Introduction: Advanced Beginnings

When it comes to getting your service dog started off the right foot, there is a concept I learned during a five day training seminar with the amazing trainers at Service Dogs Inc in Texas, called Advanced Beginnings.

What this concept teaches us, is that we can create advanced learners by really capitalizing on early training sessions.

Training a service dog is a lot like building a house, you need to put the foundation down before you can build walls or add a roof.

A lot of people think that basic obedience is the foundation, but here’s a secret for you. It’s not.

Focus so that your dog can work around distractions, confidence and calmness in new environments,  susceptibility to reinforcement, and a solid understanding of your training system. This is the foundation.

We’ve put together a free mini course on Advanced Beginnings which you can get access to by clicking here.

In our program, the beginning of a puppy’s training isn’t really about teaching him a certain list of behaviors, that’s more like building walls (and those go up after a foundation).

The first month of our training program is about turning puppies into the kind of learner that make good service dogs.  We want to turn them into advanced learners. 

What’s an advanced learner?

  • They understand your training system,recognize when you’ve increased your criteria, attach cues to new behaviors quickly,  and are easily reinforced with all kinds of things (no picky eaters here or food dependent dogs here).
  • They make good choices with out being asked.
  • They are confident, focused and calm.
  • They want to train and they are good problem solvers.

They are the kind of dogs that make training look and feel like magic.

What all this means is that this month is more about HOW we train than it is about what we train.

So, in your service dog’s early training sessions, you want to focus on five main things:

  1. Teaching your dog how your training system works
    Does he need to know how to follow a lure?  Does he need to know what the clicker is? Does he need to know how to offer behavior? Does he need to know how cues work?
  2. Socialization and focus: Which we lump together because what good is a well “socialized” puppy if they can’t also focus around distractions.We spend a lot of time teaching our puppies to be confident, calm, non-aggressive and focused around new people, new animals, and in new environments.
  3. Self Control so that our puppies can control themselves and don’t always have to be told what to do.
  4. Our dog’s susceptibility to reinforcement, meaning teaching our puppies to trust us and enjoy being with us AND to be easily reinforced, because that’s really what trainability is. A very trainable dog is just a dog that is very easily reinforced. We want our puppies to work for all kinds of reinforcers including dog food, treats, attention, toys, and anything else we can think of.
  5. Our Relationship.  Our relationship with our dogs is hugely important to us.  The stronger our relationship the better their training will go.

The behaviors we teach aren’t important; they are just the vessel for teaching these five concepts, and EVERY SINGLE thing we teach our puppies works on not just one of these things at a time, but two or three things at a time.  Check out Drake’s first training session to get a feel for how this looks:

Chapter #1: Training Systems

Our training system revolves around clicker training, so we get a lot of questions about clicker training, and I’ve included an ebook on clicker training in this lesson that will give you more information on it.  But, our training program pretty much revolves around clicker training, and heres why.

While we don’t always use a clicker we are always using the principles involved, so we want to make sure that our dogs have a solid understanding of the system before we do anything else.

I haven’t always used the clicker.  In fact, the first few years I was training dogs I used a lot of punishment.  But, then about 10 years ago I learned to use the clicker, and I never put it back down.

Clicker  training helps take the guess work out for the dog, it speeds up learning, and becomes a means of clear and concise communication between you and your dog.  I give clicker training all the credit for the speed and ease with which our service dogs learn even the most complex tasks.

As I’ve already mentioned, WHAT we teach during the first 30 days isn’t nearly as important as HOW we teach it.  Yes, I need to teach these puppies to sit, stay, come, and look at me.  But the process of how they learn those things is FAR more important in these early training sessions.

In these early sessions I want them to learn how clicker training works so that they can learn quickly throughout the rest of their career.

This means the behaviors we teach during their first 30 days are simply the vessel for teaching the puppy how the clicker works.  You could just as easily use roll over, shake, and spin in a circle AS LONG AS you are teaching them in a way that will help your dog over the long run.

For example.  If your in a new town and you need to get to the store, you could just follow someone there.  It would get you to the store and it would get you there quickly.  However, you’d be so busy following the car in front of you that you probably won’t remember much about the route you took to the store, how to get back to your hotel, or how to get to the store in the future.

On the other hand, you could get out a map and figure out your route.  Then watch all the street signs on your way to the store.  Sure it was a lot more work, and it definitely took longer, BUT you’d be far more prepared tonavigate the new city on your own the next time.

Dog training is the same way. I might be able to teach a behavior faster with one method, but it will that method help my dog later when we are trying to teach complex behaviors?

As mentioned earlier, I have included our clicker training ebook in this lesson, which will walk you through how we introduce the clicker to our puppies.

But even if you’re using a different training system, just take a step back and think about what your dog needs to learn if he is going to truly understand your system.  Because you can’t really teach your dog anything if he doesn’t understand the system first.

For example:

  • If you plan on using luring to teach sit, the first thing your dog needs to know is how to follow a lure.  Some dogs do this naturally, but a lot don’t.  That means that if you are planning on using luring with your dog you may want to spend a training session just teaching him to follow the treat.
  • If you plan on using shaping to teach a task when your puppy is older, spend time NOW teaching him how shaping works.  Shape tricks, shape the dog bed, shape ANYTHING.  Just teach him shaping now, don’t wait.  The same goes for any training tool or technique you’ll need later for complex tasks.
  • We use capturing to teach our puppies to sit (an exercise you can find inside the clicker training ebook).  We could probably teach a puppy to sit faster using a lure. But, we don’t use luring much in our program, we use shaping and clicker training.Capturing may be slower, but it will teach our puppies how the clicker works, which is far more valuable in the long run.  If you use a lot of luring, then you may choose to lure a sit as a way to teach your puppy about luring in general.

Step back and think about the training methods you plan on using:

  • What tools or techniques will you use?
  • How will you make sure your dog understands those tools or techniques BEFORE you try and teach him something?
  • And most importantly.  Think about the tasks you need to teach later, what training methods will be needed for those tasks?  Shaping?  Luring? Targeting?  Then now is the time to start teaching your dog how those methods work.

Chapter #2: Socialization and Focus

As I mentioned, we lump socialization and focus into one category, because teaching your dog to focus in new environments is a HUGE piece of socialization, and it’s not just for puppies either.  Adult dogs can benefit greatly from a well thought out socialization plan.

Everyone seems to know socialization is important, but start asking people what socialization is and you’re likely to get varying answers.

  • It’s introducing a puppy to places, people, and environments.
  • It’s about getting the puppy used to things.
  • It’s about making the puppy comfortable around different people and dogs.

All of these things are certainly a part of socialization, but they are only part of a larger picture.

Socialization in people can be defined as: a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position.

For human children, socialization is about learning to live in their society.  It’s about language skills, cultural habits, prejudices, and so much more.  But what about socialization in puppies?

I like Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s definition in her book on puppy socialization “Social, Civil and Savvy” in which she says socialization is “the acquisition of cultural habits and social communication to equip an individual to live in society.”

This means, that socializing your service dog puppy is about more than exposing him to as many people, places, and things as you can think of. Socialization about setting up behaviors, habits, and communication skills he will use for the rest of his life.

Proper socialization can help your dog be less fearful, make him calmer, and even improve his learning and memory skills.  Socializing your puppy is your opportunity to teach him to be calm, focused, and confident in new environments.

Your puppy has a prime socialization window that ends around 16 weeks.  It’s during that time that he is learning to categorize the world into categories: safe vs dangerous and normal vs abnormal.

This is the time you get to define what is “normal” for your puppy and set up habits and behaviors that will stick with him for the rest of his life.  This is also the time you get to teach your puppy skills like focus, self control, and confidence so that he can walk into new environments and do his job as an adult.

Socialization is something that should be thought out and performed with intention, which is exactly what I’ll talk about next week.  And, don’t worry if your dog is already older than 16 weeks, even an older dog can get all the same benefits with a well thought out socialization plan.

The routines we teach during socialization will be the things our puppies consider normal as they grow up so, we should think carefully about what we want our puppies to learn.

Let’s think about what we want “normal” to look like for our adult service dogs.  The long-term goal is for you to end up with an adult service dog that can walk into any environment and ignore the sounds, smells, people, and animals.  The idea is to have a service dog that can ignore even the craziest distractions, walk nicely on a leash, and listen to your cues.  So let’s set that up now.

Let’s build a puppy that while confident is also good at ignoring things, let’s build a puppy that walks well on a leash, ignores distractions, and focuses on you.

This means that we have to spend at least as much time teaching our puppies to ignore people as we do letting them greet people.  But really, the ratio should probably be more like 90 to 10.  Ninety percent of the time our puppies should ignore people, 10% of the time we’ll let them say hello.

Teaching our puppies what normal is also means teaching them to walk nicely on a leash from day one. I know that sounds like “training” and not “socialization,” but the truth is that there is a lot of overlap between the two.  If we want to teach our puppies what normal looks like, we need to spend time training.

So how exactly do we do this?

First, we teach our puppies to offer us their attention AND to walk nicely on a leash before we go out to socialize for the first time.  The puppy doesn’t need to be perfect, but he needs to have a basic understanding of those two things.  Generally, this means we’ve done about two or three training sessions before our first socialization trip.

Second, we want quality over quantity when it comes to our socialization.  Puppies have very short attention spans, so we have to work within that.  It is MUCH better for our puppies to spend five minutes at the park where they walked well on a leash and ignored people than to spend 20 minutes at the park, but have the last 15 minutes be a free for all.

We want to build good habits now, and that means working within the puppy’s attention span.

Generally speaking, when we take a young puppy for socialization the whole trip may only last 5-10 minutes.  But, during that time they probably received a whole cup of dog food (or better treats if that’s what’s needed to keep their attention).

Socialization is so important that we took the socialization lesson, filled with video examples of us socializing our puppies, straight from our Online Academy and put into our free Advanced Beginnings mini course.  You can access the mini course by clicking here.

Chapter #3: Impulse Control

The word impulsive can be defined as “acting without forethought.”  In dogs this type of acting without thinking first or the inability to resist impulses or temptation would be big a big problem for a service dog.

Service dogs need to be able to control themselves around all kinds of distractions, so self control is something we focus on heavily with our puppies.

For a lot of dogs, self control is the difference between “knowing” something and actually being able to do it.  Think about a dog who seems to “know” he should sit for attention but then gets so excited he just can’t actually sit and instead jumps and runs around.  In many of these cases, impulse control is the missing link.

Chapter #4: Susceptibility to Reinforcement

When people call a dog “trainable,” what they really mean is a dog that is easily reinforced.

I have worked with hundreds of dogs, some of them very smart, others not so smart.  Regardless, the easiest ones to train were the ones that were easy to reinforce.

Dogs that will work for dog food, praise, play (with or without toys), opportunities to investigate their environment, and anything else we can think of.

This means a couple of things:

1.  We spend A LOT of time playing.  We play with toys, we play with food, we play with our hands (as long as the puppy is gentle).  This also helps build a SUPER strong relationship with our dogs.

2.  We have our puppies earn almost everything.  This doesn’t mean our puppies live in militant like home, it just means that they do things like sit before going outside, lay down before we attach their leashes, hand target before we throw a ball.

3.  Our puppies work for every piece of their food whether that be in training sessions or in puzzle toys.  Working to eat keeps out puppies happy to earn food.

More in this inside the mini course!

Chapter #5: Relationship Building

Your relationship with your dog is truly the glue that will hold his training together.  Your relationship is what will get your dog off the couch at the end of a long day to do his task, it’s what will make training easy, and it’s what will get your dog to believe you when you tell him something scary is actually safe.

We like to think about our relationship with our dogs like a bank account.  Every time we have a good interaction we put a deposit in.  Every time we have a bad interaction we take a withdrawal out.  We want to keep the bank account as high as possible, because that’s how we make the strongest glue.

Every single interaction you have with your dog is both teaching him something and either putting a deposit in or taking a withdrawal out of your account.

Every.  Single.  Interaction.

This means your dog is learning 24/7, which means you should be training 24/7 too.  I don’t mean you need to be in “training mode” with your clicker and treat pouch.  I just mean that you need to be aware of how you interact with your dog because he won’t stop learning just because you stop teaching.

The good news is that when we spend time training with positive reinforcement, spend times play, and have our puppies earn things throughout the day, the fantastic relationship comes naturally.


There’s actually a 6th thing we focus on too.  Grab our free mini course to learn more…