Teaching a puppy restraint is considered by many dog owners and trainers to be the most important element of raising a gun dog. But when should you start?
I like bringing a puppy home at seven weeks of age (Things to consider for your first pup). For the first week, the focus is on getting the pup used to its new home. Let it explore inside and out, using its nose and eyes to take it all in. Potty and crate training (read our article on potty training here) begin immediately, and playtime is very important in order to develop a strong bond.
At eight weeks of age, I like teaching a dog about restraint. Introducing the sit, stay and come commands can start at this time. Some dogs may vary in terms of how they respond, but most pups are ready for structure, and using bits of food to help direct them can expedite the learning process.
Pups are usually most teachable right after a nap and before going down for a nap. As soon as the pup wakes up in the morning, put a leash on it and carry it outside to potty. When opening the kennel door, do so calmly and slowly, since you don’t want them busting out of a crate, ever. Have some of the pup’s food in one hand, as you’ll start teaching it to sit as soon as it potties. This is the only time in a dog’s life I use treats to train.
With a little treat in hand, take the leash in the same hand and lift it, saying sit in a calm voice while showing a flat, open palm with the other hand. Do this with the hand about a foot from the pup’s nose. If you have to gently push on the pup’s hind end to get it to sit, that’s fine.
If the pup is reluctant to sit, forget about the hand signal right now. Instead, put the food in one hand, holding the leash in the other. Lift the leash to pull up on the dog’s head and simultaneously push the food in a closed hand, into the pup’s nose. The pup will smell and want to eat the food. With the pup’s focus being on the food, it now sits quickly and naturally as the food is forced closely to it. Calmly repeat the sit command when doing this. When the pup sits, praise it and say its name, repeatedly. Like: “Good boy Kona, good boy…good boy.” At the same time, give it a few kibbles of food.
Next, walk a few steps with the pup on a lead and repeat the process, ending with praise, petting the pup, and giving it a few more pieces of kibble once it sits.
Repeat until the kibble is gone, keeping the session short, no longer than two minutes.
Repeat the process every time the pup wakes up from a nap, about seven or eight times a day. Consistency is the key here, so don’t start it in the morning, go to work and expect the pup to respond to the same way nine hours later. Begin this training on the weekend, when you have a full day or two to consistently teach the pup. At the end of the day, you’ll have about 15 minutes of total teaching time in, and you’ll be amazed how quickly the pup will learn. By the end of day one, the last pup I trained was sitting 80% of the time just on the sit command alone, with no food prompt or lifting of the leash.
The next morning, progress from sit to stay. Once the pup is sitting, with the food in your hand, calmly repeat, stay. Holding the same open hand that was used as a visual cue to get the dog to sit will make it stay.
Visual and auditory commands are important to teach at this time, as the pup will soon be responding to each, individually. That is something that will be a big benefit when hunting and you are directing the dog at a long distance where it can’t hear you.
Sit and stay are almost one command and some trainers don’t feel a need to teach stay, which is fine.
The two can become differentiated as more advanced training takes place, but that’s up to the individual trainer and what verbal cues and hand signals are being used to communicate with your dog.
To teach the pup to stay, once it is sitting, hold the flat hand a foot from its nose and say stay. Now, hold the pup there for between one to three seconds. Before the pup breaks, take your open hand and quickly drop it to your side, saying the word come. So, the sequence sounds like this: “Sit…sit…stay…stay…stay…stay…come!” Saying the pup’s name before the sit command and before the come command will help develop name recognition.
When the pup comes to you, praise it, rub its ears and give it some kibble.
I like teaching the come command after we’ve played for a while, as the pup is tired and will naturally sit and stay easier, but it’s still eager to play. It associates coming to you as an opportunity to play. Eventually, you won’t even need kibble to entice it to come, as the pup’s reward is playing with you and pleasing you, not eating.
By day three, your pup will likely be sitting, staying, and coming to you on command. This is the day to introduce a whistle. With the pup staying, give the come command by dropping the open hand to your side and simultaneously blowing twice on a whistle.
There’s no need for a verbal come command as the pup will have learned the hand command. By the end of the day, the pup will likely be coming to the whistle prompt, alone.
A pup’s brain is like a sponge at two months of age. Keep the training fun, praise the dog and do not reprimand it. If the pup isn’t progressing the way you want, take more time. Evaluate what you’re doing to make sure your teaching is consistent and positive, and your communication is clear and concise. Do things right and it’s amazing how quickly a puppy can learn.