Thanks to Steve Haynes, trainer and behaviorist, dogspecialist.com, Guest Contributor, for this article about the imprinting period.
Imprinting is learning how to learn, right? So, let’s imagine if humans’ imprinting of up to 2 years got stuck in a cycle of what we often take for granted. If you have kids, you’ve potty trained them showing where they should do their business, how to let someone know they need help, and what to do after. Now, imagine, you skipped that stage of your kid’s development. What happens?
If we were the same as dogs, we’d learn in those first 2 years that the way we go to the bathroom is….in our pants. Need to pee….let it rip..in our pants. Need to do the other…same thing. We’d learn that it’s O.K. to do that and in fact, it’s normal and that is just how our world works so we’d continue on with that pattern going forward. This is an interesting thought exercise and it’s good that we humans have a MUCH longer imprinting period than dogs but just imagine if that behavior pattern was ingrained.
Why Imprinting is Important for Your Puppy
Okay, back to the four-leggers. Now, that you’ve shaken the image of the human child not being taught how to go to the bathroom properly, you have a visceral and visual idea of why the imprinting period is so important.
When puppies are young we let them jump up on our friends, neighbors, family, the furniture, and can sometimes allow their excitement to go unchecked when meeting new people. Ah, the first bloom of puppy parenthood!
Now, what about if they start barking during that greeting extravaganza? If we don’t tell them to stop or they haven’t been trained to not do it in the first place, the puppy thinks, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to do when I meet new people” and that behavior gets wired in from the moment they realize everyone thinks it’s okay for them to bark and jump and they get laughs and pets. Uh-oh. It’s cute when they’re puppies, but they will get bigger, and louder. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Repetition: “This is How it’s Done”
Teaching puppies is a valuable option to ensure your puppy learns what’s okay and what’s not.
If we start young, between 6 and 16 weeks, work with them to show what type of behavior is expected, practice good behaviors over and over, then what we teach them will be wired in and they’ll understand, “This is how it’s done.”
Working with dogs during their imprinting period is one of the most valuable ways we trainers have of teaching them how the world works in an appropriate way, and then having that knowledge stick with them for the rest of their lives.
Don’t get me wrong. You can teach an old dog new tricks. In the old days, trainers didn’t even begin working with dogs until they were nearly 6 months old. But when behaviors and exercises are practiced over and over when they are young they internalize this and start to understand what we expect.
Starting to work with your puppy at 8 or 9 weeks old gives us time to show them how they should behave, practice that with them in lots of different situations, and have them understand that they should do those behaviors going forward as they age. This early work happens faster, easier, and sticks with the puppies better than the training we do later at an older age.
Why is the imprinting period so important? So, neither you nor your puppy or dog get caught with your pants down.