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Does Early Puppy Training Lead to Fewer Behavior Problems?

Recent research on various aspects of dog behavior produces surprising results.

Key points

  • Detailed research shows no difference in the age of puppy training and the later development of behavior problems.
  • Both males and females who were neutered were found to have increased odds of developing fear and anxiety and of escaping and running away.
  • Positive training lowers the probability of later aggression.
Source: Julissa Helmuth/Pexels
Source: Julissa Helmuth/Pexels

I recently read two very interesting studies on dog behavior, the results of which surprised me mainly because of misleading sweeping generalizations that have appeared from time to time in scientific and popular literature. The first, by Ian Dinwoodie, Vivian Zottola, and Nicholas Dodman, is called "An Investigation into the Impact of Pre-Adolescent Training on Canine Behavior" and the second, by Péter Pongrácz and his colleagues, is titled "Grumpy Dogs Are Smart Learners—The Association between Dog–Owner Relationship and Dogs’ Performance in a Social Learning Task." Both are open-access essays and available online.

Here, I'll focus more on the first paper because of some of its very surprising results. Data collected in the second project led to the conclusion that "dog–human relationship (sic) may have a complex association with various aspects of social interactions between the two species, including problem behaviours and social learning, too" and frankly, is an easier read.1 This is not a criticism of "An Investigation into the Impact of Pre-Adolescent Training on Canine Behavior", but rather, I found the abstract and various parts of the essay to be difficult because of the laudable detail in which the study and the data analyses were conducted.2,3 The discussion clearly lays out the major findings and limitations of the study.

The goal of Ian Dinwoodie and his colleagues' extremely important and novel research was to learn if early puppy training before 3 months of age had clear advantages over training after 3 months in terms of the later development of behavior problems in adults. The results are based on 641 qualifying owners reporting on 1,023 dogs, 48% of whom had puppy training and 52% did not. 99% of the dogs (1016) in the study were reported to have exhibited at least one type of behavior problem.

Results were analyzed using probability models and binary logistic regression models and details can be found in Section 2.3 of the research essay.3

Here are some of the results of this extremely important and novel research.

  • No differences were found in the age of puppy training and the later development of behavior problems.
  • Aggression, compulsive behavior, destructive behavior, and excessive barking were all reduced in dogs who had attended puppy training before 6 months of age compared to a control group of dogs who had not.
  • Other data for the entire study population showed that dogs acquired as pups at 12 weeks of age or less had lower odds of exhibiting fear or anxiety and engaging in destructive behavior.
  • Males were found to have reduced odds "of developing aggressive behavior, compulsive behavior, and mounting/humping and increased odds of rolling in repulsive materials."
  • Neutered males and females showed increased odds of "developing fear and anxiety, increased odds of escaping/running away, exhibiting coprophagia, and rolling in repulsive materials."
  • The likelihood of problematic jumping decreased with age.
  • Puppy training based on reward-based methods substantially reduced the odds of aggression in adult dogs.3
  • "More frequent use of punishment is associated with increased aggression and excitability [26]. Additionally, the use of punishment when training dogs has been found to be related to an increase in both fear and aggression [7]. (The numbers refer to studies cited in the research essay.)
  • As with many retrospective studies relying on data collected using questionnaires, it's possible that recollections by the humans can be unreliable.
  • Because the humans answered "Yes" or "No" to some of the questions, the seriousness of the behavior problems weren't accounted for.

Where to from here?

For simplicity's sake and for those who aren't accustomed to reading the nitty-gritty details focusing on methodology and results including complicated graphs—the very people who will surely benefit from this comprehensive study—the overall conclusion reads as follows: "Dogs that had attended pre-adolescent training were less likely to have aggression, compulsive behavior, destructive behavior, and excessive barking compared to the control group. Frequency of attendance, the age at which training was started (within preadolescence), and the training devices employed were not found to have a significant impact on the outcome. Positive reinforcement training was associated with a reduced likelihood of aggressive behavior."

I look forward to further studies on how the age of puppy training and the methods used are related to subsequent behavior problems in older dogs. This landmark study provides an exemplary template for these sorts of investigations. When we learn more about these and other questions, it'll be a win-win for all—dogs and their humans.

References

Notes

I thank Nicholas Dodman for reading a draft of this piece.

1) For more discussion of how dog-human relationships can influence the results of studies of dog behavior see "'What Do All These Dog Studies Really Mean?'" and "How to Make Studies of Animal Behavior More Reliable".

2) The abstract for "An Investigation into the Impact of Pre-Adolescent Training on Canine Behavior" reads: An online survey about puppy training was sent to members of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and posted on our social media platforms. Six hundred forty-one (641) qualifying owners provided information on 1023 dogs. About half (48%) of the dogs involved in the study attended puppy training and the balance (52%) did not. The goal of the study was to find out whether puppy training at various ages (1–3 months, 4 months, 5–6 months) helped prevent behavior problems later in life (1 year). Attending training at 6 months of age or younger resulted in 0.71 the odds of developing aggressive behavior (95% CI: 0.53–0.97; p = 0.030), 0.64 the odds of having a compulsive behavior (95% CI: 0.45–0.92; p = 0.015), 0.60 the odds of exhibiting destructive behavior (95% CI: 0.37–0.96; p = 0.035), 0.68 the odds of excessive barking (95% CI: 0.47–0.99; p = 0.043), and 1.56 the odds of house soiling (95% CI: 1.08–2.27; p = 0.019). Ancillary findings about the entire study population were that dogs acquired at 12 weeks of age or younger were found to have 0.65 the odds of fear/anxiety (95% CI: 0.46–0.92; p = 0.016) and 0.50 the odds of exhibiting destructive behavior (95% CI: 0.31–0.79; p = 0.003). In addition, male dogs were found to have 0.68 the odds of developing aggressive behavior (95% CI: 0.53–0.88; p = 0.003), 0.66 the odds of developing compulsive behavior (95% CI: 0.49–0.88; p = 0.006), 0.37 the odds of mounting/humping (95% CI: 0.26–0.52; p < 0.001), and 1.53 the odds of rolling in repulsive materials (95% CI: 1.18–1.97; p = 0.001). Neutered dogs of either sex were found to have 3.10 the odds of fear/anxiety (95% CI: 2.05–4.72; p < 0.001), 1.97 the odds of escaping/running away (95% CI: 1.12–3.69; p = 0.025), 2.01 the odds of exhibiting coprophagia (95% CI 1.30–3.19; p = 0.002), and 1.72 the odds of rolling in repulsive materials (95% CI: 1.12–2.66; p = 0.014). The odds of problematic jumping deceased by 0.84 for each 1-year increase in age (95% CI: 0.80–0.88; p < 0.001).

3) For further discussions of different aspects of puppy training and the importance of using force-free positive training (a point stressed in Dr. Dinwoodle's essay) see "Words of Wisdom on Raising and Training a Happy Puppy", "'Bad Dog?'" The Psychology of Using Positive Reinforcement", and "Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best".

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