Myth #8 - You Must Start Training Your Puppy Right Away!
need play far more than they need structured learning. Research shows that play fosters impulse control, produces brain-growth factors, and helps create pro-social circuits in the brain. The more our puppies play the
more sociable and well-behaved they'll be. Meanwhile, dogs who’ve had fewer opportunities to play are more
likely to be aggressive. This isn’t
just due to lack of socialization, it’s that play is vitally important
for healthy, lasting growth of the connections between the
aggression circuits and the impulse-control center in the brain.
From my perspective as a dog trainer using a play-based model of learning, play is also one of the best tools there is for teaching obedience skills. And it's indispensible when solving behavioral problems. This brings up something that I've noticed recently: twenty years ago dogs with behavioral problems, such as aggression and separation anxiety, were much less common than they are today. This was especially true in dogs that were raised by their owners from puppyhood on (as opposed to dogs who were rescued from a pound or shelter). What changed?
About twenty years ago, a group of well-intentioned dog trainers led by Ian Dunbar decided that one way to help reduce the number of dogs left at shelters each year was to do everthing they could to get all puppies in America into
obedience classes as early and as young as possible. "The younger the better" was their motto. Their motives may have been pure but the results have been sketchy to say the least. There are more
abandoned dogs now than ever before, and far too many dogs who've been to puppy classes end up forgetting almost everything they "learned" there. And that's not even the half of it. Many dogs have actually developed learning deficits as well as emotional and behavioral problems as a direct result of being pushed into being taught obedience skills long before their brains, bodies, and emotions were ready.
Some scientists are now looking into a theory of how limiting structured learning in pre-school children, and replacing the books and alphabet blocks with unstructured, free
play might prevent some cases of ADHD, and perhaps even reverse it in
others. The fact is, there's been a huge swing in this country away
from allowing our children to engage in free, unstructured play,
particularly outdoors. And the same thing has been happening to our
is the author of a number of studies on play. And he says that when we
allow pre-schoolers to engage in free play, where they make up their
own games and their own rules (under adult supervision), natural
processes of learning impulse control, fairness, and how to control
aggressive feelings take place naturally. The brain develops faster.
New abilities to learn and move through space develop quicker. He also
"Our recent broad-scale brain gene expression analysis
has indicated that activity of about a third of the 1,200 brain genes
in frontal and posterior cortical regions are significantly modified by
play within an hour of a 30 min play session (Kroes, Burgdorf Panksepp
and Moskal, 2006, Unpublished observations from Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics,
Northwestern University)." He adds, "If such dynamic brain changes
evoked by play facilitate brain growth and maturation, perhaps
solidifying pro-social circuits of the brain, we must worry about
anything that diminishes the progression of such developmental
Getting a puppy to settle down, stop
fooling around, and pay attention at a puppy class qualifies as
something Panskepp talks about that "diminishes the pro-social
circuits of the brain." It also short circuits brain
development which is one of the natural, biological benefits of free
play. It's also why I think that play itself is, generally speaking, a
more valuable form of training for dogs than plodding through the
process by reinforcing single behaviors, one at a time.
From this new, growing perspective, most obedience classes aren't really designed for what's
most natural in terms of how young puppies are genetically designed to
learn. New owners often expect their puppy to meet certain obedience
criteria, and too many trainers and class instructors are all too happy to teach puppies
without considering whether the client's wish list is truly
appropriate. In nearly every puppy class young pups are taught things
like paying attention and sitting still, when biologically speaking,
and I mean from purely neurological and physiological points of view
(regarding proper development of both brain and body structure), a
young puppy's attention needs to wander continuously: he needs to watch
how things move, he needs to sniff things, grab them with his teeth,
investigate in his own puppylike way. The last thing he needs is to be
told to sit still.
Puppies exhibit some of the strangest,
seemingly unrelated, and illogical physical movements imaginable. Why?
Because in terms of learning, and for the development of motor skills,
and even for the proper growth of his young brain, a pup needs to just
plain move his little body around constantly in meaningless ways. And
he needs to do that a whole lot more than he needs to be taught how to
sit still in puppy class. So it seems to me that all too many trainers
firmly (yet wrongly) believe they're not interfering with the puppy’s
natural development when they get that little guy to finally sit still
and pay attention. And when they do get the puppy to obey, they often
get a sense of satisfaction and achievement that, to me, is totally
unwarranted because of the potential learning deficits they may have
just created in that poor little doggie’s brain.
Should pups not be trained at all then?
of course they should. They need to be gently directed away from
chewing things they shouldn't and encouraged to chew things they
should. And there's nothing wrong with teaching a young puppy
in your home, occasionally asking him to “sit” or encouraging a recall
at the dog run, when he's bored and looking for something interesting
to do. But that's a whole lot different than taking him to the most
distracting environment possible (a strange new location, with a lot of
other puppies and strange people scattered around) and then to go
tugging at his attention and trying to pull him away from what his
developing brain and nervous system are telling him to do, which is to
develop his curiosity, grow new neural pathways, and improve his
emotional and mental flexibility, along with his motor skills!
Puppyhood is a time in a young dog's life where nature has decided that
splitting is most needed, and puppy classes seem almost devoted to
doing the exact opposite.
So rather than impose a curriculum
from the outside in, It's much better to let puppies develop at
their own pace without overt external pressure. Yes, we should provide
every opportunity for our puppies to learn and explore and become bold
and confident, all of which happens best through playing with other
pups and adult dogs (and with us!), and comes not at all from being told to sit still,
lie down on command, or walk nicely on a leash. If those things are to
be taught at all (and of course they should be), it's
best to wait until the puppy's body, brain, and emotions are more
developed, which happens naturally and best, at least initially,
through free play. And when you do teach a pup these things (preferably
not until after 6 or 7 months), it's best to teach them as part of an
active, high-energy game, where the puppy gets to win by obeying.
That's because the more actively the whole organism is involved in the
learning process -- the dog's emotions, his kinetic energy, his instincts,
and his brain -- the better and faster he'll learn. When you try to rev a
puppy's emotions up to that level, bad things happen: they lose
control. So the two main precepts behind puppy classes, 1) start a puppy as early as possible, and 2) dogs have to be calm to learn, are simply wrong.
A Sad Story
my dog Fred was a pup I took him to Central Park every morning to play
with the other dogs. (In New York the leash laws are suspended in all
city parks until 9 A.M.) And we used to see this affable, engaging
older gentleman (he was about the same age I am now, actually, late 50s)
with an amazing dog who was totally trained by the time she was four
months old. It was remarkable how obedient she was; she'd obey any and
all commands without hesitation. He had even gently taught her how to
walk next to him, off leash, to and from the park every day. Pretty
Yes, except I ran into him about a year later and he
said something very interesting. He said that even though his dog was
still very obedient he had a feeling that she was also very unhappy.
Then he asked me if I thought dogs could get depressed.
"Of course," I said. "Why do you ask?"
"Because she's forgotten how to play," he said. "She just doesn't seem to get any fun out life."
Do not take your puppy to an obedience class. Wait. It'll be all right. In fact, everything will be fine. Just wait...