Whenever I raise a puppy, I keep two things in mind.  First, I think about what I’d like the puppy to learn to do now.  Next, and more important, I think about how I’d like that puppy to be when she’s an adult.  Like my pup’s mother, I never teach anything that will spoil things for the future.  I never allow or encourage behavior that will not stand my pup in good stead for the rest of her life.  And being a dog trainer, I know that the journey between now and the future may be a long one, one I need to understand and break down into small steps so that the path will be clear to my dog and as easy to navigate as possible.

Raising a service dog, or any dog that’s meant to grow up and into a job, it’s immensely important to keep the future in mind.  But that was always true when I was helping other people train their pups to become easy-to-live-with, happy adult dogs.  If you will not want your wet, muddy Lab on the couch when he weighs 80 pounds, best not to allow him up there when he weighs only 15 pounds.  If you don’t want you grown up dog barking his head off every time the postman comes, distract him with a tennis ball when he’s little.  Or teach him, “Quiet.”  Don’t let your dog pick and choose how to behave by himself.  You might not like the results.  And remember one of the most important saws in dog training:  Allowing behavior approves of behavior.  So if you ignore the barking, say, your dog will assume you want him to chase away the postperson.  If you didn’t want him to do so, why did  you let him do so in the first place?

For a dog with a tricky, difficult job waiting up ahead, don’t wait until she’s got it nailed before offering praise.  Generous praise should be offered for each and every step in the right direction, no matter how small.  This is how you let the dog know she’s going in the right direction.  And, as above, this works for pet dogs as well.  Greeting a child gently is a step on the way to always being gentle around children, even when they are screaming and racing around the house.  Taking food gently from your hand is the first step in not grabbing food from a child’s hand and even in not grabbing food off the counter.  Waiting patiently while you fill his food dish and place it on the floor is the beginning of learning to wait patiently wherever he must – at the veterinarian’s office, at the corner when the light is red, while you talk on the phone or have one more cup of coffee before his walk.

The first time my second service dog, Flash, noticed that I was in pain, I praised him for noticing.  I could see by his wrinkled brow that he didn’t have a clue how to help me, but offering praise for noticing was his first real step in that direction.  Yes, it told Flash, you’re on the right track.  The praise helped Flash to see the future, to see his future job, and to embrace it.  In no time, knowing this was the right direction, he figured out the rest, all on his own but with lots of quiet approval.  Here’s another good saw:  A correction should interrupt activity.  Praise should not.  When you dog is about to run into the street and you tell him “NO,” an interruption in activity is precisely what you want.  On the other hand, if you want to give kudos for gorgeous heeling, you don’t want your dog to stop walking nicely at your side and leap up in excitement.  (Yes, there are times for that, but this isn’t one of them.)  In this case, an ear twiddle might work, a whispered, “Good dog,” or, if your dog likes to carry things in his mouth, you might even stop, let him sit, give him an empty water bottle and resume.  “Heel, good dog.”

Keeping an eye on where you are headed makes training both working dogs and pet dogs a smoother journey, one full of small victories and the comforting knowledge that when adulthood arrives, your dog, whatever his role in your life is, will shine.

Denise Wall and I have written about how we raised our pups to become working dogs, a highly praised book that is just out now as an ebook.  Denise’s May stayed on the farm where she was born to work stock the way her mother did, her grandmother did and all the dogs before her did.  Sky left the farm at 8 weeks of age to come to New York City and become a service dog.  This is how two pups, each using the skills originally inherited from their wild wolf ancestors, grew up and into their jobs.