Catalyzing Engagement
Get the player to the puzzle

Cutting Edge



10 Lessons from 

Professor Puppy


← This is Tundra at seven weeks of age and just about ten pounds. →

I’ve lived with dogs for most of my life, but mostly as roommates. I footed the bill for groceries and rent, they snuffed up food crumbs and issued an occasional intruder alert. I never really put in the time, effort and commitment required to be a responsible dog trainer.

I work from home and spend a majority of my time around the house, so two years ago (after being dogless for half a decade) I decided that I would acquire and responsibly raise our family pet. My wife and daughter were on board in an instant, especially after being assured that the new pet would be solely my responsibility.

I would train the dog, keep it company (and vice versa) while forging a bond which would result in him being my loyal faithful companion who would alert the authorities should I be in peril. Well, at least he would bop me with his nose and stare at me mournfully when he needed things.

The first step was deciding on a breed. My goal was to train him, not to make the training difficult. So I did a little bit of research and found that Labrador Retrievers are one of the five easiest breeds to train because of their retention skills and basic docility. Other easier-to-train breeds included Poodles, Shepherds, Doberman’s and of course, your dog.

After a few unsavory interactions with international breeders, I found a sweet litter of American Labs two cities over and adopted 7- week old, 10 pound Tundra. He was distraught on the car ride home emitting constant whimpers and yowls. We attributed his distress to separation anxiety resulting from being removed from his litter but most likely he did not like the unfamiliar environment of the car ride. Regardless of cause we all felt like complete cads.

Once home the training began! First things first, my wife, daughter and I loved him, were affectionate with him, and spent time with him. That is the entire first step. Love your pet. We used his name constantly and before long he would respond to it on a regular basis. Howling and whimpering car rides slowly became quiet car rides which shortly turned into happily anticipated outings. We set up a kennel for him so that he would feel like he had a safe and sacred space while I set about house breaking him.

Housebreaking turned out to be simple exercise in patience and pattern recognition. When Tundra sniffed the carpet, he went outside. Any time I missed a sniff, I found a present. What felt like forever was really just a few weeks and he was a perfect housemate. He barked once at the back door to go in and out and rarely had any accidents. I wish I had taught him only to bark once, but it is a delightful coincidence; so far so good. He had taught me my first real lesson.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 1: Students do not always grasp an idea the first time. Patient iteration, repetition and observation will eventually result in success.

After he reached his “out of door” immunization milestones I was ready to begin the training in earnest! The world awaits, and I wanted to take him for a victory lap around the block and show him off to the neighbors. My lofty goal fell swiftly before the reality which was a humiliating strangling puppy drag half way down the block. No amount of coaxing, teasing, or cajoling could overcome the fact that little Tundie was terrified of his new environment and therefore incapable of complying with my request.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 2: Environment is everything. Students must be comfortable or they will balk at new ideas.

Several drag-walks later it occurred to me that I was asking too much of him for no reward. He might respond to incentives and smaller goals. Shortly thereafter I coaxed him about 10-15 feet down the sidewalk with a series of treats. This felt like a poor long term strategy, but it was all I had, so I persisted, imagining a bloated 300 pound puppy wheezing around the block. Fears aside I would offer Tundra a small treat (he did not care about the size of the treat, only that there was one) and he would lunge 5-10 feet toward a treat and then get carried the rest of the way around the block. I decided that the carry around the block would help him get used to the environment. May have been true. No idea.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 3: Use incentives to overcome fear of engagement, show that the environment is safe.

My growing concerns over canine obesity abated as the “lunges toward treats" went from 5 feet to half a block. Half-blocks slowly became whole blocks. Eventually “taking Tundra for a drag” became a food-less journey which had me bracing my feet against a taut pulled leash; a new problem as 10 cute pounds had already become 30 significant pounds. The dragger had become the draggee.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 4: Habit becomes its own incentive. Curiosity will replace rewards as motivation.

I will not get into all the particulars of leash training a dog here, rather point out that with a few key commands which make 90% of a normal dog behavior manageable. These commands include, but are not limited to; COME, SIT, STAY, and NO.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 5: Redirecting unwanted behavior is more effective than punishing it.

Imagine the usual dog behavior issues; running away, jumping on new people, lunging at other dogs, getting into inappropriate food, straining at the leash – nearly all of these can be redirected if you establish this four word vocabulary with your dog. How? Practice it every day for 18 months. Sinks right in.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 6: Practice basics skills every day (over time) to ingrain them and make them automatic.

The road to teaching my now 50 pound bundle of fur to respond to these commands was not smooth or intuitive on my part. This is because of the way I teach. My modus operandi is to outline goals for the students, show them where to tools are and let them experience their way toward mastery, skill acquisition etc. This method not only sounds great, but it often is, however it assumes that the students have a base level of knowledge. In hindsight, many of my students often lacked base understandings and it was a source of both our frustrations in my course.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 7: Never assume your students have base knowledge or skills, if you want them to know something, anything; you have to be prepared to teach it.

Here is a snapshot of my early interactions with Tundra (before he taught me better).

“Hey Tundra! Hey boy! Come over here, yeah, right here! Sit next to me! Next to me! Good boy! Come on! Who’s a good boy? Come on, Tundra!” I cringe now. Calling his name directs his attention to me, but if a command comes right afterward, the two ideas get mushed together. Then I gave him a complex command. COME, SIT, and HERE. These are separate commands. They must be taught separately. Completed separately and executed separately. This specific example doesn't even take into account all of the body language and hand gestures which were likely at odds with my words and tone.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 8: Break complex actions down into base components. Then teach each component by itself.  Everything you say matters. The learners are listening.

Then we reached a liberating point in his development at around 18 months. I left him out of his crate for short periods of time while we were out of the house. He did not get into trouble. By gradually extending these periods of unsupervised freedom we quickly stopped using the crate for behavior containment and he eventually stopped using it at all. His crate (safe place) had become the house. The crate (neatly collapsed and leaned against the wall) now lives in our garage awaiting the next generation of puppy.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 9: Constantly re-assess your students’ actual needs. Don’t just do what you've done out of habit. Necessary day 1 rules can eventually stifle potential.

I live in southern California which means it only rains in the winter. During Tundra’s second winter he constantly came in from the back yard with muddy feet. Chasing him around with a towel and muttering long strings of expletives about muddy carpets did not help anyone, but the application of what he already knew turned out to be an elegant solution. Once I regained my composure, the calm application of SIT. LAY DOWN. ROLL OVER. STAY elegantly provided me with uncontested access to Tundra’s muddy feet. A few swipes of the towel and voilà, no more muddy floors.

PROFESSOR PUPPY’S LESSON 10: Scaffold. Build on what the know to generate new behaviors, skills and outcomes.

Constantly reevaluate your content delivery. Find ways to refresh your audience. 

Every morning Tundra enjoyed a socializing trip to the dog park where he quickly evolved from submissive puppy to fair minded alpha male. Sometimes he appeared to fade in the afternoons, so, using his basic commands I had him STAY and  watch me hide treats all over the living room. Once “FREE”-ed he hunted the small treats down by memory and smell, perking up and appearing once again engaged by the world around him.

Two year old Tundra is now 95 pounds of muscle, bone and happiness. He is good with kids, inspires educational blog posts and available to teach professional development sessions every other Tuesday.

              This is Tundra at 2  ↓                                            95 pounds                                       The dog equivalent of an adult. ↓