Puppy Training: Where to Start
by Katie Spruill KPA-CTP
When I adopt a new puppy, I teach them very few tricks that most dogs have in their repertoire. In the earlier months of a dog’s life, time is best spent socializing them to new people, places, other dogs, and experiences. This will help them become confident adults, but also help them be calm around novel things or people. When I do decide to start teaching new behaviors, I avoid things like shake and rollover because while cute, the first behaviors that you teach a puppy, are the behaviors your puppy will continue to get your attention, manage stress, and seek reinforcement. Trainers refer to these behaviors as default behaviors, because well… they are what your dog will default to.
For example, when I was a teenager, my family adopted a husky puppy and we were excited to teach her new tricks. In the first couple weeks we taught her to sit and shake. At just a few weeks old, she learned that shake meant access to reinforcement (treats). For years, she would shake to get our attention and we were often scratched in the face or arms. Since then, we have spent a lot of time practicing other behaviors that she offers to get our attention, but every now and then when laying down and sitting doesn’t work, she goes back to her default behaviors and I get a paw to the face.
Now, I normally begin teaching my puppies practical skills like kennel up, eye contact, and lay down, in that order. I do this while continuing to socialize them to grooming procedures and things of that nature. I always start with crate training because it can not only be used as an effective management tool when potty and chew training, but when dogs learn it’s a safe space early on, they choose to go there in times of stress. I would much rather have them go to their crate for a break than lash out at the child who is inducing stress in my dog for one reason or another.
Eye contact is another behavior that I always say can’t be reinforced too much. The foundation to any skill is to focus. Giving your pup treats for looking at you will make leash walking, recall, and all other kinds of training easier in the future.
I prioritize down at an early age because it can be used to help manage a rowdy puppy. When puppies get bored, they tend to peruse the house looking for something fun to do like chew the leather sofa. If they learn that laying down gets them access to reinforcement like your attention, treats, bones, or toys, they will be less likely to get your attention in less than ideal ways. And here is the best part- its really easy to train! My favorite way is to lay on the couch with a good book, give the puppy a chew toy, watch them out of the corner of my eye and whenever they lay down on their own, say yes toss them a treat. The pup learns that when I am not paying attention to them, the best thing to do is relax.
You may find other skills more beneficial depending on your dog’s breed, energy level, and your own life style. For example, if you already have a calm puppy, down might not be the most necessary behavior to teach early on. But the point is, your dog’s default behavior should be something helpful and relaxing to them in many contexts. This is the most important thing to teach a young pup, and this is what makes happy and cooperative adult dog as well.