New Obedience Puppy? How Much Can You Really Teach Him?

basics obedience puppy Nov 23, 2020

If you are in the market for a new puppy, whether it be your next obedience, agility, scent work, tracking or field partner, a puppy’s education is far more likely to be limited by your imagination, than it is by your puppy's ability. Here we discuss when to start training, how to select your obedience puppy, and of course how to train your puppy. 

My parents bought me a golden retriever puppy when I was 14-years-old. In preparation, I had selected a dog training book, and the instructions were that each day I was to set my puppy down in a quiet room, just the two of us, and as he explored, I was to say his name, only once. The instructions said that the day he looked at me, he was ready to start his training. Six-weeks later I was devastated. He had yet to respond to me, and I believed it was due to both my inability to follow instructions and his lack of talent. 

After that experience, it is no wonder that my initial belief about puppyhood was that it was something to be managed, at best, but more likely endured. I would count the days and weeks until my puppy was old enough to enroll in a Beginning Obedience Class whereupon real training could begin.

My attitude began to change with the realization that puppies could be bribed and lured to perform with food, and I began to teach my puppies tricks. My golden, FC AFC OTCH Topbrass Ascending Elijah knew countless tricks by the time he was 6-months-old, and throughout his life he entertained people with his ability to sit-up, shake, roll-over, speak, whisper and more. It was eye opening to me when I realized that his early training caused him to approach all of training as “just another trick.” Throughout his life he remained eager and interested in learning whatever I had to teach him.

As I learned to use reward markers, I gained the ability to teach my puppies to move away from reward in order to earn reward. Thus the “tricks” I could teach expanded into an ability to send them away from me to circle or touch odd objects, and back up great distances. Communication increased as I was able to precisely point at the behavior I desired. 

However, my fascination and belief in a puppy’s ability exploded on a trip to visit my then friend, now husband, Pat Nolan, when he showed me a 9-week-old puppy doing explosive detection work in his kitchen. This puppy was ignoring distraction and freezing on odor, skills that I had never imagined a dog under 18-months capable of doing, 

Most of us have very few opportunities, separated by long periods of time, to raise and train a puppy. You may not have a puppy now, but I hope you will take a few minutes to watch the video above to embolden you when you next have an opportunity to train a puppy.  However, please do not become overwhelmed, especially if you are looking at the dogs in your household and thinking that you failed them because you did not train them as puppies.  

Long before I was an obedience seminar presenter, I was a seminar attendee. The typical format started with puppy selection and training. I remember, after hearing all that I should have done, thinking I had completely failed with the dogs I had and my only hope of being successful was to start over with a new puppy.

Most of us do not need another dog!

My job is to help you train the dog you have. However, having taught puppy and beginner classes for more than 30 years, and having selected and trained numerous competitive partners, I also want you to know how excited I am to help you with a new puppy when you find yourself ready to add one to your household. 

It is exciting to prepare your household for a new puppy. However, before you sign up for that, you need to consider the timing of your decision, the selection process, and then the training you will start as soon as he arrives.

Get ready to start your puppy’s education the day you bring him home or pass on this litter and wait for another. Do not get a puppy hoping you will have time to train him or thinking that, "in a year or so..." you will need a new dog and he will be the right age. Your puppy is the right age the day he walks in. Throw yourself into the project with enthusiasm and be ready to start his training as soon as he arrives.

There may be a “pick” puppy in a conformation litter, but in a performance litter, it is possible that every puppy buyer is looking for a slightly different temperament. It is not unusual for every person looking at the litter to end up with the puppy that most appeals to them. 

Think About What is Right for You
Determining which puppy personality is right for you starts with some introspection. Ask yourself questions such as;

  • What type personality appeals to me?
  • What type personality will fit into my household?
  • What type of exercise are I willing to provide your puppy?
  • How often do I want to train?

If you have young children, can’t train every day, and need a dog that will relax and watch TV with the kids, the boldest, most outgoing puppy, although impressive at a young age, is probably not the right puppy for you. That puppy may prove to be busier and more energetic than your lifestyle allows. However, if you love to walk, hike and train, you need the puppy that has enough energy to keep up with you.

Let a Breeder Select a Puppy

If you do not have confidence in your ability to select the right puppy, buy from a breeder with enough experience to tell you which puppy is best for you. Your limited experience cannot compare to that of a breeder that has sorted through countless litters.

In 1994, I saw two Golden Retriever puppies that impressed me. As it turned out, they had the same dam. I made a call to the breeder, a longtime friend, Jackie Mertens, at Topbrass Goldens. I asked her if she would look for a puppy for me the next time she bred that particular female. In 1995, Jackie called, and said she had her eye on a male puppy she would like for me to have. That puppy would become FC AFC OTCH Topbrass Ascending Elijah. I never saw the dam, just other puppies she had produced, nor did I ever see the litter. Jackie has been breeding puppies since 1968. Clearly, her “eye” found a puppy that I may never have the experience to choose.

In fact, she did it again in 2003 when she called me to say she had a puppy for me.  I was not looking for a puppy, but I knew enough not to ignore her. That puppy would become AFC OTCH Topbrass Caleb UDX OM3 OS

Puppy Testing

In the “New Knowledge of Dog Behavior,” Clarence Pffafenburger writes about the research done by Scott and Fuller at the Institute of Canine Biology in Bar Harbor, Maine. That research offers evidence to suggest that 7-weeks is the ideal time to temperament test and select your puppy. Conflicting opinion has not been proven by the same experimental research. However, many breeders do structure exams, and veterinary appointments between 7-8 weeks. For example, veterinary ophthalmologists will not do a CERF/CAER (Companion Animal Eye Registry) examination to identify any inherited eye problems, prior to 7-weeks of age. In some states, it is illegal to sell puppies prior to 8-weeks of age. However, I have tested countless litters, and have never been sorry that I picked out the puppy I wanted near the 7-week mark.

If you are going to select a puppy yourself, it is worthwhile to research “puppy testing” information. For example, here are some of the qualities that are easy to compare in a group of puppies.

Puppy Qualities

  • Boldness- Some of the puppies will have their heads and tails up, and will fearlessly explore a new location, some will be more cautious.
  • Independence- Some puppies will wander off exploring even as you call them, some will be under your feet and following you wherever you go.
  • Busyness- Some puppies will let an object or location hold their attention as they carefully investigate. Some will run from one object or location to another with much less focus and intensity.
  • Retrieve- Some puppies are very interested in retrieving and playing tug-o-war. Some do not yet have a well developed drive to chase and retrieve. Note: If you are going to try to get a puppy to retrieve use something white, (the easiest color for them to see), and soft, (such as a rolled-up glove or sock).

To assess a puppy’s temperament at that age, you must spend time with each one individually. Take the puppy to an area he has never been, away from the sight and sounds of his littermates. Do not try to pick out a puppy from amongst his littermates. You will be amazed at the changes in personality when the puppies are separated. The dominant puppy in the litter may not be nearly so bold when he is on his own. My typical testing procedure is fairly simple and straightforward. I assessed each puppy individually using the following exercises.

Response to the Area?
Set the puppy down and stand quietly watching him. How does he react? 
Is he bold and inquisitive, moving around and exploring? 
Does he take a few seconds to assess the situation and then explore? 
Does he freeze in place with his tail down, hesitant to investigate?

Walk away from him, remaining quiet.
Does he follow you?
Does he remain in one location?
What does his demeanor tell you about his comfort level?

When you have a feel for his initial response, squat down and call him to you…
Does he come to you with boldness, jump on you with tail wagging?
Does he come hesitantly with his tail down?
Does he ignore you because he has so many places to investigate?

There are no right answers to these questions. You are simply comparing puppies. You are looking for a personality and attitude that appeals to you. You are also looking for clues about how your training will begin. For example, that bold puppy may need to work on good leash manners quite soon whereas the more hesitant puppy may need more walks in public and exposure to more new locations.

Using two hands, pick the puppy up under his chest and hold him above the ground for a few seconds…

Does he struggle and squirm to get away?
Does he struggle and then accept the restraint? 
Does he passively allow you to hold him as if he’s bored?
Does he tuck his tail and seem intimidated?

Set the puppy down and watch his reaction…
Does he turn around and look at you as if to ask, “What’s next?”
Does he reassess his surroundings and resume exploring?
Does he run off, escaping the restraint?

You can repeat the same type of restraint by gently placing the puppy on his back…
Does he struggle to get away?
Does he struggle slightly and then accept the restraint?
Does he lay there, passively looking away from you?

The puppies that struggle, or even struggle and then accept restraint, are typically the bolder, more outgoing puppies. The puppies that respond more passively are typically a softer, gentler nature. There is no right or wrong way for a puppy to respond. You are just assessing each puppy and looking for an attitude that appeals to you and your situation. 

While the puppy is wandering around, drop something on the ground that will make a noise. It could be a plastic bottle with a coin in it or your keys. Make sure you are 3-4 feet from the puppy and he does not see you drop the item. 

When he hears the object, how does he react?
Does he look for the source of the sound and investigate?
Does he look for the source of the sound and then go about his business?
Does he startle, then summon his courage to investigate?
Does he startle and move away, with no intention of checking out the object?

Using a rolled-up sock (white), sit on the floor with your puppy and see if you can get him interested in chasing the object. Keep in mind that your puppy’s eyesight at 7-weeks is not well developed. Move it along the floor at a speed that allows him to chase it. Watch his intensity…
Does he grab at it and engage in tug-o-war?
Does he chase it but give up when he feels resistance on the object?
Does he seem disinterested in chasing the object? 

Next, gently slide it across the floor and see if he will chase the object. Offer your puppy three chances to “retrieve,” and then assess your results…
Does he chase the object, pick it up, and leave with it?
Does he chase the object, and then play with it neither running off or bringing it to you? 
Does he chase the object and then when called, bring it back to you?
Does he not indicate any interest in chasing the object? 

After you do all of the above with each puppy, compare your results. It is rare to find the puppy that offers your most appealing response on every exercise. You may be very attracted to a puppy that loves to retrieve but was also hard to motivate to come to you. There is always a trade-off. If retrieving is of primary importance, you will leave knowing that you may work a little harder teaching your puppy to come. Likewise, if the puppy that appeals to you is the sweeter, gentler puppy, you may find yourself doing a bit more socializing to increase his boldness in new situations. 

Finally, keep in the mind the time of day and that puppies fatigue easily. Ideally, go see the litter twice, two days apart, to accommodate for discrepancies.

Keep Your Puppy Safe!

Imagine the devastation you will feel if you bring your new puppy home and he gets injured by another dog in your household. Yet it happens all the time. Every time I see someone posting a picture of a new puppy with an older dog I cringe. Don't be naive. That is an accident waiting to happen. Even the most well-tempered, delightful older dog, can get easily frustrated with an annoying puppy. A quick snap, meant to give a warning to an obnoxious puppy, can crush a skull or remove an eye.

If you have a household with multiple dogs, do not bring home your new puppy and assume you will immediately assimilate him into your family of dogs. You must keep him separate him from your older dogs. It is a logistical nightmare, but when my puppy is with me, the older dogs are in another part of my house, or in the next room separated by a gate. When my puppy is ready for a nap, I put him in his crate and let the older dogs out.

Not only will this insure your puppy's safety, but this is an important time for you to bond with your puppy and teach him to play with you. Imagine that you have just arrived in a foreign country and do not speak the language. If everyone around you speaks the language you would be forced to learn it. However, if you go to that foreign country with another English-speaking individual, you will spend your time speaking English to your traveling partner and not need to make an effort to learn the new language.

Bringing a puppy into your home is similar to that situation. He does not speak “human” and you aren’t nearly as good at “Dog” as your other dogs are. He would much rather communicate with the other dogs in the house than with you. This is your opportunity to teach him that you will do your best to learn his language and he will have a great time learning yours.

 Meet Mordecai

Mordecai’s family had a list of factors that influenced their decision to add him to their family;

They had a Border Terrier in the past and are in love with the breed. They have four children ages 4-15. Both parents work full time. They recognize that the busiest Terrier in the litter is probably not right for them. They chose to get a male because they have another dog who is female. They did not want to take any chances that two adult females might not get along.


As soon as Mordecai was separated from his littermates, his training started with four objectives in mind.
1. Tricks for Treats - Using luring and rewarding, introduce your puppy to as many behaviors that you can such as sit, down, spin, shake, roll-over, front, etc.
2. Move away from reward to earn reward - Using a reward marker teach your puppy to go to a bed, kennel, or circle a cone. These are all skills that teach your puppy that sometimes he has to move away from what he wants (the reward), in order to earn what he wants.
3. Come - Your puppy can start learning to come on a long line the day you bring him home.
4. Retrieving – Puppies of all breeds can be encouraged to retrieve at a very early age.  

The following video is one of Mordecai’s first lessons.   

What a difference a month makes! This link will take you to three more puppy training videos featuring Mordecai as a 12-week old puppy. 

>> View the next three Puppy Training Videos

If you are in the market for a new puppy, whether it be your next obedience, agility, scent work, tracking or field partner, a puppy’s education is far more likely to be limited by your imagination, than it is by your puppy's ability.

There is much you can do with your puppy at a very early age that will positively impact his attitude and training for the rest of his life. 

If you are interested in more information about how I get my puppies started for careers as obedience and field trial competitors, check out the Performance Puppy Primer. In that guide I will lead you through the progression that I follow as I raise my puppies from 7-weeks to 6-months. I’ll teach you how I introduce my own puppies to all the skills they need as I prepare them for a life time of being my competitive partner.

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