Training your dog, be it a newborn puppy or rescued adult, is a big undertaking. With all the different methods, steps and tools to consider, it can be overwhelming to know where to even begin. Whether you choose to take a firm hand, identify yourself as your dog’s “pack leader,” or go with a rewards-only/no punishment system, it’s important to stick to one basic guideline: Reward behaviors you like and ensure that behaviors you don’t like go unrewarded. Clear communication will be your strongest ally.
This guide is designed to give you the basics to begin training your dog in housebreaking, obedience, socialization, and even fun tricks. It will help you determine which tools are right for you both, and where to find more information on making your pup the well-mannered, obedient dog you know she can be.
Ready? Set. Bark!
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Basic House Training: Let’s Move this Potty Outside
Let’s face it: housebreaking your pet can get a little messy. But it doesnít have to be miserable! The important thing to remember is to be patient and give her time to adjust to a new home and a new way of life. Before you know it, you and your dog will have an effective potty system and the days of cleaning up her accidents will be nothing but a faint (and slightly stinky) memory.
The key to housebreaking is establishing a routine. A consistent feeding schedule will lead to a consistent elimination schedule. Keep in mind that a general rule of thumb is that a puppy can hold her bladder one hour for every month of life (so at two months old, she can hold it for about two hours). Avoid pushing her too far past this limit, or you will likely run into a few accidents.
Pick a specific spot outside and always take her there to do her business. Use the same, specific phrase – Go potty is a classic – while she is going in order to tie the behavior to the command. Eventually you can use this phrase beforehand as a reminder. When she’s successful in eliminating where you want her to, praise her immediately afterward. Praising before she is done may cause her to stop before she is actually finished, only to remember later (potentially when she’s back inside). Praising once you’ve returned inside confuses the idea that you want her to expel outside.
Housebreaking is easily one of the most frustrating processes when it comes to training your dog, but a lot of it comes back to your own attitude and patience. Accept that accidents are going to happen. And often, they occur because you didn’t attend to your dog in a timely fashion (by keeping an eye on that clock!) or you missed her attempt to signal to you that she needed to go. Punishing her for this is often counter-productive, especially since she may not understand that your anger is tied to her eliminating inside. So when the accidents do occur, keep your cool. Clean up the mess, reflect on what you could have done differently, and retain this insight for the future.
Basic Obedience: Follow the Leader
According to the American Kennel Club, teaching your puppy obedience training early in life is important because she is less likely to have already developed unwanted behaviors. But if you’re training an older dog, fear not! While it’s easier to train a young pup, it is certainly not impossible to train an adult. It simply may take a little longer for her to learn and retain the new behaviors.
Like housebreaking, obedience training requires plenty of patience. It’s unreasonable to expect to hold your puppy’s attention for long periods of time, so ease into lessons. Start with shorter training sessions and gradually increase the time every day. Stick to simple, one-word commands and then reinforce these commands outside of training sessions. For example, work with her to “sit” before mealtime or going outside for a walk. Further, always use your commands constructively. When teaching her to “come,” don’t use it to summon her for discipline. This could cause her to associate obeying that command with a negative consequence and thus make her less likely to repeat it in the future.
Start simple and increase difficulty as you see progress. When teaching her to “sit,” gradually increase the distance between you as she succeeds. Start one step away, then try two steps away, three steps away, and so on. When teaching her to “stay,” gradually increase the time she’s expected to hold the command. (Be sure to make the increases gradual and fair – don’t jump from two seconds to ten!)
Mastered those? Add some distractions. Have a friend or family member stand within view, or bounce a ball while she’s seated. Then branch out with your training sessions; if you always train in the living room, move to the kitchen, then to the backyard. Heck, work them into your daily walks! If you’re married, have your spouse do the routine with her as well. It’s important for her to learn that she needs to obey the commands in all settings from any person.
Remember that your dog is responding to your demeanor and body language. If you feel yourself growing frustrated or impatient, take a break and try again later. Training is meant to be fun for both of you! Cheer her on for little steps of progress; the important thing is to see her making an effort and to encourage her.
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Socialization: Expanding Your Pooch’s Horizons
With the rise in popularity of dog parks in recent years, socialization training has become a widely emphasized dog training issue. Keep in mind that aside from the safety aspects of letting unvaccinated dogs play together, many dog parks and dog-friendly public spots have set rules about vaccinations. Most states have specific laws about dog parks and requirements for your pet to participate in off-leash playtime with others.
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The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior considers the first three months of a puppy’s life the most important time for socialization, calling it the “period when sociability outweighs fear.” During this time, it’s important to encourage your puppy to explore, investigate and manipulate her environment. Improper socialization during this period can lead to problems later in life like aggression and fear.
Find ways to include your puppy in everyday tasks. Need to run a quick errand in the car? Take her with you! But be sure to encourage independent play as well. Give her alone time with her favorite toys to teach her self-amusement. This will lead to fewer problems with over-attachment and separation anxiety.
When it comes time to introduce her to other people, get her used to being handled in ìhot spots like the ears, muzzle, paws and tail. Associate gentle touch in these areas with positive reinforcement and rewards. Avoid overly loud or rough situations, especially with children. As she progresses, work her up to handling the unexpected by initiating strange noises and gently making sudden movements. Introduce her to potentially “scary” objects like wheelchairs and bicycles. But donít overwhelm her! If she begins to cower or refuses to take treats, tone down the excitement until she is comfortable again.
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Socializing Adult Dogs
When it comes to socializing older dogs, the goal is slightly different. You merely aim to train your dog to behave calmly in public. Reward her for sitting calmly and responding to her name as other dogs pass by at a safe distance. Start small by introducing one new dog at a time. Invite a friend with an easygoing dog to join you two on a walk. Speak to your dog in a relaxed and pleasant tone.
Keep in mind that many adult dogs simply don’t enjoy off-leash play with other dogs, and in many cases, they don’t actually require it. Adults, especially rescues, are more difficult to break of their perception of other dogs. If they’ve spent a good portion of their lives viewing fellow canines as threatening, immersing them in an environment full of other dogs (like a dog park) will cause nothing but problems. Pay attention to how your pet responds to others like her, and remember that there is nothing wrong with preferring solo play.
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Let’s Have Some Fun: Teaching Your Dog Tricks
Trick or treat? Why not both? Teaching your dog fun little tricks is not only a great way to keep party guests entertained, but it’s also important mental stimulation.
As with obedience training, trick training sessions should be short and fun for both you and your pup. Start with a relatively easy trick in a distraction-free, familiar environment. Choose a time when she isn’t over-excited (directly after mealtime isn’t ideal) and is calm enough to focus. Focus on one skill, and then raise the expectation.
Some veterinarians suggest using bite-sized treats or even your dogís regular kibble to train. Often youíll start with successive approximations, or behaviors that closely resemble the goal behavior. Have her repeat each successive approximation multiple times, rewarding her each time. Continue to the next step, reward her and repeat. Work your way up to the desired goal. When that final step is learned, use the cue word so she will learn to perform on command. To avoid confusion about which action is the goal, donít use the cue word until the behavior is officially learned.
Suppose you want to train your pup to roll over using a clicker (a handy tool we’ll discuss in the next section) and treats. Have her sit, click to affirm the action. Then have her lie down, and click when sheís all the way down. Use a treat to coax her onto her right side, and then click when sheís there. With the same treat in hand, make an arch-like motion in front of her from left to right. When she catches on and rolls, say, “Roll over!” and reward her with the treat.
Remember, start with simple tricks and work your way up to more complicated ones. Itís usually better to get the obedience training down before moving on to the fun stuff. Not only will your dog understand what a training session is and how it should go, you’ll already have a rapport established.
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Helpful Training Equipment
Because there are so many options when it comes to shopping for your pet, it’s easiest to start with the basics: the right collar (this is also how she’ll be identified), a strong leash, and a crate. Harnesses are also a valuable alternative to a collar, depending on her breed and potential for certain throat and neck conditions. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers offers a helpful list of varieties and descriptions to help you narrow down your search, but always consult your veterinarian.
When it comes to choosing a crate, go with a size that will be large enough for her when sheís reached adulthood. Dividers will allow you to limit her space until she’s grown into it; while training, she needs only enough space to comfortably stand up, lie down and turn around. Wire crates offer more ventilation and are a good option for pups who chew, but plastic crates provide more privacy and are easier to clean.
are becoming a standard tool for dog training. They rely on what’s called operant training, and allow you to lead your dog to the desired behavior. Clickers are a good supplement to training because they offer clarity, since verbal cues can often become confusing to our pets due to varying tone and even pronunciation. However, the click of a clicker always sounds exactly the same. It tells her that something good is coming, and eventually the click can be tied to the cue word.
There are countless options when it comes to choosing training tools. But donít forget that at the end of the day, it is your own responsibility to choose what equipment is right for your dog. Consult your veterinarian and other trusted dog-friendly professionals, but don’t allow yourself to be pressured into anything you or your dog isn’t comfortable using.
While training your four-legged friend isn’t a one-day job, you and your pal can find success no matter what her age or background. Learning effective forms of communication, practicing patience, and having a few tasty treats on hand can all be helpful in training your dog to be the cooperative, well-behaved critter you know she can be.