Before the lessons begin

Due to my work with service organizations, I have the opportunity to raise at least one puppy every year. Also the classes I teach give me contact with additional puppies.

Due to my work with service organizations, I have the opportunity to raise at least one puppy every year. Also the classes I teach give me contact with additional puppies.

Occasionally I get to raise a puppy of my own, one I don't have to give up at the end of the year. People often ask me where one should start. What is the first lesson a puppy should learn.

Before teaching can begin, a bond must be built. Dogs that want to please are some of the easiest to train. My first days with my new charge are spent just being together. In the case of a new puppy from Leader Dogs for the Blind, this often is the trip home from Detroit, Mich., to Detroit Lakes, Minn.

The puppy learns that I am the source of food, water and comfort. When the bond is cemented, the pup wants to spend time with me. Again, this makes training much easier.

Puppies and small dogs are easy to pickup, hold and cuddle. Puppies in a litter are used to sleeping in a pile. They enjoy the warmth, breathing and heartbeats of their littermates.


Holding a puppy on your chest, allowing her to sleep there occasionally, replicates the comfort she enjoyed in the litter. The siblings are gone, but her contact with you forms a new pack -- with you as the pack leader.

It is important to remember that in basic obedience training, we are not teaching the dogs anything they don't already know. Puppies and dogs all know how to come, heel, sit, down and stay. Our goal is to get them to perform these commands when and where we want them to. Again, this places you in the role of the pack leader.

Let's go back to that trip from Michigan to Minnesota with the new Leader Dog pup. Even though I can still run faster than a seven-week-old puppy, by contract with Leader Dogs, I must keep the puppy on leash whenever we are outside. So every rest stop, every potty break is an opportunity to work on getting the pup to move with me.

I don't ask for her to work in the heel position (on my left side, head even with my hip, six to 12 inches from my leg). My first goal is that she move in the same direction I am going and that hopefully she stays out from under my feet.

Most of the work is accomplished by voice; the leash serves mostly to keep her from getting out of reach. I keep my voice very light, upbeat, happy with a lot of happy praise when she is moving in the direction I am headed. If she happens to hit the correct direction and heel position I will tell her "Heel. Good heel."

I want her to enjoy the walk. As long as she wants to be with me, getting her to move with me is relatively easy. Intentional correct positioning will come later.

The companion exercise to moving with me is to sit for feeding. My Lab pups eat like... well like Labs. They are very food motivated, which also helps with training.

At seven weeks, my pup eats three times a day -- three opportunities to work on teaching the sit. I let the puppy watch me dish up her food. Her sense of smell gets her excited. Holding the dish slightly higher than the pup's head, I move it over her head toward her back.


Most pups will sit as they attempt to follow the dish with their nose. As soon as the puppy's butt hits the floor, I tell her "Sit. Good sit," and place the dish on the floor.

Generally by the third day the puppy is sitting in anticipation while I dish up the food. Now I can start introducing the sit command as I see her settling into the position and praise her when she is sitting. Plus she gets the food reward. I have not taught her anything new at this point. I have only rewarded things that she does naturally.

Obviously the timing of the rewards is very important to the training, as is patience. I praise her each time she moves with me in the correct position or sits at feeding time. I am teaching her that it is rewarding to please me, but without demanding anything of her.

I am also teaching her the commands by introducing them to her as she does the action on her own.

So the first lesson with a new puppy is a combination of bonding and looking for opportunities to reward natural behaviors. We are building on the puppy's desire to be with us -- the basis for training in the future.

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