That sweet little bundle of fur you brought home for the kids is getting bigger now, and needs to learn some manners. At what point does its nibbling on your fingers stop being cute? When do its “accidents” start being on purpose? How do you know when it’s a good time to start training your puppy?
Some experts have recently begun to suggest that the training process starts before the puppy is born. In the past, the prenatal period wasn’t considered in the social development of dogs because the unborn puppies couldn’t be observed. The availability of the ultrasound machine shed new light on what happens in the womb as early as the fourth week of gestation.
Scientist theorize that since puppies’ are responsive to touch at birth, their conditioning to touch begins before they’re born, possibly by nudges from the pregnant mother. Studies show that the offspring of pregnant animals are calmer and easier socialized when the mother is regularly petted.
In roughly the first 14 days of a puppy’s life it may be able to learn some associations, such as recognizing a human caregiver, but it is still so mentally undeveloped that anything he learns isn’t likely to carry over to progressive stages of development.
During the three to 12-week period the puppy begins to pick up on social behaviors. Playful wrestling, curiosity and even mimicking sexual behavior is an important part of teaching the puppy its place in the family.
It’s also important that the puppy has plenty of time with its mother and litter mates, where the mother will teach it to play well with others. Puppies can learn tricks and basic commands, such as sit and stay as early as eight weeks of age. At this point, it’s only limited by its still-developing coordination, concentration and physical stamina.
Obedience classes are a good place for pet owners to learn how to communicate with their animals. Some trainers offer socialization classes as soon as the puppy is established in its permanent home, but obedience classes typically want the animal to have at least started getting its initial vaccinations first, usually around three to six months of age.
The longer training is put off, the more difficult it will be for both dog and handler, especially if the dog has already begun to pick up bad habits. It’s easier to instill good behavior than to try to deprogram bad behavior.
The emotional maturity and stability of the dog is equally important as the age factor in deciding when to start the training process. Often the handler focuses too heavily on making sure the dog understands the commands being issued and doesn’t pay enough attention to the information the dog is sending. This is counterproductive, because an animal that is stress, scared, confused or distracted will not learn efficiently.