English springer spaniel puppies bounded across the yard at Pine Shadows with all the energy and enthusiasm of young life.
For the people who shape their formative first weeks, these first steps are keys to ensuring a long-standing good relationship as puppies become adult dogs.
Mark and Sophie Haglin, owners at Pine Shadows near Brainerd, brought an early training aspect — imprinting — used with horses and incorporated it into their dog operation. The goal is to create a successful companion relationship, whether the dog is the family pet or a hunting dog, or most often a combination of the two.
It starts as soon as the puppies are born and is all about the touch, literally.
Joan Peterson held a puppy up behind its front shoulders letting its back feet dangle and worked to establish and hold eye contact. She held the puppy up until the little wiggling furry bundle relaxed in her hands.
Then the puppy was released to frolic with its litter mates.
Sophie Haglin lightly cupped a young puppy’s muzzle until the youngster stopped its attempts to chew and wriggle free. She said the puppies are counting too and after submitting for a few moments may start to struggle again, thinking they’ve been held or handled long enough. The trick for the human handler is to outlast that moment, whether it takes three minutes or 10 and let the puppy down when it has relaxed and given in. It’s a lesson in authority, as well as one steeped in practical uses for the family dog.
“If you lay a good foundation, they are so much easier to handle,” said Sophie Haglin.
Peterson laid puppies on their sides, massaging their little bodies from nose tip to hind leg, teaching them to relax. Massaging the dog on its sides is a different behavior model than a belly rub, which the dog initiates. Once the puppy is able to lay there without protesting or struggling on either side, it was released and praised.
If a dog is injured, especially when out hunting, this early imprinting effort lays the ground work for a dog that won’t panic when examined or should a cut need to be stitched in the field. In those cases, Sophie Haglin said minutes count and it’s vital to have a dog that won’t resist or struggle when handled. And it all begins early as puppies learn they are safe as they are handled from head to toe.
For the family pet, the early work creates a dog that isn’t worried about ears being touched or feet handled or mouth opened. That puppy becomes a dog that won’t react negatively when a child pulls a treat back from its mouth or when a bird is retrieved after a hunt or when a pill needs to be ingested.
Mark Haglin said a dog accepts the person as the authority who is providing good things for them. And, he said, the dog gains from a guideline for its behavior, benefiting both pet and handler. Puppies and children are similar in seeking behavior guidelines, Mark Haglin said.
He said the golden rule is to make the wanted behavior easy for the dog and make what isn’t desirable more difficult. The smarter puppies are often the more challenging and may take longer to go through the steps. Mark Haglin said the key for dog owners is not to stop too soon, giving the puppy or dog the upper hand.
Now several generations into the imprinting process, the Haglins said their customers readily recognized the difference in the dogs they were producing. They recommend dog owners continue the training by putting a rubber-backed rug on the washing machine and working the dogs on their sides before that effort is moved to the floor, where the dog may feel more comfortable to get away.
For owners of grown dogs, Sophie Haglin said its not true that old dogs can’t learn.
As an example, she said the counter to a dog that jumps on arriving guests is to put one foot on a dog’s leash, allowing them to sit or lay down but not jump. Learning those lessons can begin at any time, she said. But it may be better to start with a friend rather than the important dinner party. In the dog’s mind, the front door is opening to allow the arrival of a new person for play. Teaching accepted behavior allows the dog to be successful, making the home more enjoyable for the canine and his best friend.