The Journey of Finn – Learning the Basics

Hello again!  We have spent the last week getting to know Finn and working on teaching him essential life skills.  My primary focus is on preventing problem behaviors later on.  Every week I see dogs that have serious behavior problems.  I am currently working with dogs that guard the food bowl, show aggression toward strangers, attack other animals in the home or spend most of the day hiding due to extreme fear, just to name a few.  In many cases, there is a lot we can do to address these problems and to substantially improve the life of both the dogs and their families.  But, in most cases, the dogs that show fear, aggression or anxiety, will always have lingering issues that have to be managed carefully and will always require maintenance. This has very real consequences for both the dogs and the people they live with and can be extremely stressful and heart wrenching.  And that doesn’t even include those that are not able to keep the dog and have to rehome it or have it euthanized.  The more I work with these families and their dogs, the more I feel we need to focus on prevention.  This blog is part of my effort to do just that.

Now that we’ve covered that sobering topic, I will move on to cute puppy things!  Here are some things I’ve learned about Finn, in no particular order.  He absolutely loves tug which I am so happy about..  In general, he settles very well.  If he is particularly excited and confined at the time because we can’t supervise him, he does protest a bit by whining and barking, but that only lasts for a minute or so before he settles or starts playing quietly with his toys.  The rest of the time, he usually settles down immediately.  He is a bit shy.  He needs time to take in his surroundings and observe before interacting – more on this later.  He can be very squirmy when he is restrained by his collar.  This is very common, but something we’ll need to work on.  Read on to see how I am working with him in each of these areas.

Tug and Play

I mentioned in my last post that I care a lot about play.  I also admit that it is not something I know a ton about, but I have been working very hard on changing that recently.  It’s not something that is emphasized much in pet dog training, though I am seriously considering adding it to our puppy classes.  With Finn, this is something I work on daily.  He arrived with a lot of tug drive (meaning he really enjoys playing tug), so I mostly just have to reinforce this by making it fun and playing frequently.  I use a variety of toys and focus on moving the toys AWAY from him, rather than in his face.  It’s also important to mirror their energy level.  So if they are very bold and excited, you can move more and be more energetic and excited.   If they are quieter and more timid about play, you also want to keep your energy level lower so you don’t interrupt them.  You also want to end the game when the dog is still very motivated to play.  Don’t play until they are no longer having fun.  If you have the opposite problem and your dog is getting TOO hyped up, do shorter play sessions, keep your  energy level lower and end the play session with some calm food training (like a stay or go to place).

Separation and Confinement

We are still working with Finn on teaching him to be alone.  If he is already tired, we can leave him for 30 – 60 minutes at a time and he has stayed relaxed (sleeping) and quiet.  We’ll be increasing that time this week. I have also been teaching him to enjoy his crate using Susan Garrett’s Crate Games.  This involves getting him in his crate (by tossing in food in the beginning) and then rewarding him for staying there while gradually increasing the distractions.  He is doing extremely well with this.  Usually if I walk near the crate, he will go in and sit down.  I can place a treat on the floor in front of the crate (very briefly) or walk just out of sight and he will stay in the crate with the door open.  I have not done this with toys yet as I don’t want to discourage him from playing with toys right now, even temporarily.  Once his toy drive is very well established, I will use toys as a temptation for leaving the crate and reward him for choosing to stay.

For the last week, when Finn settles into a down on his own, or is quietly entertaining himself in his x-pen, I will frequently praise him or go over and give him a treat or pet him.  This helps him learn that being calm and well behaved is a great way to get attention from me!  I do not do this every time, because it’s important that he learn to “self settle”, but I do it frequently – maybe half the time?  I can’t take full credit for this, though, because part of it is due to breeding as well as his individual temperament.  I also spend quite a bit of time and energy making sure he has plenty of enrichment – training time, play and toys – which also helps him settle when needed.


This is one of my primary concerns.  Finn was well bred and well socialized by the breeder, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to do.  Quite the contrary – I need to make a concerted effort to continue that socialization so that he is exposed to a variety of people, dogs and experiences on a regular basis.  This is very important for any dog, but it is especially important for him because I want him to be comfortable hiking, camping, going to festivals and fairs and going to dog shows.  He needs to be very comfortable with new experiences and a variety of people, noises, locations, etc.  As I mentioned above, he is a bit shy, so I am working extra hard on this.

Last Monday he had his first puppy kindergarten class (he is enrolled in our classes).  He was a little reserved when we first entered the building, but after 5 minutes or so settled in and worked very well with me on each of the exercises.  Same thing during puppy play – at first he hung back and bit and observed, but then he jumped right in and tussled with the other puppies.  On Wednesday he attended the puppy play group at Milton Manor that we supervise.  He was even bolder and more outgoing there.

In the pool at puppy play.

We’ve also had a number of people over to our house including five different children and several different adult women and men.  Today he will be meeting another friend and will also meet a few more adult dogs.  He is not fully vaccinated yet, so I won’t expose him to unknown dogs, but dogs owned by friends that I know are vaccinated are fine.  It’s also very important that he meet people outside our home so in addition to puppy class and play hour I took him next door to meet that family and their two young girls.

Yesterday he went to the vet for a “happy visit” which means he didn’t actually have an appointment, but just went there to get cuddles and treats.  After that I sat down with him outside a local grocery store and invited people to come up and pet him and give him treats.  Again, he was initially fairly worried (he hid behind me or sat next to me) but after a few minutes he started checking out the area and by the end of the 30 minute visit, he was walking up to strangers wagging his tail even if they didn’t have food.  It’s very important when they are hesitant or shy that you do NOT force them to check out the situation.  Give them time to take it in and venture out on their own.  Allow them to use you as a secure base.  You can use treats or toys to encourage them to check something out but if they are still interested, don’t push them.  Give them more time or ask for less.  I purposely choose a smaller grocery store (Fresh Market in Saratoga, for those that are local) so that there would be less activity and noise.  I plan on taking him out again several more times prior to 12 weeks (when the primary socialization period ends).  Until he’s fully vaccinated I will avoid areas that are frequented by dogs, such as busy downtown areas or parks, but there are plenty of other places I can take him (my next planned stop is the library where I expect to encounter plenty of children).  Even after 12 weeks, I will continue to take him out on a regular basis to continue the socialization – it’s just most effective prior to 12 weeks.

Leash Walking

I am just starting leash training with Finn.  The first step is to put on the leash and make it your job to keep the leash loose.  Just get your puppy used to having something dragging or moving along behind them.  If I want him to move toward me, I encourage him to follow, rather than pulling on the leash.  Otherwise, my job is to keep up with him to the leash doesn’t tighten up.  Once they’ve done this a few times,  you can start to teach them to keep the leash loose.  I will try to get some video of this for the next blog post.

Finn and Darwin

I am almost out of writing time (Finn is sleeping in his x-pen downstairs as I type this), but there is one more thing that deserves mentioned this week – the relationship between Finn and Darwin.  In my last post, I showed video of them playing a little on the first day, then mentioned that since that first day, Darwin had been a bit grumpy with him.  That behavior continued and although I wasn’t worried for Finn’s safety, Darwin was very stressed and his bark/snap corrections were becoming more frequent and more intense than I liked.  So a few days ago, I started saying “yes” and feeding Darwin every time Finn got in his face or went near him when he was resting.  I made sure Finn did NOT get food in this context, because I didn’t want to reinforce him for getting in Darwin’s face.  Since then, Darwin has become MUCH more tolerant of Finn and the negative reactions have gone down dramatically.  And yesterday, they played again – this time initiated by Darwin!


Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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