Raising a puppy to be a therapy dog – the baby months.
So I have Bennett and he is just through the puppy stage and hit the teens. He’s a cheeky 8 month old. That’s a whole new upcoming blog!
It had been 11 years between owning puppies (between Lily being a puppy and getting Bennett). Not only was it a huge reminder of how much hard work owning a puppy is, but it was a shock as to how much puppies can also vary in the challenges they present you. No two puppies are the same, just like people aren’t and babies aren’t. They each have their own little personalities and different motivations, things they find reinforcing, confidence levels, sociability and much more. There are the standard things that most puppy owners face including toilet training, mouthing, teaching them to be independent, the importance of socialisation and habituation to their new world and learning about being a part of a human family. How they experience each of those things can differ enormously between puppies though.
So what was my experience with Bennett? How did having in the back of my mind wanting him to be a therapy dog in the future change how I navigated him through his puppyhood?
His early socialisation and experiences with the world were crucial. From the time I brought him home I had him out in the big wide world. Vets will still often advocate for restricting where your puppies are exposed to until they have had their second vaccination and that is very important to prevent exposure to severe illnesses. Most vets now, as encouraged by the AVA, will promote early socialisation from 8 weeks too though. This time of vulnerable immunity also coincides with critical periods of socialisation that our puppies must be learning about their world in. This time in their development has a window and once they reach their second vaccination milestone, this time is often too late. We need to be careful about where we take them, but we can take them to well run positive reinforcement puppy schools, car trips, to skate parks on concrete surfaces, play dates with friends with social dogs that are healthy and vaccinated and much much more. We can introduce them to kids, sit outside shopping centres and cafe’s with handfuls of high value food and ask people if they’d like to give him a treat. This positive conditioning to people and the world is vital for his future confidence when being exposed to new people and novel stimuli. It will teach him that it’s nothing to be scared of, that new things often present themselves and it’s good to give it a look and a sniff, and that my human will often give me super yummy food when new things come along too. New things and people are awesome!
Crate training, independence training, relaxation
Crate training is something that can be a bit controversial and isn’t something that all owners want to do. I did it for the purpose of helping with toilet training overnight and for being able to transport Bennett with more ease. It was also to enable time apart from he and my other dog.
He’s not a fan of the crate though and even though a lot of work has been done with training him to enjoy it through feeding him in it, giving him high value food while in there and gradually building up durations, he’s still unhappy. If there is a lot going on around him while he’s in there then he will let everyone know he isn’t impressed. There is still training to be done on building up his tolerance of ‘missing out’ while in his crate during the day. Overnight he sleeps contently in there however so that’s a bonus and something we can build on with his training.
If you aren’t going to look at crate training your puppy, it’s important to still teach them it’s ok to be alone. You can use a puppy pen or even a baby gate to a room that is full of lots of positive enrichment activities. I feed Benny all his meals out of toys that are fun and engaging, and he has them while he’s alone in a space away from everyone. This teaches him to be able to be alone and that it’s not the end of the world, it’s actually quite enjoyable. I have to keep it short with him still as he can tend to panic if it’s too long.
Mat training is also vital to get them to settle in a designated spot. This is crucial for working dogs that you may want to settle while you’re doing other activities. I taught Benny this skill by luring him to a mat, cuing ‘on your mat’ and then luring him into a ‘down’ position to settle and relax. He got lots of treats for staying there and settling. I gradually built up to being able to move around the room and eventually out of sight.
Grooming and handling
Exposure to grooming and restrained handling. He’s a fluffy dog that has to look good. He doesn’t shed so he gets matted if his coat isn’t cared for. I’m not a groomer so from an early age I needed to get Benny used to feeling comfortable being handled by strangers for grooming. I was so lucky that I had a colleague who introduced me to a fabulous groomer who had the same philosophies as I did regarding grooming handling. I had had negative experiences with groomers in the past creating negative associations with the grooming process through very harsh handling strategies. Bennett gets groomed by a fabulous groomer that I am able to give him treats throughout his session, he gets breaks to go and run around, he is able to consent to parts of the process and say no to parts he is uncomfortable with. She goes slowly to assess how he’s feeling with each part of the process and he looks fabulous at the end of it.
I often pet Bennett in a clumsy (but not scary) fashion to get him used to people that may have impairments or odd behaviour patterns so that he learns it is pretty normal. I will practice touching him all over his body, doing routine body health checks and practice holding his paws, ears and other areas that may need medication or husbandry attention in the future. This is all part of what I teach puppies and their parents in my puppy classes too. It’s such a vital skill for puppies to want to consent to husbandry procedures and it makes life with your dog a whole lot easier in the future.
For handling in the future, the behaviours I want to teach Bennett to be reliable in are:
‘Paw’ or ‘shake’ (this makes for consenting to claw clipping through positive associations with offering paws – a lot easier and less stressful than forced handling).
‘Chin’ where he rests his chin in the palm of my hand so that I can clean out his ears and put medication in them if necessary in the future.
‘Touch’ where he touches his nose to the palm of my hand so I can use that to encourage him onto scales, put his head through straps on the grooming table or collars and harnesses etc.
‘Up’ to get onto examination tables.
I also teach him that I will let him know where I am going to touch. If I am going to look into his ears I say ‘ears’ and then lift his ear and let it go and then treat him. I might do the same when around the eyes, in the mouth, lifting his lip to check his teeth etc. Then he can back away when he hears it but through positive conditioning he will begin to enjoy hearing it as it’s associated with getting food.
As part of his training I practice holding him in different positions, on my lap, held to my side and so on while feeling some mild restraint. Then if he gets hugged by clients in the future he’ll learn it ends soon and ends positively and that he can back out if he wants.
I will always allow him to move away if he wants however.
Meeting my new human
Bennett was a bit unsure on the car initially so with him strapped into the front seat on a comfy mat, I was able to reassure him it was ok and help him feel safe. Over time he gradually was able to relax farther away from me. He moved to the back seat, and he is now very happy in the back of the wagon.
Because travel is a big part of his life, I wanted from an early age for him to feel ok about riding along in the car. I was able to give him treats, stroke him, and help him settle while experiencing the motion and bumps and sounds that are all associated with being in the car.
Mouthing and nipping
Ah good old mouthing puppies. Totally normal. They will grow out of it. But how did I handle it with Bennett? He was easily one of the worst nippers I had ever come across. He was highly stimulated by movement and wanted to always have something to rip to shreds in his mouth. We had such a huge range of toys to keep his mouth engaged. He had an overbite so his mouth was irritated by having his lower canines going up into the roof of his mouth. I’m sure this contributed to his excessive mouthiness. What were my key things to help keep my sanity during this time?
Loads of soft toys to put into his mouth whenever his mouth made contact with a human.
Limiting movement to slow movements so that running doesn’t trigger prey drive toward clothes and flesh.
Baby gates and leads for times when a lot is going on to prevent reinforcement and practicing of mouthing behaviour.
Loads of food based enrichment toys to make interacting with them more reinforcing than destroying furniture or chewing on humans and other pets.
Teaching that whenever human skin is contacted with teeth that any interaction stops immediately I leave.
Toilet training was hard work and I still continue to be vigilant. Changes in weather, different houses, being distracted or over excited, these can all impact our pup’s ability to remember their toilet manners.
So my top tips for successful toilet training are:
Management. Restrict your pups access to areas in the house close to accessing outdoors if that’s where you want your pup to go to toilet. Don’t allow your puppy to roam a large house unsupervised or accidents will happen.
Don’t tell your puppy off for accidents. They will only associate your anger with them going to the toilet and may avoid toileting near you in the future. Finding accidents after the fact won’t allow us to train the behaviour we want. We want them to feel safe toileting in front of us so that we can reinforce them doing it in the location we want.
Dogs have a memory of 3 seconds, you need to be there to reinforce it when they do it.
Put it on cue! While they’re toileting, say ‘toilet’ or whatever you’d like to call it. Once they’ve finished, say ‘YES’ or ‘Good puppy’ and reinforce heavily with treats. Having a toilet behaviour on cue is super helpful for long car trips and for therapy and assistance dogs that may be going indoors for long periods of time to work.
Restrict to a puppy pen or crate overnight so that they have to alert you to let them out to go to the toilet through the night.
Make going in the right spot easy. Make it easily accessible, comfortable and close to where they are.
WATCH THEM LIKE A HAWK. Early on puppies toilet a lot. Every 45 minutes sometimes. Set an alarm in case you forget.
Learn their indicators they’re about to go. It might be sniffing, circling etc.
Go out with them so that you can be there to reinforce it.
Be patient. They may get distracted outside and then come in and go.
Be boring while you’re outside with them. Don’t play with them or distract them from the job at hand.
Don’t be stingy on the reinforcement. To them they don’t mind if they go inside or outside, we need to condition a more positive association with going where we want them to go.
Start as you wish to go on. I find puppy pee pads to encourage toileting on other mats in the house too. Perhaps use a grass based indoor toilet instead if you’d like an inside option.
Don’t relax too quickly. They can have accidents as the weather changes or situations change. Don’t assume too quickly that they’re toilet trained. It’s better to be safe than sorry for longer than you might think.
Especially if you have a larger breed pup, teaching them that four paws on the floor is what gets attention from an early age is important. Teach people that are petting your dog to only interact with them when they have all their feet on the ground. If your pup gets reinforced by jumping up through getting attention, it will become a problem behaviour before too long.
With therapy and assistance dogs we want to make sure they have polite greeting behaviours if they’re interacting with others. You could teach them a sit gets attention. Sitting is incompatible with jumping up so it’s a handy behaviour to teach them to access attention that way.
For some dogs however sitting is uncomfortable or they may develop pain with sitting at some stage through their lives. For me, as long as the dog is NOT jumping, I give attention. If paws lift off the ground I immediately remove any attention until the feet return to the ground. Basically stillness and all feet on the ground gets what they want from me.
The hardest part with jumping up is teaching everyone else that interacts with your dog to be consistent. It can be hard, but ensure you enforce the rules with everyone your dog encounters or they will try it on if it works and it can fast become a habit to get attention from people.
If you can get a handle on all of these, you’re doing a great job!
These are the top challenges of having a baby puppy in the house. As the teens hit, there are some whole new challenges which will be discussed more in the next blog!
Happy puppy training everyone 🙂