- Your puppy starts learning the moment they walk in your home! Begin before you bring your pup home by determining what skills are important for them to be integrated into your lifestyle.
- Having your dog stay or “go to place,” and come when called are key things to work on from day one.
- Socialization in the first 16 weeks is important for the long-term happiness of your pup. Socialization is about meeting other dogs, but also providing a controlled, positive introduction to many people, surfaces, sounds, objects, activities, and settings.
- When it comes to other dogs, give your puppy a chance to socialize, safely. Stick to puppy classes and dogs you know. Introduce your puppy to stable adult dogs.
- For potty training, and generally laying the groundwork for a good relationship, a crate is a hugely helpful tool. Make sure your pup considers the crate a refuge, not a punishment.
From teething and potty training to socialization and forming healthy bonds with their humans, everything about puppy training is an education not only for the puppy but for the dog owner as well. It’s not always easy, but having a puppy provides a great opportunity to learn how a dog sees the world, and to build the best possible relationship with a canine companion.
Here are some key elements of training a puppy and some of the steps you can take to create a balanced, happy life together.
When and how to start training your puppy
Training starts on day one!
Two of the most common questions among owners of new puppies are: when should you start training, and what things should you start teaching? And while there are some age guidelines for certain skills, many trainers say that your pup’s education starts the minute you bring them home.
“Whether you are training or not, your puppy is learning,” says Tyler Muto, founder and instructor at ConsiderTheDog.com and K9 Connection Dog Training in Buffalo, NY. “The only question is what are they learning? In that sense we really want to be mindful of what we’re teaching our puppy from the very moment we get them.”
Muto notes that it’s helpful if owners don’t separate the idea of “formal” training from the everyday life skills they want the dog to have. “A lot of the time when people think about training, they think about ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘come,’ and those basic commands, which you can definitely start right away,” he says. “But your puppy is already learning all kinds of things about your routines and your lifestyle and what kind of person you are.” He says to consider things like: what are the rules around the house, what are the boundaries? “We want to make sure we have a clear idea going into this of what we want from the dog,” he says. “As far as teaching those basic life skills you start those right away; you don’t want to waste time. Because the puppy will be building habits and learning things the moment they walk into your house.”
Christine Young, a certified professional dog trainer who specializes in puppy training through The Puppy Care Company in California, agrees it is never too early to start training.
“Training is always happening,” says Young, who breaks down puppy training into “threes.”
During the first three days, focus on creating a calm environment for your new puppy, allowing them to explore on their terms. Hold off for a few days on inviting all of your family, friends and the neighbors’ pets over. During the first three weeks, pet owners can start adding in some safe socialization time with new people, other pets and novel experiences (see below). But it’s important to be patient at this time because your puppy is still settling in. During the first three months, your puppy will require more work than you probably imagined. Focus on understanding canine body language.
“It takes time and effort, but will allow profound back-and-forth communication,” Young says. “This will last a lifetime.”
What skills to start with
Taking the time before you even get a puppy to think about what lifestyle you want to have with your dog, what kind of activities you want them to do with you, and what skills are important for them to be integrated into your lifestyle.
For example, maybe you have a lot of guests who come to your house. So one priority might be establishing: what do I expect of my pup when we hear the doorbell? “That is a life skill that you’ll expect of your puppy and that you can focus on right off the bat,” says Muto.
Start training on day one with “what are the exercises that will have the biggest impact on my life with this puppy?” he says. “What do I need this puppy to know? For me, coming when called is essential so I start teaching it off the bat.”
For most dog owners, having the dog stay or “go to place,” and having them come when called are key and things to work on from day one.
Though the urge may be strong to let an energetic new puppy roam free in their new home, pet owners may quickly realize the challenges—and risks—that may present. We recommend owners get a crate for puppies to have a space of their own. It’s a key tool for potty training, for preventing separation anxiety, and for just establishing routines and boundaries in the house.
“Any kind of containment conditioning can make life so much easier and can be part of independence-building to prevent separation anxiety,” says Young. “Crate training is key for unexpected vet visits, multi-dog households, and can also make potty training much more successful.”
There are many crate styles and options, including fabric, metal and plastic of varying sizes. Choose a crate that will accommodate your puppy when they are full grown, but also one you can adjust in size with some kind of divider. You want your puppy to have room to turn, sit, and lie down comfortably but not so much room they may decide to use a portion of the crate as a potty area. Also, a fabric crate may not be the best choice for a puppy in case an accident does occur.
Blake Rodriguez, of Dream Come True K9 in New York, says the key to crate training is the dog spending time in the crate regularly throughout the day, and not seeing it as a punishment. Having this comfortable space will give the dog a place to go to happily be alone.
If your dog is by your side all the time, it can become stressful for them when you have to leave home (read more about separation anxiety here). “If a dog only knows a life where when you are around they are on top of you the whole time, you run a very high risk of creating separation anxiety,” says Rodriguez. “So crate training is very valuable.”
Crate and potty training often work hand in hand. Confining your pup when they’re in the house can help reduce accidents and set them up for success. Another key factor in potty training—and this is where the work comes in for you, the owner—is taking your puppy outside frequently. “The key to the puppy learning how to not go inside is not giving them the opportunity to go inside,” says Muto. It’s a simple premise, but it involves some effort.
Young puppies should be taken out to potty every 30 minutes. You can increase this time as you make progress.
“Bring your pup to the same potty spot outside on a leash first thing when you arrive home for the first time, and then on a regular schedule,” Young says. “Give them five minutes to sniff and hopefully go. Give them every opportunity to succeed by creating regular reminders starting every 30 minutes to take them out.” Take your puppy out first thing in the morning (don’t stop to make breakfast…) and after naps and meals.
When you’re not playing, training or otherwise supervising your puppy, they can be in their crate or confined to a certain area of the house. And if you keep to a regimented schedule and location for potty breaks, they’ll eventually start to learn where and when to go.
Crate training for potty training works because a dog doesn’t normally want to soil an area where they spend time living and sleeping. “And as long as we’re doing our job of overcompensating, getting the dog out, and being a good time manager, the dog has a reason to hold it and then picks up on the pattern,” says Rodriguez.
A key step in potty training is to ensure that if your pup has been outdoors and doesn’t pee or poop, they should be confined when they return to the house. “What happens is, it can be super overwhelming outside so it’s easy for a puppy’s mind to be elsewhere and forget they have to go unless they really have to go badly,” says Rodriguez. “Then when they get into an environment that they’re comfortable in, they go, ‘oh yeah I have to pee.’ If they have free rein they’ll find the area where they can pee and then they go rest somewhere else. So one thing an owner can do is work with confinement.”
Another key: make sure to reward your pup when they DO go outside! “People can underestimate how important it is to reward when they go outside,” says Muto. “This makes a huge difference. I’ve seen cases when people are doing everything right except not rewarding the dog for going outside. And suddenly they introduce treats and everything changes.”
Properly socializing your puppy can make a huge impact on your pet’s behavior long-term. Puppy owners are typically advised that pups shouldn’t be exposed to other dogs until their vaccinations are complete, but that extended timeframe can create a socialization lag—if this advice is followed too strictly puppies wouldn’t begin socializing until 16 to 18 weeks of age, which means missing out on a crucial period when puppies are best able to absorb lessons about how to interact with other dogs, and the world around them.
So give your puppy a chance to socialize, safely. If you’ve got a new puppy it’s a good idea to stay away from situations where there are multiple unknown dogs, and there will be exposure to urine and feces. For this reason, avoid dog parks in this early phase.
Introduce your dog to other dogs you know, and stick to puppy classes which are more controlled situations where other dogs are likely receiving their vaccinations.
In our story on puppy care, Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of service of clinical behavior service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis, says puppy socialization is the most crucial aspect of behavior training and that a puppy should be exposed, from adoption to 16 weeks, to not just dogs, but all the different types and ages of people, surfaces, modes of transportation, noises, smells, and types of weather that the owners can find. “This is the time that the puppy is most open to new things and we want to make sure that he thinks of all of those things as ‘normal’ as he grows up,” she says. Healthy socialization means your pup will have a better chance at growing up resilient and able to cope with new stimuli, and less of a chance to be excessively fearful, anxious, and potentially aggressive.
Young agrees that socialization also means much more than introducing your puppy to other pets and people. “Socialization includes new sounds and new experiences such as brushing and bathing or riding in an elevator,” Young says. “Learn how to carefully and consistently expose your pup to novelty.”
She recommends learning to do a few new things with your puppy each day at home. This may include wearing different hats, walking on bubble wrap and skateboarding while your puppy is in the backyard with you.
“Canine enrichment is another great way to add novelty,” says Young. “There are many ways to create fun, easy, food-puzzle games and enjoy watching them work out what to do. Go slow and slightly increase difficulty each week.”
While the first 14 weeks are key for socialization, it should continue beyond that.
“It is never too late to work on slowly adding in novel experiences,” Young says. “After six months, it can take more patience and more repetitions.”
Introducing your puppy to other dogs
When it comes to meeting other dogs, pet owners should be selective and careful to have safe greetings.
Again, it’s a good idea for puppy owners to stay away from dog parks when their dogs are very young. There are too many unknowns, Muto notes, like whether other dogs are vaccinated, and whether other owners are paying enough attention to their dog’s behavior. “Your local puppy classes where it’s a clean environment and you know everyone has at least started their series of vaccines is a great place to go,” he says. He notes that it’s beneficial for young puppies to interact with other young puppies as they can be “mouthy” and jumpy without too much conflict.
There’s also tremendous value in letting puppies interact with adult dogs, says Muto. He notes, though, that it’s important that the adult dog is a balanced dog. “They have to be very stable adults that don’t mind being around puppies,” he says. “Adults will set limits on the puppy that they don’t set with each other. It’s important for them to learn those limits and to learn how to accept a bit of a correction from another dog—another dog saying ‘hey you need to knock it off.’”
Make sure you know the other dog and that they don’t have any history of aggression toward other animals. And if you’re not sure, says Muto, don’t.
Young says to also avoid introducing your small puppy to overly energetic dogs that are larger and older dogs who are possibly in pain.
“Socialization is important and if overdone can be as damaging as under-socializing,” says Young. Let your puppy observe new things at a distance while allowing them the choice to engage with the new thing if they wish.
You will be teaching them that people, dogs, animals, and other things can be interesting to look at and leave alone, she says. “You will be teaching them that engaging with you and taking care of themselves no matter what is happening is the default.”
She adds that pet owners have a tendency to want their dogs to love everything and everyone, which may not be the best approach. “Imagine that everything is furniture to be observed, not interacted with. If you work on this when they are young, you will have a calmer dog that is polite and will focus on you.”
Leash walking is another important lesson for your puppy to learn—but make sure to have patience.
“Most puppies are not great at leash walking, but there is no rush to actually go for a neighborhood walk with your new puppy,” says Young. “The first few weeks are all about settling into your home and bonding. We have a tendency to want to move too fast and go too far.”
Leash walking at first may be more like leash roaming.
“Give them a choice to wander out the front door with you and go at their pace,” she says. “Allow your puppy to move slowly when out in the world. Remember, puppies are seeing everything for the first time and need time to digest their surroundings. They are little sponges soaking up so much.” And if your puppy wishes to rest, let them rest.
As for gear, a harness is an appropriate choice for your young pup. As Muto notes, you shouldn’t expect too much focus and self control from puppies under four or five months old, and loose leash walking requires both of those things. “When I am ready to start more formal training, I switch to a collar or head halter,” he says. “This way the pup hasn’t already learned to pull on a collar, which makes training a loose leash walk or heel a lot easier.”
Teething and other troubles
Puppies are adorable, but they can go through phases in their normal development that may frustrate you—such as teething and biting. Patience and training techniques are key here.
Puppy biting is a developmental behavior. “Your puppy needs to chew a lot, just like they need to sleep,” says Young. Teething can be particularly challenging from weeks 12 to 16 as teeth begin to fall out. The goal is to encourage chewing while preventing inappropriate biting as often as possible, she notes.
Direct your puppy’s sharp little teeth to an active toy. You can make the toy move away from your puppy so that it mimics prey running away—and hopefully catches their attention, says Young.
You can also try stuffing a rubber food dispensing toy with your dog’s fresh food, or a banana and freezing it. There are other commercial teething toys made to be frozen. When your pup chews these frozen treats it provides engagement while soothing and numbing sore gums.
It’s important at this stage to keep your clothes, shoes, and other belongings away from your puppy. Don’t allow your puppy to teeth on you or their clothing.
Mouthing, nipping, biting—call it what you will but it’s all a natural behavior for puppies and at some point, their needle-sharp teeth will land in your hand. You should never scream at or hit your puppy, but it’s important to not let human hands or other parts become a go-to chew.
If your pup sinks their teeth into you while playing, try to correct without over-reacting. You can react with a loud noise (a clap, or a loud “ow!”)—mirroring the yelp that would come from another puppy. Turn away from the puppy or end playtime temporarily.
In addition, make sure your puppy is getting lots of mental and physical stimulation generally so they’re not frustrated or filled with pent-up energy. And make sure everyone in your house is on the same page when it comes to correcting these behaviors (if one person is happily letting them bite, it’s sending mixed messages).
It’s important to play with your pup as part of socialization but try to avoid using your hands like toys—waving them around to instigate play, for example. And, again, never hit your puppy—it can not only make them afraid of you, but it can encourage aggression.
If your puppy chews on their leash when you’re on a walk, or if you’d like to avoid that happening, there are a few things you can try.
First, you can try creating a calmly positive reaction to the leash before you set out for walks. Start by touching and then handling the leash and rewarding your pup for staying calmly in place. Move in stages toward being able to attach the leash to their collar while they remain sitting. All of this will ideally help your dog associate the leash with something other than frantic jumping and biting.
If your puppy is already a determined leash biter, be sure you’re not rewarding the behavior—that is, don’t get into a pulling match when your pup has the leash in their mouth.
When puppies are very young, redirecting them to a toy is OK, but Muto says once they hit the four to five month mark, it is important that pups learn to keep their energy calmer on the walk. “Most of my clients who have issues on walks are struggling with dogs who are over-aroused,” he says. “So as we move toward more formal training, we want to keep the arousal levels low. Toys can be counterproductive toward that goal.”
You can also discourage biting by using a chain leash as they likely won’t enjoy the sensation on their teeth.
Chewing releases endorphins and is self-reinforcing, so be sure to get your pup chewing safe things in places you want them to chill out says Young. And give your puppy time to naturally progress through this developmental phase. “The behavior will get better as long as you aren’t doing anything to reinforce it,” Young says, noting that it can take some practice to learn the subtleties of what is reinforcing. “Your puppy should have adult teeth around six months old and should stop trying to bite everything in sight,” she notes.
A new puppy may start jumping on people as they grow, and while it’s cute when they’re young, it’s something to address now before it becomes an adult problem.
“Your dog running to jump on a guest or having your dog barking at another dog on the other side of the fence are two top issues many owners struggle with,” Young says. “If we don’t manage destructive patterns, they will only get worse.”
If your puppy jumps up on you, disengage with them—turn away, and don’t touch them or speak to them. Wait until they have four paws on the ground before engaging and then give them a reward. Try practicing with other people so the behavior is applied universally.
If your dog jumps on you when you walk in the door, try walking out for a moment, and repeat until your dog greets you calmly, at which point administer praise and a reward.
In addition to the appropriate crate, other tools that will help you with your puppy include the right toys and leashing system.
Toys should be made of nontoxic materials and designed for puppies. Look for rubber toys designed to be stuffed with food or treats. Pet owners can freeze the stuffed toy and hand it to teething puppies for extra soothing and engagement. Regardless of the toy, make sure to supervise your puppy whenever they are playing with or gnawing on it.
A long leash and, for young pups, a well-fitted front-and-back clip harness are also recommended. As noted, you can move into a collar when your pup is a bit older.
For training sessions, you’ll also want a relaxation mat that you can teach your puppy to settle down on in between play or training sessions.
“Be patient with yourself and your puppy,” says Young. “This is more work than many imagine—mistakes will happen and dogs are resilient. Enjoy this precious time, and know it is worth the work. If you’re ready to invest, it will change you for the good in more ways than you imagined.
Puppy training checklist
- Crate: be sure it’s the right size for your puppy, allowing enough room to stand and turn around, but not enough space that they have room to go potty and avoid the mess.
- Leash and harness or adjustable collar
- Puppy-safe toys: puzzle toys and chew toys
- Vet-approved shampoo and brushes
- Baby gates
- Poop bags
- Enzyme spray for accidents
- Dog toothpaste and toothbrush
- ID tags
- Dog food!
Read more about puppy care in our Puppy Guide.