You can teach an old dog new tricks but the lazier trainer you are the earlier you should start. At its best, the training starts already in the puppy pen.
If you are lucky to get your puppy from a breeder who is willing to put a little effort on them while they are tiny, there are some things you can ask a breeder to do already in the puppy pen. The studies show that the puppies’ sense of smell develops as early as in their mothers womb. So for example the food that the mother of a puppy eats might affect the scents puppies later get interested in .
A few systematic training programmes are developed to activate the senses of puppies . One of the most well-known is Bio Sensor-programme, also called “Super Dog- programme, rather widely used by advanced working dog breeders. It is based on stimulation of the early neurological system of the pups in order to improve their performance later in life. There are opinions for and against of its effectiveness, but firm scientific evidence of its effectiveness is still lacking.
Another quite similar programme, ESI – Early Scent Introduction, is developed to stimulate the sense of smell of a puppy. In ESI different kinds of smells are introduced to puppies in the same time period as the Bio Sensor is applied. Multiple different scents are expected to develop puppies’ sense of smell so that they become more accurate in the actual scent work later. No specific studies exists on the effectiveness of ESI, but several studies made of other mammals show how important it is to get used to new scents soon after birth (see e.g. Fillion & Blass, 1986; Kaplan, Cubicciotti & Redican, 1979; Muller-Schwartze, Muller-Schwartze, 1971)
Sometimes you hear people say that a puppy needs to be at least six months or even a year old before you can start training them. But since dogs learn all the time and everywhere, a puppy would have all that time to learn things on its own way. And then all of a sudden an owner changes the rules and a dog is expected to follow them from that day on. Doesn’t sound fair, does it? So why not start training on the day the puppy arrives and keep the same rules from the day one?
Food is usually very valuable for puppies. Especially, if they have had siblings as their litter mates, they may have fought to get their share. Thus it is easy to use food as reinforcement. Most puppies eat kibble when they move to a new home. Have you ever thought how many individual kibbles they eat per day? Have you ever thought how many reinforcements that means? That’s quite many! There is no universal rule saying that a puppy should eat from a bowl. Instead of giving away “free food”, you can ask the puppy to work for it. No matter what kind of food the puppy eats, you can always split a daily food amount in to multiple small portions to be used in training. Indeed, you can use all the food for training. Using it as a reinforcement, the value of the food stays high.
The house rules are important to learn in the beginning, of course, but there are things you can do to prepare your pup for scentwork too. Dogs learn really quick when they are young as they have not much learning history yet. The behaviours that they learn while being a small puppy get very strong, if you just remember to reinforce them every once in a while. So teaching a young puppy to use it’s nose early on may pay off later in scent work.
You can start teaching with a training scent or the “real scent”, the one that you already know the puppy is going to need to learn later for its work. Using a training scent first may be easier to handle than the real one. And if any problems occur along the way, the problems will not be connected to the real scent. Remember though that every time you reinforce a scent, it becomes important to the dog. The more reinforcements it is followed by, the more important it gets. So using a training scent means, that the dog will react to it later, even after you have taught it the real scent. It is possible to teach the dog to ignore the training scent, but it takes a lot of hard work to make it so reliable, that the dog never reacts to that anymore. So choose the training scent carefully, so that it won’t affect the dogs work later. One of the common ones to use is a kong toy or a piece of it, as that rubber material does not exist anywhere but in those toys.
After you have chosen the scent to work with, you can start the training just as you would do with older dogs. One possible way was introduced in an earlier blog post Starting the scent training.
If you are using a scent that needs to be covered, you can start by using cans or other containers in scent discrimination line up to keep the puppy from touching the target scent. Hiding the scent for actual searching can also be done with the containers in the beginning
For tracking, scent discrimination and searching, the ways to teach a puppy are the same as with older dogs. However, puppies do not control their body as well as older dogs. Also their bones and joints take time to grow strong, so the working environment should be safe, yet still diverse to let them get used to different kinds of surfaces.
Dogs can also learn from each other. By seeing another dog search and find, they might learn some things that we have not even thought of. This is called model learning. So in case you have an older dog, that does not get disturbed by a puppy sticking its nose wherever the older dog does, then you might benefit this in training.
Below is one way of starting the search training. In this video you see a 9 weeks old labrador pup learning to get interested in an object. It gets rewarded every time it approaches the object on the floor.
The next step for this pup was to learn an alert. In the video the pup is supposed to get down and point the object with its nose. There are multiple ways to teach alerts. In the video it is done by shaping the environment.
Adding distractions is one of the most important things to remember while building a strong behaviour. In the video below you can see some rather big distractions that came naturally in the training environment. Adding distractions bit by bit is crucial to keep the learning process going on and to prevent errors. In the video the puppy reacts to the distractions a little, but they are not disturbing it too much, as it can continue the exercise rapidly after that.
When the alert is built, you can continue to searching or tracking exercises. It is easy for the pup to start the new task in the same environment where it has worked before. In this pups case, the first searching exercises were done inside. When the searching in going smoothly in one environment, it is time to change the environment and to get successful exercises in many different environments with all kinds of distractions that can occur later in work.
The size of the training area is also important to consider. A small pup sees the world differently from adult dogs. There are multiple new things for them to experience every day, that seem ordinary to us. When choosing a place to train, consider the distractions and set the distance from the target scent so that it is first easy for the pup to find. You can also use multiple targets, to increase the pups chances to succeed.
In the next video you see the same labrador pup, now 11 weeks old. It’s doing a search in a skate park. Its work is intense and solid even though it takes time to find the object.
When training a puppy, one must remember to keep the exercises short. Do rather many short training sessions per day than only one longer one. Puppies learn fast, but they also need a lot of sleep to process the things they have learned during the day. They also need playtime and time to explore their environment. Time to be just puppies.
Try to keep the exercises interesting for the pup and plan them so that there are many opportunities to succeed. It is the way to build up the confidence and durability. To encourage independent work, let the puppy solve the problems by itself. Avoid helping it to find the target or get over obstacles. Create the learning environments so that it has possibility to figure out the right way to act by itself. If the exercise seems to be too hard to accomplish, call the pup away, reward for a good try and make it a bit simpler next time.