After settling in with my parents and finding my footing in the new reality, I had to assess what is the most appropriate course of action for my next days with Falka. I decided that with all the stuff I had to deal with aside from dogs, I would use this initial time to “just” build up relationship with her, and just… enjoy having a puppy. As I already explained, I threw out all my training plans away. Instead, I knew I needed to focus on three things: toilet training (not an optional choice for any puppy owner!), some impulse control, handling and playing. This is really all that is needed… at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if a dog can do a static sit-stand without moving legs, but having all your fingers intact when you touch your dog does! In line with most modern training advice, I kept sessions short, no longer than 4 mins (5mins max). In line with advice of our trainer, I tried to keep it simple and work at one thing at a time.
Toilet training is (or should be… ) easy as pie. Let your dog out every time she wakes up, after she plays, after she eats, after she drinks.. and be regular. Even though I understand these rules, I always manage to mess it up. In this case, it didn’t help that I had the front door to my quarters open at all times, bar when I had to leave. That makes it harder to keep track of when the pup goes to the toilet, so we didn’t avoid a few accidents… But only within the first couple of weeks. Now we are at 12 weeks of age, and there have been no accidents in the last two weeks. Hopefully this will continue when we get back to Scotland and move completely indoors! Our breeder started associating peeing with a cue, and I did try to continue, but I don’t think it worked. Perhaps it’s because she eliminated on her own quite often… oh well, we might get back to it in Scotland.
Impulse control was probably the first thing we started working on methodically. I used the “It’s yer choice” game. I believe many trainers have come up with a variation of this method. I am not entirely sure who was the first, but as I have first read about it on Susan Garrett’s blog I tend to call it (and approach it) her way. The simple rule is – we hold a treat in our hand and the pup is only allowed to get it, when they stop trying to get it. In other words, when they learn to be polite… When we first started, I had to guard the treat bag under the threat of being eaten in one piece. But within 2 sessions she got it and now waits politely until I hand her the cookie.
I have also captured her sitting and watching me. I wasn’t really bothered about cuing it, as I wasn’t trying to teach her to sit. The goal was for her to sit/watch me as a polite way of getting attention. I have been rewarding it with food, attention and play whenever I could, and I can see that it is becoming the default behaviour (although occasionally the wee puppy brain prevails and she can’t contain herself… I ignore that until she remembers what she is supposed to do).
Handling – perhaps my favourite, as it involves a lot of cuddles and touching, which I refrain from doing in other behaviours we practice. We have had a few sessions which can be termed “manning down”, where I would hold her in my arms and only release her when she was absolutely calm. The full description of this can be found in Deb Jones’ book “Focused Puppy”, though this was already recommended to us by our breeder. But the more interesting technique for me is when she freely offers herself for manual inspection.
My method is pretty simple. I use absolutely no coercion. At the slightest resistance from her side I take my hands away. Think feather-light hands. But, here is the trick. If I progress slowly enough and she wants food enough, she will want my hands on… Falka is quite keen on cuddles and she loves food, so it went pretty smoothly, but the secret is to start extremely slowly, rewarding stillness. I start our sessions in the evening, when she is pretty sleepy anyway, from first giving her a few treats. Then I show her my hands are empty and, after she is sure I’m not hiding treats between my fingers, gently stroke her with both hands. If she sits calmly, I give her a treat. Next time, I stop my hands on the sides of her head for a split second. Sit still? Treat! Next time I extend that time a little. Next time, I stretch out my thumbs so they sit on the sides of her muzzle. Then very, very gently hold her muzzle as if I was going to examine her teeth, but without trying to do so! If she pulls back, my hands go away… but of course there is no treat for that! If after pulling away she settles back in, I go back a step and try the head hold, so that I can reward her again. If she gets fidgety and starts being silly, I nicely say “oh well, too bad!” and walk away, taking treats with me and ending the session. I believe that using this method she learns to trustingly offer herself to me, and understands that I will not force her to do anything she doesn’t want. Starting with a puppy who is not shy of touch (I can imagine the progress would be much slower with pups who don’t enjoy the physical contact), within 7 sessions I now have a puppy that will lets me examine her teeth, eyes, ears and paws. My next step will be to gently clip one of her nails. Of course, all of these sessions are short, from a few second long look into her ears (which she enjoys) to a split second look at her teeth, which is quite an intrusive move on my part.