Canine Cognition and Early Training - An Overview

To get an idea of how R Ranch Goldens' JUMP START TRAINING Program is designed to work, we must begin with an overview of recent developments in the science of canine cognition. The pace at which our understanding of the dog's mind and emotions has progressed over the past two decades is nothing short of revolutionary as science teaches us more and more about how animals in general and our dogs in particular "acquire, process, store and act on" input from their environment. (Shettleworth) While Bergin University of Canine Studies in Petaluma, Calif., remains the only accredited university in the United States exclusively devoted to the study of dogs, Harvard, Yale, Duke and Arizona State now boast Canine Cognition Centers or laboratories, many other top-tier secondary education and graduate schools promote research in canine cognition within their psychology, anthropology, ethology and veterinary science programs, all contributing immensely to our understanding of the dog's perception, learning, memory, emotions and decision-making processes.

Unfortunately, at the same time our knowledge base of information about the dog's mind is growing exponentially, so too are owner reports of "problematic" pets -- in addition to the common nuisance behaviors such as housebreaking miscues, excessive barking, inappropriate digging, leash pulling, jumping up and the like, far too many dogs are winding up in shelters because they are prone to aggression toward humans, fellow dogs or other animals, as well as leash and barrier reactivity and resource guarding. Others live lives mired in fearfulness, hypersensitivity and separation anxiety. We now know that many of these problems have their roots in either poor breeding practices or a lack of proper socialization and training during critical developmental windows, many of which occur during the pup's first 16 weeks of life -- typically before or at around the same time that the pup leaves the litter and heads to its "forever home." 

Part of the problem is that "most of the information about canine cognition remains located in highly controlled scientific contexts rather than the predictable, 'applied' world of every day dog training -- and the few attempts to impact the daily practices of dog training have yet to be widely adopted." (Donaldson 2017) Meanwhile, training theories and methodologies that have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific data continue to be popularized in books, online or on TV. Take, as just one example, the wolf pack/Alpha dog theory, with its attendant harsh handling and punishment-based training techniques. Scientific research has now shown these theories to have been based on a study of the wrong kind of wolves and a gross misunderstanding of the flexible dynamics of social hierarchy even within those packs! (Bradshaw, et. al., 2009; Van Doorn, et al., 2003). Regrettably, though, having been thoroughly discredited scientifically for roughly a decade has done little to staunch the perpetuation of this theory by popular dog trainers," who persist in explaining nearly every undesirable dog behavior in terms of a battle for dominance in the human-canine pack. Is it any wonder, then, that overwhelmed dog owners give up in confusion and frustration when the highly acclaimed training methods they have seen online or on TV fail to cure the situation -- or "solve" one problem at the price of instigating another?

So how do we leverage the vast quantity of new scientific data and analysis of canine cognition and behavior in a way that helps breeders, trainers and owners maximize their dogs' potential, strengthens the human-canine bond, and diminishes the prevalence of problem behaviors. We believe our JUMP START TRAINING program, based on principles applied to the early raising and training of Service Dog candidates, provides one piece to this puzzle. The basic elements of the program can be compared to a three-legged stool. Each leg is essential to proper balance; knock out any of the three and you're destined for a hard fall!

  • Breeding. The process begins with sound breeding practices, the selection of breeding mates from dogs of strong lineages, with solid health histories and appropriate clearances from genetically transferred diseases and conditions common to the breed, and, above all when it comes to the puppy's likely adult behavior, stable temperaments and instincts appropriate to the "job" the dog is expected to carry out in life. While there will always be individual personality difference within any breed, and even among litter mates bred from great lines, we now know that certain traits, such as calmness, sensitivity and the desire to be around and to please their humans are heritable, just as are such characteristics as fearfulness or aggression. It is important to choose a breed whose common drives and instincts dovetail with your own personality and lifestyle, and to recognize that even within a given breed, some lines will be characterized by different drives and instincts than others. Can those drives and instincts be overcome by training? For example, could a pup born from strong hunting lines, with the high arousal levels and keen prey drives essential to such tasks, be trained to ignore the distractions of a running squirrel, nearby bird, or even a wind-blown leaf and quietly guide a blind or mobility impaired handler safely to their destination rather than taking off on a merry chase -- and bringing the disabled handler along for the ride yanking them out of their wheelchair or abandoning them in the middle of a busy street? Perhaps. But that is about as much confidence as you would ever be able to have in the answer. You would, in essence, be pitting a finite number of training hours against centuries of breed-specific instinct. Even if the dog could be trained to restrain its instinctual drives, performing as trained 99 times out of 100, the potential for the dog to revert to instinct would remain on that 100th trial. More, is it really fair to the dog to try to train its instincts out of it, to demand a constant level of self-denial and self-control most of us would chafe at for ourselves? At R Ranch Goldens , we begin with breeding pairings of dogs notable for their soft, gentle and biddable temperaments, in addition to their championship lines and good health.

  • Pregnancy.  We now know much more than ever about the effects of the release of hormones and neurotransmitters on the eventual temperament of of puppies in utero. For example, an over-stressed pregnant dam will release into her own blood stream corticosteroids that bathe the developing brains of  the puppies she is carrying. Even after the puppies have been whelped, many of these neurochemicals can be transmitted to the pups via the dam's milk. As a result, writes Dr. Bonita Bergin, inventor of the concept of the Service Dog, "The canine mom-to-be should have a positive, trauma-free 63 days. Her days shold be filled with happiness and good nutrition. Her comfort and care is of the utmost importance throughout the entire period from conception to the weaning of the puppies because she has a significant influence on her pups' early development.

  • Early Stimulation and Training. Once the puppies are on the ground, however, what can and should be done to influence the pups' ongoing development? For many years, the answer was little or nothing. Apart from providing healthy nutrition to the puppies once weaned, keeping whelping areas clean, and perhaps providing some minimal level of paper or crate training shortly before the puppy's departure for its new home, the dam and her litter were left largely to their own devices. Indeed, active socialization of puppies was discouraged before the age of four months, for fear of exposure to diseases such as rabies, parvovirus and leptospirosis before the pup had completed its full battery of vaccinations. Moreover, in light of the coercive and punishment-based training theories in vogue at the time, puppies were considered unready to begin formal training until at least six months of age. With what we now know from the science of canine cognition, more and more leading veterinarians and trainers have embraced the importance of early training and socialization of puppies, the critical window for which lies between the ages of three to twelve weeks. Incomplete immunization remains a concern, but with proper precautions, those risks can be minimized. Is it cheaper and easier for breeders to forgo the effort and expense involved in creating a maintaining a safe space and to invest in early socialization of their litters? No doubt, and not all breeders are willing to expend the extra time, effort and expense involved. However, here at R Ranch Goldens we consider that investment to be part of our commitment to our dogs and our clients. And, as certified trainer and ASPCA companion animals program advisor Jacque Lynn Schults notes, isolating young puppies during that early socialization window carries its own risks, up to and including death, from fighting, traffic accidents for canine escape artists, and even euthanasia due to intractable fear, anxiety, or aggression. Social isolation is particularly undesirable for large breeds such as Golden Retrievers, because an isolated puppy is rarely receiving sufficient exercise for good health, as well as to inhibit the onset of boredom and stress-related behaviors such as chewing, digging, excessive barking and general destructiveness.