Wow! When we wrote this blog to help our puppies transition to their new home and retain their crate skills we never knew how needed this information was. After years of crate training our own puppies, and coaching clients through the crate training process with their puppies we now have an on demand course available year round! You can find information on Crate School: Confident Crating on our training website.
Crate training for puppies is long due for an overhaul. For too long a puppy’s first exposure to the crate was being locked inside, left to panic, and then being “taught” to be crated by being ignored until it ceased crying.
Too long has the crate training standard been to induce learned helplessness when confined by ignoring the puppies vocalizations, not to gradually acclimate puppies to confinement. Then we wonder why so many grown dogs exhibit behaviors associated with barrier frustration/aggression, separation distress/anxiety, and a myriad of other confinement specific undesirable behaviors later in life.
New puppy owners often feel overwhelmed by the crying, puppies already sensitive to stress while transitioning to a new home are stressed further, potentially triggering separation distress, and a myriad of other potential undesirable outcomes become more likely.
There is a better way. Instead of forcing puppies to give up complaining about confinement, we can easily condition them to be confident craters.
If you’re a breeder or foster who cares for puppies from birth, please use our Crate Conditioning For Puppies: An Incremental Approach.
If you are fortunate enough to be bringing home a puppy from a Puppy Culture or Crate School breeder, or a breeder who has used our (or a similar) crate conditioning protocol, you can easily continue that work by following these principles.
Leading Principle: Crates are where good things happen.
Make the crate the “best bed in the house.”
During crate conditioning, have the bed inside the crate be the only bed. We want our puppy to prefer to rest inside the crate, so make resting in the crate desirable with a good bed. It’s a very good idea to have both a smaller night time crate in the bedroom, and a larger daytime crate in the living area.
When your puppy falls asleep, gently pick it up and place it in it’s daytime crate to nap. Do this every time you find your puppy asleep outside it’s crate. Close the door if you will be nearby to release the puppy when it awakens, or place an x pen around the crate.
Feed your puppy in it’s crate if it’s eating from a bowl.
Gradually teach your puppy to expect a few minutes of confinement after each meal.
Large breed dogs, such as my German Shepherds, benefit from crate rest after eating. Teaching your puppy to expect to crate rest after eating also means you can feed your puppy right before the humans eat, and you can enjoy a “dog free” dinner time. Always provide puppies with a high value chew after eating, to help them relax and pacify themselves. Normalizing and using the expectation that grows from routine is extremely valuable. Consistency really does help puppies know what to expect. We build up to a two hour nap after each meal in our house. Dogs use this “digestion time” to nap, puppies need even more rest than dogs (around 20 hours per day as compared to an adult dogs 18) but scheduled nap time is beneficial for everyone.
Provide daily “chewing” sessions in the crate.
Dogs love to chew, and puppies especially require chewing. The crate is the perfect place to provide this activity. When you can’t directly supervise your puppy or when your puppy is due for a nap, pull out a pacifier and put your puppy in it’s crate for a chew session. By pairing HIGH value chews with confinement you make the most of both the pacifiers you invest in, and teaching your puppy that being confined is great. Puppies need a lot of rest time, so take advantage of that time to create happy associations with confinement.
Be prepared to pair all duration crating sessions with high value chews for the first few weeks.
Collect as many types of chews as you can, stuff them them yummy things if they are stuffable, and provide them only in the crate. Puppies preferences change and develop as they age, and just like us they can get bored of the same thing every day, chewing is a basic core dog need anyway, so don’t be stingy, invest in a wide variety of chews.
Puppies are sensitive to separation and will vocalize when they feel isolated. This is very strong survival instinct that has it’s roots in the dog’s evolution, long before it was a pet.
Here are some suggestions to bypass separation distress.
At night, crate your puppy on your bed, or place the crate at bed height right next to your bed. Your breathing and movement will help sooth a puppy and prevent it from feeling “lost” and alone.
Provide a large stuffed animal, or Snuggle Buddy, for the puppy to cuddle with at night.
For every night your puppy sleeps at least 6 hours without waking, you can move the crate 1 foot away from your bed until you reach the area of the bedroom where you would like your bedtime crate to be located.
Put a tired puppy to bed with the last person to retire for the night. Feed dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime, and take water up 1 hour before bedtime. Calmly walk the puppy for at least 10 minutes before putting it to bed.
If your puppy is fussing at night, offer it a chance to potty. Keep nighttime potty breaks “businesslike.” Simply carry the puppy out, clip the leash on, and stand in one place for no more than 3 minutes while the puppy relieves itself. Do not talk, play or feed your puppy. Doing these things distract from the purpose of the potty break and can teach your puppy to wake you up for play and treats.
Be consistent in the nighttime pottybreak protocol. You want your puppy to learn to “ask out” if it needs to void in the night (otherwise, it may learn to void in the crate) but you don’t want to teach your puppy that waking you up has ANY purpose other than going to the potty.
When 3 minutes is up, carry the puppy back to it’s crate on your bed, place it inside, close the door and turn out the lights and go back to sleep.
Repeat EVERY time your puppy vocalizes in the night crate, your puppy will learn to ask out only to potty during the night. This process may take a week, so be prepared.
Do not offer chews or pacifiers in the Night Crate. Nighttime is for sleeping, and sleepy puppies need to sleep.
Soothing music, scents (such as Adaptal) and a cool room will help puppies sleep.
Devise a routine and stick with it.
Puppies love routine because it’s comforting to know what to expect. Find a routine that includes crate conditioning time. Good examples are to crate your puppy after each meal, at human mealtimes, and the first 10 to 15 minutes after visitors arrive. Be sure to pair a high value chew with each duration session! Use the same routine when you leave the house – pair this with a high value chew and soothing sounds and scents.
Provide high value pacifiers for car crate time too!
Be sure to take the time to condition your dog to traveling in a crate. Not only can this prevent barrier aggressive behaviors from starting, but it’s safer for the dog and driver. Pair all car crate rides with high value chews at first.
Practice Crating on outings.
If you plan to travel or compete with your dog, it’s worth it to condition your dog to enjoy crating anywhere. Purchase a “tent” or cloth crate that’s easy to carry and take it to training classes with you. Crate your puppy (with a pacifier) during class down time when your instructor is teaching or other dogs are working. If your instructor includes mat training (yay!) place your mat inside your tent crate to do some of your mat work.
Some common and not so common sense tips.
Don’t crate your puppy too much. It’s unhealthy for their body and mind – a crated puppy isn’t being socialized or learning any life skills. Yes, puppies need crate time every day, but they do not benefit from being confined too often.
Play lots of crate entry games! Have someone hold the puppy while you run and put it’s food bowl inside the crate. Next, call the puppy with your crate entry cue – this is also your helper’s cue to release the puppy! Cheer the puppy while it’s running to the crate and praise while the puppy enjoys it’s meal. Play lots of these types of games.
“Bait” your crate ahead of time. If you put your puppy’s chew in the crate and close the door, the puppy will REALLY want to enter the crate! Plan ahead and bait the crate with your chosen pacifier 10 to 30 minutes ahead of scheduled crate times, then call your puppy to crate up with your crate entry cue, open the door, and voila…your puppy loves to run into the crate!
Don’t bribe your puppy to enter the crate. If your puppy is reluctant to enter the crate, do more of number 2 and 3, but avoid at all costs bribing your puppy to enter the crate. This will backfire! It’s actually better to pick your puppy up and place it inside the crate than to bribe it to enter the crate.
If your puppy is reluctant to enter the crate, figure out why and fix the problem! Don’t be tempted to bribe or trick the puppy to enter the crate, that will backfire! Consult with a skilled positive reinforcement trainer if needed.
Do you need help crate training your puppy? Or are you a breeder who wants help building a crate conditioning plan into your puppy raising protocols? Distance coaching is available and we are very happy to help, contact us to find out more!
Momma’s dogs need new bones! This blog contains affiliate links, so we can earn a small amount of money linking to products we have tried and tested, while you pay nothing extra!
Enrichment for our dogs is the hot topic of the day! Blogs, workshops, seminars, and FB groups all devoted to this topic. But what about puppies? Can puppies benefit too?
As I do more and more with my crate conditioning protocol I have been using more and more pacifiers. Pacifiers are things we give dogs that are designed to amuse them for long periods of time, like chews, lick mats, and Kongs. There’s many more than just those types, and I have experimented extensively with all different kinds. I have been really interested to see some really beneficial “side effects” of the use of pacifiers in my puppies.
Puppies who are:
Calmer, in general and specifically when not ‘doing anything.’
Getting along better with littermates.
Learning more quickly and with less frustration.
Seeming more “thoughtful” with their actions.
This is undoubtedly due to the “Enrichment Effect” discussed at length in the puppy raising protocol Puppy Culture. As breeders, we know that an enriched environment is beneficial for our puppies physical and behavioral health. Puppies raised in enriched environments have bigger brains, learn faster, and have better behavior as adults.
I think the pacifier is a hybrid between Passive Enrichment opportunities (things like tunnels, and adventure cubes) and Active Enrichment (activities that involve learning, like clicker training.) Puppies are DOING something and learning something, but unlike clicker training the activity is completely self driven. Passive Enrichment is great, Active Enrichment is the “gold standard” for puppy raising, and I think pacifiers fall somewhere in the middle. They are just another tool to add to our toolbox as we seek to raise the best puppies possible, and make the most of their inherited traits. But if that wasn’t enough, there are huge benefits to your new puppy families too – but more about that at the end.
Here are my 10 tips for success with pacifiers.
Start Easy! Baby puppies learn fast, but there are limits to their motor and cognitive abilities.
Ensure Success! Make sure the food is easy to access.
Present one skill challenge at a time. Pick one skill: lick food out, sniff food out, push food out, move a thing to find food, tear something open to find food, sniff to find food, roll to find food, or remove food.
Use palatable easy to digest foods and mix up flavors. Variety is the spice of life, after all!
Choose materials carefully. Avoid things that could trap body parts, fracture teeth, abraid skin, or become ingestion risks.
Choose materials thoughtfully. Select things that are interesting or are novel to puppies.
Observe your puppies for success with any item. Remember, success is your puppies getting the food!
Adjust. If you observe your puppies don’t engage or give up on a challenge, next time make it much easier.
Adjust. If you observe your puppies have immediate success, next time make it slightly more difficult.
Keep Records. Keep track of your puppies favorites and preferences, so you can share what works for a puppy with it’s new family.
Here is my current list of items that work for my puppies. I often use these for crate training, but also when my puppies are getting quarrelsome, frantic, or having trouble calming down. I have both Group and Individual activities. I would love to know what you use for your puppies, please share in the comments!
KONG Quest Forager
Slow Feed Bowls
Single Puppy (Crate) Pacifiers
When to use them?
Pacifiers are a GREAT management tool to make your work as a breeder easier and more effective! Here are the most common ways that pacifiers make my work easier.
To teach puppies it’s great to run back into the weaning pen after an outing. I “seed” the weaning pen with a pacifier (like a snuffle mat) after I take the puppies out. Once they figure out the snuffle mat is always waiting for them, they are happy to run back inside the pen when I open the door.
To soothe puppies during the “witching hour” when they are bickering and frantic. These times are often predictable, think ahead and set up group activities about 30 minutes beforehand.
To prevent puppies from learning to scream and bark at movement outside the pen. I plop a pacifier like a few Kong Foragers in when I know I’m going to be moving around outside the pen.
A snack before bed. During weeks 4-8 I put down a snuffle mat to soothe puppies as we go to bed.
Rainy, cold, or blistering hot days. When walks and noodles outside are short and puppies get bored.
In the new home!
Falcon in his new home. Because he learned to use a variety of pacifiers when here, he was “primed” and ready to use pacifiers in his new home. This makes raising him much easier on his mom!
I can’t even begin to tell you how introducing your puppies to pacifiers early, while they are in the care of the breeder or foster, will help your new families.
Raising a puppy is hard work! Puppies are chew machines and almost every new owner struggles with the same normal puppy issues: chewing on things, mouthing humans, ‘getting into stuff’, and pestering humans or older dogs. These are all normal behaviors, and pacifiers are amazing effective ways to allow puppies to develop normally, while also fostering habits the owners LOVE. This helps ensure the puppy has GOOD interactions with people and not a bunch of “no puppy” “bad puppy” type interactions, it builds good recreational chewing habits, and it gives puppies a natural outlet for their chewing and foraging needs.
Keep a list, much like this one, of the types of pacifiers you have taught the puppies to use. Provide it to each new puppy family so they can learn the value of pacifiers, how to teach puppies to use them, and when to provide them for the most benefit. And BOOM, your puppy and it’s new owner are now set up for success and a happy life together!
If you’ve been breeding long enough, you have met “That Puppy”. That Puppy is one who, while his littermates are quietly napping or playing, is screaming at the top of his lungs. Maybe he hollers after midnight, or bellows in the morning, or has a midday tirade every day? Such a puppy can drive a breeder to distraction.
Of course when a puppy is vocalizing for no apparent reason we should first consider the puppy’s health. Is That Puppy gassy? A bloated gassy puppy has a very good reason to vocalize! So first run through a list of That Puppy’s basic needs.
Pain– Is this puppy in pain or uncomfortable? Is a vet check warranted? Could That Puppy be gassy, or have a stomach ache from weaning, or over eating, or parasites?
Hunger– is this puppy “hangry” because it’s been pushed off breakfast by larger puppies? Does it need a snack?
Thirst- is clean water available?
Warmth/cool- is the climate of the weaning pen comfortable? We readily think of puppy’s being chilled, no breeder wants that, but some breeds *cough Malamute cough* appreciate being able to get cool.
Rest- is there a place for this puppy to rest? Some puppies rest better in a “single size” bed, some really want to snuggle with other puppies. Further, can the puppy rest without being constantly awoken by playful siblings, household noises, nannies or over tending mothers?
If any of the Basic Needs are lacking, addressing those is our starting point.
But what if we’ve met all those basic needs? Indeed for skilled and responsible breeders these basic needs are second nature, attended to with great skill, and never lacking. But still…..That Puppy bellows!
This is when the train can fly off the tracks. Faced with That Puppy, that loud, loud puppy, breeders try to figure out why. Why just *That Puppy*?
At this point, faced with this difficult puppy we often get distracted and off track because we, even though we know more about puppies than anyone, start to assume that a baby puppy is like a tiny adult dog.
We don’t let adult dogs out of crates when they fuss now do we? (Let me add, I’m not advocating leaving any dog to scream it out, but that’s a subject for later). So great is the fear we will “teach” a dog to vocalize to control us that we forget that puppies are not tiny adult dogs. So entrenched is this advice to ignore, that we never question it.
We then start to throw out labels, now That Puppy is: Bossy, High Strung, Demanding, Manipulative, Dominate.
That Puppy is trying to CONTROL us, the human, heaven help us! But is it really?
First, remember that if we decide to frame a dog’s behavior (of any age) with a negative label we then tend to put ourselves in a dead end. After all, if a puppy is having a temper tantrum, being manipulative, demanding, bossy or whatever now we have suddenly made this “the puppy’s fault” or a problem with the puppy itself, we are now in a battle of wills with this puppy. We must win, right?
Labels are so limiting and they can close off how we think about behavior into one narrow road with few solutions.
The Puppy screams because he’s difficult, and he’s difficult because he screams. This offers us no path to resolution.
So if we think a puppy is being in any way “naughty” we start to think along the lines of “teaching the puppy a lesson”, that it can’t control us and that bad behavior won’t “work”. This limits us to basically one common answer, IGNORE the puppy (or much worse, punish the puppy by squirting it, or tossing a penny can, or scruffing it). Otherwise the puppy “wins” and that means we are the looser because the puppy learns to vocalize to demand release.
But, this is at best really limiting, at worse damaging, and may indeed completely miss the mark, the “point” or function of the behavior.
Always remember, puppies exhibit behavior as a response to the environment. How such a young puppy responds is less about high cognitive functioning, learning, and manipulation and more about basic instincts.
Puppies are hard wired to respond to distress vocally, this is basic survival advantage stuff.
Puppies are hard wired to want to “be with” humans and dogs (that order may be switched depending on the breed traits at play). We literally domesticated dogs so they want to be with us, they are driven to be with us.
This instinct combines with breed traits and developmental stages to create a variety of behaviors. Learning plays an increasing role as the puppy matures, but it’s not the primary player in baby puppies.
So instead of asking ourselves how we can punish a puppy (something we are inclined to do if we think of the puppy’s behavior as being deliberately bad) by ignoring it (removing something needed or desired) or punishing it (adding something the puppy would like to avoid) we do better work by the puppy if we look at the puppy acting this way and take the behavior “at it’s word” and think of the puppy as struggling, as an emotionally immature individual struggling with frustration, or perhaps separation distress, or fatigue, discomfort, or over arousal. When we frame our puppy in this light, we can see a variety of potential solutions before us, so many, instead of few.
1. Look for a pattern. Does the fussy behavior occur before meal time? In the evening? In the middle of the night? Jot down in your litter notebook when the fussy behavior happens and always confirm which puppy is vocalizing. This is really helpful in designing an intervention, but sometimes we don’t need at plan at all because the function of the vocalization becomes readily apparent in the pattern. For example, if a puppy eats and then cries for an hour after, our solution may be in the feeding. Puppy is under eating, or over eating, or the food doesn’t agree with the puppy.
2. Take advantage of visual blocks. Barrier frustration is a real deal in certain breeds and it can start young. I use sheets (I like sheets because they are easy to close and open) on the outside of the pen, this one thing has decreased puppy distress by 90% in my home. Use visual blocks strategically “in the moment” to help a puppy lower it’s arousal and distress at being separated from others in the household. If the pen walls are covered already, try uncovering it, or a part of the pen to make a window.
3. Dramatically increase novelty within the pen. Remove and rotate toys often, increase the cognitive effort a toy takes, use snuffle mats, novel odors, kibble dispensers, small platforms, really make the pen interesting and engaging and time these changes to right before the high risk times. In my own puppies, this is usually where my solution lies. German Shepherds are clever puppies, just tossing a few toys in won’t always be enough. But a snuffle mat? Or a bunch of horse hair stuffed into a toy, or a kibble nibble, yeah! Something that requires some sniffing and figuring out! That can help a puppy self calm and relax.
4. Spend more time with the puppies in the pen yourself instead of always taking them out. Mix it up a bit. How often do we accidentally teach puppies that being outside the weaning pen is better? Too often all human interactions are outside the weaning pen, all novelty is outside the weaning pen, and meals are outside the weaning pen. NO WONDER puppies long to be out of their pen! Make a real effort to condition puppies that being confined (in a pen at first, and a crate later) is WONDERFUL! Put the puppies OUT of the pen and then have a clicker training session INSIDE the pen, one puppy at a time. Sit inside the pen sometimes for play time and visitor time. Put novel smells and items in the pen for exploration sometimes. Now, I’m NOT saying “don’t take your puppies out of the weaning pen” , that would be insane, but I am saying to make your weaning pen just as much fun as the other parts of your house.
5. So, on that note, be sure your puppies time outside the pen, counts. Plan sniff walks in a puppy safe yard, or if it’s better, do a sniff walk inside! Collect novel odors (I use chicken feathers, bark from trees, horse hair, and cat hair often) and plant these along with some treats around your room. Start easy, and make each snuffle walk just a tad more difficult. Before you know it your puppies will be experts at using their noses to find the hidden novel smell. This type of “thinking” exercise will help puppies rest better when returned to their pen. Be sure to salt the pen with a snuffle mat, or kibble nibble, so when the puppies return they have an activity to help them calm down.
6. Have adult dogs help! If you have a safe skilled team of nannies, make sure they have a hop in (a low point in the pen that allows a nanny to enter AND LEAVE the pen at will) so they can interact with the puppies in the pen. I have one nanny who is always first to sooth a frustrated puppy. So I make sure she can! Now, again, do NOT EVER lock any adult dog (even the dam) in with the puppies. There must always be an escape route for any dog to leave the weaning pen. I use a board that my nannies, nannoes, and the dam can jump in/out of the weaning pen at will. If you have a skilled nanny or nanno, this dog can soothe a fussy puppy by modeling quiet behavior, or by just attending to the puppy’s need, but it’s not desirable for a dog to actually punish the upset puppy. Just because an older dog uses an aversive doesn’t make it more desirable than a human! So always use your common sense when supervising nannies. Just like a human trainer, a good nanny can shape and model desirable behavior without risky techniques that can create more serious problems than the one being solved.
7. Plug in a DAP or spray some. I love DAP for the weaning pen. It’s very soothing for puppies in general. If you use the spray you can spray the area as needed, the diffuser works all the time. I will tell you, if you have a diffuser plugged in, you can spray more when That Puppy starts to fuss.
8. Soothing music is very helpful. Soothing music, or a boring audio book should make up the bulk of the “background” noise for your litter. Sound conditioning and habituation should never be nonstop, our ratio is around 75% soothing sounds, no sound, intermixed with 25% sounds we are either conditioning or habituating to. If I have a fussy puppy, I always make sure I have soothing sounds at the ready!
9. Teach Manding pen side. If you reinforce sitting pen side your puppy can take advantage of Manding (a learned behavior) instead of screaming (a natural behavior) at the side of the pen. Create a Success Station near the side of your pen, with written instructions for the humans who pass by, and a small bucket of treats for the puppies. Teach all the humans to pop a treat into the mouth of any puppy who is sitting quietly pen side.
10. This is where things get really crazy! I do the opposite of many, when I have a puppy who frets and yells I don’t ignore That Puppy. Using my Pattern (See 1 Above) I try to remove That Puppy before it gets upset (ideally when calm) because I am aware that learning is happening, and I want to reinforce calm behavior. But if I have a puppy who is screaming in the pen I no longer leave it to freak out. I really don’t want all that stress hormone activity, it’s not worth “teaching it a lesson” to have an immature brain awash in cortisol or other stress hormones. That just primes the puppy’s brain to use more in future (totally anecdotal, I’ve only my own experiences on this). I want less vocalization, NOT more vocalization.
This is the opposite of what I was taught. I was taught to always ignore a fussy puppy, because a fussy puppy is being manipulative and trying to control people. But what I found as a breeder, is that ignoring a distressed puppy really just means I have a puppy who is MORE often distressed and for LONGER in the CSP. But when I started to attend to fussy puppies, almost like magic, they were less often fussy and they stopped being fussy much sooner. What I had been taught wasn’t actually effective, for me, the puppy, or the new owner.
Now, not in the middle of the night, and not every time a puppy peeps a squeak! I use my breeder judgement to tell me when a puppy is complaining, versus when a puppy is distressed.
A mildly complaining puppy just needs a few minutes to settle down, something I can aid with a pacifier. But a puppy who is vocalizing intensely, I might look and see if I have a huge Bull’s Eye pupil for example, a high respiration rate, or pacing, to give me clues about what is best. If a puppy is truly distressed, or has worked itself into a cortisol fueled fit, I’m no going to ignore that. I might win a battle of wills, but I lose the war.
But, happily, I almost never have a fussy puppy since I use this approached based on Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy . This one thing has convinced me that a fussy puppy is NOT a difficult individual, or a dominate puppy, or even bossy, because not only are those just labels, but those things would not have been resolved by MORE attention and MORE toys and MORE activities. NO, what I have learned is that my labels, and the advice I was given, were flawed in the first place. What I really had was an immature animal using the tool kit nature provided it attempting to get it’s needs met.
When I look beyond the label, a ton of possible solutions are presented: add or remove visual blocks, add or remove enrichment, add or remove nannies, add or remove activity, add DAP, music, chews, food based activities, add or remove the individual puppy or puppies. So many good options!
Lots of options are better than one option (ignore) and allows us to serve our puppy’s needs better with less risk of unexpected negative effects or undesirable learning.
Also, by 6 weeks we are well into our crate conditioning protocol and this really helps to prevent fretting and demanding to get out and provides me with another option!
You can also find help in my littermate interactions article. Much of this works just as well for a single upset puppy as it does for pugnacious behavior within a litter.
Transitions are a part of every dogs life, how can we use a puppy’s transition to it’s new home to teach a puppy to anticipate transitions as positive experiences, and face change with adaptability.
Long before this day, a breeder has been working towards an easy transition to the new home.
Most breeders, and many new puppy owners, have experienced fall out from a rocky transition. Like the proverbial snow ball growing larger as it rolls down snow covered hill, if a puppy becomes distressed during transition a cascade of undesirable effects can accumulate. Sadly, these can result in an overwhelmed family returning the puppy to the breeder, or an overwhelmed puppy experiencing potentially life altering anxieties, fears, illnesses, or traumas.
Many of you know the story of my own dog Indeigh, my second German Shepherd puppy and one of the most cherished dogs of my life. But Indeigh had a rocky start, not knowing how to help this puppy, who was so unprepared for transitioning into my home, had far reaching effects for her. The weeks that snowballed into months, of distress, upset, and frustration we both experienced taught Indeigh to view change and novelty with suspicion and even anxiety. This became a lifelong struggle for this highly acomplished dog. I don’t blame Indeigh, or myself, or her breeder, none of us knew how to prepare or help her. But things have changed in the world of dogs, and animal behavior in general, and as said so famously by Maya Angelou “when you know better, you do better”. Now I know and I want to share what I’ve learned in the nearly 30 years since I brought Indeigh home.
SG1 (JHKL) Indeigh v. Spezialblut Bh AD HIC CGC SchH1 Kkl1 OFA. My heart.
Indeigh, once again, this is for you. I miss you, and I’m doing better.
What can we do to foster resilience in transition? How can we, as breeders, leverage things we already do to help optimize our puppy’s native born temperament? How can we make the most of this first big life transition, using it to create a foundation of adaptability and confidence in our puppy, making the most of each inherited trait.
You might think of this as coddling, puppies need stress you would say, to grow into adaptable dogs. You would be right, stress is vital and important to both mental and physical development and growth, however distress is not. Distress creates room for unintended learning, distress doesn’t foster strength and resilience, distress is to be avoided. We don’t want to protect puppies from stress or stressful events, but instead to give them the skills they need to emerge from those inevitable life events stronger, resilient, adaptable, and confident.
Adaptability and resilience grow from experiencing small, age appropriate, amounts of stress as positive experiences. That’s the experience we want to foster, it’s the growth medium for confidence.
First, our goals:
1. Puppy will learn to anticipate transitions and change as positive experiences that lead to good things. Puppy will feel competent in new experiences.
2. Family will learn how to teach their puppy that transitions are positive experiences using primary reinforcements (social interaction, food, play), and conditioned reinforcers (clickers and other markers) primarily through operant conditioning.
We already have the tools we need, we are already working hard, when we look forward to plan life’s first big transition we increase the chance of a smooth transition week for our puppy and the new family, and orchastrate an environment to guide our puppy along a path to adaptability and competence throughout life.
Using the puppy raising protocols from the film Puppy Culture as our guide, here is a list of 5 tips and techniques I, and other breeders, use to optimize puppy’s transition to it’s new home. I hope you enjoy this list and find it helpful!
Like “a bridge over troubled waters” bridge behaviors help puppies find confidence through communication with their new family, and in a new environment.
Unlike a verbal marker which can sound different from person to person, a clicker sounds the same no matter who clicks it.
Using the beauty of operant conditioning to create confidence and adaptability to transitions.
I’ve saved the most important for last because it’s really just THAT important.
What is a bridge? For our purposes here, a bridge is a behavior taught in such a way that a positive emotional response is PART of the behavior. A bridge doesn’t work if it’s a behavior the puppy learned through fear or distress, we want our bridges to help us reach our goal of a dog who thrives under stress, and who enjoys life’s transitions. Since the emotion the puppy experiences when it learns a behavior becomes attached to that behavior, we do not want any unpleasant emotion to travel on our bridge.
Learning to sit on a platform, the happy anticipation this puppy feels learning this behavior will be forever attached, she’ll feel happy when cued to sit later in her new home.
The magic of the bridge is in the communication between the puppy and the new owner. When puppies leave our home they also leave behind all those contextual cues that help them know what is expected when, and what behavior might be expected of them in particular settings. All those nice clear paths to reinforcement are obscured. They feel a bit like “strangers in a strange land” in the new home.
The new family often feels the same way, just how do they get the puppy to do the things they need?
Our bridge behaviors give the puppy a way to communicate to the owner and the owner to the puppy. There is empowerment and confidence in this shared language.
We encourage our new families to start the day they bring their puppy home with the Puppy Culture Communication Trinity, and to run through these lessons in order. Running through these familiar lessons helps the puppy feel confident and competent in the new home from day 1.
So our bridge behavior MUST include a positive emotional response, since we are Puppy Culture breeders and clicker trainers this is easy for us, as all our Puppy Culture Active Enrichment Behaviors and our other clicker trained behaviors fit this requirement.
Here are the bridge behaviors our puppies are taught before they go home.
1. Sit (Mand) for things you want.
Learning to Mand for a novel person at our Puppy Party.
Puppy offers Attention when on an outing to a new and strange environment (a local garden center).
3. Follow Leash Pressure.
Puppy responds to gentle leash pressure by turning to face me, and offering attention.
4. Hand Target (touch your nose to my hand).
Puppy learning to hand target with a novel person at a Puppy Party.
With this small set of baby behaviors our puppy can, when unsure what to do, be quickly and easily Clicked and Treated for any one of these behaviors. All of these behaviors are very useful for our new families too.
Of course, we also need to teach our new families the basics of clicker training, and most importantly when and how to use the bridge behaviors. Much of this is covered in the Puppy Culture film that we provide to each family before their puppy goes home with them.
Here are some examples of using bridge behaviors during transition week.
Puppy can Mand to leave crate.
Puppy can Mand for meals.
Puppy can have the clicker powered up.
Puppy can Mand for toy toss.
Puppy can give attention for tugging.
Puppy can Mand for petting.
Puppy can Mand to leave Crate.
Puppy can Mand for meals.
Puppy can play The Box Game.
Puppy can practice Leash Walking.
Puppy can Mand for petting.
Puppy can give Attention for toy toss.
Puppy can Mand for social interaction.
Puppy can play Attention while vet listens to heart.
Puppy can follow a Hand Target onto scale.
Puppies Manding at their first vet visit.
Attention is a powerful bridge behavior!
Because we have already conditioned these bridge behaviors, AND taught the puppy owner how to teach, use, and reinforce them, the puppy can experience these situations (all of which are transitions) as fun and reinforcing events because the puppy “knows” how to earn reinforcement in the form of praise, food, and play.
This helps our puppy learn from the very start that it has control over what happens to it, that good things are plentiful and easy to access, and that change predicts these wonderful things.
Puppies who are unsure can express a variety of behaviors that we don’t want the puppy to learn or practice. Puppies can be frantic, hectic, nervous, avoidant, and a laundry list of other emotional states and behaviors best never learned.
With a small set of bridge behaviors our new puppy owner can ask for desirable behaviors, and our puppy can respond quickly and happily, finding a desirable path to reinforcement that serves it well throughout life.
Even as an adolescent, Rose still Mands at the vet’s office!
Manding carries through to adulthood, as Zora shows us on a recent vet visit.
Schedule or no schedule? Which is better and can it be both?
Breeders are often divided, even when they don’t know they are! I was so interested recently in a discussion on schedules in puppy raising. On the one side were the practical considerations: puppies have to eat frequently and are messy. Their needs require regular attention, this dictates some type of scheduling. On the other side were some very thoughtful ideas concerning teaching puppies to handle unexpected changes with confidence and the need for unpredictability in puppy raising. Maybe what we need is both predictably and unpredictability?
Four week old puppies require scheduled feeding, cleaning, and other necessities.
Create a feeling of security with a schedule.
Puppies are a schedule intensive creature, by making note of your puppy care schedule you can help both your family and the puppy. Make note of your typical feeding/cleaning schedule (for most breeders this is AM, Midday, PM and for breeders who do crate work, late PM potty breaks) as well as your training and crate conditioning routines. You can easily imagine how this might impact your puppy in it’s new home.
Most puppies will have owners who work during the day and many puppies can expect to be crated for some amount of time at night and during the day until fully house trained.
So, we try to work on crate conditioning with our litters during late afternoon. This occurs after morning clean up, meal, and play time, when the puppies are getting tired and ready for rest. At this point we do crate chews and naps.
It’s by design that we work on crate conditioning in our morning routine instead of our evening one. Because most puppies are going to experience crating during the daytime, whether they are companion, show, working, or sport dogs. So during the transition period our routine can help the puppy expect to spend some time during the day crated and napping. Further, knowing this routine can help our family during the transition period.
By knowing their new puppy typically naps after breakfast, the new family can schedule a nap time around the same time. Changes due to the families schedule can then be made gradually during the first week.
Create adaptability by throwing out the schedule!
We don’t want our puppy to be so habituated to a particular schedule that changes in routine are distressing. So while puppies really do require some scheduling of meals and cleanliness for their health and wellbeing, we can also create an happy anticipation of change by pairing random events with very enjoyable activities.
Puppies enjoying a noodle around the yard. Creating a joyful anticipation of the unexpected is easy!
Mix up your elective activities to create a love of the unexpected.
We can’t really just “not feed or clean up after” our puppies, that’s a given. Puppies require regular feeding and a clean environment. But all other activities (passive enrichment, active enrichment, crate conditioning, etc.) are elective activities that we can move around.
Further, since our puppies LOVE these elective activities (as they are paired with food, play, and learning) we can also create a happy anticipation of change by creating some randomness in these activities.
This is how I do that! I assign each activity a number, some tasks are listed twice because they need repeating more often.
Unexpected crate time in the car! Crates and cars are great because we pair both with wonderful chews and thoughtful conditioning programs.
1. Passive Enrichment: Novel item(s), Pen toy resets.
2. Active Enrichment: Clicker Training Lessons
3. Puppy Scent Games: Puppy Tracking
4. Noodling: Yard exploration and play
5. Crate Conditioning: Crate chews, in house or car.
6. Nothing Time: puppies are left alone in the house.
7. Play: Fetch, Flirt, Tug games.
8. Nothing Time: We are home, but not interacting.
9. Grooming as Individual Attention
10. Active Enrichment: Clicker Training (this is twice, because we have lots of training to do!).
Puppy learning to hand target, as part of a random activity.
Then I download a free Random Number Generator onto my phone (from the App Store or Google Play) and set it from 1-10.
The Random Number Generator then gives me number that matches one of my elective activities. I do this activity during one of three free times, After Breakfast, After Lunch, or After Dinner. Since I know I can’t skip feeding or cleaning up after my puppies, this means I need to work variety in between these non elective scheduled tasks.
And of course, sometimes we don’t do anything!
This allows me to condition the puppies to both feel confident their needs will be met, and at the same time, that many fun and unexpected things are going to happen in any day.
By including both alone at home, and ignored time in our rotation puppies learn to expect being unattended sometimes, even if we are home!
Note, I’ve included two types of “alone time” time when we leave the house and another time when we are home but not interacting with the puppies. Both happen as part of our regular schedule, but I want to ensure that the puppies have lots of experience with us leaving the house, as well as us being home but ignoring the them. This mirrors real life.
With just a little planning we can teach our puppies from the beginning that their needs will be met predictably, and further, that variations in schedule and unexpected things are wonderful and to be enjoyed! Both are needed to help puppies grow into well adjusted and adaptable adult dogs.
Crates are a great management tool for new families, keeping puppy safe and out of trouble, but the new family can’t take advantage of crates and x pens if the puppy panics when placed inside.
Rook lounging in his crate, with attached x pen, during his transition week. Because Rook associated confinement with good things, he was easily able to relax when confined in his new home, right from the start.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your puppy and it’s future family is investing in creating a Positive Conditioned Emotional Response to being both crated and confined in an x pen. Both are tools your puppy family needs to use to manage their puppy’s behavior in the first hours, days, weeks, and months of it’s life. By taking some time to create a positive association with the crate, the puppy will be better able to self soothe and self calm when confined in a strange environment, because it views the crate as a source of comfort.
8 week old puppies relaxing during daily crate time, some napping, some chewing, all content.
Conversely, if your puppy has had rushed and forced confinement and so has formed at Negative Conditioned Emotional Response to confinement, this may express itself during transition stress as excessive vocalization, panic, refusal to enter the crate, or urinating/defecating when confined. While stress is a necessary part of any transition, distress is not, and can lead to panic and a less than ideal outcome.
If you want to learn about how we use choice and chews to condition puppies to love confinement read about it here!
Throw us a bone! This blog contains a few affiliate links. You pay the same, we get a little bit to fund our dog’s Kong hoard. Thanks!
Easy transitions can be as simple as clear instructions, a familiar item, and recommending the right toys. All of this can be achieved by having a few things in your send home packet, to help both your new puppy owners and your puppies. Here’s an outline of what we include in our puppy packs – this has evolved over the years with some hits and misses.
This is easy and something most breeders do anyway. By providing detailed dietary instructions, at least a week’s worth of the breeder’s diet, and instructions for well tolerated training bait and treats, the breeder can help ensure that the transition time isn’t complicated by unnecessary gastric upset.
Puppies experiencing GI upset may not be able to sleep through the night, may soil their crate, or have accidents in the house. Set your families up for success by guiding them on the importance of dietary consistency in both meals, enrichment, and training bait during transition.
2. Scented Items
Be sure to send a scented item home with each puppy; this can be a blanket, fleece toy, or even the puppy’s own crate/bed. By sending scented items home with the puppy, you provide a source of familiarity and comfort during transition.
We send home a toy and blanket that has been in with the litter for several days before departure. We also send a bandana that the mother wore.
Conversely, one breeder I know asks for a t-shirt, slept in one night by each member of the family, be sent a week before the puppy goes home. This family scented item is placed in the puppy area, or crate, for that week. This t-shirt is then sent home along with the puppy. What a great idea!
Fleece blankets and toys are great familiars to send home, but something as easy as this rubber back bathroom rug/crate pad work great. A blanket, pad, or rug can be placed right in the car when the puppy goes home.
We send home an assortment of pacifiers home with our puppies for several reasons. First, it makes the ride home much easier – the puppies have had some practice chewing in crates, as discussed in our Crate Conditioning blog, and it’s just simpler to send some home rather then expecting new owners to bring them along. Second, it gives the new owners some examples of pacifiers to use for their puppies, and a chance for the new owners to see the value in using them. Third, it makes managing the puppies much easier for the new owners, ensuring both the puppies and new owners have stress relief.
Even if you aren’t doing our crate conditioning protocol, you can often give very exciting chews to puppies who haven’t had this benefit and expect a slightly less distressing car or plane ride home. Instinctively enticing chews like raw bones, smoked bones, bully sticks, and edible dental-type chews may give some comfort to your puppies without the learning curve of food puzzles, food-stuffed toys, or snuffle mats. However, please review our blog on teaching puppies how to use pacifiers for your future litters.
Give your new family a bully stick, and you amuse their puppy for an hour. Teach them to stuff a Kong, and they can amuse their dog forever.
This puppy doesn’t need to learn to chew this patella, this is a naturally stress busting activity.
4. Ongoing Resources
Providing new puppy owners with troubleshooting is always hit or miss. Any information or support you give your new owners (both at pick-up and after) is like tech support. Sometimes this is pretty straightforward, but other times you can spend the first week after send home day answering the same big questions new (and often worried) pet owners will ask. Always treat this as a learning experience to plan what you need to educate owners on for your next litter – and better even is examining if you can do certain training or conditioning to better prepare your puppies. However there’s always going to be the same few issues new puppy owners face – no matter the work you do.
These big issues are house training, crate training, and biting/mouthing on people. There will be certain breed differences and breed specific issues, and you’ll have to either know these from experiences or learn from your puppy buyers. Your budget will be the limiting factor in what you include, but there’s no reason to fret that you can’t include a DVD set and a small library! Just one or two small books, or even just a collection of hand outs can make a huge difference. We’ve found that you can easily overface new owners with too much information.
Ongoing contact with your puppy owners is also a hugely important resource. We will (within reason) keep contact with clients to answer questions and give advice. It’s important to have boundaries with clients – if things aren’t an emergency, maybe a text or email could be useful instead of trying to schedule a phone consult. If things are getting complex, we will often refer clients to trainers – or let them pick on their own, of course.
Remember, the idea of puppy packs is to cut down on your work AND make the transition as smooth as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask clients what they found helpful, what they didn’t find helpful, and what issues they had in general with the transition.
Here’s a few affiliate links to the products we’ve found helpful!
It seems simple really, something that good breeders are already doing can play such a vital role in helping puppies thrive during transitions. Easing transitions through individual handling by familiar people, positive experiences in novel locations, and positive experiences with novel people.
Puppies as young as two weeks benefit from individual cuddle sessions.
1. Individual Handling = Attention, Treats, Fun.
As per the Puppy Culture protocol we follow, as soon as your dam will tolerate it, remove each puppy from the dam and litter for individual attention. Make some time for this each day if possible. Early on, this will be exclusively cuddling, brushing, and other form of petting, but as the puppy matures and becomes socially aware this should expand to include grooming, husbandry, and training, all taught and conditioned with high value food as well as play. Create a checklist, or use the Puppy Culture Workbook to ensure you rotate through each type of activity with each puppy.
2. Novel Locations= Attention, Treats, Fun.
As part of your Individual Handling, be sure to rotate through different locations. It’s tempting, and convenient, to simply remove a puppy and work in the living room, but make an effort to use every puppy safe room of your house, and even carrying a puppy outside to a front or back porch. Older puppies can be taken to your puppy safe yard, or even off property in a puppy stroller. If you are doing car conditioning, this counts as a novel location and individual attention too.
This puppy has been removed from the litter to play in a bedroom, learning early on that removal equals fun!
3. Novel People Equal Attention, Treats, and Fun.
Even though breeders often wait to introduce novel people until puppies are older, most breeders have a small group of family and close friends who drop by to visit puppies (using all appropriate bio hazard protocols). These visits should contain some individual handling of puppies, of course be sure your dam will tolerate this, and use proper management to ensure everyone is comfortable and safe. When your guests arrive, take a few moments to load everyone up with super yummy treats (assuming your puppies are eating and excited about food), give out age appropriate puppy handling instructions, and remove a single puppy from the litter for individual cuddles, treats and if enjoyed by the puppy, training and grooming. Two or three minutes is long enough for these individual sessions. After each puppy has had a turn, the litter can be released for a mass visit.
This puppy is meeting my mom for the first time, learning that being removed from the litter and meeting new people is awesome!
Something as simple as a few moments of individual attention, having fun in novel locations, having fun meeting new people as an individual puppy can have a lasting impression and help your puppies face future transitions with confidence.
*NOTE! Always supervise, manage, and control each socialization exposure of each puppy. Remember, Single Event Learning is real and any scary or traumatic experience during the CSP can have long lasting effects on the puppy’s behavior. Do you best to use Single Event Learning to the advantage, not detriment, of your puppies.
This puppy has learned to anticipate being removed from the litter and interacting with strangers as a positive experience—an association that traveled with her to her new home.