This story originally appeared on Outdoor life.
Tom Loy of Tallgrass Gordon Setters sits near the whelping box, where a litter of three-day-old setter puppies roams their little universe behind closed eyes. One by one, Loy lifts the puppies out of the box and performs them through a series of brief exercises. When it is finished, the puppies return to the box and crawl close to their mother.
These lessons continue for the next 13 days, and while the exercises have nothing to do with bird hunting – at least not directly – they effectively teach Loy's puppies how to manage stress. Years later, this early training results in dogs that are less shy, more social and better equipped to handle the stressful situations that any working dog encounters in the field.
The program used by Loy was launched by the United States Army as part of an effort to improve the performance of service dogs. Research shows that soon after birth, puppies and other mammals are particularly sensitive to stimuli and that early stimulation can improve overall health. Exposing puppies to stimuli has been shown to increase brain function, which improves overall confidence while reducing stress-related behaviors such as biting or snarling. Initially nicknamed "bio-sensor training", these exercises are now known as the Super Puppy program.
From the age of three days to 16 days, each puppy in the program is exposed to five stimuli once a day. These include being held head up, head down and lying (on your back); stimulation of the cotton swab on the legs; and put on a cold washcloth. Each phase, which does not inflict as much pain as discomfort, lasts only a few seconds, and once training is complete, the dogs return to their mother.
This program has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, increase the function of the adrenal glands and brain activity, and improve a puppy's resistance to stress and disease. Similar tests on mice and primates have shown identical results.
Loy is a practitioner of the Super Puppy program and has started exposing all of his puppies to early stimulation.
"I noticed that in each litter, I had a few shy puppies that wanted to hide or didn't socialize," says Loy. "With the Super Puppy program, I don't see that much. Shy dogs get bolder and are more social."
As armed dogs mature and begin to train, they are exposed to stressors – from control cords to electronic collars and gunfire. By learning to cope with pressure as very young puppies, Loy's breeders can deal with field stimulation in stride. They're usually ready for more advanced training compared to puppies who haven't followed the program, says Loy.