I was just reading Susan Garrett’s blog, catching up on the older posts.  I’m really glad she’s blogging as reading her entries and watching the video she posted (have you seen her table switching training?  I have to give that a try – it’s brilliant!) is motivating me to pull out my training theory books and get back to doing training beyond herding.  I love herding, but it develops dogs in different ways than agility, and I really like what agility does for a dog’s brain, an for my relationship with that dog.  

I just finished Susan’s entry about her puppy camp, titled “You Only Get One Chance to Make A First Impression.”  I’ve trained with one of her students and have done most, if not all, of the games they do at these camps.  They’re fantastic and teach really wonderful things to both trainer and puppy.    I agree completely that preventing a puppy from learning bad habits is ideal, and certainly will make your life easier (although it is a lot of work to get it right the first time, let me tell you!).  And I understand the purpose of this argument.  If you have a puppy, by all means do everything you can to get it right!

Having said that, I want to emphasize that what I have to say here is not at all a criticism of either the methods or of the camps.  I think both are fantastic.  The post simply got me thinking about the following: while it is true that you only have one chance to make a first impression, I have noted that some (actually, many) people seem to be abbreviating this concept to “you only get one chance.”  This has really been brought home to me recently while providing puppy purchasing guidance to a person who is looking for her next agility partner.  She has the talent and experience to make any dog great, and in my opinion would be best looking at a rescue dog around age 8-10  months of age, who’s hips can be checked and who’s drive levels are proven.  After a few weeks of bonding and ‘Ruff Love,’ such a dog would be ready to start serious training.  Plus you know the dog is sound, and keen.  

A puppy, I explained to her, is always a gamble.  Both Hannah and Mira have excellent pedigrees with very successful parents, but neither turned out to be the dog I expected until I did a lot of work – both in terms of training and focusing, and in terms of dealing with health issues.  Mira in fact was more work than any rescue I’ve ever taken in.  Ross, on the other hand, who I adopted at age 10 months, was exactly what I expected.  He has never thrown me a curve ball. As a result, I have a had an incredible relationship with him from even before he came home with me (it was serious love at first sight).  While with both girls I spent months and months bonding with them.  If you don’t believe me, just read my older posts on Mira!

Getting back to this person looking for a puppy, what concerns me is that she – and many like her – is now looking to have the “perfect” dog.  As a result, she flat out refused to consider getting a rescue as she’s doesn’t want “baggage.”  She’s afraid that a rescue dog will be damaged beyond repair, or at least beyond becoming an agility star.

I completely understand where she is coming from but, quite frankly, this attitude breaks my heart.  People who know how to raise a puppy correctly can absolutely take a rescue dog and turn it into a champion agility competitor.  The techniques are exactly the same.  And more importantly, you do have more than one chance to get it right.  Old dogs can learn new tricks.  And they can learn them very, very well.  If you take in a rescue dog with little or no training (or worse, that has been badly trained) and treat it just like a puppy, you will end up with the same product.  

Will a rescue dog have bad habits?  Most likely.  Can they be fixed?  Of course.  Are some bad habits irreversible?  I don’t think so.  At least not the ones created by poor training.  I believe that the habits that are really hard to break are linked to an underlying pathology (mental or physical health issue), and not poor training.  If the problem is just training, it can fairly easily be corrected, at least in my experience and observation.  I’ve written about this here if you’re interested.  

In short, if you have a puppy by all means do everything you can to get things right.  But if you screw up, or if you want to consider getting a rescue dog, don’t despair.  You can fix it.  The basic training methods of shaping combined with plenty of structure work for rescue dogs as well as for puppies.   

Now I must go train my second chance – actually fourth chance, as I am his fourth known home – dog who, I should add, is by far my most brilliant dog at shaping, and by far the most fun to train with.  He knows I gave him a chance when everyone else gave up on him, and he works his heart out for me.
Edited to add: I’m glad to see that Susan has addressed this very issue in her blog in her post Overcoming Perceived “Baggage”. Well said! I couldn’t agree more with her assertion that ‘our dogs are a reflection of our abilities.’ The only thing I have to add, as I said above, is that in addition to training, becoming aware of, and addressing underlying health issues and life force imbalances (such as vaccinosis, spine misalignment, allergies & digestive disorders and so on) can also make a world of difference in a dog’s potential and performance. They come into our lives to teach us how to learn!