John Rodriguez


The Development of Power in the Young Dog
A Three-Part Series, Part One

by Lori Rodriguez | Published in Schutzhund USA, BSA News (Great Britain)

Schutzhund article on the cover of Schutzhund USA Magazine

Part 1: Building the Foundation in the Young Dog

Two of the most often heard questions at working dog seminars are:
  • When do you start the young dog?
  • What do you do with him?

The answers range from "I start at 8 weeks and by 12 weeks the dog can do a basic obedience routine," to "I don't do anything until the dog is at least two years old." Neither response is correct because neither trainer has built a foundation on which to train.

The Material

Of course, to begin you need the proper material--for better or for worse, heredity is the material. The importance of a dog's background cannot be stressed enough! Heredity limits the behavioral capacity of the animal. Selecting a dog with a good pedigree and knowing the specific behavioral characteristics of the parents is critical to laying a good foundation. The more you know about the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of the material you have to work with, the better. But let's assume you have the proper material.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary ©1977, G&C Merriam Co. defines the following terms:

  • Aggression: A forceful action or procedure especially when intended to dominate or master
  • Activity: A process (as digestion) that an organism carries on or participates in by virtue of being alive
  • Drive: To compel to undergo or suffer a change (as in situation, awareness, or emotional state): to press or force into an activity, course, or direction
  • Behavior: anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation
  • Resolution: the act of answering: Solving
  • Stimulus/Stimuli: something that arouses or incites to activity
  • Stress: constraining force or influence: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension
  • Security: freedom from fear or anxiety: freedom from want or deprivation
  • Tension: an inner striving, unrest, or imbalance often with physiological indication of emotion
  • Threshold: the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced

When a stimulus--hunger, fear, cold, etc.--incites a dog to move from security into stress, tension is created and must be resolved through an activity for the dog to regain security. (See Figure 1.) The amount of stimulus needed to put the dog in stress is called the dog's threshold. Although the amount of time the dog can withstand stress can be increased, the dog cannot stay in stress indefinitely. The cycle is always completed as shown.

There are two primary activities associated with canines--aggression and avoidance. Our goal is to build aggression (positive reactions to stress) and to negate most behaviors associated with avoidance. (See Figure 2.) In the process, we will try to increase the amount of stress the dog can overcome and the length of time he can stay in stress. Building the proper drive and withstanding stress puts power-life--into the dog.

We would assume, at first, that if we could maintain a dog's security (alleviate all stress), we would ensure a happy complacent animal. Sadly, this mistake often results in the dog being unable to handle even the smallest stress, creating neurosis. The dog becomes uneasy, fearful. Because he has not learned to resolve stress positively, he may become dangerous.

The idea then is to teach the dog how to work through stress positively, then to gradually increase and sustain the stress to meet to dog's maximum genetic stress level. (See Figure 3.) The dog learns that security is attainable through the proper behavior no matter how high or long the stress. This is the dog we yearn for. His power, confidence, and joy so evident in his work!

Many dogs are worked far below this level or are taught very little until they are older. By that time, the optimum learning period of youth has past. If the adult dog can take the pressure of advanced work he stays; if not, he goes. Bad upbringing is now the dog's problem.

In The Beginning, the Newborn Puppy

Because dogs learn to respond to stress almost at birth, the breeder should start handling the puppies as soon as they are born. He should spend time with the litter in the whelping box, touching and gently holding each puppy--enough that his scent and feel is familiar. "When the puppy can distinguish between familiar animals and places, it shows an almost reflex emotional response to separation, punishing the puppy during separation and relieving the unpleasant emotions on reunion. Repeated separations and reunions result in the development of a strong degree of social motivation or attachment."1 Becoming the focal point of the puppy's attachment enables the breeder to control his social motivation.

In the wild, weaning begins at about three weeks of age with the mother leaving and returning to the puppies with regularity. Thus in nature the pattern of stress, activity, and security begins. (Figure 1.) All too often humans interfere with this process as soon as it starts by restricting the mother from coming and going as she pleases or taking the puppies away from each other too soon or too late. These puppies have difficulty forming the proper attachments, develop incorrect social motivation, and/or are unable to react to stress positively. Choosing the right breeder is a critical element to the success or failure of your puppy. The breeder controls not only his genetics, but also his critical early environment.

The pattern of stress/activity/security continues when the puppies are still very young. The stress can be picking the puppy up, putting a new object in the whelping area, placing the puppy at a distance from the rest of the litter or food to encourage him to crawl back, having the puppy climb over or under things to get his food, etc. At 4-5 weeks old, you can move the puppies to a new den, mimicking natural canine behavior. Increase the severity of the stress as the puppy increases his ability to overcome it. Each puppy must come through stress positively! You are teaching the puppy to react positively to stress not to put him in avoidance.

When evaluating a litter, most working dog people pick the most dominant puppy or the puppy with the greatest prey drive. But the puppy whose persistence gets him over the whelping box walls first and most often may be best working dog prospect. This puppy's desire to fulfill drive outlasts his propensity to avoid stress, making him an ideal candidate for a strong foundation. And a good foundation makes for better training later on.

The puppy should leave his littermates during the 7th week. If this is not possible, then he should leave between the 9th week and 12th week. During the 8th week puppies go through a critical period where a negative experience may have a magnified effect. Once in his new home, the puppy should stay in a Vari-kennel in a people room. The enclosed, den-like feel of the kennel provides a secure place for the puppy during downtime. The security of the downtime area is important so that the puppy does not burn out and can recoup and begin to build energies for his next active period. As the puppy matures, he can gain house privileges or can be moved to a larger kennel area.

The Puppy

The puppy must continue to learn to overcome more and more stressful situations. Instead of teaching the puppy commands or locking him away in a kennel for two years, take the puppy places, do things together--new sights, new sounds, new animals, new obstacles, new smells, strange surfaces, new people etc. The time spent together will also build trust, bonding, and pack order. Every so often stand back and observe the dog, he should become more confident, happy, and outgoing everyday. If this is not the case, he is being pushed too much. Give him a break. Go back a step or more and start again, slowly. Even when things are going well, the dog needs rest and time away from stimulus (stress). Let the dog revel in his hard earned security. Give him days off or even an occasional vacation now and then.

Another important aspect in developing power in the young dog is to encourage, sustain, and increase those drives/habits that will be important to later training and to discourage and diminish those that will be detrimental. Although heredity dictates the behavioral capacities of the dog, habit formation tends to make the behavior consistent and invariable. Know what habits you will want in place before you start training and encourage their formation now as your dog matures. When training begins in earnest, the dog is less apt to be in conflict because behavioral patterns consistent with training are already in place. Attitude is not diminished and training becomes a breeze while maintaining a high level of obedience is simplified!

For example, the correct heel position. Encourage this behavior by enticing the dog to the position and rewarding him while he is correct (note we are NOT training). Do NOT use a leash; the dog should be free to make his own decisions. At first a command is not used and the reward (a ball, food, praise) should be given every time the dog is showing the correct behavior. Once the dog understands what behavior gets him the reward, gradually increase and vary the length of time in the correct position to receive the reward. After this time, to prevent the diminishing of drive, do not always give the reward. If the dog receives a reward every time he is correct, he will adjust his behavior to the minimum effort he can expand to still get what he wants. On the other hand, if the reward is taken away to such an extent that the dog feels his efforts are in vain, the behavior and attitude will decrease as well. Therefore, observe your dog and adjust your reward giving accordingly. At this time, avoid static commands like long sits and downs or motion exercises as these deplete drive.

Another example is drive building work on the back tie. The dog needs to resolve the stress of the back tie off the agitation field. If not he will be in stress before agitation even begins and cannot be tested properly. Because boredom diminishes drive, do not just stake the dog out in the yard--play rag, play ball, whatever. The back tie is meant to put drive (power) into the dog. The dog must also learn to bark on the back tie. If he cannot bark there with you, he will have difficulty with the bark training in the bite work later. Use the back tie to frustrate and therefore build those drives needed for training. The dog should see the back tie and go into drive.

These are just two examples of drive building/habit formation work. More examples of this type of work will be given in Part Two of this series.

Behavior Shaping/Modification in the Young Dog

The work described above is called behavior shaping or behavior modification. (Behavior shaping and behavior modification have slightly different meanings, but will referenced as the same in this article.) In behavior modification the dog modifies existing behavior to resolves stress. Technically, external or internal stimuli set in motion internal forces (stress) that motivate the dog to modify his behavior (activity) to fulfill desire (security). Another similar concept is imprinting. Imprinting is an outside force impressed upon the dog to compel him to behave in a way he would not otherwise. Two examples of imprinting are: goslings that have imprinted on a human and follow him as they would their mother or puppies that have accepted their breeder as a high-ranking pack member.

As we build drive in the dog and concurrently teach the dog how to handle more and more stress, the need to fulfill drive creates internal stress, almost an addiction to stress. This is called Active Aggression. Aggression that is caused by an external stress will extinguish rapidly once the stimulus is removed. Active aggression, on the other hand, is both the stimulus and the resolution. Because active aggression is self-generating, it can be sustained longer with less risk of avoidance behavior.

Active aggression compels the dog to tear down the field searching the blinds with focus and barking with power and intensity when he discovers the man. Active aggression keeps the dog pumped during a 15-minute obedience routine in driving rain or 100-degree weather. Active aggression drvies the dog to work the track with intensity ignoring distractions. The capacity for active aggression cannot be created in a dog that does not possess it genetically. It can, however, be developed or diminished in a dog that does have the genetic predisposition. Your job as a trainer is to use this characteristic at its optimum level (which is not necessarily its maximum level) for your specific training goals.


The ability of a dog to reach and sustain his maximum stress level without avoiding and to participate at his fullest level of drive is influenced first by heredity and second by his environment. Power in the young dog can be developed and controlled by selecting a puppy from genetically superior parents, and then raising him in an environment conducive to drive building and stress maintenance. When you have done your homework correctly, your dog will work at his optimum level of active aggression in each phase.

NEXT: The Young Dog, Preparing to Build the House Part II will focus on more examples of stress maintenance and drive building exercises as well as how to begin actual training.

Part 3: The mechanics of learning and the young dog's adolescence period.

Dog Behavior Primer

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