These are not the only things you need to teach your puppy. They are, however, the fist things I think we should be teaching young dogs.
#3 Come When I Call. This one takes priority for me because it’s so easy. Our little puppies are already following us around, curious about our every movement. Let’s use that to our advantage. Call them often and give a small bit of food every time they come. To make it even more effective, choose a word or phrase (also called a cue) that you will use every time, and every time they come you be sure to give that little morsel of food. Your dog will grow up having learned that coming when called is always good news. They’ll run to you every time you call.
#2 Potty Here Not There. Young puppies learn this pretty quickly too. And, let’s be honest, no one wants a dog of any size pooping and peeing in the house. My clients follow these simple dog potty training instructions and enjoy great success. Follow the link for some relieve. (haha).
#1 You are Safe. This is my number one pick of the top three because it’s so vitally important. More than anything we should be teaching our young puppies how to safely navigate the human world. You’ve probably heard this called puppy socialization. That’s a well-known term that’s often misunderstood as just exposing the puppy to a bunch of experiences. I like to think of it, instead, as thoughtfully introducing the puppy to the sights, sounds, and experiences of the human world that they will encounter throughout their lives. Let’s set our puppies up to have new experiences, yes, but to also learn these encounters are safe. We don’t flood the puppy with an overdose of stimulation by taking him to a huge family cookout. That can backfire and cause long-lasting fear. Instead we let him meet new people and process new stimuli at his own pace one or two at a time. Giving the puppy choices, rather than forcing him to “handle” new and potentially overwhelming situations is key. This this is how we teach our young dog behavioral flexibility. Follow the link to learn more about that. I also recommend the book Life Skills for Puppies.
Learning is a lifelong process for dogs, just like it is for humans. These first 3 things are a great starting point. But, let’s keep going. The possibilities are nearly limitless.
I get this question a lot. “When should I start training my new puppy?” My answer is the same every time. “Now. Right now.”
It is never too early to start teaching a puppy how to make life in our crazy human world work for them. Notice I didn’t say how to obey our every fickle human whim. That’s not what training a puppy is about (or an adult dog, for that matter). Our responsibility is to help our fresh new puppies learn what’s what. And it is a responsibility.
Dogs live with us at our discretion. We decide what they eat, where they relieve themselves, where they sleep, who they meet, where they go, where they stay, and yes – if they live or die. That all adds up to huge responsibility. So, we’d better be ready to step up and teach our puppy, who by the way just got to the planet a few weeks ago.
So, let’s start now. Right now. We have two broad lessons to teach our puppy. The first one is time-sensitive. The second one will be a lifelong work in progress. Ready?
Lesson One: The world is a good and safe place for dogs. We need to make this abundantly clear to our dogs in the first 18 weeks (weeks) of their life. Our puppies are weighing curiosity against caution more in the first 4 1/2 months of their life than at any other time. We have a great opportunity to tip the scales in these early weeks by teaching them that the people, places, objects, sounds, and common experiences in their life are safe.
We have a lot to cover – lots of people of many shapes, sizes, and colors – lots of things to see – lots of experiences to take in. And the clock is ticking. Start now. Yes, now.
Introduce your puppy to as many people as you can in a thoughtful, calm, and joyful way. Each new person should give your dog a nice treat. Be mindful not to overwhelm your puppy. Give her a chance to take breaks when she needs to. Meet people outside the home and invite many many of them into the home.
Introduce common household sights and sounds – vacuums, lawn equipment, blenders and ice makers. Hook all that up with your calm smiles and encouragement. Associate each sound with a tasty treat as well.
Introduce your puppy to fully vaccinated socially savvy dogs. Let them sniff and play. Enroll your puppy in a puppy class for fun social activity after her second round of shots.
Think of all the experiences that your dog will have on a routine basis and teach her these are joyful experiences: trips to the vet (treats), trips to the groomer (treats), car rides to fun places, joyful walks and outings to coffee shops and restaurants (treats).
This is a very condensed description of what we commonly call “socialization.” We know without doubt that dogs who have lots of well-thought-0ut positive experiences early in their life mature into more stable adult dogs. Think: calm, confident, and non aggressive. We really can’t overdo socialization but there is a time limit. We begin to see diminishing returns on this work as early as 18 weeks. So, start now.
Lesson Two: Here’s how life in the human world works. It’s all quid pro quo. This is the natural way dogs learn. If I do this – I get that. Or, If I do this – I can avoid that. Dogs don’t have to learn this part – it’s hard wired in. In fact, it’s how all animals learn, including us human animals.
The lesson we have to teach our puppies is which of their choices will earn them good stuff. How does the game of quid pro quo work for dogs in our human world? Maybe it’s better if we think of it like two lists: 1) things I want my puppies to do and 2) things my puppy would like to have.
My short list:
Poop and Pee Outside
Chew this instead of that
Come when I call you
Sit when I ask
Lie down quietly when I ask
Her short list:
Yummy bits of food
Interesting toys and chew items
Access to social encounters with other dogs
Play and exercise
Touch / social contact with us
All I need to do to teach my puppy the game. Trade things from my list in exchange for things on her list. If she pees outside (at the top of my list) I will give her a treat and engage her in some play (from her list). If she sits instead of jumping on me (my list), I’ll get down and pet her (her list). You see how it works?
Our constant exchange of this-for-that becomes a form of communication – a way to chat cross-species. And, when we start the process early (like, right now) we can actually influence our puppy’s physical brain development. Certainly we can and should train at home. But, again, early puppy classes are essential.
How far can we take this? We start with basic manners (sit, and down, and coming when called). But what about tricks? How about some complex tasks or maybe dog sports? Anything your dog can physically do – we can teach it. Use your imagination.
And, how long does this take? Well, we practice consistently well into our dog’s adolescence (up to age 2). Then we maintain learning through adulthood. But the truth is, we can teach new things (and should) throughout our dog’s entire life. Why not? It’s fun for the dog and us too.
All of this work adds structure and predictability to our young dog’s life. It’s comforting to know what do and when. It’s also very rewarding to know how the environment (specifically the people and other animals in our world) will respond to our actions. So, it’s clear that teaching our dogs how this process works is essential to their well being. Training (early training) is not a luxury or an add-on – it’s a core part of caring for our new puppy, like food, vet care, and exercise.
So yes! Start now. Start right now and keep going. And don’t forget to take pictures along the way. They grow up so fast.
Dog trainers like to say that coming-when-called is an odds game. If you called your dog right now, what are the odds he’d come? Would you place a bet on it? How much. Now, what if your dog was outside, or playing with another dog, or sniffing a lamp post?
Our job, yours and mine, is to stack the odds in our favor, to make it so we’d be willing to place a big bet that our dog will come when we call him every time anytime. Here are the keys.
Use a clear and consistent cue. I say “Stella, come!” (My dog’s name is Stella). I call it in a clear-throated voice, loudly. There’s a bit of lilt and lyricism to the call. It’s strong but not intimidating. I think of coming when called as an invitation not a demand. Avoid having a conversation with your dog. Don’t repeat the cue over and over. Don’t give multiple cues.
Watch to see if your dog moves toward you. As soon as he does, start smiling, and praising him. Cheer him on as he comes to you (but don’t repeat the cue).
Reinforce generously. Use the highest value reinforcer you can think of and give more than one treat (I recommend 3-4 in sequence). Then, if possible return your dog to play or whatever it was he was enjoying before you called him.
Repeat the process often, at different times, and in different places. In the early stages of training (all stages really) help your dog win the game. Set up your training so that he can succeed. I taught Stella coming-when-called using games. The process was fun for both of us, and easy as a result. We also mixed up the games to keep them interesting. I call Stella to me often when she leasts expects it and I reinforce it with a variety of things: food, play, access to fun activities. (See: Psyching Out Your Dog).
Practice throughout your dog’s lifetime to keep the behavior strong. It’s a powerful skill for keeping your dog safe from harm. But really, it’s nice just to show off that your dog is under some sort of control. How cool, right? My bet is that you’re going to love seeing your dog running towards you with that big goofy grin. Yeah, I’d put my money on that any day.