It’s never too early to start training your puppy. Like babies of any species, puppies start learning from the moment they are born. Ideally, the breeder or shelter where your puppy is born will have started safely exposing your puppy to new experiences before they come home with you. You can continue to build on that foundation as soon as your puppy comes home.
The Socialization Stage
The socialization stage of development occurs between three and sixteen weeks and it’s one of the most important times in a puppy’s life. Proper socialization teaches your puppy how to be comfortable and confident around all the people, places, and things they’ll encounter in the human world.
During the socialization stage, puppies are especially sensitive to new experiences. Socialization will shape how your puppy will engage with other animals and people as an adult and what their overall temperament will be like. The idea is to gently expose your puppy to a variety of people, places, sounds, textures, smells, and etc. throughout this window of time. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has recommendations around safely socializing your puppy to new places, dogs, and people. This early socialization will help your puppy to be comfortable with new places and people in the future.
Puppy classes are a great way to socialize your puppy and to start their education off on the right paw. It’s a good idea to start teaching your puppy new skills like potty training and basic obedience as soon as they come home. Puppies may have short attention spans, but they’re able to learn cues and skills at very young ages. Starting to teach your puppy cues as soon as they come home will increase your bond and help your puppy develop a life-long love of learning.
3 General Puppy Training Rules
- Make sure each exposure is positive. If your puppy feels like they’re being forced or pressured into a situation, it could backfire and develop into fearful or aggressive responses later. Let your puppy consent and/or decide if they want to approach someone or something. Give them room to retreat if they’re feeling uncomfortable
- Socialize to different people, places, dogs, and contexts. For example, if your puppy likes certain kids or dogs in their house, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be friendly to anybody who comes in. Generalization is key.
- Use treats to help your puppy make positive associations. If your puppy is concerned about something, give them a really nice treat every time they see that stimulus.
Extra tip: If your puppy doesn’t take food in a specific context, it’s time to ease up, slow down, and/or take a break.
Supplies needed for puppy training
The most important supplies to have when training your puppy are lots of their favorite treats cut into very small pieces. You can even use part of your puppy’s breakfast/dinner kibble for training during the day. You’ll also want to have some toys available for luring and rewarding them with.
When to train
Our dogs are always learning from us, and this is especially true with puppies. Training with puppies should always be fun. Keep all your training sessions short and upbeat. Asking your puppy to drill skills over and over again won’t help them learn faster and can actually turn your puppy off from wanting to train. Consistency is key when it comes to training puppies. Try to build short training sessions into your daily routine of playtime.
Some skills come more naturally to some puppies than others. For example, as the name implies, Labrador Retrievers are genetically predisposed to retrieve. This means that, in general, they will pick up on learning games like fetch faster than a Greyhound or Shih Tzu. If your puppy’s breed mix is unknown, consider using an Embark dog DNA test to get useful insights about what skills might come most naturally to them.
Where to train
It’s best to work on training soon after your puppy takes a potty break. Start training sessions at home in a quiet space so that your puppy can concentrate on learning. Put in plenty of practice at home when things are quiet. From there, slowly work toward asking your dog to do cues with increasing levels of distraction. A hypothetical training routine could look like this:
- Phase 1: Focus training indoors only
- Phase 2: Start training in front of your house or apartment when the street is empty
- Phase 3: Practice training in the park or on a sidewalk with people visible to your puppy
As you move to new locations, remember to be patient. It’s okay if your puppy forgets a few cues. Just because they know something at home doesn’t mean they will automatically pick up on it again in a more distracting environment.
It’s very important to only use positive reinforcement training methods when working with your puppy. This means no punishment and using treats and toys to encourage and reward the behavior you want. Remember to keep training sessions short, fun, and upbeat! Here are tips for how to start teaching your puppy some basic skills and tricks:
- Start with a treat right in front of your puppy’s nose.
- Pull the treat up and slightly toward your dog’s back. Your puppy’s nose will follow the treat and as the puppy’s head goes up and back their bottom will automatically go down.
- As soon as puppy’s bottom touches the floor give the treat to them and praise
- Repeat several times.
- When you are confident your puppy is going to follow the treat into the sit position, you can begin to introduce the word “sit” right before their bottom touches the ground. Praise and give them the treat when they properly sit.
- After several training sessions, you can slowly begin to transition to luring your puppy into sit without the treat in your hand and then give your puppy the treat when they are in position.
- Give your puppy the treat only while they’re still sitting. By rewarding a puppy in the position you want, you are helping them understand that this is the behavior they are being asked to do.
- With your puppy in a standing position, have a treat in one hand and put it in front of their nose to get their attention
- Move your hand with the treat down to the ground and slightly back toward your puppy’s feet.
- Your puppy’s nose will follow the treat down to the floor. As you move the treat back toward their front paws, they will naturally go into a down position.
- Praise and give the treat as soon as your puppy’s belly hits the ground.
- After a few training sessions, you can begin to offer the verbal cue of your choice when you are confident that your puppy will be going into the down position after you lure them with a treat.
- Introduce the leash and harness to your puppy inside in your low distraction environment.
- Let your puppy wear their harness or collar with a leash for short periods of time in the house while you are playing and giving treats. This helps your puppy build positive associations with the harness and leash being attached.
- Start practicing walking your dog on the leash around the house. Hold the leash in your hand while they’re wearing it and get their attention with a treat. Praise them when they look at you then give them the treat.
- Repeat, but this time take a small step while you have your puppy’s attention with the treat. Give praise and reward.
- Repeat again, slowly building up how many steps you and your puppy take together around the house while keeping their attention on you with treats.
- Anytime your puppy looks at you while on leash, praise and treat. This helps them understand that looking at you and being close to you is highly rewarded.
- Start with short walks as you begin taking your puppy’s new leash skills outside where there are a lot of distracting smells and things to look at.
- Keep your puppy’s attention on you with treats. Give lots of praise and reward any time they look at you during your walk.
- Have a treat in one hand and close your hand into a fist
- Hold your fist out to your puppy
- Wait for your puppy to start interacting with your hand trying to figure out how to get the treat. Be patient. It might take a little while for your puppy to start exploring, especially the first few times you play this game with them.
- Your puppy will probably start to sniff or nose at you first trying to figure out how to get the treat—keep waiting.
- When your puppy starts to paw at your hand, give lots of praise and open your hand so your puppy can get the treat.
- Your puppy won’t really understand what they did that got the treat right away, but after a few repetitions, they will start to put the pieces together and realize it was pawing at your hand that got the treat. After that realization, they’ll start to offer their paw more frequently.
- When your puppy is constantly pawing at your fist, hold up your fist without a treat in it. When they touch your hand with their paw, give lots of praise along with a treat.
- After the puppy is constantly touching your closed fist with their paw, hold your hand out flat to them as though you were giving a high-five to a person. When your puppy’s paw touches your hand, give lots of praise and treats.
- After several repetitions, you can start to introduce the verbal cue of your choice.
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