Training a young pup through play by Wendy Beasley

Created: 23/05/2012

Although it is only four years ago that I had Lunar as a small pup, and she has just won her first ticket so I must have done something right, I am beset with doubts when faced with my new pup, and the thought of all I have to teach her is quite daunting. Venus is just 14 weeks and bright as a button, and if she belonged to someone else I would be full of advice and confidence, but faced with this ‘blank canvas’ and fully aware of the pitfalls in front of us I find myself almost reluctant to start.
One of the biggest mistakes, and one which I am all too familiar with is analysing the pup too soon and trying to see the finished article in the raw recruit. I have never supported ‘puppy testing’ as any breeder knows that what you see in one pup one day will not be there the next, and the shy pup who seems to be happy to take a backseat today will often blossom into the most outgoing of the litter tomorrow. They all develop at different rates and any conclusions drawn in the first few months can often turn out to be totally inaccurate. Any form of analysing therefore is probably a waste of time and yet I am sure we all do it and I know I certainly do. So for now I must try to just enjoy my pup, play with her and build up the bond and worry about all she has to learn later on.

Different toys

For trials training arguably the most important thing is an obsession with articles and this is something that can be started with a very young pup. Most puppies will play with toys, but that is because the owner thinks that toys are fun, and by their voice and body language the dog quickly catches on and starts to play. However, if you gave most owners a cardboard tube or a small piece of carpet and told them to play with their pup they would not know how. This is because in their eyes it is not a toy and so it is not fun, and after waving it around a few times in front of the pup’s face without response they declare the pup doesn’t like it.
This is how dog toy manufactures make their money as they have realised that the toy must please the owner not the dog. However, if you take the tube, carpet, old sock or bunch of keys and make it come alive, teasing and denying the pup the article, pretty soon it is the only thing it wants, and before long it becomes a very desirable object. So this is where I start trials training, with a box of assorted ‘rubbish’ – cardboard, wood, material, plastic, metal and any other texture or unusual article you can think of.
There is an abundance of free toys if you look around your house and such things as toilet roll middles, lids (metal and plastic) bits of carpet or wood, old socks, strips of rubber, lengths of rope and bits of hosepipe are the sort of things that you would probably throw out, but all can provide a wealth of really exciting toys for a young pup. It must be stressed that these are not toys to leave with your pup but special things that are kept in a box and only come out for special playtimes.
Once you have your box of ‘goodies’ it is time to convince your pup that what you actually have is a box of treasure, and everything in it is exciting. This sort of training is done in a ‘magic’ five to ten minutes when the pup is brought indoors on its own for individual quality time. During this highly charged exciting interlude the pup learns from the handler’s excitement and body language that the box of delights contains the most wonderful toys, and the best game in the world involves playing with these wonderful things.
It starts with just taking one thing from the box (which for the sake of curiosity and anticipation should have a lid) and convincing the dog that it is the best thing it has ever seen. By teasing and playing with this one thing and making it disappear and reappear the pup will soon learn to chase and bring it back for the game to continue, and when it is really into the game the toy is put away and replaced with another. This is the time for introducing the triggers which will eventually be part of the whole search routine and such words as ‘Where’s it gone?’, ‘Can you find it?’, ‘Show me’, ‘Get it’ and ‘Give’ are all things that the pup can learn during this game without even knowing it’s learning.
Most pups will play tug with an article even from a very young age and as long as due consideration is given to baby teeth and the pull is gentle with the pup winning every time, it is a game which they enjoy and it helps to build the possessiveness which will keep them tracking and searching in later years. The chase instinct comes a little later and if you throw an article for a very young pup it will often just think it has disappeared. Encouraging the chase must be done very close at hand to start with and the article can first be moved in your hand and only when the pup is following and trying to get the article can you let go and push it a little further from you.

Returning articles

Encouraging the pup back is the most important part of this, and if you can get the pup to come back for a fuss with the article in its mouth and not try to take it away it is far more likely to keep coming back. If however as soon as the pup is in reach you are grabbing for its prize it will learn to keep away from you and run the other way when it’s got something.  This is where the ‘Show me’ command comes in and if you can get the pup to show you the article and give it up and you then immediately make it come alive and give it back the pup will always be happy to bring it to you.
All this basic work is done without any formality and from hiding an article behind your back or under your leg when you sit on the floor, and letting the pup use its nose to find it, it is a simple step to hiding it behind a piece of furniture while the pup watches, and then in another room and eventually you have a pup that will do a thorough search of the room and find and bring back two or three articles. This is in fact far more difficult than a search square, as there is no wind to help, and the pup is searching for a scented article in a houseful of scented articles, but it really does help them to concentrate, and then when you move the same game into the garden you find that the pup is very good at it.
Although the aim of this game is to teach the dog to use its nose and enjoy searching it is amazing what else it learns during these short sessions. I think as dog handlers we automatically give commands to our dogs without realising it, and I have found with Venus that such things as ‘Sit’ and ‘Wait’ and even ‘Speak’ are all being learned as part of this game, so not only is she learning about articles but she is learning basic commands and also building a bond with me that will hopefully develop into a great working relationship and all this in five or ten minutes a day.
So here is a start to trials training that can be done with a very young pup but it can equally be done with an older dog and if you can inspire your dog to play with articles and bring them back to you it is the first step on the road to training trials. There are of course so many more things a trials dog has to learn most of which have to wait until the pup is older and many handlers prefer to do no training at all until the pup is several months old. However, I believe that this early grounding is invaluable as it teaches your pup that you are the one who provides the fun and thus builds a bond between you that is the basis for everything you teach later on. At just 14 weeks Venus has not yet learned much to speak of but she really enjoys our sessions and has already worked out that I’m the one that provides the fun and so we have a very good bond and this must be the best basis for a working relationship – let’s hope so!