Much like newborn babies and infants, puppies learn very quickly, and the first few weeks are crucial to their long-term development. To put it simply, if you get it right in the beginning you’re putting your puppy on the road to becoming a healthy and well-adjusted dog. Get it wrong and your puppy will develop ingrained emotional and behavioural problems which are much harder to treat.
Think about your puppy as a blank state and training as the perfect opportunity to encourage the right kinds of behaviour.
How to train your puppy - the basics
We all know how cute puppies are, but there can also be a real handful. So if you're thinking about getting one, or have one already, here are a few training tips.
Get started as soon as possible
Formal dog training used to begin after the first six months of a dog's life. However, that's actually a really bad time to start. Puppies start learning from day one, and although you're still a long way from teaching your dog to 'stay' or 'roll over', puppies are absorbing every single experience. In many ways, this is what defines their character, so puppy training should start as early as possible. But as most dog trainers and experts at the VCA veterinarian hospitals recommend, keep training sessions short and fun. Puppies have short attention spans so you don't want to overload them early on.
Establish a routine early on - and then stick to it!
Getting a puppy is emotional and exciting. Everyone wants to play with it; everyone wants to feed it; everyone wants the puppy sleeping next to them. As tempting as this is, puppies can be overwhelmed by all this new attention and so it’s important to establish routines and boundaries: keep to agreed feeding-times and decide who is responsible for each part of the puppies training and care. Set-up a little area where they can sleep and put them down in the same place each night. It might seem like simple stuff, but your puppy is learning its place in a new household and a sense of routine helps them to feel safe and secure.
Ditch the stick and pick up more carrots
The best of all training methods is the use of positive reinforcement, to which dogs respond very well to. In fact, dogs are motivated by rewards and treats, whereas harsh and aggressive punishments can often have a negative effect. Not only can your dog become nervous and anxious, but it can also encourage the wrong kinds of behaviour. A young puppy can easily get confused, and being ‘naughty’ becomes another bad behaviour to get your attention. It's much more effective to reward your dog for good behaviour when it occurs. So stock up on doggy treats for the best results!
Puppy toilet training
Your new puppy will need to go just after it’s woken up, soon after eating, and at regular intervals in between. Your puppy’s only concern is doing their business away from where they eat and sleep. So it's up to you to teach them where to go. Keep a close eye on your puppy, and observe their body language - sniffing and moving around in a small circle means they’re about to start weeing or pooping. Gently take them out into the garden and reward them with praise and treats when you see the right behaviour. This teaches your dog that doing his business outside is a good thing. Repeat this process of positive reinforcement and your puppy will learn quickly. But remember to be patient! House training is done over a period of time and does not happen over-night. Don't forget puppies are just young dogs and the odd accident is bound to happen.
In the very early stage, The Kennel Club advises keeping a diary of when your puppy eats, sleep, urinates and defecates. Once you’ve established how their systems are working, take them out to the garden when you know they’re most likely to start weeing or pooping. Make sure you go with them and repeat the same phrases whenever they’re doing their business. Simple things like ‘wee wee’ or ‘poo poo’ are enough and always reward their behaviour with treats and affection. Things you shouldn't do include over-feeding, irregular meal times, and leaving them alone for long periods of time.
Socialising a puppy - puppy play dates!
Once your pup has been vaccinated, it's time to meet other puppies and dogs. Again, go for small, controlled introductions; puppy playdates are a really good idea.
An unsocialised dog is a problem dog. They’ll likely be anxious or aggressive and will be a risk to themselves and others. So again - start early on. The first three months are crucial but don’t put too much pressure on your puppy. Short playdates with other vaccinated puppies will get them used to being around other dogs, and introducing them to your friends and family gets them accustomed to being around new people. And take them for short walks or rides in the car - let your puppy see what the world looks like. Show them that it's a friendly and exciting place rather than a scary one!
Be careful when introducing your puppy to children; they can sometimes become a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, so make sure you supervise any introductions to children.
Puppy separation anxiety - stay strong!
Separation anxiety is common, and it’s probably one of the hardest problems to deal with. Anyone who has ever heard a puppy crying or whining will know that your first instinct is to comfort them. However, puppies need to become comfortable with being alone and giving them too much attention can have a negative effect. Puppies are smart and they’ll soon learn the power of emotional blackmail - so stay strong!. Toys and other puppy friends will help alleviate their anxiety, and it’s also good to schedule playtimes just before you go to bed. This will give them the attention they need, as well as tiring them out. Remember, a tired puppy is a well-behaved puppy! And practice leaving and coming back. You can start with as little as 5 minutes and gradually increase the time as your puppy becomes accustomed to being alone.
How to train your puppy - advanced techniques
Now that you know the basic training tips and that your puppy has mastered these, you can move on to more advanced techniques such as teaching your puppy to walk with a lead, puppy recall and more.
Keep them focused
The world is an exciting place for a healthy puppy. Everything is new and interesting so it can be hard to keep them focused during training. But if you begin by teaching them to respond to their names, you can quickly grab their attention. Again, start with a handful of treats. Then, when they're not expecting it, say their name in a bright and enthusiastic tone. If they look at you, drop the treat by your feet and your puppy will soon move towards you. If they don't respond, then try it again! Your puppy is learning an important lesson - if it gives you attention then good things will happen. This might seem simple, but its a solid foundation for its future development and learning.
Walking on a lead
You might think that puppies don't need lead training but get them used to it early and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble - nobody wants to be dealing with an over-enthusiastic young dog that won't stop pulling or yanking on its lead. Its best to start with a harness as leads can be harsh on a puppy’s neck. Little walks around the house and garden is all you need to do - and keep those treats by your side to encourage the puppy to walk next to you rather than in front of you. Once your dog has mastered lead-walking in calm environments, he is more likely to be well behaved in busy environments too! Practice and consistency are key - just like humans, puppies learn best from positive encouragement in safe environments.
Recall is really important; it encourages discipline but also keeps your dog safe. So once you’ve learnt how to focus their attention, introduce a cue phrase or word along with any treats or affection. By linking the phrase to a positive emotion, your dog is learning that recall means that something good is about to happen. Again, start around the house before moving into the garden. After that, they'll be ready for the big wild world!
Obedience training is one of the best things you can do for you and your puppy. It's an important factor in socialising puppies, especially if you have a large family. Puppies need to know that you love them, but they also need to know their place in the family hierarchy. A well-trained dog is also a happy and safer dog so start this training as early as possible.
There are lots of puppy training schools all over the UK but you can also do it yourself. If so, stick to short, regular training sessions, and make them fun and engaging. Like children, puppies learn quicker when they’re enjoying themselves. And focus on positive re-enforcement - treats and affection are the best kinds of motivators. But if you do need to reprimand them, use short sharp voice commands like “no” and “stop”. Anything harsher than that will be counter-productive.
As with all types of learning, the most important things to bear in mind are repetition and consistency. You’ll also need a little bit of patience! But remember, the right kind of training is essential to creating healthy and well-adjusted dogs.