Three things people say about puppies that just aren’t true

May 4, 2010

It’s been 11 years since I had a puppy, and I’d hoped in that time some of the more persistent bad information about the care and nature of young dogs might have died off. No such luck.

In my column at the San Francisco Chronicle/ today, I examine three top puppy myths, and use the whole thing as an excuse to write about my darling puppy, Rawley:

Rawley was just a little over 11 weeks old when he joined my family. “Why did you wait until he was so old to get him?” asked several people at the dog park. “If you don’t get the puppy by eight weeks old, he’ll never bond with you.”

How they manage to say this while Rawley is climbing all over me and covering my face with kisses, I’m not sure. But I’m sure of one thing: It’s complete nonsense.

Not only will a puppy of any age bond with you, so will adult dogs. The most intense bond I ever had was with a two-year-old shelter dog named Colleen, whom I adopted from the Peninsula Humane Society. We had a stronger connection than I’ve had with dogs I raised from birth.

The kernel of truth at the center of this myth is that if dogs don’t have the opportunity to form bonds with humans in a healthy, loving way at a very specific stage in their development, they’ll have trouble doing so later in life.

But dogs who form those bonds when they’re young easily transfer them from one human to another. If the puppy is raised in a family setting and given human interaction until he leaves to come to you, he’ll be fine.

Yes, some dogs, either because of early experiences or genetic tendencies, are shy. They may take a little wooing or remain “one-person dogs” their whole lives. But the pervasive myth that a door slams at eight weeks of age, and after that your puppy won’t love you, is just wrong.

Give almost any dog of any age affection and a sense of security, and trust me: she’ll bond with you.

Check out the other two myths, and read the rest, here.

Photo: Rawley and me at San Francisco’s Sigmund Stern Grove. Taken by Gina Spadafori.

Filed under: behavior and training,pets, connected — Christie Keith @ 1:16 pm


  1. I can’t believe people actually believe that a dog won’t bond with you after 8 wks. of age. All of my dogs have either been shelter dogs or foundlings and they have bonded with me at every age. My Athena loved us unconditionally and she was 5 when we got her. Foxy was 7-8 and she was just crazy about my hubby (and me). She’d follow him all around and bark outside the door if he left the room and shut her out. I could go on and on about all the older dogs I’ve gotten but, I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say that age doesn’t matter. Anything else people say is utter nonsense.

    Comment by June — May 4, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  2. Well, the “utter nonsense” problem doesn’t just extend to puppies, sadly!

    Comment by Christie Keith — May 4, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

  3. Excellent column Christie.

    Some comments on the last part:

    It’s true that some kinds of highly specialized training, such as guiding the blind or working as a sheepdog, do need to begin in puppyhood and even require dogs specifically bred for that work. But for family pets and companions, or even for tasks like search and rescue work or assisting the hearing impaired, adult dogs can be much easier and faster to train than puppies.

    Roles like sheepdog work and police patrol dog work are highly specialized and require very selective breeding in order to obtain the required traits. But these dogs don’t necessarily need to start training young. In fact the police almost always start training young adult dogs, not puppies.

    Guide dogs are usually selectively bred for guide work but this is less specialized than the above roles, with a greater number of breeds being capable of guide work. Formal guide dog training doesn’t start until the dogs are young adults. Prior to that they are raised by volunteer puppy raisers who teach basic manners and do environmental enrichment with the pups.

    Search-and-rescue dogs include a wider variety of breeds than the highly specialized work but there are still some interesting trends.

    Of the over 200 dogs in my K9 SAR org, 54% are from herding breeds (GSDs, Aussies, BCs, etc.), 31% are from sporting breeds (mostly Labs & Goldens), and 5% are hounds and other working breeds. Those categories encompass 91% of our SAR dogs.

    Only 7% of our SAR dogs are mixed breeds, and these are usually herding breed or retriever mixes. Contrast that with the 50% or more of the pet dog population that are mixes.

    Within each of our SAR dog breeds most and some cases all of the dogs are from working/performance bloodlines rather than the much more numerous pet or show lines of those breeds.

    Most dogs are not suitable for SAR for various reasons, either because they are too small, too short, too large, lack hunt drive, lack trainability or biddability, lack nerve strength, are too into crittering, not healthy enough, etc. etc.

    Many SAR dog trainers like to start out with young puppies as this affords opportunities for scent imprinting and training certain behaviors that they believe have lifelong benefits.

    Some breeders partner with SAR dog trainers, and start scent imprinting or tracking exercises as soon as the pups start on solid food at 4-5 weeks.

    Young pups don’t have the attention span of adults but they do have an extraordinary capacity to learn.

    Other SAR dog handlers start with older pups or young adults and certainly this is very do-able. But I would not describe the training of these dogs as much faster and easier than with young pups.

    The main advantage of starting with older pups or young adults in SAR is that health checks can be done, and drives, nerves, and temperament are better expressed so more selection screening can be done — reducing the risk that the dog will have to be washed out.

    The fastest I have seen an apprentice K9 SAR team become operational is a recent case where it “only” took about 1 year, and that one started with a puppy — exceptional K9 working genetics in the hands of a very good handler.

    Two years is our norm for apprentice teams to become operational whether they start with a pup or adult.

    K9 SAR handlers usually become operational with their 2nd, 3rd, and later dogs in less time — they don’t have to do all the non-dog SAR training and they make fewer dog training mistakes. Among these experienced handlers there seems to be somewhat of preference for starting with young puppies.

    Comment by LauraS — May 4, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  4. Laura, preferences aside, there are far more dogs trained in search and rescue who came to their handlers as adults than there are, say, guiding the blind. I thought of you when I wrote that, but I’ve known LOTS of dogs who did SAR work who weren’t with their handlers as pups.

    I think there’s a line between work where you really do have to give a dog a certain foundation from a young age in his specific work, like letting livestock guardians grow up with their stock, even if it’s not “formal training,” and work where it’s not unknown or even uncommon for dog and handler to start out when the dog is an adult. SAR is clearly in that second group, not the first, even if obviously almost anything you with a dog will go better if you get them used to the settings, concepts, etc at a young age.

    Comment by Christie Keith — May 4, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

  5. I wonder sometimes if people feel THEY won’t bond as deeply to an older dog as they would to a puppy.

    Comment by Mary Mary — May 4, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  6. Laura, preferences aside, there are far more dogs trained in search and rescue who came to their handlers as adults than there are, say, guiding the blind.

    I’m not seeing that in my experience. Among the handlers in my K9 SAR organization, I believe more of them start with puppies than adult dogs. It is even more skewed toward puppies among experienced handlers training their 2nd or later SAR dogs. My K9 SAR organization trains and certifies most of the SAR dogs in California.

    What K9 SAR organization are you thinking of?

    AFAIK, the guide dogs orgs start their dogs’ formal guide training as young adults and they go to their handlers as adults.

    Comment by LauraS — May 4, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

  7. There’s the National Search Dog Rescue folks who use shelter dogs, who I’ve been talking with since Haiti and for whom Mikkel does evaluations up in the Pacific Northwest. Several of the teams I interviewed or wrote about after Oklahoma and 9/11 were rescued/rehomed dogs. A couple of teams I’ve seen do demos at dog shows, and those WERE in Northern California. I’ve never actually met a SAR team who were together since puppyhood, and if I didn’t “know” you, I wouldn’t have even known that ever happened.

    Comment by Christie Keith — May 4, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  8. Christie, I believe Heather Houlihan and her partner (Rosie? I’m not sure which dog it is) have been together since puppyhood, too.

    I’m not real up on SAR, but the most-quoted service dog stat is that more purpose-bred dogs were successful than shelter dogs. (Pfaffenberger, can’t quote the actual source as I’m not at home right now but I can’t resist sticking my nose in.) I’m not sure what it said about age of acquisition of shelter dogs, though. And in the owner-trainer community, it’s pretty well divided (with a significant minority starting with rescue/shelter puppies, mostly of no particular/mixed/unknown breed since that’s mostly the puppies that are IN rescues and shelters.) But GDA and GEFB start their puppies on a very specific obedience regimen early on and learning- and NOT learning- things that will be necessary later on- lots of socialization and habituation, prevention of bad habits like food snatching, counter-surfing, or chasing other animals.

    Comment by Cait — May 4, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  9. National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF) trains carefully selected shelter and rescue dogs to advanced levels, and places the trained dogs with FEMA USAR Task Force members. There are also FEMA USAR K9 handlers who train their own dogs, from puppies or adults.

    The NDSDF model of taking selected shelter or rescue dogs and training them for others is very unusual, and is not the norm for California K9 SAR, or K9 SAR in America overall.

    K9 USAR — those who respond to major disasters like Haiti, 9/11, Katrina, or Oklahoma City — constitutes one of the many K9 SAR disciplines. While major disaster responses understandably get more media attention, in terms of actual deployments K9 USAR amounts to a small percentage of K9 SAR.

    Most of K9 SAR is about the search for missing children, overdue hikers or hunters, elderly walkaways, suspected suicides, people swept into rivers or by rogue waves into the ocean, people who fell off cliffs, who drowned in lakes, suspected homicide victims, people suspected killed in the Oakland Hills fire or major mudslides, etc.

    My K9 SAR organization is about everything K9 SAR except FEMA USAR disaster responses — though our teams overlap in membership and when the Big One hits California we’ll be there too. We supply most of the non-USAR K9 SAR teams in California, and our teams responded to over 100 different search missions last year.

    For a K9 working discipline that doesn’t use puppies much I sure have seen a LOT of them over the past 5 years at our twice weekly local trainings and statewide monthly training workouts, that grew up to be operational SAR dogs. :-)

    A large majority of our dogs come from California dog breeders. We got that from a formal survey of all of our certified teams a few years ago.

    If I had to guess, I’d roughly estimate that started as puppies outnumber started as adults by maybe 2 to 1.

    Only a small percentage of our dogs came from shelters or rescues. One of our (now retired) handlers who used to screen and pull dogs from shelters for herself and others told me that about 1 out of every 200 shelter dogs has what it takes for K9 SAR.

    Contrast that to Labrador Retrievers from field trial lines, or GSDs from working lines, where most of the dogs in a litter can do this work.

    Comment by LauraS — May 4, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  10. Laura, I know what it’s like when people who have only a casual knowledge of something that’s one of my areas of expertise or passion tosses off a remark I feel doesn’t really express the complexity or even the reality of the issue.

    That said, the fact is, a lot of what you’re saying here has nothing to do with the very brief point I made, which is that since even some adult dogs are trained to do tasks no family pet will ever have to learn — such as SAR work or assisting the hearing impaired, the two examples I used — it should be apparent that an adult dog can almost certainly be trained to be a good pet as easily as a puppy can.

    I certainly didn’t make an quantitative statement of percentages, nor did I suggest that SAR work or being a hearing dog is easier or less valuable than guiding the blind or herding sheep.

    So… it seems to me you’re disturbed and in “let me set the record straight” mode. Why? You yourself acknowledge that some, maybe as many as a third, of SAR dogs start as adults, not puppies. And isn’t that basically all I said, albeit without an actual number?

    What am I missing here? I used to live with a hearing dog trainer and I know there was a time some guide dog trainers acted like hearing dogs weren’t “real” service dogs like they were… is it something like that? Cuz honestly, I’m bumfuzzled.

    Comment by Christie Keith — May 4, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  11. Christie, I did not imply that dogs in this or that discipline are not “real” working dogs. Not even close.

    My initial response was prompted by this from your column:
    “even for tasks like search and rescue work or assisting the hearing impaired, adult dogs can be much easier and faster to train than puppies.

    I have no idea about hearing dogs, but I think that’s a misleading statement about SAR dogs.

    I also mentioned a working discipline where you are right, the adult dogs are easier to train (actually, puppies cannot have the threat imposed upon them required for police patrol dog training).

    Then there was this
    “there are far more dogs trained in search and rescue who came to their handlers as adults than there are, say, guiding the blind.”

    That’s not my experience, so I shared my experience.

    The rest was just info around the subject that I thought somebody here might be interested in. Sorry it bumfuzzled you.

    Comment by LauraS — May 4, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

  12. No no no, Laura! I wondered if you thought *I* was implying that!

    As to the guide dogs thing, I don’t think that’s really accurate — I have NEVER heard of a dog for the blind who wasn’t trained from puppyhood specifically for that purpose, but both you and I have heard of SAR dogs who began training as adults. So unless you know a lot of self-trained guide dogs for the blind, I actually think you’d agree with me on that.

    The rest, well, I don’t know, Laura. I don’t really agree with you, but as I said, I understand the feeling.

    Comment by Christie Keith — May 4, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  13. Several of my SAR colleagues are or have been volunteer puppy raisers for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and one of them has one of their brood bitches. I’ve also known two Guide Dogs for the Blind trainers from schutzhund.

    The guide dog orgs purpose breed their dogs for guide work. They turn their young puppies over to volunteer puppy raisers to raise them, do manners training, and do environmental enrichment but NOT formal guide dog training. Once these dogs are young adults they go back to Guide Dogs for the Blind and are turned over to their professional trainers for their guide dog training. If they pass they are turned over to their blind handlers.

    I guess I wasn’t thinking of this as “trained from puppyhood specifically for that purpose” since the manners training and environmental enrichment they get as puppies aren’t much different than what pet dogs get, and their guide dog training doesn’t come until they are adults. Depends on one’s definitions, I suppose.

    One of these Guide Dog for the Blind puppies was brought out to our SAR trainings on a regular basis by his puppy raiser but of course he wasn’t allowed to do any SAR training, he had to stay in the truck. He progressed all the way to the point of graduating from guide dog training and being placed with a blind handler but he had to be sent back — too much drive for guide dog work. After an official “career change”, he’s now an operational SAR dog. We think he had that planned all along — he knew what was going on at our SAR trainings and wanted in on the action.

    Comment by LauraS — May 4, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

  14. My Rufus was one of those puppies who was exceptionally easy to house train. Adopted at 8 weeks old(eeek! he was listed as 3 months), he only piddled in the house once(I didn’t wake up fast enough to let him out), but he had the advantage of a cat door to take himself out when he needed.

    Unlike Phoebe who at really three months would be having sooo much fun playing that she’d be all Gotta Go Now! and pee just wherever she was. Sigh.

    Comment by redheather — May 5, 2010 @ 6:57 am

  15. A good friend of mine is a trainer for Guide Dogs. I’ve also had the privilege to swim a puppy being raised for GDB. Although the puppies do not do guide work per se while with their puppy raisers, they are required to do some things and not-do others. When I swam the puppy, for example, he could swim to and retrieve an object placed at the far end of the pool; however, I could not throw an object for him and he was not allowed to play with tennis balls, ever. That dog had a lot of drive, and I’m curious to see if that will make him perfect for guide work or a little too much.

    Comment by Judi — May 5, 2010 @ 9:07 am

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