Talent and Puppies

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:   http://denisefenzi.com/2011/10/02/selecting-a-puppy/)   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.


rob bardenett

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.


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


Janice DeMello

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


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.

Diane Richardson

LOVE this Denise.

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