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SIMPLIFIED: The Puppy Training Study

The studies performed by the Center for Canine Behavior Studies are filled with an extensive amount of statistics and science-based language. A guest contributor, Robin Grimm, has joined CCBS to help translate our important study results into an easier-to-read version below.

Few people would argue – and studies support – that dog owners who enlist the help of trainers to teach them how to reinforce desired behaviors and suppress unwanted behavior through structured lessons have better adjusted adult dogs. Additionally, studies have shown that the optimal age for a puppy to join a household whether through breeder or rescue is at eight weeks – the age when bonding and emotional attachment to humans occurs. This is known as a primary socialization period and lasts until three months of age. Dogs, however, have a secondary period of rapid learning – and that lasts typically to six months – and even, some believe, to nine months.

Of the five canine life states, the 0-12 weeks period is thought to be the most influential for brain development and long-term social and behavioral resiliency. Dogs who are improperly socialized during these periods often experience neophobia (persistent fear of anything new) and poor decision making. Additionally, these dogs grow up with more incidence of fear and avoidance of environmental stimuli which can negatively impact future training. Yet, while most all agree in the importance of socialization, there is less concurrence on exactly what age is best to start structured training – and whether certain adult behaviors are better curbed in dogs that are trained in the first three months as opposed to those in the fourth – or up to six months. Often, particularly with rescue, puppies don’t reach their final destination until they are close to six months given the process of rescue, foster, and transport. Further, some breeders prefer to place puppies closer to twelve weeks than eight. Are dogs who find their homes after those twelve weeks – and thus start training later at greater risk for less successful long-term results? A recent study by Nicholas Dodman, Ian Dinwoodie, and Vivian Zottola seeks to answer this question.

The resulting article, An Investigation into the Impact of Pre-Adolescent Training on Canine Behavior, shares the findings of a study conducted of 1023 dogs based on surveys provided from 641 owners. To analyze the age-related success of training, the research breaks behaviors down to 12 specific “negative” behaviors:

  • Aggression

  • Compulsion

  • Coprophagia (eating feces)

  • Destruction

  • Escaping/running away

  • Excessive barking

  • Fear/anxiety

  • House soiling

  • Hyperactivity

  • Mounting/humping

  • Problematic jumping

  • Rolling in repulsive materials

The article also addresses ancillary findings regarding aggression and anxiety related to age of acquisition regardless of training – i.e., unstructured socialization.

Another goal of this study was to determine if reward-based training – allowing the freedom to make mistakes without fear – had a significant long-term impact. References to positive training methods assume techniques such as reward-based operant conditioning, counterconditioning, desensitization, shaping, and luring.

Two types of learning occur for puppies in household settings. First is general unstructured puppy play and socialization. Second is structured training. Research shows that puppies who have only puppy socialization alone had less success with command responses than those who had structured training. Generally, regardless of whether structured or unstructured, socialization prior to 6 months of age significantly lowered problem behavior scores. But for those puppy owners who choose to employ structured techniques or are considering the age puppy they might like to bring into their homes, a question looms as to whether that structured training is significantly more successful if occurring prior to three months. This study aimed to determine the varying success of training prior to three months, at four months, and up to six months.

The survey was designed to be a retrospective assessment by dog owners with questions regarding pre-adolescent training protocols and current behavior issues. Basic questions also included the age of dog acquisition, the current age, sex, and neuter status. Of the total dogs represented by surveys, 91% had at least one behavioral problem. The overall percentages of those problems breakdown as follows (noting that some dogs displayed more than one problem):

  • House soiling – 78%

  • Fear/anxiety – 70%

  • Aggression –54%

  • Rolling in repulsive materials – 42%

  • Coprophagia – 37%

  • Compulsion – 25%

  • Escaping/running away – 22%

  • Problematic jumping-22%

  • Excessive barking – 21%

  • Mounting/humping – 19%

  • Destruction – 13%

  • Hyperactivity – 11%

Of the 1023 dogs represented in the survey, 48% were sent for structured training sessions at 6 months or younger. The balance who did not have such training served as the control group. Of the dogs who did go to training, 47% started in the 1–3 month range, 26% at four months, and 24% in the 5-6 month range. The balance did not provide a specific start age. Regarding the type of training, 87% of the dogs who attended early age training were trained through reward-based systems with the balance of surveys indicating some form of punishment or “tough love.” Further – and somewhat paradoxically, 36% of the dogs were reported to have been trained with at least one type of punishing restraining device – even if part of a reward –based program.

Overall, this study had two primary goals – to investigate the potential effects of puppy training on subsequent development in three different age groups (1-3 months, 4 months, and 5-6 months) and to compare positive reward-based to punishment-based techniques. Interestingly, while most professionals advocate for early training to coincide with the sensitive period of learning (i.e., 1-3 months), this study did not show any difference between subsequent behavioral effects when comparing dogs across the identified age groups. However, against the control group of non-trained dogs, training at any point at six months of age or less, there was a lower incidence of aggression, compulsive behavior, excessive barking, and destructive behavior. Possibly, the reason these particular behaviors were identified as most impacted by early training may be that these dogs were already showing signs of such behavior and were taken for training for that purpose. However, more likely is that the odds of developing the behavior was reduced because of the training they received – not because that specific behavior was being addressed in training. This assumption is rooted in the fact that these particular behaviors do not normally manifest at six months of age or less or, in cases like destruction or excessive barking, are often seen as “normal” early on in a puppy’s life. These behaviors typically take more time to develop at the problematic level. The high incidence of house soiling seems to be the anomaly, but that may result from the fact that house soiling may be the reason they were brought in for training – and may have been a misinterpretation of the question regarding when the behavior started.

Regarding the type of training, most people identified their training choice as reward based – though of those owners who claimed to have used reward based, 28% also employed devices that are punitive. It is likely that reduced odds of aggression also correlate with owners who continued to practice what they were taught in training classes. It also may be safe to assume that the puppies who are more playful and engaged tend to be more trainable – and are less likely to be aggressive in their nature. Further, encouraging that playful behavior through reward-based training appears to result in less later-in-life aggression. To support this, increased aggression and excitability are more noted in dogs who had punishment as training. The same holds true for adult fear.

Some ancillary findings resulted with this study. For example, males, most of whom were neutered, had reduced odds of displaying aggression – which varied from other studies, where male dogs regardless of neutering status were more aggressive than females. This may be because of the large number of participants who engaged their dogs in puppy training during the first six months. Male dogs also had reduced odds of compulsive behavior. Interestingly, this mirrors human behavior where OCD tends to be greater in woman than in men. This does contrast, however, with prior canine studies where sex differences were not noted for this behavior or, in some studies, where males displayed a higher incidence. Coprophagia did not vary by sex but had twice the odds in neutered dogs of either sex. Regarding destructive behavior, puppies overall who were acquired prior to 12 weeks showed reduced odds of adult destructive behavior. This is possibly a result of the hyper-attachment which may be more likely in dogs whose life is disrupted by late placement or shelter adoption. Escaping behavior was twice as likely in neutered dogs. However, it is possible that some of the dogs were neutered because of this behavior – leaving us with a “chicken and egg” question as general roaming is often perceived to be reduced by castration. Puppy training does seem to be helpful for excessive barking in most dogs. Positive methods which focused on rewarding silence rather than punishing barking had the best success. Neutered dogs had three times the likelihood of developing into fearful adults. This correlates with other recent studies and may result from the presence of female and male hormones being known to facilitate boldness and reduce anxiety. One area that was not at all impacted by age of acquisition, sex, neuter status, nor attendance at puppy training was that of hyperactivity. It is possible that such Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) type behavior depends on a classical gene-environment interaction – rendering it immune to training techniques. Humping and mounting behavior was clearly benefitted by training regardless of the neutering status. It may be that humping and mounting – often linked to aggressive traits – may have been reduced as a result of the successful reduction in odds of adult aggression. Finally, rolling in repulsive materials is much more influenced by sex and neutering factors than anything else in this study, but other studies have shown the paradox where neutered dogs showed a greater incidence rather than ours which showed non-neutered dogs displaying this behavior more.

One side finding was that the older the dog is upon acquisition by the owner, the less likely the owner is to take the dog to training. It may be that owners are now more keenly aware of the importance of puppy training – so are attending in disproportionately increasing numbers - and the growing availability of such classes.

The most important take-away from this study is that dogs who had pre-adolescent training were less likely to have aggression, compulsive behavior, destructive behavior, and excessive barking compared to the control group. Other factors such as frequency of attendance, the age within pre-adolescence of commencing training, and the devices employed did not have a significant impact on the outcome. Finally positive reinforcement was particularly successful with reducing adult aggression incidents. Critical for puppy owners to consider is not whether to engage the puppy in training at three under three months, four months, or up to six months, but to ensure that it happens during any part of that pre-adolescence and does so with a reward-based methodology. Perhaps, as awareness of this grows, we will see a smaller number of dogs turned in to shelters for dangerous or destructive behaviors.

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