Now that you’ve got a new puppy, you’ve got to make sure it doesn’t destroy the house with destructive chewing or start engaging in other problematic behaviors. Training a young dog is a tall order, but it’s not impossible. With this guide on how to train a puppy, you’ll have everything you need to be your own Brandon McMillan.
Determine the Type of Training Your Puppy Needs
This may seem a bit obvious, but the very first step in how to train a puppy is figuring out what the heck you’re teaching it to do. There are one-million-and-one things you can teach your pup. Some of them are useless, some are entertaining, and some are essential for your and your dog’s safety.
So, where do you start? First, think about whether you’ve noticed your dog displaying any behavioral problems lately. Some examples of the most common problematic behaviors you might experience with a new, rambunctious puppy include:
- Food guarding: This is one of the many ways aggression can manifest; however, it can also be a harmless expression of possessive tendencies.
- Barking and howling
- Dominant sexual behavior (i.e., mounting)
- Variations of biting (e.g., nipping, mouthing, etc.)
- Separation anxiety
Each of these issues requires a different form of training. Depending on your puppy’s age, some of these will be easier to address than others. For instance, it’s relatively easy to curb inappropriate or destructive chewing and biting by redirecting the puppy’s attention from the object to a toy or treat. (Make sure the treat’s safe for dogs – a sick puppy doesn’t learn well!)
Technically, a dog remains a “puppy” until it’s one year old. (Although, some might say that puppyhood ends at 24 months since dogs’ bones continue to develop as late as 6-24 months.) This means you have a full year to learn how to train a puppy. It may sound like a lot, but trust me, that time flies by!
For this reason, it’s a good idea to start with the essentials: obedience training. This will set the foundation for all others, as your little canine companion will understand the core expectations of your interactions, teaching, or otherwise: Its responsibility is to listen to you and follow instructions for rewards.
With that said, here are the fundamentals of obedience training for puppies.
Puppy Obedience Training
Too many dog owners underestimate the importance of obedience training. It can mean the difference between a dog remaining in its Forever Home and, in some cases, injury and safety.
For the latter, one example I often give is standing near a busy street with your pup. If you were to somehow lose control of the dog by dropping the leash or a similar mishap, your last course of action would be to tell your dog to “stay.” If you cannot depend on your dog to listen to the command, the chances of it venturing into the street and getting hurt are significantly higher.
The significance of obedience training still applies even for those who don’t believe their dog would run into a busy intersection. A simple command such as “leave it” can save your dog from picking up and swallowing something they shouldn’t be eating or messing with a hazardous object or critter during a walk.
Concerning the possibility of pet surrender: Untrained dogs make up the vast majority (96%) of pets returned to shelters. In fact, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Angell Animal Medical Center reports that, for their facility, behavioral problems are among the top four reasons why people surrender their pets.
If you plan on bringing a puppy into your life, obedience training is non-negotiable. It will improve your relationship with your pup by reducing your stress and add further assurance for its safety and place in your home.
What You Need to Train a Puppy
To begin obedience training, you’ll need a few things:
- A distraction-free place to teach. Set your puppy up for success by training it in an area where it won’t be bombarded with attention-grabbing things like other dogs, loud noises, etc.
- Treats or toys. Take some time to get to know your puppy to determine which of these you need. There are several ways to incentivize a learning dog, a concept known as the “Theory of Motivation,” discussed below. If your dog is excited by treats, it’s food-motivated. However, it might feel more rewarded by playtime with toys.
- A clicker. You can buy a handheld clicker in nearly any pet store or even the pet section in grocery stores. Clickers serve as an audible form of positive reinforcement and a “mark” that signals to your dog when it’s done something right. For example, if you tell your dog to sit, you would click when its butt touches the ground.
- Patience. This is perhaps the most important tool you’ll need. Puppies are curious, excitable little buggers. They’re always looking to play and get into trouble, so you must be conscious of that as you train. Practicing in short bursts of 10 minutes per day is the best way to maximize your puppy’s attention span and teach it effectively.
New dog owners are often concerned about whether they’ll need a professional trainer to get their puppy under control or not. Rest assured that for the basic commands discussed here, you will not.
You can successfully teach your puppy all these commands on your own, as long as you have the willpower and a functional understanding of what motivates your dog.
The Theory of Motivation
This is one of my favorite concepts underlying the logistics of dog training. The mechanics of emotional, mental, and physiological motivation in canines only scratches the surface of dog psychology. Yet, it provides a robust foundation on which you can build virtually your entire training routine.
Essentially, there are four primary ways to motivate a dog:
- Use food as a reward.
- Give it toys or “prey” objects (i.e., squeaky toys resembling squirrels, raccoons, or other animals it’d chase in nature) as a reward.
- Shower the dog with praise.
- Using “force” or correctional tactics.
Needless to say, I don’t recommend the last one. Scaring your dog into compliance will only traumatize it and create so many more behavioral problems in the future – more than you might have started with.
A 2020 study on the relationship between pain and behavioral problems in animals stated, “An animal in pain will naturally be more cautious and potentially anxious as a result.” If you decide to use physical corrections in response to your dog failing to follow a command or doing it incorrectly, you’ll only make training harder on both of you.
However, even if you choose not to use physical methods, instilling fear in your dog in order to force it to behave properly can still have lasting consequences. Since fear is a functional adaptive response to threats, such methods will trigger a fight-or-flight response in your pup, which can lead to aggression or avoidance behavior.
With all this in mind, it’s best to stick with the first three methods of motivation-based obedience training. It might not be obvious initially, but with time, you’ll get to know which of these will work best for your pet.
Before you start training, you can home in on the proper motivational approach by experimenting with your pup. For example, present your dog with a treat or toy, and see which one it goes for first.
Of course, the results could be situational – any young puppy will try to get a hold of something tasty when the opportunity arises. However, if it consistently chooses food over a toy, then you might have a food-motivated dog.
Motivation types can also differ by breed. For instance, the German Shepherd is one of the most well-known prey-driven breeds, but smaller companion breeds like Yorkshire terriers will most likely be more enthused by praise or treats.
Steps for Obedience Training a Dog
The precise steps you’ll follow during puppy obedience training will differ slightly, according to the specific command. However, no matter what static command you’re teaching, you can generally proceed with the same guidelines listed below.
(“Static,” for our purposes, means that the dog doesn’t have to move to a different spot. Examples include “sit,” “stay,” and “down.” Commands like “come” and “heel” require movement, so you’ll need to approach those a bit differently.)
Here’s how to teach your dog a static command, using “sit” as an example.
- Stand in front of your puppy with a treat in hand.
- Bring the treat close to its nose and slowly move it up and toward the puppy. Ideally, the puppy’s gaze will follow the treat upward until it naturally sits down. The forward movement of the treat toward the puppy is crucial, as this is what causes the head to lean back far enough to lead into a sitting position.
- Note: If your puppy doesn’t naturally sit down when prompted with the described movement, don’t worry! An alternative method is to slowly take steps closer to the dog, which will cause it to back up a few steps, then sit down.
- As soon as the puppy’s butt touches the ground, press the clicker. The “click” sound will mark the desired behavior and help your dog identify when it’s fulfilling the command correctly.
- Reward the dog. Remember that the reward depends on your dog’s personality. Create a personalized experience for your pal and boost its chances of success by offering something it’ll most easily get excited about.
- Repeat Steps 2-4 up to two times.
- Repeat the same training sequence, this time adding the verbal command during Step 2. This will begin the process of associating the word “sit” with the desired action.
- When you give the reward, reinforce the verbal command by saying, “Good sit.”
- Repeat for 5-10 minutes, gradually removing Step 2 from the process. Once your dog can sit by merely hearing the verbal command, you have successfully taught it to sit.
This is called the “luring” technique. Placing the treat in front of the dog’s nose and leading it into the sit position is just one of two main ways of teaching this command. The other is called “capturing,” which entails simply waiting for the dog to sit and rewarding the action.
You can use both of these techniques for other positions like laying down or even teaching the dog to stand on command. However, commands that require your pup to move from one spot to another are slightly more complex.
How to Teach Your Puppy to Come
Training your puppy to come to you on command is one of the most important things you’ll ever teach it. This is one of the tasks that comes to mind when I talk about how dog training is essential to safety. Your dog can likely move a lot faster than you, so if you’re far away and see that your dog’s in danger, a quick “come” command will close that distance right away.
Plus, if you ever plan on taking your dog to a dog park, I strongly recommend teaching it this command. Chasing your pup around the park can be fun at first, but when it’s time to go home, and your little furball refuses, it can be a headache to wrangle the little bugger.
So, make your life easier by following these steps for training a puppy to “come:”
- Secure your dog with a leash. I recommend using a long lead for this. The average lead is about 4-6 ft long. However, you’ll eventually want to create some significant distance between you and your pup to really test those obedience skills. So, bump that length up to anywhere from 15-50 ft as you and your dog progress with this command.
- Tell your dog to “sit.” Of course, you will have had to teach it to sit using the instructions above. It’s not a good idea to try and train both commands at once. Your puppy will almost certainly get overwhelmed and confused.
- Tell your dog to “stay.” The same goes for this command, although it’s not required for “come” since your dog won’t always be sitting or even in the same room when you call it. “Stay” is one of the easiest commands to teach. Simply step away from your dog slowly, and if it doesn’t move, reward it. Gradually increase the distance to your satisfaction.
- Take a few steps away from your dog. You must walk backward! This may seem like a minor detail, but if you turn your back or look away during this step, your puppy will think you’ve been distracted and will try to get your attention or become distracted, too. Turning your back on the dog is for advanced stages only.
- Say “come” and guide your dog back to you by gently pulling the leash. Avoid the temptation to force your dog back to you. For example, if it’s veering off elsewhere, reset and start again. The puppy needs to associate its own action with the verbal signal, not the memory of being pulled back to you.
- Reward your dog when it reaches you and press the clicker.
- Repeat Steps 2-6, gradually reducing how often you pull the leash. When your dog can come to you on its own without you pulling the lead at all, you have successfully taught it this command.
- Increase your distance over time, as much as you like. Whenever you increase the distance, it’s best to incorporate the lead again. Your puppy may have the command down, but it may lose confidence the farther away you get.
Other Forms of Dog Training
As stated earlier, there are many forms of dog training. Still, obedience training is the most important of them all, as it establishes the expectations you have for your pup and ensures it’ll listen to you, no matter what you might be teaching.
Once you’ve got this down, the sky’s the limit for you and your canine companion. Some of the most common types of training for your puppy include:
- Trick training. This includes things like “play dead,” “rollover,” or the showstopping performances like those featured on America’s Got Talent.
- Agility training. This is best for high-energy dogs like the Malinois, Border Collie, and terriers. You and your dog run a challenging course at high speeds in competitions or for fun.
- Service training. If you have any type of disability, you could train your dog to assist you with it. This form of training will often require professional help, and there are many standards to adhere to.
- Behavioral training. If your dog has displayed problematic behaviors such as those listed in the first section, this will be the best option for you. These training programs can either focus on one specific behavior or several and will likely require a professional.
Learning how to train a puppy takes a lot of hard work, persistence, and patience. Yet, when you get to know your dog and follow the guidelines and tips listed here, your chances of success are high.
No matter what you’re teaching, remember to shower your dog with lots of love, praise, and rewards. This will keep it motivated and eager to learn all sorts of essential and entertaining tasks and behaviors.