Picking a Puppy for Obedience

By Jeannine Rash

Let’s start at the beginning – picking a puppy for obedience. Make a list to give to your selected breeder with what you MUST have and what you can live without. At the top of your MUST HAVE list should be a dog who makes lots of eye contact and is very interested in people, not just other dogs. You want a puppy who is really interested in working with you. You should also request a dog with a well balanced body and nice front and rear. This will make it easier for your dog to sit straight and jump well. Ask for a dog with good length of neck to facilitate attention at heel. Another essential is a dog with self confidence. The last thing you need is a puppy that is afraid of its own shadow! Many breeders want to give you dogs that can’t make it in the breed ring. Sometimes these dogs are suitable, but many problems that keep a dog from being a champion are also undesirable for an obedience dog. When making your list, also decide which faults you would be flexible on such as size, color, head markings, tail set or gender of the pup. These things shouldn’t affect your dog’s working ability and are a matter of personal taste.

Many obedience competitors with large breeds stress getting a puppy at 7 weeks of age. I do not think this is at all necessary or even desirable in toy breeds. First of all a reputable breeder doesn’t let a pup go this early. Pups this young are still so small and immature and in need of special care. In my opinion there just isn’t enough information to make a choice on a very young pup and so much can still change. The earliest age I would purchase a puppy would be at 12 weeks of age. As long as the breeder is doing a good job socializing the puppy, I would consider getting an older puppy or maybe even a young adult. The important thing is the dog’s potential. If it shows a lot of promise, take it!

The main goal in puppy training should be to teach the dog that learning new things is fun. Work hard on teaching your puppy to tug on and retrieve all different toys. Start at home, and then play at quite, new locations. Later, progress to playing at matches and then at trials. If your pup is reluctant to play with you, there are several things you can try. First, you might try buying a toy “rat” which is a plastic squeaky toy covered with real rabbit’s fur. My dogs LOVE these above all other toys. However, be sure to only allow the puppy to play with this toy when YOU are playing with him. These toys can be easily pulled apart and swallowed which can be a very serious health concern. Hold the rat by the tail and wiggle it. Briefly tease your dog then let him get it. Keep the play close to you. You want the dog to be involved with you when you play. When you decide the pup is ready to retrieve the rat, start by throwing the toy only a very short distance. Use your voice to encourage him while you “bounce” his body up and towards the rat. Meanwhile, you run ahead past the toy and back up only a couple of steps encouraging your pupil to bring the rat to you. When the dog gets to you, “trade” for either a piece of food or for another rat. This is an easy step that should be the precursor to the usual retrieve where the handler throws the toy and the dog brings it back. Tie a light leash to any soft toy and teach your dog to tug on it. The leash allows you to keep your hands farther away from the toy so puppies aren’t as intimidated by your presence. Let the puppy “win” often. Remember to keep sessions short and to stop before the dog has had enough. Always leave him wanting more!

Other important skills include teaching your puppy to enjoy being handled and positioned, to sit quietly in his crate, to play while wearing a leash and to get used to walking on a leash and getting mild pops to change direction. The pup needs to learn the skills it will need to relax and have fun when training and showing. My own list also includes jumping up to your hand for food, following food with his head up for a few steps, twirling to the right and left, speaking on command (this REALLY helps a dog come out of himself when nervous) and a recall to the handler, ending with the dog jumping up to take food from the handler’s mouth. Also work on sit, down and stand with one hand holding the food while the other molds the pup into the perfect position; such as tucked in back paws and squared front feet on the sit.

On the subject of treats, remember your Papillon puppy is very small so you will have to make sure you feed only a small amount of nutritious “treats”. If I need my puppy to SEE a large treat to keep him interested, but don’t want him to eat much, I take a piece of chicken about 1″ long and 1/2″ wide and use a knife to score the food about 1/4″ from the end. Hold the treat so the dog can see it all, then move your fingers lower when he is to take a bite. This will allow the dog to see the big piece, but only pull off a small one. I never used mass produced treats, but opt instead for pieces of chicken, turkey, or beef that I cook myself and drain the fat from. If you do use cheese and or hot dogs, don’t give them much. These could easily cause diarrhea in puppies.

Keep in mind that as your puppy learns there will be a time, usually about 5 weeks after he begins learning something, when your pup may regress and will act like he never knew how to do the skill. RELAX, it is just a learning plateau. The skill is going from short term to long term memory and will return shortly. Go back a few steps and help your puppy succeed.

Remember to keep training light and fun and to proceed slowly. It isn’t a race to see how fast you can teach the exercise. The important thing is to teach your pup a solid foundation, so when your dog is ready to show he will perform with speed, attitude and self confidence. Let your puppies be puppies. Your dog will have many years to achieve all your goals. Give him time to mature and have many life experiences before ever thinking about showing. The last thing you should do is rush him. Build a strong relationship and a solid foundation and it will serve you well.