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Help Your Shelter Pet Learn

posted January 15th, 2012 by
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By Merit Day

Perhaps you’ve recently adopted a puppy or adolescent shelter dog. Kudos to you! But now it’s time to get down to business — the business of training that unruly (and likely poorly-socialized) pooch into the obedient, charming dog just waiting to be cultivated. Let’s begin at… well, the beginning.

Human babies grow and learn by leaps and bounds during the first year of life, from a helpless creature dependent on its mother, to a mischievous toddler exploring its new world. Puppies are not too different; in fact, the majority of a dog’s physical and emotional development also occurs in its first year. Learning during this time has a significant impact on the future behavioral development of a dog. Research shows that socialization and training can greatly influence this learning process. Therefore, (just like children) providing socialization and training at the correct times in a dog’s life is crucial to its future behavior. If your pooch is still in the adolescent stage, the following information on a puppy’s development will help direct your steps as you shape your little friend into a happy, obedient, well-adjusted dog.

During the first eight weeks of a puppy’s life it is driven to bond with its mother and littermates. A young puppy will have its initial exposure to the world through smell, touch and vision. He or she will learn through playtime with littermates what it means to be a dog. Through chewing and exploring it will learn motor skills, early social skills, and even how to eliminate outdoors if its mother has access to properly teach this skill. Having access to a few people, interesting toys, and the outdoors can help ensure a stable, well-adjusted dog as it matures. A puppy has its first “fear period” around 8 weeks old. If you bring home a new puppy at this age, let it adjust slowly to new things. Try to eliminate anything that would constitute “scary” for a puppy during this short period. For example, keep its social exposures limited for a few days to only immediate family, and to a smaller area in the house.

As the puppy develops in its third month, it has increasing social needs, which for the domestic dog includes being open to bonding with humans and developing human relationships. This is a good time to bring a puppy away from its littermates and into its new home. Human owners will now delegate the boundaries for nipping, jumping, and playtime carried over from its mother. The mother will have weaned and trained the puppy in many ways, which is an important step toward accepting limits from human owners. As the dog enters into its adolescent development stage around four months, it is most receptive to learning through positive reinforcement training. The puppy is constantly absorbing and processing information from its environment, and many perceptions are formed at this age. The concept of correlation (consequences) is being learned.

At this time, a puppy will be quick to associate a specific behavior with a reward it receives. This is the time to associate rewards with human touch, restraint, and encouragement. This is a critical process for the puppy called “socialization.” Linked to this is a dog owner’s first big responsibility because the puppy is dependent on its owner to experience new things. Training/learning verbal commands for proper behaviors is easily started and should continue through the pup’s first year.

By the time the dog is 6 to 8 months old, and reaches sexual maturity, much of its temperament is now observable. Researchers believe that a dog’s adult temperament is determined by 50 percent genetics and 50 percent environmental factors. This means it is possible to change or alter a dog’s behavior through environmental influence — either good or bad. At this time, a dog develops independence; therefore, new behaviors will emerge, such as the willingness to explore farther away from the owner’s reach. Any previous training on manners or verbal commands may appear to have been lost as the dog makes the choice to test boundaries and owner expectations. Reinforcement of these things is necessary, but don’t lose hope; previous learning is not permanently lost during this testing period for a puppy. Again, just as children and teenagers test boundaries, adolescent dogs will do the

Understanding which developmental stage your dog is entering or leaving is helpful for identifying its specific training needs. Working with your dog—with these tips in mind — according to his or her age-appropriate needs will ultimately influence its long-term adult behavior — and hopefully lower your stress level.