top of page

The History of Puppy Training

How our approach to raising and training puppies has changed throughout the last 150 years.

Puppies. Little sponges with teeth. These days, we have a pretty good understanding of how important their first 4 months on this earth are. In fact, it’s one of the only big things that we’d consider as truly ‘settled science’. Although many of the nuances and broad methods of raising puppies differs between trainers, most would agree that, what a puppy experiences in their first 4 months of life will dictate whether they reach their full genetic potential, or whether they’re permanently behaviourally and socially stunted.

Many consider this view as ‘enlightened’ when compared to the old days of training… a period in our history that is loosely defined as being very militaristic, domineering and compulsive. A time when trainers advised everyone to withhold teaching their puppies anything until they’re at least 6 months old. Often 12 months. It’s generally believed that this later start age was a gift, of sorts, to the young puppies who weren’t physically or mentally able to withstand the suppressive, hands on methods that were common in that time.

It’s hard to think of a time before this, in part because anyone in the industry around prior to then is probably long gone… but partly because that ‘militaristic’ methodology was so influential. It was the start of our industry’s true pendulum swing; majority led trends towards extreme inducive or compulsive methods. Before that era, methodologies are more accurately defined as fads; their shelf life was far more limited and their influence more geographically isolated.

But what will be uncovered in this chapter on Puppy Raising is how we’ve truly come full circle as an industry from this alleged ‘dark-ages’ of training of the pre-20th century to now. How puppy development, training and socialization has regularly been a feature even in pre-industry training practices.

Science Plays Catch Up

The basic premise behind socialization and environmental habituation is to familiarize a puppy with anything and everything it is likely to encounter in the future. Positive exposure to novel and potentially scary stimuli, living or environmental, proofs puppies against the stress and randomness of our human world.

Dogs that grow up in isolated and rural areas tend to be uncomfortable in city and urban environments. It’s comparatively loud, with a very high degree of social pressure due to the human and dog traffic. Inversely, dogs brought up in city and urban environments can react poorly to common rural sights, sounds and creatures.

To assume that dog folk weren’t aware of this correlation until science told them so in the 1960s is rather arrogant of us ‘modern’ doggy people.

It’s no coincidence that dogmen of the pre and early 20th century were becoming more aware of this phenomenon than their forebears. Times were changing, and the ownership of dogs becoming more widespread and spanning varying living conditions.

Dogs kept for purposes of work tended to only be exposed to their work environment. Herders and Shepherd’s dogs; to the wild grazing land and rural towns, Gun dogs; the rolling fields hiding their avian prize, and Hounds; the woodlands and countryside. There were a myriad of different ‘jobs’ for dogs in those days, and while many a dog was exposed to varying environments from a young age, it was more an incidental part of their upbringing rather than a deliberate attempt of early exposure.

As the dog world became firmly established in our developed societies, dogs were expected to adapt. It’s undoubtedly clear that the dog’s best able to do that were those that had a good deal of early exposure to the environments they were put in.

Bench shows, as just one example, began by taking working dogs and bringing them into a completely foreign environment to be judged on their conformation. It was noted by a number of writers from these days that dogs which were normally confident, and very adept at their ‘job’, were often crumbling under the pressure they were forced to endure. Their gait could not be accurately judged, nor their structure, simply due to their extreme anxiety at such a foreign experience (and the resulting tense body language). One can hardly judge the rural farm’s terrier for cowering at the crowded rooms, gawking spectators and handsy judges when all he knows is his family, livestock, the barn and the open fields (and the rodent-enemy!).

Relaxed and confident dogs are much easier to judge. Dogs bred and raised specifically for bench shows were infinitely more capable of relaxing than those that were bred and raised for the fields (perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the show lines emerged as a derivative of the original working type so quickly).

The improved position in society that bench shows granted dogs led to their growing appearance in public; particularly in city centers. More dogs were being bred in urban environments, and were incidentally exposed to humans and all our associated hubbub.

The shifting priorities of dogmen is what ultimately led to the growing realization of how impressionable a young puppy is, and how their early experiences shape their future behaviour. This is also what led to the fads in puppy raising through the ages. When we wanted dogs to perform their best in a wide range of locations, early exposure was always made a priority. When their performance was made contingent on a very limited number of environments – say one or two – then early exposure was likewise limited to such surrounds.

Now to get to the meat of the subject. We can divide socialization into several broad categories; humans (owner and others), non-human animals, and the environment (‘environmental socialization’ an oxymoron, but nonetheless a more succinct substitute for ‘environmental habituation and desensitization during the critical period of development’).

Socialization to humans was viewed quite differently then as it is now. Dependence on the owner (or ‘master’) was made a priority over everyone else. In that way, it was quite similar, in most every other way, it was not.

Having a socially gregarious, ‘everyman’s dog’ was seen as a blight. An annoyance to society and to any attempts at formal training. This was, for the most part, prevented by having the master take the role of caretaker. Even well-to-do gentlemen were advised to take this role, at least in the formative first months, to ensure a helpful and (perhaps an un)healthy dependence on them. The master was to feed them, free them from their kennels and chains, and indulge them in whatever they please.

Sometimes, however, this wouldn’t have the entire desired effect. The puppy would surely love his human, but its love for all other humans wouldn’t be dampened. This is where the divergence in priorities between now and then really become apparent!

Here we see two approaches to the prevention of love for other people; isolation (in the case of children), and straight-up aversion. This wasn’t entirely for the sake of training, however, it was also a means to preventing dognappings; apparently this was a common threat to dogs in this time (preventable with a leash, though, surely!).

The only thing less desirable than the socially promiscuous puppy, was a puppy that was

intolerant of society; that was timid towards people and fearful of the environmental pressure we create. Some recommended forced exposure, with the hope of habituation.

While others used the scary situations and stimuli to instill their puppy with a sense of confidence in their master, further solidifying their bond;

Perhaps the most progressive – or perhaps what we consider ‘modern’ – approach to raising puppies is to intentionally and pre-emptively condition a positive emotional response to stimuli which we know they’ll come across in later life, and which we think may cause them fear and apprehension (particularly when such a response could impact on their ability to work). In no case is this better illustrated than with introducing gunfire.

Gunshyness in field dogs appeared to be the sportsman’s biggest thorn in the side since firearms were used in that capacity. There were many theories as to the cause, with most dogmen through history falling firmly on either the ‘genetics’ or ‘learning’ side of the spectrum. Both sides often came to the grizzly conclusion of culling gunshy dogs, as it was seen as an enormously challenging problem to overcome. Some may have exhausted other routes, of course, such as forced, inescapable exposure. But this wasn’t a sure cure.

Into the mid-late 19th century, the pairing of gunfire with something pleasurable to young puppies was becoming more the norm. While food was typically used, a signal for freedom from the confines of the kennel was also common. Perhaps more amazing was the fact that some authors advocated systematic exposure; that is, first using something quieter than gunfire, and/or firing off far away. The sound was gradually increased, and/or the distance was slowly decreased by degrees until the puppies associated the report of a gun with good things.

Impediments to the ability of the dog to do their job, regardless of location, wasn’t restricted to sound sensitivity. Another common and crippling affliction that dogs were victim of was a wandering eye for ‘prey’. Here again, we see a growing preference for prevention-through-early-exposure, rather than a compulsive attempt at a cure.

As in the case of gunshyness, a dog with a penchant for livestock worrying or habitually pursuing inappropriate game was normally viewed as a case for the hangman’s noose. The regular methods of cure were horribly aversive and prone to fallout and failure.

One such technique to attempt to fix sheep worrying was to put a dog in an inescapable pen with a ram, sometimes tying them together. The dog was beaten with a stick, and the ram was encouraged to beat the dog up too. Most that tried this method reported a failure of the dog to generalize their aversion to sheep out in the field. One poor ram was thrown to several dogs, with their master not deigning to witness the ensuing carnage; assuming the ram would do the job for him. He expected to return to cowed dogs, but instead found his pack happily eating the dead sheep’s entrails.

Another method, most often used for dogs that chased wildlife, was to shoot the dog while in pursuit (with buckshot or a very low caliber bullet… most of the time). The idea was to hit their rump and hurt them just enough that they associated the pain with the animal they were chasing without causing injury. Unfortunately, this tended to produce either gunshy, crippled or dead dogs.

Preventing the need for these ‘curative’ measures was obviously preferable!

And there we have it; socialization to the environment, to people and to non-human animals as a primary way of ‘future-proofing’ puppies against the novelty of human civilization. Much of it before the inception of behavioural science, and all well prior to the study of the critical periods of development in dogs.

But what of training; formal or otherwise? Part of a puppy’s early education should also revolve around them learning to learn; a concept which can encapsulate anything from giving to pressure and avoiding aversives, to becoming ‘operant’ and freely offering behaviour. Perhaps the most important skills that are nurtured with early training is dependence and confidence in their human, and making a habit out of engaging with them.

Much of our critique of the militaristic era of training was their abstinence from training young puppies, though this is often lumped in with their abstinence from doing anything proactive with them before 6 months (a generalization that isn’t accurate). Indeed, the common claim that they reserved formal training until physical and mental maturity is regularly put down to their liberal use of compulsion; training that is inappropriate and damaging to young puppies.

Surely, then, trainers around prior to this era – many of which were equally, if not more compulsive – would have felt the same way? Especially when some of their aversive training didn’t conform to the laws of learning theory as well to that which came later (it took decades for some of the old superstitions and resultant poor training practices to die out).

For some, this was the case. Dogs were left until they developed enough mental and physical wherewithal to be trained. This could have been anywhere from 6 to 18 months of age. But for others, a natural extension of the early association with the world was also early efforts at

training. Few, very few were inclined towards formal training efforts until much older. This wasn’t, however, related to their ability to withstand compulsive training. It was simply due to their maturity levels. Just as 2-year-old children shouldn’t be engaged in the rigors of a formal education, it was felt that puppies were incapable of the same. Likewise, much of formal training was tied up with physical development and the ability to work for extended periods of time. They simply weren’t physically ready for the real training either. Easy training, and oftentimes inducive training was recommended to foster the mental capacities of a young puppy before the real training begins later.

It’s no surprise that if our predecessors replicated the training methods they typically used on older dogs towards puppies, it would probably cause some issues. Most trainers who worked with young puppies prior to the 1960s, did so with a much softer hand. This often took the form of guided play, shorter training sessions, gentle physical manipulation, using an older dog as a guide. and with varying degrees of food usage (including impulse control exercises).

The majority of authors that advocated early training had four consistent foundation skills that they believed should be taught to young puppies; coming when called, heeling, the down-stay, and fetching.

The recall (coming when called) was normally the first skill taught to puppies. Some authors classically conditioned the whistle to their delivery of food to puppies, creating an incidental (or perhaps not) recall to the whistle.

The use of food in rewarding a recall was extremely common throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, though there was some trainers who recommended merely capturing a puppy in the act, while others attached a check cord to the puppy’s collar and reeled them in. This practice was sometimes paired with a food reward, but often not.

Heeling was almost always taught with a leash, and very often in combination with a switch. Up until the late 19th century, ‘heel’ referred to a position behind the owner; literally on their heels. It’s unclear exactly when this began shifting to the more modern position with the dog’s head or shoulders roughly level with their owner’s left leg (it appears to coincide with the use of military dogs), but nevertheless this position change did little to change the methods used. Puppies were sometimes kept on a flat leather collar, and for the particularly obstinate puppy, a check chain was preferred. There were rarely any step-by-step instructions, but rather some loose guidelines surmounting to ‘check any attempts of the puppy forging ahead or lagging behind’.

As the industry progressed in to the 20th century, a more progressive approach was recommended, which included a period of acclimating the puppy to the collar and leash prior to any actual obedience training.

Teaching puppies to fetch was always done through inducive (sometimes dubbed ‘suasive’) methods. Play was the biggest tool used by trainers in this department. A range of items, like rolled up socks, stuffed birds, handkerchiefs were thrown for the puppy (generalizing the play-retrieve behaviour was done from the outset of training). The owner encourages them to go out and bring the item back. When he returns to his owner, the puppy is taught to let go of it mostly through force, but occasionally by trading it for a piece of food.

Once the mechanics of a basic retrieve was established, it was inserted into a search for the retrieve item. Besides the obvious utility of this behaviour to field and sporting dogs, it was actually marketed to the pet dog crowd as a way to induce dogs to find things that they’d dropped.

One of the most important components of modern puppy raising is environmental management; controlling the puppy’s surrounds to prevent them from rehearsing and getting reinforcement for behaviour that will need to be corrected later. As training methods have become more inducive, management has become more commonplace. The alternative is to allow puppies to develop avoidable problems, and use aversives to curb them in the moment, or at a later date (after much reinforcement, mind you).

In an era when dogs were starting to be welcomed into a family home, and when the relationship between a young puppy and master was stressed above all else, management seems like a logical strategy to prevent the need for aversives (viewed as relationship-damaging). And, for many progressive thinkers, it was.

Prevention and management was also the general rule for housebreaking; frequent trips outside, even tethering to their owner until they proved they could be trusted was commonplace for dogs allowed in the house.

The Meeting of Science and Dogmen

The militaristic era of training ran from the first, to well passed the second world war. This was a time when standardised, escape-avoidance training methods was the norm; a carryover from the German dominated military war dog effort.

This era was the first to fully cement in long-term trends in the training industry. Trends that were, at the time, viewed as ‘best practice’. While most trainers in this period didn’t start any formal training with puppies until they were at least 6 months old (as is the stereotype), they were commonly exposed to the happenings of the human world prior to then. It’s unclear whether this was deliberate ‘socialization’, or just an incidental by-product of a society that had looser rules on dogs in public places.

When it came time to start formal obedience training, most adolescent dogs were entirely unaccustomed to having to pay attention to their humans, to having to work in close proximity to dozens of other dogs (class environments were the regular source of obedience training at that time), and to being restrained by a collar and leash. Is it any surprise, then, that training had to be severe? In a time when all trainers had was a hammer, every dog was a nail and harshness became the norm. Here we can ask; were puppies not trained early because training was too severe? Or was training severe because puppies weren’t being trained? An interesting question that will be revisited soon.

In a time when science and mainstream dog training were yet to truly meet, it’s quite remarkable that their first introductions caused such a monumental shift in thinking for our industry as it relates to puppy raising. So influential was the research into puppy development, that our entire industry actually agrees on its findings (a rare thing indeed!).

Drs. Scott & Fuller led a team of zoologists and psychologists in a 20-year study of dogs, their genetics and behaviour; culminating into the hugely influential book,

Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (1965). A great deal of their research was focused on the role that heredity plays on the development of behaviour patterns, the most relevant and ground-breaking aspect of their studies related to the discovery of the critical periods of development.

In the first year of life, puppies go through a series of development periods. The most significant of which is termed the critical period of socialization. In this phase of a puppy’s life

– lasting from 6 weeks and closing somewhere between 12-16 weeks – they’re able to form relationships with other living creatures, and can become accustomed to the world around them. While socialization is a lifelong process, this early developmental period is the only time in the life of the dog that they’re able to form lasting relationships so easily. At the close of the critical period of socialization, a dog not exposed to humans or other non-human animals, or its future living environment will be less able to adapt than a dog with exposure to the same.

This large body of research - which was actually conducted in order to draw parallels to human genetics and behaviour - provided a loose framework for those in the dog training and dog breeding industry to flesh out in practice.

That process was spearheaded by Clarence Pfaffenberger and published in the book The New Knowledge of Dog Behaviour (1963). Pfaffenberger was a much-decorated veteran of the dog world; he’d been involved in competitive obedience and field trials, breeding Spaniels for the same, and had volunteered for the Dogs for Defence program as well as Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Pfaffenberger’s life was the perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses that hands-on dogmanship carries. In his book, he relates the story of a singleton Cocker Spaniel puppy,

born from one of his bitches. Due to the fact that this was a single puppy, he was able to dedicate consistent training efforts from a very early age. This puppy ended up becoming his best field dog. Later in life, during his work in the Dogs for Defence program, he wanted to uncover why certain dogs did so well, or so poorly, during training and active duty. Breed wasn’t always a predictor of success, but he did observe that the more a dog was included in his owner’s life (dogs were all volunteered from civilian homes), the better equipped the dog was to work in the military’s war dog effort. These, and a series of other casual observations couldn’t objectively be concluded upon unless reproduced in a variable-free environment, and statistically analysed. A fact that Pfaffenberger himself knew all too well.

When Pfaffenberger started his work with Guide Dogs for the Blind, they had an abysmal graduation rate of just 9%. This grievance would pave the way towards the meeting of science

and dogdom, as he collaborated with Scott and Fuller’s team of researchers to try and rectify the problem.

What Pfaffenberger effectively did, was take the treasure trove of theoretical research and apply it practically, to what was essentially a real-world extension of Scott and Fuller’s laboratory. Guide Dogs for the Blind had their own breeding program (of German Shepherd Dogs, unlike today’s Guide Dogs which are typically retrievers), and had control over all the variables they faced on a day-to-day basis from the time they’re born to the time they’re placed in a foster family (and some variables were even controlled from that point onwards). Anything that happened within that 8-16-week period was able to be taken apart, analysed and changed to better suit the needs of the program. From then onwards, the outside world provided the means of practical testing, as did the training and testing of the adult dogs having gone through the program.

Thanks to the collaboration between Pfaffenberger and the scientists at Bar Harbor, graduations rates soared from 9% to 90%. There were two parts to this that went hand in hand; an improved breeding program and an understanding of behavioural heredity, and early socialization and training of puppies. If efforts were put solely on one or the other, results would have likely been marginal; socialization will not fix deficits in genetic temperament, it will only maximize a puppy’s behavioural potential; without early socialization and training, there would have been no measure of success of the breeding program.

It was discovered that, regardless of breed and line differences in behavioural patterns, these critical periods remained relatively constant for all puppies. Pfaffenberger and his colleagues developed a standardised socialization and training program for puppies under 16 weeks of age that was proving highly effective at maximizing the genetic potential from the Guide Dog’s breeding program. Thanks, also, to the repeated testing at various points in their first year of development, he was able to discover that certain deficits in the process resulted in future deficits in training and graduation. One of which was what he termed ‘failure to take responsibility’. Taking responsibility is something that they couldn’t train; and failure to do so was only uncovered in testing, not training, when the handler was blindfolded. It’s a test to discover whether or not a dog would read the environment and act according to his handler’s best interest by avoiding hazards (like incoming vehicles) without command. From statistical analysis, Pfaffenberger figured out that ‘failure to take responsibility’ was directly correlated with the age at which puppies left their breeding kennels and were fostered into families. The later they left, the higher their failure rate.

Upon investigation, it was determined that puppies left in the kennels for longer had a pause in sufficient socialization. This was remedied either by placing all the puppies early (after 7 weeks) in their foster families, or by ensuring staff and volunteers continued socialization throughout their delayed stay. This is an argument for continued and consistent socialization efforts; from whelping box to future home.

Even with this gold mine of information, there were many question marks as to how pet dog owners were to socialize their puppies. The controlled environment of a purpose-built breeding and training kennel, filled with staff and volunteers that all knew what they were doing, is not exactly the same as your average joe, first time puppy owner.

Here again, we see collaboration for the betterment of the dog world and pet owners everywhere.

Milo and Margaret Pearsall have always embraced new training concepts and scientific research relating to learning and teaching (though, their interpretation was sometimes wanting). Puppy development would prove no exception.

The husband and wife team were very involved in AKC obedience circles, and regularly ran training seminars across the U.S. During these adventures, they were often tasked with fixing behavioural and training issues and had long since concluded that prevention was better than

cure. But they were yet to incept any broadly applicable means of prevention. After hearing of the research conducted by Scott and Fuller, as well as the advancements in Guide Dog development, they were inspired to create an early training and socialization curriculum for pet dogs.

Working with Pfaffenberger and other volunteers at Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Pearsalls

developed a puppy training class outline. They termed it Kindergarten Puppy Training (KPT); an eight-week program with 30-minute lessons, and held the first class in 1966. Unsurprisingly, KPT proved to be a huge success. It was clear that the Pearsalls weren’t alone in their frustration with the status quo of starting formal training at 6 months old, especially for pet dog owners.

By popular demand, the Pearsalls collaborated with fellow trainers Ray Peat, Charles Gervasini, Bap Buratte, David & Merill Cohen to write A Guide for Instructors of KPT in 1967. In 1973, they published The Pearsall Guide to Successful Dog Training which included a chapter on KPT for pet owners to apply themselves. This concept was embraced by the industry and began to be applied at many obedience clubs across the country.

The general methods the Pearsall’s endorsed were fairly typical for the time, though arguably gentler and less compulsive. Puppies were handled on a leather collar and leash, and were rewarded with praise and affection. Corrections were minimal, and if one was necessary than the instructor was the one to do it. Classes were small, and exercises consisted of the heel, sit, stand, down and stay. Variety was encouraged to keep everyone’s attention, and formal

training was kept brief, regularly interspersed with intervals of play with fellow puppies and owners.

Environmental socialization was stressed. This included habituating the puppies to sudden, loud noises like car horns and planks of wood banged together, as well as stairs and doorways. Problem solving skills were encouraged through a series of exercises, the most interesting being a drill called ‘puppy thinking’; a puppy is placed on the inside corner of two planks of wood forming a ‘V’. The only way he can get out is to go backwards, either through turning around or backing up. The owner places the puppy inside, runs around to the opening of the ‘V’, and calls Puppy, come! He then needs to figure out how to escape and get to his owner.

Owners were encouraged to take their puppies to public places, often simply as a spectator to the goings on. Interaction with other people was viewed as incidental; a positive by-product of getting the puppy out and about, but not necessarily a core feature in raising a mentally healthy, well-adjusted dog.

Continuing education in class environments was strongly recommended, as ‘association with other dogs can be most beneficial’ in a formal, controlled capacity (not to mention the regular benefits of obedience training).

It’s here that we really see the positive effects of an early introduction to formal training. Young dogs that had graduated from KPT were much better able to adapt to a class environment later in life. Because of this, they required a much smaller degree of compulsion when compared to dogs that didn’t have any KPT experience.

This seemingly small detail led to two monumental shifts in the industry. Firstly, it created generations of puppies and dogs that required less compulsion than their forebears to achieve the same high standard of training (that being competition level obedience; the standard for pet dogs at that time too). Secondly, due to the success of less compulsive puppy training techniques, it led the Pearsalls to adopt the same for their beginner adult dog students. These were completely green dogs with no training, no exposure to KPT or any other classes. The ‘softer’ approach had some dramatic effects on the rate of learning and willingness of the dogs to engage with their owners.

Here we return to our original question; were puppies not trained early because training was too severe? Or was training severe because puppies weren’t being trained? The evidence points to the latter. Training puppies was the key to unlocking a less compulsive (though, at this point, not quite inducive) way of teaching both puppies and adult dogs.

Puppy Classes: Lure-Reward and the 'positive spin'

In 1980, the industry-wide trend towards early puppy development would get a boost from a relative outsider. Dr. Ian Dunbar had just finished academics and travelled to the Bay Area of San Francisco with a Malamute puppy. Knowing the importance of early training and socialization, he set about trying to find a class that would accept such a young puppy, only to come up empty. According to Dunbar, no trainer in the area would let a dog in their classes that was under 6 months old (KPT puppy classes were more common in the East, though there was some being offered at the time on the West Coast).

This ended up being a serendipitous problem, as he was jobless at the time and decided to start building a puppy training curriculum. Starting in 1982, Dunbar began teaching SIRIUS® Puppy Training classes at Oakland SPCA.

The SIRIUS® puppy program was different in many ways to the Pearsall’s KPT. Dunbar’s program held the entire classes with the puppies off-leash, while KPT used puppy play as the final step in socialization and as a break from formal training. SIRIUS® was a shorter program than the Pearsall’s KPT classes, and appeared to have more puppies per class. While the Pearsall’s had dogs from 8-weeks of age in classes, Dunbar wouldn’t have them start until their critical period was closing at 12-weeks.

Perhaps more revolutionary than this off-leash structure was Dunbar’s use of lure-rewards in place of physical manipulation to train the usual obedience positions. Luring wasn’t particularly new in the industry, but it was very uncommon and normally reserved for teaching tricks. Dunbar believed that the use of food lures was easier for pet owners and children to manage, and it was easier on the puppies and made learning enjoyable.

Dunbar stressed human socialization above all else, and recommended puppies meet one-hundred people or more in their first 8-weeks of life while at the breeder, and a further 100 before they’re 12-weeks old. In his book, Before You Get Your Puppy (2001) Dunbar stresses the importance of sourcing a puppy from a breeder that invests time in socializing to copious amounts of people, desensitization to household noises, and training several foundation skills (sit, come, down etc.) all before 8-weeks of age.

Due to Dunbar’s medical background, he recommended puppies stay indoors until they’re fully immunized at 3-months. If, for whatever reason, puppies had to be taken out, they were to be carried to and from the car and their destination. Contact with the ground was viewed as high-risk, as was contact with dog-potty areas and high-dog-traffic areas. This meant, however, that owners had to invite 100 different people over to their house in the first month of having their puppy home. These could either be in the form of high-volume ‘puppy parties’, or averaging 3-people a day. Strangers, kids and men were prioritized.

Everyone that came over were instructed to give the puppy food; running it through a sequence of lured skills with the food and asking for a polite ‘sit’ before meeting. These people were also instructed to handle the puppy; touching his feet, ears, head, rear-end etc. all in an effort to habituate it to being touched and fussed over by random people. This was normally also paired with food.

Because of Dunbar’s views on the immunization schedule, he also recommended a late start to puppy school, starting at 3-months of age. This represents a significant gap in dog-dog socialization (from 8 to 12-weeks) that he advised should be remedied with frequent trips to the dog park (as well as enrolling in puppy school!) once the 2nd vaccination was complete.

In 1987, Ian Dunbar developed a video of his puppy classes in order to teach others to use his program. He followed SIRIUS® with a slew of books, both on the topic of puppy training and other relevant dog behaviour and training topics.

While Dunbar did devote much of SIRIUS’® program to inducive methods, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t use some elements of compulsion. While railing against harsh leash corrections and the use of check chains, he did use mild corrections on a flat collar to prevent pulling in conjunction with 180* turns. This was normally introduced after a period of teaching the puppy to heel with a food lure.

One of the most interesting points of difference between the Pearsalls and the apparently ‘positive’ Dunbar was the use of harsh verbal reprimands. The Pearsalls stating; “[Harsh tones of voice] Never to be used, even if the pup is slow to learn. You just might be the one to blame.” (pp. 22, Pearsall, 1989). While in the SIRIUS ® program, Dunbar relies heavily on startling puppies through suddenly and loudly shouting ‘OFF!’ for jumping and ‘OW!’ for biting.

This isn’t entirely unprecedented. For many years after inducive training practices were being embraced by the everyday dog trainer, they intermingled heavily with elements of compulsion. Physical corrections were regularly replaced with social forms of punishment, as this was often viewed as less aversive, but still a necessary part of training.

There could not be two more opposing viewpoints than Dunbar’s and the Pearsall’s. These represent an ever-widening gap between behavioural science and hands-on dogmanship; an unfortunate turn of events since the initial collaboration between the two. While neither program was perfect, the Pearsall’s had a more holistic view of the critical period of socialization that included both exposure to people and the world in which they’ll be living as adults. This is the complete opposite to Dunbar’s advocation of isolation to their house in the critical period, coupled with excessive interactions with humans.

While Dunbar’s logic was sound, we now know that his model of ‘socialization’ tends to create either social nuisances that are extremely difficult to reliably train due to their high positive value for people, or for the more innately introverted and aloof, behavioural patterns that repel unwanted advances because of all the forced interactions (whether they intend to be ‘positive’ or not). Isolation from the big wide world also neglects a significant part of the critical period; that is, exposure to the environments in which the puppy will be expected to live in as an adult.

As it is today, neither KPT nor the original SIRIUS® programs are in regular usage, though derivatives of each are extremely popular. Various forms of puppy classes tend to be a staple earner and reliable means of preventing future behaviour and training problems for clients of experienced professional trainers. Unfortunately, puppy classes have also become a means for inexperienced trainers to ‘get a foot in the door’ of the industry, so to speak. This, coupled with misinterpretations of what ‘socialization’ is and what it’s supposed to achieve, has meant that some forms of puppy classes are regularly causing behaviour and training problems, rather than preventing them.


In the last 150-odd years, we’ve seen the industry come full circle in respect to puppy development; from the pre-industry, pre-behavioural science dogmen working purely from experience and anecdote, to the academic working purely from scientific research. Trends and fads in training methodology has only loosely correlated with different puppy raising approaches, with many today believing erroneously that young puppies weren’t worked with solely because the compulsive training methodology that was common in our militaristic era was too harsh for them to cope with.

All the evidence points to this being a simple misconception, or bending of the facts. By necessity, training was harsher in this era because it was commenced later. Once we knew that puppies were capable of learning much sooner than was previously believed, the old ways became new again. Socialization, environmental exposure, less compulsive and more inducive training practices became the norm once more as scientific research settled the debate.

In the end, our industry-wide agreement on the significance of a puppy’s first few months of life was only possible because of the collaboration between great scientific minds and experienced dog trainers. Differences in puppy raising will always exist, and even the most ‘evidence-based’ approaches tend to contradict one another, but our entire industry has had a monumentally positive impact on pet, sport and working puppy development and training.

The discovery of the critical periods of development is arguably the biggest advancement our industry has, or ever will, face. It, as well as research into the heredity of behaviour, can make or break all of dogdom in ways that we’ve only recently begun to fully grasp.

**This is a chapter of a book that I have been writing on the history of dog training. It's been in the works for several years, and I'm not sure if I'll ever manage to finish it to the standard I'd like, so thought I'd use bits and pieces in this blog. If you like it, let me know by commenting below!**

190 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page