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Talent and Puppies

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Talent is innate.

In dogs, we increase the odds of having talents through selective breeding.  If two dogs show talent for a given ability, then the odds increase that their offspring will also show that talent.  No guarantees, but certainly better odds.

At what age will that talent emerge?  How will environmental influences encourage or discourage that talent?

Many trainers expect puppies to express their talents from the day we take them home.  If the trainer has had prior dogs that showed their talents early, then the expectations will be even higher.

In the sport of Schutzhund, we talk about “sleepy” puppies.  That is how puppies are described that are slow to mature; slow to show any real interest in the work required in the sport.  But sleepy puppies have a way of waking up if the genetics for work are there.  These puppies are something of a gamble, and many in the dog sports want a sure thing.  Let’s face it; it can be hard to put energy into a puppy that seems unable to do what others of the same age (or even littermates) can do.

Fast maturing dogs who  show their talents early are prized – they are trained with joy and energy because their responses to our efforts reinforce our training.  Sleepy puppies are trained less well.  We have fewer opportunities to celebrate and more opportunities to express our frustration.  The lack of positive feedback for our efforts, and the slow progress that might be made, lead to a vicious cyle. We train less, celebrate less, and give less.    With my students, I’ve noticed that sleepy puppies do best with novice handlers.  In most cases, they don’t even know they have a sleepy puppy.  When the puppy starts to show it’s talent, the owners are delighted as opposed to relieved. The lack of pressure allows the puppy to flourish.

Slow maturing dogs with experienced handlers can be a trainer or breeder’s nightmare.  Their owners are frustrated, disappointed, and pushy.  They worry….the winner they were hoping for isn’t panning out.  If that person spent a lot of time identifying a  litter that showed great promise – great parents with a great pedigree, the problem will be even worse.  They “did everything right” and the puppy turned out wrong.

As a breeder and trainer, I find myself hoping for early maturing puppies.   Not because I believe it’s better, but because I’ve seen what happens to goal driven trainers who develop doubts.  They ruin their working relationship with their dogs.  There is no worse combination than an ambitious trainer with goals and a “sleepy” puppy with normal ups and downs.

If your puppy is temperamentally sound and you have a reasonable belief that the genetics for work are there, don’t give up on your puppy.  Don’t pressure her to grow up faster.  Don’t crate excessively to “build drive” – deprivation to force early interest is not appropriate.  If you become manic in your efforts to get your puppy to play, you are adding unreasonable pressure that will make her shut down and avoid you.  Do not train like a weekend warrior; allowing your puppy to develop her own interests all week (playing with other dogs and chasing squirrels in the yard) and then pull out all the stops when you get around to training.

If your puppy is not ready to work for you, try spending time together instead.  Show her the world but interject yourself into the equation whenever possible.  Focus on what is right with your puppy’s development.  Hand feed but don’t starve.  When possible,  keep the puppy with you rather than crating.  If your puppy likes toys but not tug, sit with your puppy while she chews.  Talk to your puppy; tell her how special she is.  Convince yourself that she is fabulous…but not ready to show the world just yet.

Remove excessive alternative interests.  If your dog focuses on other dogs, remove the puppy from the other dogs, but do not isolate her.  If your puppy loves to run up and down the fenceline, block the fenceline.  Chasing squirels?  Take puppy outside on leash. Intense environmental focus?  Keep puppy on leash and prevent interaction with the environment – offer alternatives like sitting quietly with you, looking out and becoming comfortable with your presence and what you have to offer (food, toys and interaction -without strings attached).  Keep in mind that the drives you use are the ones you build, so if she spends the week running the fence line and barking at squirrels, you’ll have your work cut out for you if you try to compete with that interest.

Give it time.  Base temperament will not change – if your puppy is aggressive, fearful, or nervous, then you’ll need to deal with these issues.  But if the base temerament is sound and the puppy is simply “sleepy”, then you’ll have to use other techniques for bonding with your puppy – not work.

I am bonding with Lyra through work – that is what I do and she is amenable to it.  My husband is bonding with Lyra through time and play- he takes her places, holds her constantly, and spends lots of time admiring how cute she is.  We will both end up with an excellent relationship – mine will take us into competition, and his will give him a devoted and loving pet.

I find that Lyra isn’t very interested in work at some times of the day.  That’s fine; I scale back my expectations at those times and we do activities where she can succeed.  I will shorten her lesson or switch to a different activity.  Sometimes that activity is sitting together doing not much of anything and watching the world go by.  That is training – we are building our friendship outside of work.

Lyra has shown me a few specific talents that will aid us in work.  I’m delighted with their presence, and I use them as points of bonding – telling her (and the world!) how proud I am for these early emerging skills.  She also has some areas that are relatively weak compared to my student’s dogs or other puppies I have owned.  That’s fine too.  I will work to develop these areas over time – not obsessively, but here and there as we grow together.   I am aware of these potential areas for improvement, but I do not focus on them.  When I see progress, I am ecstatic and I tell her!

What good would it be if Lyra were a finished product at a year of age, with no ups and downs? It’s hard to celebrate success if you didn’t  contribute to it.  That doesn’t mean I appreciate the challenges as I go through them, but I’m secure enough in my training to know that we will both improve over time.  Maybe we won’t reach all of our goals, but we’ll do our best, based on who she is and what I know at this time.

She is the dog I have, and I love her.  I take pride in her talents and I have a realistic assessment of her weaknesses.  Indeed, I selected her knowing that my needs would create some training challenges (see:   On balance, she has a terrific package, and it’s my job to develop the whole thing.  Focusing on what is positive about her, regardless of her working ability, allows me to do what pet people do so naturally – love their dogs unconditionally.

Pet people are on to something.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

43 responses »

  1. I love, love love this post. My dog is what I would call a late bloomer (I’m not sure if this is just how most Tibetan Terriers are or just Tibby’s nature) and I am very much a novice handler. The hand feeding or starving and the crating to build drive are all advice I’ve been given and tried. However, just spending time together has created the strongest bond.

  2. What a sweet post! And good observations of pairings between different kinds of puppies and owners. I’d never thought about that before but it rings a bell for me.

  3. Catherine Thomas

    Great post Denise!
    My “sleepy puppy” Figaro is two years old. It was the addition of fast maturing puppy Thyme who woke me up to the fact that I HAVE rushed and pressured my sensitive little tervuren to do more work sooner than he was able. What is gratifying is that the last six months of being focused more on puppy work with Thyme has invigorated and renewed my training relationship with Figaro – AWESOME! He has some big environmental worries … so … perhaps he will be a back yard champion 🙂 I love it that I am at the point where I am 100% fine with that possibility.
    I will absolutely select for fast fearless learners from this point forward because truly, Thyme fits me like a glove – well, so far anyway!!!
    If you have time, I’d love to see the foundation list that you mentioned you might post. I am very much enjoying training the exercises you show in the blog.
    Catherine Thomas

  4. Catherine Thomas

    LOL – I certainly know that feeling Denise!!
    It has been very instructive for me to have two dogs with what for me, is a tiny age gap – just two years. About a year before Figaro arrived I started thinking about foundation training and HECK I just haven’t stopped 🙂 Some core principles for sure between the two dogs but the devil is in the details and it surely does seem that the whole question of balance and tuning to the dog in front of us AT ALL times should always me the priority!!
    Because my little clutch of clients is almost all composed of “pet people” I feel compelled to create a fantastic foundation program. I’ve started thinking of it as building blocks of communication for dog to human. How can I succeed to provide my human clients with fast, efficient, elegant tools to help their dogs to shine?
    I am really enjoying the platform concept which I have added to my tool box thanks to you. SOOOO inquiring minds want to know …. where and how do you feel yourself deviating?
    Really hoping to see you in MASS in April

    • Lyra doesn’t enjoy the platform as much as most puppies so I’m moving away from that for her (but not my students). I spend much more time on play skills than training skills – that is not reflected in my original foundation thoughts. She already had a few of the most important skills – the basics of heeling, retrieving, scent discrimination, recall and play. Now she needs to learn to target and mark away from me (with speed) and I’ll feel I have the important elements. With those few skills I can teach her most anything. Oh yeah, she has to learn to back up; haven’t’ started that. And those pesky positions (sit down stand). With those, plus jumping, it’s just a matter of stringing stuff together. And of course, getting the endurance.

  5. Thank you for the wonderful article

  6. P.S. Reminds me of one of my favorite Steve White-isms: “Train the dog you have right now.” Giving our dogs permission to be who they are, and being willing to meet them on their level during any given training session is so important, yet so challenging for many people.

  7. Great post, great dog , great training tips.

  8. Are Lyra and Copper having phone conversations at night? He loves his cast iron frying pan, and he doesn’t hate the platform, but he doesn’t think it’s great, either. Two years ago, the person pressuring the sleepy puppy would have been me. I spent my last pup’s puppyhood complaining about his slow development, but develop he did – on his schedule. When Copper came, I noticed right away that he was not very tuned in, not very quick to learn, pretty quick to quit, pretty quick to just lie there passively and look at me rather than try to figure out what would get him a click. For once, I think I reacted properly. I said to myself and the world, that he just didn’t appear to be ready to learn yet. I can honestly say that I adapted to his learning pace. Maybe it will get faster as we go. I think the transition from sleepy to ready will be gradual, so that just like his transition from small to tall, I’ll look at him one day and realize the transformation took place, but I won’t be able to put my finger on when it was.

  9. great article, even when the sleepy puppy does not wake up, sometimes they make a great pet and the work wasn’t wasted although some of the imprinted behavior would be preferable to not have. My 9 year old GSD is this sort of dog, did not work out for search and rescue but has been a great pet and house dog as my kids have grown up. She was a disappointment as a trainer but certainly a pleasure to have around the house. I had other dogs from the same lines that were great working dogs but thats the luck of the draw sometimes

  10. Great post Denise. Do you think that novice owners/handlers that have a “sleepy” puppy as their first dog become more patient and understanding trainers? I have a 7 month old puppy right now that is a great great grandson of my 14 year old dog I have here. I chose him for his parents outgoing personalities, his fathers hunting ability and for his own temperament. He isn’t a “sleeper” exactly, but will take more time to mature emotionally than I had originally thought. He is going through a period of being reactive which is not something I normally deal with in my breed. I had planned to take him to his first field trial last weekend and didn’t go because I didn’t feel he was ready emotionally and I need that first trial to be a great experience. It can be challenging when a puppy doesn’t develop emotionally how we thought it was going to, but I think sometimes challenging dogs just make us better trainers/owners/handlers.

    • I’m not sure. I do think whatever we own (and succeed with) first sticks with us. I’m fortunate for having had Cisu – she was sleepy and now she’s a hell of a dog, so that probably helped me become patient. Plus, watching my student’s dogs has brought home the same message.

  11. Great article! I’ve trained both kinds also and it is just adjusting to the dog that smooths things out.

    Where can I find more info on the plank training? I’m not familiar with it but it sounds fabulous. Look forward to learning about this! Thanks!


  12. So glad you muse and share.

  13. Denise, your timing is perfect! I am thrilled that you will be here to see my sleepy puppy amd I had exactly the thoughts and doubts you speak of about her, yet her genetics are there, and I love her for who she is. I would add that when you have had a “prodigy” puppy who seems to absorb everything instantly and brings you all you want and more at an early age, its hard to transition styles of training to the new puppy. She doesn’t do what *he* did at this age. She isn’t *that* dog. No, she is herself and brings her own special gifts. I think we also forget that our early dogs turned out spectacularly for a couple of reasons. One, they had good genetics, but equally importantly, we *believed* in then and we spent a lot of time with them and loved training them and they blossomed. If we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of comparisons, we drift away from training and don’t give the sleepy puppy as much, then complain because she doesn’t bring as much. Its a two way street. Thanks for the reminder.

    • This post is great…I feel much the same way…my first agility dog (my pet dog) would barely make time and would run very hot and cold…but what did I know? Then I got my second agility Golden…she was a Early bloomer…always on…always ready and pushy! It was great training her, plus going from the first to the second was an amazing journey…I now have a little toller who can show me moments of brilliance and speed, but is much more of a thinker and not consistent in her speed and confidence…I have been frustrated by this and feel that I have missed some opportunity to get it right, (she 13 mos.). This article has really hit home for me…thank you so much for writing it! It gives me a much better perspective to relax and know that all is not lost!

  14. Love this post. I have a slow maturing puppy and I knew that would be likely from the moment she was a planned pedigree. Her mom was slow to mature and her dad was from equally slow to mature lines. So I am happy to wait for her to bloom, because if she has even half as much drive as her mom she’ll be a heck of a dog. I try to remind my puppy folks of this all the time. Many started competing with their kids younger than I would have and they worry that they don’t have the drive or the intensity of their mom. As long as the relationship is intact, pups that tested with drive will have it when they are old enough to work. Your job is to to make the job you want them to do rewarding so they don’t follow some other passion. With some breeds and some lines that could be as late as 3 years. It is worth the wait. Just remember, they are always learning even if the lesson wasn’t the one you thought it was. Nicely written.

  15. Denise,

    Fantastic article! I too have a sleepy puppy that just turned two and woke up. He did not show much drive for tugging or bitework. All of a sudden, he just turned on. What a wonderful article you wrote. I am forwarding this to my dog training friends. Thank you!

    Jaime Fellows

  16. Such a wonderful post, full of great reminders for those of us that love training and love our dogs. Thanks, Denise

  17. absolutely fabulous article and one I would tell my puppy owners and students over and over throughout the years!

    Your article is well worth sharing and thanks so much for taking the time to write it!
    Janice DeMello/Hob Nob border collies

  18. You really hit some important points in this article. The combination of an experienced trainer looking for “the dog” and a “sleepy” puppy is something you don’t see many people discussing, yet it is very real. Thanks for articulating that, and giving well thought out guidance on a balanced approach to bringing out the most in a canine-human partnership. It makes me sad when i see so many people diminish their pups/young dogs if their puppy doesn’t tug like crazy, or is “labeled” in such a way as to become a self fulfilling prophecy on the dog’s potential.

  19. I am one of those “experienced and previously successful” trainers with a youngster that is not a quick study like all my others. I am very thankful to have read the article because although I am being patient and “training the dog I have” it was great to know this has happened to others and that my approach is the right one. Definitely a new experience which I hope will make me a better trainer and pet owner.

  20. what a fantastic post, I can relate to it totally. Many thanks Denise.


  21. Brilliant as usual Denise!!! If we could only get this out to the whole world!!! We are a hub for a training system that encourages great pressure on puppies to tug and be pretty darned perfect and I have seen the negative effects on those puppies not ready for that pressure. What common sence things you are advocating would make dog training sooooo much easier on not only the puppies but also the owners/trainers. THANK YOU for having the guts to say not ALL pups are up to *everything* at such an early age and to not drill them…let them emerge and be who they are and just support them with everything you can.

  22. Thank you – from both myself and my ‘sleepy puppy’ ;o) The timing for a dog friend to share your blog with me, was perfect!

  23. This is an excellent article!! Might I have permission to have it printed in my dog club’s newsletter for the members to enjoy reading?

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  26. I am SO enjoying re-reading these posts and being reminded about so much. Sometimes it feels like they are directed to me. 🙂 Waiting a little impatiently for the book(s)!

  27. OUCH!!!

  28. Another great re-post. I am aware that I need to spend more time with my 18 month old “puppy” (because mentally he is still pretty much that) bonding over just being with me – not always “training”. THANKS!

  29. You sure hit the nail right on the head with this post! I have mother/daughter Shelties. Mom is a firecracker but daughter is much shyer and laid back yet persistent and much more consistent in her performance. I had a hard time learning to work with her at first as I kept comparing her to her mom. Once I got rid of doing that, we progressed much quicker. However, like you said, I was and still am not always as “amped” to get us out to parks to practice with her as I was with her mom. But by gosh, I’ve kept at it, learned to appreciate her progress shown to me in a much more low-keyed type of way, she finished her Graduate Open title in the Spring of this year and is now working on her Utility title! I am so darn proud of us. (:-D

  30. Good reminder Denise. This hits the bulls eye again. Once I let go of my exceptions there was a direct improvement in relationship. I continue struggle with the challenges this dog brings, but you motivate and inspire me. thanks for all your support. Renee

  31. Thanks for re-posting this article on sleepy puppies. I am the novice handler with the sleepy puppy.This article was sent to me after you came out to see us. You gave us the best advice,which was give my 15 mo.old sleepy puppy a year off to grown into himself and just be a puppy. Hard to hear but the best decision we could make for him.During this year off he finally bonded with me because there was no pressure for him to tug or perform in any way. It was a year of some uncertainly which came from outside sources (he will never amount to anything, give him away, you will never be able to handle this dog). My pup is now a little over 2 ½ years old and he is a wonderful and an amazing animal. This has not been an easy adventure, but one that I would not ever change for the world. I believe in my pup and can now say I cherish our journey. He is now in the show ring and is doing GREAT. I believe my last words to you and my trainers were I trust you guys!!!
    Thank you !!!!

  32. I have just moved on to my second dog to compete in obedience competitions, my Jack Russell is unreliable but does love it. I have connected so much with this article. My puppy was and is so wanted and I waited such a long time to get her, I even imported her to New Zealand. However, due to the flight, and her breed and nature being very sensitive, I found my self struggling to bond. At the start I wanted to get some obedience foundations started, but found myself at a loss, as I didn’t have the bond-due to the stress she had been under and I had put too much pressure on her to be this wonderful, easier, dog to train. I have stopped all training at home, and now we just play and have fun, she has just turned 5 months and now finally we are getting on the same page, and becoming best friends. Thanks for this article it reassured me not to rush, take my time and most importantly let her have fun and be a puppy!


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