Second-hand dogs vs puppies – training time

Does it take longer to train a puppy or an older dog?

A client of mine asked this question and it made me stop and ponder and say well … it depends.

Puppies generally are pretty clean slates and so anything being taught can just be taught without having to un-train some habituated unwanted behavior, but they’re puppies and so are very creative and inquisitive and so can grow and try things and if you aren’t paying good attention or if you unintentionally reward behaviors you don’t really want they will come around to doing unwanted things.

That first couple of years is real important in the management and training department.  If you do your homework and know about stages in puppy development, training and management is intensive, but pretty cool and fruitful.

People who have started with puppies have that historical cute, cuddly and comparatively lovable picture to go back to when the going gets rough. They also expect the puppy to be puppy-ish. They know, if they have done their homework, what the pup’s parents are like, their pedigree and their accomplishments.

People who start with a second-hand dog may not have fond memories to draw from, but they have the idea of saving a life and the goal of getting a new friend and they know what the adult will look like because there he/she is.

Most of the dogs I see in the shelter are in the 6-months to 2-years zone and they are pretty rowdy and have little understanding of polite puppy manners, but many are house-trained. Someone started with them as puppies and wasn’t too successful or just let them do whatever, whenever without guidance, or just reprimanded when they saw them doing something ‘wrong’ and created an anxious, reactive, confused canine. There are also ones there that were just unlucky – find one of those and it may be easy-peasy.

Second-hand dogs – we’ve got three of them now. They all came with baggage that needed long-term management and concurrent training, but mostly they were already reasonably house-trained (not that they got free reign in the house when they arrived or for several months afterword). I picked dogs that were likely to do well with our lifestyle – we exercise and play with dogs multiple times daily and have things set up to work well with dogs, aren’t real worried about fur or dirt and have all the management pieces already in place and available.

If you’ve read some of my other posts you’ll notice that mostly the second-handers didn’t know how to be comfortable in crates, kennels or on leashes and so that training is a big part of the process of getting them to do well in this household. But it’s balanced by lots of play and activity and games that train the things I want and need them to know.

So some parts of the training lasted longer and were louder to get into place but maybe was less intensive than those first four weeks of puppy ownership when it’s like having a baby (they are a baby) and so the work with them is interfering with sleep.

Older dogs are quicker (very fast movement) and they have worries and habituated reactivity that many pups don’t. Many people who adopt like to have the sympathy factor, using whatever real or imaginary history to use to excuse the adopted dog’s behavior. And sure there is a very real possibility that they were abused. However, it doesn’t actually matter whether they inherited or environmentally got their fears or aggression. In order to have a good, happy life fears need to be minimized … it’s no good to be always afraid and excuses don’t minimize fears.

On fear (or fear-based aggression) it is easier to start earlier, which isn’t the option with an adopted dog, but confidence can still be built it just may not be as much as could have been. On the other hand, if I were presented with one or a litter of 7- or 8-week old pups who showed excessive fear of normal kinds of sound, people, objects I wouldn’t buy one as this would likely be an inherited and strong trait and unlikely to be grown/trained out.

I don’t want a stunted relationship with a dog, so choosing a dog that matches my lifestyle and expectations is really important, whether they are a pup or a second-hand pooch. And time to train is just that, there is no magic amount – it is what it is. If you want that canine companion of your (reality-based) dreams it takes as long as it takes.


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