Did you know that the most critical period in a Miniature Schnauzer puppy’s life is from 3-12 weeks? Puppies are the most impressionable at this age, and the experiences they have during this time will shape the way they see the world for the rest of their lives. Puppies are with their breeder until 8 weeks, which is more than half of this critical period. That’s a responsibility that we take seriously at Midnight Schnauzers. We know that what we do now is going to impact puppies and their future families for a lifetime.
In this blog post, we’re going to give you an exclusive, behind-the scenes look at just how we raise our puppies to be well-behaved and confident. You’re going to get the scoop on what protocols we use at each stage of the puppies’ development, week by week. So let’s dive in.
Week 1: Day 0-7
This week, puppies are in the neonatal period. Their eyes and ears are closed, so they find their mother through heat sensors. At around Day 5, we start Early Neurological Stimulation, or ENS. These are handling exercises designed to stimulate the development of the puppies’ neurons in the brain, preparing them for future learning. We also practice relaxing strokes and cuddle sessions daily to teach the puppies that human handling is a positive thing.
Week 2: Day 7-14
The puppies are still neonates this week, but we’ll see their eyes and ears begin to open at the end of the week. Early Neurological Stimulation continues this week, but now we’re adding body handling. This includes the toes, ears, mouth, and tail. Body handling preps the puppies for future grooming and vet visits. Stroking and cuddle sessions with the puppies is ongoing and will continue until they go to their new homes.
Week 3: Day 14-21
This week the puppies are in the transitional period between neonates and the beginning of the critical socialization period at the end of the week. Body handling is ongoing and will continue until the puppies go to their new homes. The puppies’ eyes and ears are now fully open, and their senses of sight and hearing are developing. When we see them start to toddle around the whelping area, we will begin introducing a new tactile object every day. The puppies are learning to interact with various textures and surfaces.
Week 4: Day 21-28
When we see the puppies begin to startle at sudden noises, we know they have officially entered the critical socialization period. Our job is now to build positive associations with the objects, people, and experiences they’re going to encounter for the rest of their lives.
We are still putting a different tactile object in the puppy pen every day. These include different types of footing, fleece, crinkly wrappers, cardboard tube, squeakers, you name it.
Because the puppies haven’t yet entered their initial fear period, this week is critical for sound protocols. We’re desensitizing the puppies to potentially scary sounds before they even know what fear is. These protocols include:
- Habituation recordings: fireworks, thunder, crowds cheering, sirens, airplanes, heavy equipment, and dozens more.
- Startle recovery: We make a sudden noise like drop an object or slam a door. The puppies jump, then return to whatever they were doing. This flexibility is a trait the puppies will need for the rest of their lives. Dogs need to be able to quickly recover from the new and startling experiences all dogs encounter in our crazy human world.
- Upsetting household appliances like a blow dryer, blender, or vacuum cleaner.
We alternate with classical music recordings in the puppy room for relaxation.
Week 5: Day 28-35
This week we amp up the introductions to tactile objects by giving the puppies smaller toys that they can carry and interact with more. The puppies are also starting on “puppy mush,” which is BIl-Jac Puppy Select kibble softened by goat’s milk. When they start running to the food bowl when we put it down, we’ll introduce a barrier challenge. The barrier challenge is a rolled-up towel or blanket that the puppies have to climb over to reach their food. This is the beginning of teaching the puppies to problem solve, instead of going to pieces when something doesn’t go right.
We also begin the puppy call, which makes for a fabulous recall (dog trainer slang for coming when called). We give the puppy call, a long trilling “puppy-puppy-puppy-puppy-puppy-puppy” that attracts pups like a magnet, right before we set the food dish down. Puppies learn that when they hear the puppy call, something absolutely amazing and exciting is going to happen.
At the end of this week, puppies typically enter their 5 week fear period. This is a time where puppies are particularly sensitive and for a few days will show signs of fear at loud noises or new environments. We discontinue habituation recordings and startle recovery work at this point, to avoid undue stress on the puppies during these few days.
Week 6: Day 35-42
This is where some of the real fun begins with puppies. Their personalities are beginning to develop, and they start more advanced play with their littermates, like tackling and feint/parry. They are quick to test out their newly discovered voices, with adorable little barks and growls.
This week potty training begins as the puppies learn to go outside to eliminate. Once they have done their business outside, they get to explore and play in the puppy playground. I’ll be honest, I could sit and watch puppies in the playground all afternoon. Someone suggested that we charge admission! They’re encountering obstacles like a toddler slide, ball pit, ramp, stairs, tunnels, and wobble board. The confidence boost they get from the puppy playground is incredible.
Socialization with people outside our home begins this week. For health precautions, visitors remove their shoes outside and sanitize hands before interacting with the puppies.
One fun exercise we do with the puppies is to set up a folded wire x-pen with a tarp over it. The puppies have a blast running over the crinkly, unstable surface, which gives them another big confidence boost.
This week, we start teaching the puppies to “mand” (instead of demand what they want). Puppies must sit to say please before they are petted or picked up. Teaching this is very simple. We just ignore the puppies when they are jumping and whining and wait for them to sit quietly before interacting with them. This is an immensely powerful concept that can be applied to absolutely anything the puppies want. For example, new owners can wait for the puppy to sit before allowing them access to the backyard for playtime. It’s also great to teach puppies to greet people politely.
Week 7: Day 42-49
This week is busy, as we are continuing body handling, manding, introductions to new objects and experiences, puppy call, and playground time.
The puppies now are super excited when they hear the puppy call, so we can start adding the adult recall word, “Come!” just before we give the puppy call. They learn that the word “come” predicts the puppy call, which predicts something awesome. So they start getting just as excited about hearing the word “come” as they would a bowl of food. Pretty cool, huh? When we see the puppies come running when they hear the word “come,” before we can even start the puppy call, we can then start fading out the puppy call. So instead of saying “Come! (pause) puppy-puppy-puppy-puppy-puppy!” we can start saying “Come! (pause) puppy-puppy-puppy!” and so on until we are just saying “Come!” with no puppy-puppies added.
We introduce another barrier challenge for the puppies this week. We set up a wire x-pen with the puppy on one side and a bowl of food on the other side. The x-pen is open, so all the puppies have to do is walk around the end to get to the food bowl. But for puppies, this is a lot harder than it sounds. They have to learn that sitting on their side of the pen whining doesn’t work. Instead they have to put their brain to work and figure out how to walk around the pen and get to their food bowl.
Week 8: Day 49-56
Now that puppies are weaned and able to take dry kibble from our hands, training begins in earnest. This last week before the puppies go home is like running a marathon in the middle of a whirlwind. When we’re not training the puppies, we’re getting the vet check done, giving them their final bath and puppy trim, taking pictures, and putting together puppy packs.
The puppies already know to come when called and sit politely for attention, but they need to learn more basic skills. We use a clicker, because it gives extremely clear communication and feedback to the puppies. They know that when they hear the click, they get a treat. They learn that whatever they were doing when they heard the click is what earned them the treat, so they will want to repeat that behavior. Clicker training is especially helpful for active puppies. Without clicker training, we would be asking the puppy to sit, then reaching for a treat. By the time we deliver the treat, the puppy could have looked left, wagged his tail and bounced up. All of a sudden, there was a treat. The puppy could easily think he got the treat for bouncing up. Which of course is not what we want to train. The clicker “captures” whatever behavior the puppy was performing and buys us a couple seconds to deliver the treat. This makes for faster learning with less frustration for the puppy – and the trainer.
To “load” the clicker, we simply click and then give the puppy a treat, about 20 times in a row. The puppy learns that clicking predicts a treat.
Now that the puppies understand that click means treat, we can start using the clicker to teach behaviors. We start with “sit” then move on to “down.” We also click when the puppies make eye contact with us (without being asked). We want paying attention to be an automatic behavior for the puppies.
Then we start preparing the puppies to walk on leash. Puppies have a natural instinct to follow us, so we use that to our advantage. We start with the puppy off leash. The leash just gets in the way, especially with young puppies. We want to teach the puppies the behavior of walking beside us before introducing a leash. The leash should just be a safety net, not a way to make the puppy stay with us. We then decide on an imaginary “magic circle” that starts about 3 feet from our left side. We walk around the puppy in big counter-clockwise circles so the puppy ends up on our left side. Any time the puppy walks into the magic circle, within 3 feet of our left side, we click and treat. When the puppy is consistently following us, we can then make the magic circle smaller, meaning we only click and treat when the puppy is within 2 feet of our left side. When the puppy is doing well with a 2 foot magic circle, we can decrease it to 1 foot from our left side.
There you have it! If you are thinking all this sounds like a LOT, you’re right, it is. But when we see the results in the puppies, that makes it more than worth it.
Want to learn how to continue your puppy’s training? We’ve got some great articles on teaching basic behaviors in our Schnauzer U page.