Don’t hot house your puppy
Ah puppies, so much energy and excitement, especially if you’ve just chosen your service dog candidate. You know there’s so much for them to learn and you’re eager to train it all. I know this feeling well… well enough to know it’s a mistake. See, I did that with Honey, my former service dog. I wanted her to help me, and needed to teach her things. I always felt like there was a clock ticking and I needed to hurry up and get her trained. What followed was a level of frustration that wasn’t fair to either of us. What I needed to do was give her time to grow up.
We all know that kids need time to grow up. We don’t expect toddlers to drive cars. We don’t expect four-year-olds to write a dissertation. But, we forget puppies are babies of a different species. They come into our homes as tiny toddlers, knowing almost nothing about this world. If you rush training them, you run the risk of adding frustration into your relationship where trust could be. Because I was so eager to train Honey, I was often frustrated by her silly behavior. I forget she was a baby dog who needed to chase butterflies in the yard.
Honey grew up to be a fine service dog and devoted friend. However, I have always regretted not giving her time to just be a little baby dog before pushing her to learn service dog work.
I didn’t want to add frustration into my relationship with Noelle. I knew where I went wrong with Honey and didn’t want to make the same mistake.s So, for her first year, she was allowed to simply be a puppy. My only goal the first year was to get her used to the idea of training, which isn’t the same thing as real training. She learned how a collar felt. She learned what a leash was. We went to class to show her other dogs and how to be calm around them. But, I didn’t expect to teach her rigorous obedience, or proper service dog manners. Instead I focused on building our relationship.
We played together. We played hide and seek. We played in the snow. I taught her that I’m fun to be with. I taught Noelle that she can trust me when she’s unsure of things. I showed her that she was loved. These were the lessons I worked on the first year. That I’m the most special person in her world, and she’s my dog forever. I taught her to follow my lead. This was what mattered far more than teaching her to sit and stay, lie down, and behave in public.
When Noelle turned one, that’s when I began her service dog training. I introduced low blood sugar scent and rewarded her mightily for finding it. It was when she was one that we began going out in public on training missions. Because I waited, I have a deep bond with Noelle, and she has a deep bond with me. Because I waited she knows that when I say sit, I mean it, and she can sit and stay. Her brain has matured enough to handle learning the things I am teaching. She’ll turn two on Halloween, and will continue to grow even more between two and three.
If you have a service dog puppy, or any puppy, I encourage you to let your puppy be small. Let them shred cardboard boxes, run around with toilet paper streamers, frolic and play. Take them out into the world and show them things, bicycles, motorcycles, running children and crying babies. Let them see the world from the safety of your love and protection, because puppies are baby dogs, and babies need time to grow.