am getting off to a great start.  My newest book in the Super Sniffer™ series is in print now. This book focuses on scent training medical alert dogs. The DVD that will illustrate the program laid out in the book should be available by March. A 2nd edition of the totally revised Breeders Handbook is scheduled to be finished later this year, hopefully in time for the Chilbrook 45th anniversary celebration in October.  I still find it hard to believe that this fall I will have been breeding and training dogs for 45 years.  I promise to keep the blogging up through all this with some interesting topics to share as move into the year.

I have been getting a lot of phone calls of late relating to dogs getting into trouble and the underlying cause in almost all cases is boredom. The prescription for this is really quite simple, exercise. Exercise is a subject that doesn’t seem to get enough attention to be taken too seriously when it comes to training our dogs.  Yet, exercise holds many keys to success. In the book by Jack and Wendy Volhard, Dog Training For Dummies, they point out in one of their tips:

“Before addressing behavior problems specifically, we give you our general prescription for good behavior:

  • Sufficient exercise
  • Good company
  • Good health
  • Good nutrition
  • Good training”

It is no coincidence that exercise is at the top of the list.  Good trainers know that exercise is key in reducing bad behaviors.

Image Two chocolate labs laying in the grass.

Most dogs left to their own don’t run and play as much as you think.

It might help before going on to clarify what I mean by exercise.  I have lost count of the people who have said to me they bought a second dog as a pal for the first dog so they can exercise each other. There might be a little play interaction between 2 dogs but what I have experienced more frequently when you put two dogs together is twice the trouble. You now have twice the jaw power to chew things up in your house and twice the hair and muddy paw prints to clean up too, I doubt if you actually recorded the amount of minutes the 2 dogs play together that it would amount to very much at all.  These same people think that opening the back door and letting the dog out in a fenced yard is exercise.  Rarely, unless I throw a ball, will my dogs do much more than go around sniffing bushes, grass or each other while walking over my flowers or leaving “deposits” in the middle of the walkway.

Exercise is organized, sustained movement that helps build muscle, strengthen the heart and lungs and burns fat and calories. Going for a brisk 30 minute walk everyday will do much more for the health of your dog versus the 30 minutes in the back yard.  Your dog will love you for the walk not to mention you will benefit as well. I was in France this past summer and noted that people were walking everywhere and there was much less automobile traffic. The dogs I saw walking with the people were very fit and healthy looking as were the owners too. Perhaps we Americans should adopt this European habit of walking places rather than driving as we so often do.  When your dog is out walking with you they are also in what animal behaviorist call Pack Drive. This simply means the focus is on going where you go, so take advantage of this to help build a good bond with your dog while you walk.

We have a trail around our farm that I take my pack of dogs out for a brisk walk along every day.  I love to watch the interactions between everyone as go along. I feel this is a great way for them to stretch out their muscles, burn off pent up energy and get ready for a day of training.  It is not an easy routine to get into but once you do establish the routine I am betting you and your dog will enjoy it so much you will not ever stop. You will notice as I have, that the dogs are much more focused on the training afterwards if they are allowed to exercise first.

Image lab jumping up to catch a frisbee

Exercise will keep your dog in good muscle tone and contented.

Another form of energy release and exercise that is popular is taking the dog to the dog park.  Dog parks often have their own rules which must be followed, but the idea here is that dogs can meet new dogs and play on neutral ground. From all I have observed at the dog parks, dogs have their favorite friends and will favor playing with them over others. Labradors are natural socialites but not all breeds have the same easy going playful attitude.  This is something to watch out when introducing the dogs to each other. For the most part however, I let the dogs sort things out to see who wants to play or not play whatever game has been initiated. I am also careful to keep puppies and young dogs playing only with others of the same age. The down side to the dog park is you don’t get the exercise you would if you were out walking with your dog. For this reason I do not suggest the dog park as the only exercise for your dog. Try playing frisbee, swimming, or just retrieving  a ball with you dog in addition to these other things; anything to keep your dog moving and running.

Better than dog parks for the young pups are puppy play dates. These are arranged “dates” with other pups we have met, at the other pup’s house or at ours. We rotate houses so everyone experiences new places. If you are lucky to find people you have something in common with these puppy dates can turn into a fun time for the people too.  The whole point here is very simple; get your dog out daily, exercise, socialize and have fun. It is healthy for you and your dog not to mention that you will rarely experience any bad behaviors from a dog that is getting adequate exercise.