What happens in the first three months of a puppy’s training?
Learning how to become a hearing dog starts at a very early age. In fact, it officially starts when our puppies are only a few weeks old! Just like humans, all dogs learn at a slightly different speed, so it can take 16 – 24 months to train a hearing dog.
Each dog has milestones they need to complete along the way. We call these ‘Puppy Stars’ – and they’re nothing stressful or pressuring for our pups. It’s just to see how our four-legged friends are doing with their basic training, behaviour and social skills. The majority of our puppies pass first time, but we give them a few tries to get it right.
All hearing dog puppies are trained by one of our amazing Volunteer Puppy Trainers, with the support of a qualified Puppy Training Instructor. The pups attend weekly training classes with their volunteer and attend a group session with a new, exciting theme each week.
We always use reward-based training and start by finding out what motivates our pups. This could be anything from food, to praise, to getting them to play with their favourite toy. Our training is based around choices. A puppy is given the opportunity to make a decision to do the right or the wrong action. The wrong action is ignored and the right action is rewarded. This is really important to make sure our dogs feel safe and comfortable, which is key to their success as a hearing dog.
About the Puppy One Star
The first star a hearing dog puppy must pass is a Puppy One Star – and it’s very much like pre-school for us humans.
We all know there is little point teaching a three-year-old boy his seven times tables – it will just go in one ear and out the other. But what you do want to teach him is how to play nicely with his peers, show him the difference between good and bad behaviour, and for him to learn he can’t always do what he wants when he wants.
This is exactly what it’s like training a young puppy. Although they can learn some of the basic obedience training, we really focus on their social development and making sure they’re on track to becoming a relaxed, confident and happy dog at this stage.
What does a puppy learn in this Star?
Here is what a hearing dog puppy will learn in this important first step of their hearing dog training.
How to play nicely
Just like a human toddler, a lot of a young puppy’s learning is done through play. This may not seem like an important part of a hearing dog’s training, but it’s crucial at this stage of a pup’s development.
We have certain games we play with a young pup which encourages them to share their toys with their Volunteer Puppy Trainer. We want them to understand that playing with a human is more fun than playing alone, which also really helps strengthen the bond between socialiser and pup.
Playing with hearing dog puppies in the right way teaches them important life skills, like good manners, how to wait your turn and sharing. And they quickly learn that playing with us can be really fun!
Exploring a puppy’s senses
Puppies initially explore the world by touch and smell, with their hearing and sight developing when they are about three weeks old. All of these senses (especially hearing for our clever dogs!) are really important when introducing new objects, areas and people to a puppy.
In the Puppy Stars, we have a project called the ‘sensory zone’ – where we introduce new senses to a young puppy gradually and let them explore them in their own time. A few examples are:
- Touch – walking a number of surfaces such as grass, tarmac and gravel.
- Sight– placing objects such as bags, cones and shopping trollies for pups to investigate if they wish to.
- Sound – we want our puppies to get used to a number of different sounds that they will experience throughout their life, so they understand they aren’t something to be wary of. These include a hoover, crowds of people, animal sounds and traffic.
- Smell – we have a small box that we use in our weekly puppy classes during the course of the One Star. In this we will place an item that has a specific smell, like a coat of a vet, a part of an engine or a toy of a child for the puppy to sniff briefly.
This gradual introduction is great for our puppies as it takes the fear of the unknown away from a number of senses. So if a rickety old shopping trolley whizzes past them at a later stage, they will know there’s nothing to fear from the positive experience they had in their early learning classes.
Meeting new people and puppies
Meeting puppies of a different age, size and breed to their siblings is really important. They do this both on and off lead, and every puppy reacts differently. The main thing we focus on is making sure they’re feeling comfortable and are interacting nicely.
We also introduce new people in this step – which is very easy when you have an adorable fluffy puppy out and about. It’s important in this step that the puppy is happy and doesn’t feel overwhelmed, but the majority of pups love the attention.
The basic cues a hearing dog needs to learn are started at a very early age. At just three weeks old they will learn to ‘wait’ for their food bowl to be put down in front of them. During their Puppy One Star they’ll be tested on cues like:
- Responding to their name
- Sit – and waiting until their socialiser says ‘off you go’
- Down – again the same as a ‘sit’
- Wait – which is very important for relaxation when out and about
These cues may seem simple, but for a boisterous puppy who wants to explore and chew everything, it can be quite tricky. But our Volunteer Puppy Trainers (armed with a treat or two) do a superb job! Once the puppy has mastered these in familiar surroundings, they’ll start to practise in new and busier environments – you can find out more on that in the Puppy Two Star.
Once our trainers are happy with a puppy’s progress on all of these steps, the puppy will pass and progress to the Puppy Two Star. They will also note any areas that the puppy is not as confident in so they can focus on these a bit more in the next stage. A puppy’s age can vary when they reach the Puppy Two Star, but they’ll usually be around 12 weeks of age.
You can find out what happens in the next exciting stage of a hearing dog puppy’s training here.