From the Whelping Box to the Obedience Ring

 From the Whelping Box to Obedience School

The chocolate Labrador in the whelping box thumped her tail in happy anticipation as I approached her and her litter of puppies, just 12 days old. Maggie, the Lab, had been with me for only 10 days before her litter of 4 arrived, but we had already established a loving, trusting bond before the puppies’ birth. We had been fostering Maggie for a local rescue group after she had been abandoned in a known animal dumping ground in rural, south Alabama. Sitting well-fed, cared for, and safe in her box, Maggie and her puppies had come a long way in just a few short weeks.

Approaching the box, I am already eagerly searching for signs of new development in the puppies. All of the puppies appeared to have grown overnight, with noticeably full bellies. The two biggest boys were closer to walking than the day before, their uncoordinated belly crawl now more fully supported by their legs. And, in the biggest development, the eyes of all four were now nearly completely open. Developmentally, the litter is perfectly on schedule.

I carefully picked up the male puppy wearing the red collar, Chief, and began his daily exercises: five seconds held vertically head-up, five seconds held horizontally on his back, five seconds held vertically head-down, five seconds placed on a wet towel, and five seconds of gentle tickling between his toes with a Q-tip. I repeat the process with his three remaining littermates, then step back, knowing that the twenty five seconds I just spent with each puppy would have a lasting impact on their future health, behavior, and reaction to the world.

The exercises I performed with the puppies are part of the Early Neurological Stimulation program, developed by the U.S. military, and commonly known as “Bio Sensor” or “Super Puppy.” The program consists of tactile, thermal, and motion based stressors which would not normally be experienced by neonatal puppies. Puppies are exposed to the Bio Sensor exercises from day 3 until day 16. Studies conducted by the military indicate that puppies exposed to the Bio Sensor program show increased cardiovascular performance, stronger heart beats, stronger adrenal glands, increased tolerance to stress, and increased disease resistance than their non-stressed counterparts. In a learning environment, the stimulated puppies were more exploratory within their environment and more active than their non-stimulated counterparts.

With only three days left of their ENS exercises, I begin designing a training and socialization plan for the remaining 6 weeks that the puppies will remain with me before leaving for their forever homes. A training program for 3 week-old puppies? Absolutely! We often remind our clients that their puppies are little sponges, eagerly waiting to absorb all that we can teach them. The reality is that the puppies are little sponges well before leaving for their new families, a reality that breeders, trainers, and even rescue organizations need to take advantage of for the betterment of the puppies and their future families. Puppies as young as 3 to 12 weeks are capable of a wide range of behavior, including learning to follow a lure to sit, down, and to step-up onto a raised surface. They can also learn the fundamental components of more complex behaviors such as retrieving, tugging for opening doors or zippers, and targeting for light switches—all very impressive behaviors in an adult dog, let alone a very young puppy.

Early development plans for puppies should address issues which will be instrumental in their future success as family companions. With puppies as young as three weeks, we can begin establishing life-long habits and attitudes which their future families will covet—ease of housetraining; aptitude for learning; ability to be alone; impulse control; sociability with humans, dogs, and other species; comfort level with normal household activity, sights, and sounds; and ability to adapt to novel places, sights and sounds.
Our plan begins with introducing the puppies to the soundtrack of their world as soon as their ears open. In addition to being born blind, puppies are also deaf until around the 16th day. Placing the whelping box in a high traffic area such as the kitchen around the 23rd. day is the first introduction the puppies receive to the noisy world of humans. Next, we play a variety of C.D’s for the puppies’ enjoyment! Our household noise C.D., played at low levels, exposes the puppies to common sounds such as vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals, and blenders. It also includes fireworks, thunderstorms, and gun shots. Our next C.D. is dog show noise, which includes the sounds of crates being dropped and folded, grooming dryers, dogs barking, cheering and applause, and even judges calling out ring patterns. We round out the puppies’ auditory experience with the very versatile Through a Dog’s Ear series of calming C.D’s, musical selections with tempos and arrangements specifically chosen for a calming effect.

As the puppies become more mobile, we begin to introduce new things into their whelping box. These items encourage exploration and acceptance of novel things. Stuffed animals are the first new introduction—our 12 day old puppies can already be found enjoying the pillow provided by a stuffed animal. To take advantage of the puppies’ excellent sense of smell, the stuffed animals presented in the whelping box may have been cuddled by us or played with by our other resident dogs to gradually introduce new scents. In addition, crawling over the stuffed animals encourages muscular development as well as a higher tolerance for frustration as the puppy attempts to crawl over the toy to get to its mother’s milk. Stuffed animals are often followed by small cat play tunnels, crinkle mats, and other objects which the puppies will walk upon inside of the box. Use your imagination, as these objects are the puppies’ first introduction to new surfaces and textures. Toys which squeak, moo, and make other similar noises are also excellent choices. Explore your home for novel items—cookie sheets from the kitchen, a child’s step stool, small empty boxes, or even a small, open child’s umbrella can be puppy learning toys. Encourage the puppies to interact, explore, and climb on or in the toys you have placed in the whelping box.

Good housetraining habits may also begin at a very early age. Once the puppies no longer need their dam’s stimulation to eliminate, take advantage of their instincts to establish a sleeping/play/eating area, as well as an elimination area. Because puppies quickly establish a substrate preference, try using a small piece of sod placed on a tray as an early elimination area. The puppies’ future owners will be thrilled when their pup already understands what to do when presented with a grassy area.

House training utilizing a crate is by far the most popular method of housetraining, yet, for many puppy owners, the first few days spent acclimating their new puppy to the crate is often painfully sleepless. Not only is the puppy unfamiliar with this new contraption it has been confined in, but it is often the first time the puppy has been alone. As a puppy raiser, you can make these first few nights in a new home virtually painless for both the puppy and its new owner by acclimating the puppy to a small crate while still in your care. Place a small crate, door removed, within the puppy pen or whelping box. The puppies will most likely gravitate to the cozy space for napping all on their own. Occasionally separate pups two at a time within the crate to begin isolation training in a safe, positive way.

We want puppies to become lifetime learners—eager to interact with their humans and offering new behaviors in the hopes of being rewarded. To do so, lure and reward training can begin as early as the puppies are mobile enough to follow a lure. Place the puppy on a secure, non-slip surface. With a finger dipped in baby food, lure the puppy to you, either to your face if the puppy is on a raised surface, or between your legs if you are seated. The puppy just performed his first recall! Similarly, lure sit, down, and stand. Begin teaching polite greetings by luring a sit for petting and interaction, or before lifting from the puppy pen or whelping box. Encourage the puppy to target your hand and other objects such as target sticks, easy buttons, even a remote door bell with his nose or feet. This early learning continues to encourage the puppy to offer new behavior and to interact with both you and new objects. This early training plan is simple by design—allowing a controlled, positive introduction to behaviors and attitudes which will in turn help to develop a stable, confident dog capable of fitting into many different types of households.

As trainers, we have long known that we must reach out to veterinarians to include them in our behavioral programs. We have changed the long-held belief that dog training should not begin until a puppy turns six months old, so that increasing numbers of puppies now safely begin their socialization and training in classes as early as eight weeks. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could also reach out to breeders? And to rescues who often raise young puppies? Imagine how much easier our job as trainers would be if all puppies coming into our classes had the start in life that we have planned for Maggie’s puppies? What if we could help educate puppy raisers about the simple interventions which would help their puppies excel at anything life brings for them—the life of an agility athlete, the life of a champion show dog, or the life of the well-loved family dog who spends his Saturday’s at the soccer fields?

We can do just that! Most trainers have already developed trusted education and referral programs with veterinarians, dog daycares, groomers, and other dog related businesses. A simple shift in our outreach programs can begin to include likely puppy raisers who need to hear this message. For example, reaching out to a veterinarian specializing in reproductive services is an excellent way to reach caring, dedicated breeders. While some breeders are aware of the benefits of ENS/Bio Sensor programs, many still believe that the only thing to be done with newborn puppies is to keep them warm and ensure that they nurse. Ask about presenting an early learning seminar for their clients, or leave information for the vet to distribute to their clients on your services as a litter-raising consultant. Another potential place to spread the word about early puppy education is through kennel clubs, which often cater to conformation breeders and performance sport enthusiasts. Breeders of conformation dogs and future agility champions know what they want—happy, confident, outgoing dogs that they can take anywhere. You can help make their dreams of a future Best in Show winner or MACH agility champion happen! Clubs may welcome your early education seminar at a meeting or special event. All-breed rescues, which frequently save pregnant bitches from kill-shelters, often have foster homes with little puppy raising experience, making them excellent candidates for you to spread the word, either through a short seminar, or perhaps by writing handouts for their puppy raisers. Perhaps you can offer to foster a litter for the rescue…offer to write an educational blog for the rescue’s website on your puppies’ development and the early learning opportunities you are practicing with the litter. People will be eager to adopt the puppies that have benefited so much from your expert care!

Maggie and her beautiful litter have all been spoken for, with adoption applications and home visits already in progress. I’m looking forward to my time with the puppies, although my remaining six weeks seems all too short to accomplish all that I want to do with them. I know that letting go of the puppies will be very difficult, but I also know that I will have done everything in my power to prepare them to live out their lives as loved companions, to make them a joy for their owner, a wonderful patient for their veterinarian, and a star in their training classes. I also know that after just a short time off, I will be looking forward to welcoming another foster litter into my home and starting the process over again—taking puppies from the whelping box to obedience school!

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