It’s never too early to start training your puppy. Puppies may have short attention spans, but they’re able to learn cues at very young ages. It’s a good idea to start training your puppy with skills like potty training and basic obedience as soon as they come home.
Top 5 puppy training tips
We spoke with certified professional dog trainer Peter Herrera, CPDT-KA, owner of Umwelt Dog Training, about how to start training a puppy. Here are the top tips to keep in mind when training a new puppy.
1. Use positive reinforcement
Always use positive reinforcement when training a new puppy (or any dog). Positive reinforcement will help you maximize your puppy’s confidence and comfort by rewarding them for good choices they make throughout the day.
Often associated with “force-free” training, positive reinforcement is the process of rewarding a behavior to increase the likelihood that it will happen again. In dog training, this term is also used to describe a training method that deemphasizes punishment. The goal is to find the least intrusive, minimally aversive way to work with your new puppy.
Scientific evidence supports using positive reinforcement when training a puppy, too. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, rewards-based dog training offers the most advantages and least harm to the dog. Positive reinforcement training methods are also better at promoting a strong, positive bond between you and your new puppy.
2. Manage your puppy’s schedule and environment
A consistent schedule and smart spatial management strategies go hand in hand. Establishing a routine will help your puppy learn when to expect mealtime, playtime, potty breaks, training time, and walks. Likewise, managing their space—which means giving your puppy a designated, controlled space to be in—will help with house training.
When you start puppy training, limit the amount of space your puppy has access to in the house by using a crate, exercise pen, pet gates, or a combination. Make sure your puppy associates their spaces with treats, enrichment, and praise—they should never be used as punishment! You can gradually give them more space to roam as they have fewer accidents and become less destructive in the house.
Learn more about how to crate train your puppy.
3. Work on socialization skills
Proper socialization teaches your puppy how to be comfortable and confident around all the people, places, and things they’ll encounter in the world. The idea is to gently expose your puppy to a variety of people, places, sounds, textures, and smells during this time. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has recommendations around safely socializing your puppy to new places, dogs, and people.
Note that the most sensitive socialization stage of development occurs between roughly three and sixteen weeks. Introducing your puppy to new experiences using positive reinforcement during this time period will help them be comfortable with new situations as they grow.
4. Keep training sessions short
When training your new puppy, aim for three to five minutes per training session to start. You can gradually increase the time as they get older and become more comfortable with a training schedule.
5. Learn your puppy’s body language
Learning body language is an important part of life with your new puppy. Be sure to observe their behavior and body language closely for clues about what they’re trying to tell you. For example, many puppies will start to circle or sniff the ground when they have to go potty. Refer to this list of examples as a guide to some common forms of dog body language.
Keep in mind that every puppy will have a slightly different way of communicating. Getting to know your new puppy will help you recognize their unique signs.
How to train a puppy with five basic cues
When training your puppy, keep these reminders in mind:
- Keep each training session short, no more than 3-5 minutes for young puppies.
- Context is important. Just because your puppy learns a skill in one place doesn’t mean they’ll perform it perfectly in a new location. Be patient and keep working on their training using positive reinforcement as they learn.
- Teach at your puppy’s pace and don’t rush them. If they’re struggling to keep up, go back a step or take a break and try again later.
- Be sure to reward them as soon as they perform the desired behavior! This reinforcement will help them learn and retain their new skill.
Here is our guide to how to train a puppy using the five basic cues.
- Lure your puppy into a “sit” position with a treat. Hold the treat in front of their nose and pull it slightly up and towards their back.
- Praise and treat your puppy as soon as their bottom hits the ground.
- Repeat several times over a few days.
- Once your puppy gets the hang of this, introduce the verbal “sit” cue right before their bottom hits the ground. Praise and reward them with a treat.
- Slowly fade the treat by just using your hand to lure them into position, and later, just using the verbal “sit” cue. Be sure to reward them with a treat after!
- Lure your puppy into a “down” position by holding a treat in front of their nose and pulling it down and slightly towards their paws.
- Reward them with verbal praise and the treat as soon as their belly hits the ground.
- Repeat several times over a few days.
- Once your puppy gets the hang of this, introduce the verbal “down” cue right before their belly hits the ground. Praise and reward them with a treat.
- Slowly fade the treat by just using your hand to lure them into position, and later, just using the verbal “down” cue. Be sure to reward them with a treat after!
- Start indoors with your puppy a few feet away from you during a low-distraction time.
- With a treat in your hand, bend or crouch down excitedly until your puppy comes up to you. Reward with a treat when they do.
- Gradually increase the distance between you and your puppy as you work on this skill over the course of a few days.
- Once your puppy gets the hang of this, introduce the “come” verbal cue right after you crouch down. Be sure to reward every time they come to you.
- Slowly fade the physical cue by gradually making the bend or crouch less dramatic as you continue to use the “come” verbal cue.
- Start indoors with your puppy directly in front of you during a low-distraction time.
- With a treat in your hand, slowly take one step backwards. Reward with a treat when they hold their position.
- Gradually increase the number of steps you take before rewarding with a treat as you work on this skill over the course of a few days.
- Once your puppy gets the hang of this, introduce the “stay” verbal cue right before you start to move backwards.
- Slowly increase the difficulty by fully turning your back to your puppy or going into another room before rewarding them with a treat.
- Introduce the leash and harness with treats indoors during a low-distraction time.
- Gently put the harness on your puppy. Feed them treats as they walk around.
- Attach the leash and allow them to continue walking around. Keep providing treats!
- Gently hold the leash while your puppy walks around. Reward with treats when they look at you.
- Take a small step while holding the leash and reward them with treats when they look at you. Gradually increase the number of steps you take before rewarding.
- Start working on this skill outside, with very short walks during low-distraction times. You can gradually add time to your walk as your puppy becomes more comfortable walking on leash.
Learn more about how to train a puppy
Knowing your puppy’s breed mix can help inform how you train them. Is their primary breed a herding breed? Are they highly food motivated? An Embark Dog DNA Test can help uncover the reasons behind their behavior.
“We have been able to tailor Loki’s training and exercise regimen much better to suit her needs now that we know she is composed of primarily working breeds. Our dog found her passion in scent work and has been much happier since.”
—Darius K., Embark customer
For more puppy training guidance, learn about how to crate train your puppy and how to potty train your puppy. Check out our new puppy checklist and guide to puppy-proofing your house to make sure you’re ready to welcome your new puppy home.