3 Principles for Building a Solid Foundation with Your Puppy
The guide to build your very own canine athlete.
By Talmage Smedley
The relentless cold and darkness forced me through the back door of my home. Mildly frustrated, I removed my coat and gloves. My relationship with the winter months is one of love and hate. I hate that it gets dark so early and limits the amount of work I can do. I love that it gets dark so early and gives me a much-needed break from the long hours I work in the summer. This particular evening I decided to use a bit of my discretionary time to relax and watch a movie. Sitting back into the recliner and thumbing through my movie options I came across the iconic sports movie, Hoosiers. It was like seeing an old friend and I had to stop for a visit. The movie is about a small town basketball team and its unlikely journey to the state championship. I had seen the movie a number of times before and each time I had found it inspiring. This time, however, was a bit different. My attention was drawn away from the main plot and instead focused on the changes I saw the individuals in the movie go through. I saw disrespectful young men with no guidance choose to follow a demanding coach with exacting rules. I witnessed their play go from disorganized and sloppy to well-structured and precise. I then watched as they rose to levels and went places that they may not have even dreamed of before. As I recognized the process they were going through, I marveled at the parallels between their journey and the journey I have traveled with dogs many times before. It may surprise you to see that the principles that created change for the characters in the movie will also create change in your journey with a new puppy. Let’s take a look at these pillars.
Establish & Create Leadership
When Coach Dale met the team, he immediately established rules and boundaries. In an effort to help his players learn to pass the ball effectively, Coach Dale created a “four passes before you shoot” rule. In the first game, one of the players became frustrated with the rule. In response to his frustration, he began shooting at will. Coach pulled him from the game and had the remaining boys play with only four players on the court. By doing so, Coach sent the clear message that his rules were non-negotiable. I noticed that in the next game the boys all played with a greater effort to follow the coach’s direction. As a result, the team began winning. The boys’ desire was to play and win basketball games; through this experience they learned that disobedience resulted in lost game time and lost games. They also learned that, in contrast, obedience increased game time as well as wins.
By definition, leading requires followers. I have found that the most devoted followers don’t follow out of a fear of consequences. They follow because they believe that by doing so they will be able to get what they are looking for, or as I like to say, their dreams will come true. I believe that great leadership in both people and dogs is contingent on the ability to help individuals achieve their dreams. Our dogs all have “dreams.” Their dreams for the most part are quite simple. They consist of fun, companionship, affection, exercise, food, and going out to use the bathroom. If we can help our puppies and dogs realize that these desires happen as a result of their obedience and behavior, they will develop a greater motivation to follow our lead.
Teach the Fundamentals
When Coach Norman Dale arrived for the first day of practice he found the temporary coach, George, running a scrimmage. George stated that he figured they would scrimmage for twenty minutes, take a 10-minute break, then scrimmage for another 20 minutes. Coach Dale had a different plan. He had the boys work on drills to improve their ability to dribble, pass, run, and shoot. Throughout the movie, reference is made to the importance of these “fundamentals.”
When it comes to our puppies, it’s important that we establish an ability to communicate with them. Most of the problems I help people with exist because of a lack of communication. Often clients can communicate the problem to me, but lack the ability to communicate with their dog. It’s quite easy to come up with a solution for their problems; however, communicating that solution to the dog is more difficult. Creating an ability to communicate with our dogs is vital to having a successful relationship.
At T’s Doghouse, we believe that basic communication with a dog should include the ability to ask the dog to sit, to lie down, to get up on things and get off of things, to walk on a loose leash, to come when called and to move away when asked. In addition, we need the ability to let the dog know when it is doing the right thing and when it is doing the wrong thing. This is accomplished by creating marker words or sounds. I refer to these as positive and negative markers. We teach these things to our puppies with three lines of communication: visual, verbal, and physical. Teaching these lines of communication, and using them consistently, teaches a puppy to look to humans for guidance and leadership. It literally changes the way a puppy thinks. We refer to this as “the shaping of the mind.” These basic fundamentals will be used throughout the life of our pets. We can begin teaching these to our puppy the day we bring it home.
Helping Unfamiliar Situations Feel Familiar
One of my favorite scenes takes place when the team arrived at Butler Fieldhouse for the state championship game. As the team walked into the enormous building, Coach Dale took them to the basketball court. He got all his players’ attention and they began to take measurements of the court. They discovered that the basket was the same height as their basket at home. The foul line was the same distance from the baseline as it was at home. There may have been more seats in the stands but the game was still played on the same size court. The coach did this to add a feeling of familiarity to the unfamiliar setting. This is when the team really came together. The situation melted away and all that mattered was each other and the game they played so well together. They showed that they could play anywhere, against any opponent.
For a young pup, the world is constantly changing. Everything is new and unknown. I have found that as I teach the pup basic communication skills and then implement them in new and unfamiliar settings, I can help the dog become confident regardless of the surroundings. I act as the constant and familiar anchor for the pup, anywhere we go. By teaching the pup how to gain rewards, I create the ability to turn a potentially stressful situation into a fun outing filled with rewarded interactions with me. The more the pup focuses on and follows me, the less it will worry about the unfamiliar things in the changing environment.
What an amazing experience it must have been for Coach Dale, his players, and the fans. Coach Dale established himself as a leader, taught them the fundamentals of the game, and helped them experience amazing new opportunities. Together they took a journey to the State Championship! Lives were forever changed for the better.
Each time a young puppy leaves my kennel with a new owner I think of the journey they are embarking on. I know there will be many happy times, some frustration, and sometime in the future there will be an ending. These relationships don’t last forever. However, between the pick-up and the inevitable end are the dreams—and those dreams belong to you. It’s your chance to establish yourself as a leader, to teach, and to go where you and your puppy have only yet dreamed of going.