Updated: Feb 22
Keira Moore, PH-D, BCBA-D
You did it – you’re a dog owner! Now it's time to make sure your pup turns into your new best friend instead of your worst nightmare. Knowing where to start with dog training can be daunting. Whether your new dog is a purebred puppy with a champion bloodline or a rescue mutt with an unknown history, they all still need to learn the rules of your home, and their new life. You both need to learn how to communicate with each other. This can be especially tricky if you're one of the millions of people, like me, who got your new furry friend during the pandemic. As life returns to some semblance of normal, it's time to make sure our dogs are prepared to jump back into the real world too. Dog training can seem cumbersome and time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be! Here are 8 of the most essential dog training tips you should start thinking about right now:
1. Get Their Tail Wagging
Before starting any kind of training with your dog, you need to know what gets them excited. Does Bella have a favorite treat, or will she devour anything? Does Charlie like to play tug, fetch, or Frisbee? Maybe Lady loves a good belly rub or some soothing praise. The most essential first step in training is knowing their preferences. Not all dogs are the same - Sadie’s favorite activity might be scary or annoying to Spike.
Like humans, just because dogs like something, they might not be willing to work for it or might only like it in specific contexts. For instance, my dog Frida loves a good tug of war session with her Lambchop toy. However, she has made it clear, ONLY when she initiates it, ONLY when she is in the mood, and ONLY on our living room carpet. I've tried to bring Lambchop to the park, in the car, or to a friend's house, and she looks at me like I've lost my mind. Lambchop is not a good reward for Frida, even though she likes him. Frida will, however, work very hard even for the tiniest morsel of kibble, so we use food as her reward. Start by making a list of what excites your dog, then test those things out in different places - is your dog still excited by it when there are distractions around? Keep trying. It's a fun part of getting to know your new best friend! It might be helpful to find two or 3 special rewards so Rocky doesn't get bored with peanut butter. Once you've found that special something, you're ready for tip number 2.
2. Rewards Over Punishment
Once you've found the motivation, use it to reward good behavior and start playing detective! Pay attention to Duke – when he's doing things you like or want, make sure he knows it! The most straightforward and meaningful communication you can have with Tank is to provide an immediate reward for doing good things. When you are the source of lots of fun and exciting things for your dog when they are good, you will strengthen good behavior your bond at the same time. Luna will see you as the source of all good things, which will make her more likely to pay attention and want to be around you.
Avoid punishing your dog for bad behavior. This is never a good recommendation. Save all of the showing "domination" and "discipline" for the movies, unless you intend to steal Ace's women. Punishment can scare your dog and hurt your bond with them, and it doesn't really help to teach much other than to be afraid of you. When you punish Zeus for barking at the mail carrier, all you are teaching him is, "don't do that!" You've just left poor Zeus to guess what they should do instead….and he probably isn't going to guess right, especially in a scary or stressful situation. He might remember not to bark the next time he sees the mailman but might still think that mail carrier is a creep. Next time he might decide to try biting him instead!
If Diesel is being a bad dog, think about what you would like him to do instead of the bad behavior. Take the time to teach your best friend how they should act. Sure beats yelling at poor Princess to "BE QUIET!" every time she gets excited at the kids riding their bikes and wakes up the neighborhood (it doesn't seem to be working)! For example, when you see the kids coming, ask Princess to lay down and reward her with her favorite things and praise. Practice as much as possible, and reward it when it happens. Remember, nobody likes to work for free, even dogs, so when Fido is learning something new, pay him a decent wage, so he keeps it up!
3. Do a trick! But Think of the Dog First
Everyone loves a dog who can do tricks. There's no greater feeling as a dog owner than to be able to show off how much your dog knows to your friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers. When you decide what tricks to teach your dog, start with the most valuable "life skills" that will teach your dog some patience and self-control. The five most crucial "obedience" skills you can start with that will make your life as a dog owner a lot easier are: sit, down, wait, leave it, and watch me. These 5 skills set the stage for your dog to learn self-control. They also give you a baseline of commands to use in new or stressful situations. By teaching Buddy to focus on you, you build trust and communicate effectively. Once he has those skills, the sky's the limit on the fun tricks you can teach. You can go with the classics: shake, rollover, play dead, sit pretty, speak….or you can get creative! Some of Frida's favorites are jumping through a hoop, playing the piano, doing a handstand, and spinning in circles.
4. Learning Should Be Fun!
No matter what you decide to teach your new pal, always remember that training should be fun for both of you. If dog training feels like a chore, you won't want to spend time doing it, and neither will Bear. Set aside short blocks of time- 10 or 15 minutes is all you need- and do training as a game.
Reserve Zoe's favorite treats or toys for training time so that they are super excited and happy to work with you and have a plan for what you want to do before you start. Pay close attention to their body language. Watch to see that Buster is excited and engaged in training, paying close attention to you, and showing signs that they want to continue. Watch if he shows signs of distress or boredom (lots of yawning, licking their lips, tucking their tail) or tries to walk away from you. Don't get impatient! Stop what you are doing and re-assess your plan. Maybe Toby isn't super into the reward, or perhaps something else is distracting him. Make sure they are motivated and have their head in the game (and you too!). Train when they are hungry and energetic, and make sure there aren't a lot of other distractions around. Also, make sure to pick training time when you can be fully attentive and you aren't distracted! Not like your best friend will appreciate you being on the phone when you're hanging out all the time!
5. Be Prepared!
Dog training isn't all about teaching fun tricks to show off to your friends. One of the most important things you can do as a responsible dog parent is to help Maverick prepare for dog life's necessary evils. Things like being in a crate/carrier, going to the vet, being left alone, meeting strangers, dental care, and grooming. Practicing potentially scary or stressful situations before you need to encounter them in real life can be super helpful. This allows you to help build your Cooper's confidence, keep him calm and safe, and keep others safe.
As soon as you bring little Lola home, make a list of all of the potentially scary or stressful situations your dog may have to encounter in your life. Make a plan to start practicing those scenarios at home. The best way to teach Milo to be comfortable, confident, and cool in challenging situations is to break them down into small steps and offer him valuable rewards for staying calm. For example, we started tooth brushing Frida the week she came home. No dog likes getting its teeth brushed (like most humans!). Still, it is a necessary chore that significantly impacts their overall health. I broke tooth brushing down into simple steps and used lots of rewards, and within a month, Frida happily let me brush her teeth every day. Initially, I would just let her approach the toothbrush and reward her every time. Next, I put peanut butter on the toothbrush for a few days a let her lick it off. Once the toothbrush itself wasn't scary anymore, she allowed me to touch her snout and lift her lips to touch her teeth. We started with earning treats for quick snout touches, then slowly increased the length of the touch. While lifting the lips and touching the teeth, I added the toothbrush into the equation and added some peanut butter-flavored toothpaste. It may sound like a long process, but we were brushing teeth within a few weeks with 3-5 minutes of practice a day! It beats fighting with them all the time. With baby steps and lots of rewards, you can teach your dog to love some of the things you think they hate! The key is to always plan ahead, prepare, and work on skills before you need them.
6. There Can Be Dog Days
Dogs are clever creatures, and it is almost inevitable that you will run into some challenging behavior at some point in your dog's life. It could be excessive barking, jumping, biting, stealing food (sometimes known as counter surfing), or pulling on the leash like it's the Iditarod. All dogs are bound to do some things you don't like. Dogs often act on instinct, and sometimes their instincts don't quite line up with our expectations of "human rules."
The best way to manage bad behavior is to catch it early and act on it as soon as possible. The more your Lucy gets to practice bad behavior, the harder those habits will be to break. When trying to stop bad behavior, remember to go back to tip two - use rewards instead of punishment. When you first notice a problem, assess the situation and think about what reward your dog might be getting for engaging in that behavior. For example, Fluffy barks and growls at the Amazon delivery guy every time he comes….then he goes away. In Fluffy's mind, her barking works like a charm- every time she does it, that scary man who is threatening her home runs away, so the reward for barking is escaping the threat. Once you figure out the prize for bad behavior, think about a more appropriate behavior you could teach your dog to get the same reward. In this case, you might ask Fluffy to lay down as soon as you see the Amazon truck approaching. You might even offer some treats for doing that behavior instead. Eventually, Fluffy will learn that laying down not only gets the scary man to go away but also earns her a little extra income in the form of treats! The same goes for dogs who beg or steal food at dinner time. The reward for that behavior is pretty obvious. Delicious human food. Try teaching your dog a "place" or "go to mat" command, then reward staying on their mat with some tasty treats.
7. Set Them Up for Success
Prevention and thinking ahead is the key to avoiding bad behavior altogether. Think about ways to set up Marley's environment for success and prevent problem behavior. Does Riley like to chew shoes? Keep your shoes in a locked closet or room that he can't access, and give him something appropriate to chew. Is Blue always underfoot when you are trying to cook or eat? Use a gate to block off the kitchen! Baby gates, crates, leashes, and ex-pens can be your best ally in preventing Blue from being a bit annoying. Carefully assess your home and think about creative ways to prevent Coco from being a bad girl before it even has a chance to happen. Set your dog up to do the right thing, and reward them when they do. This will stop all the bickering and arguing about begging that they clearly aren't listening to!
8. Your Dog's Behavior is YOUR Responsibility
Being a responsible dog owner is the most critical part of your new friendship at the end of the day. As a dog owner, you are responsible for your dog and your dog's behavior. Just as parents are responsible for teaching their children how to successfully interact with their world, you hold that power! A successful, well-behaved dog is a happy dog, and you owe it to your new furry friend to take the time to show him the ropes!
If you've made it to the end of this list and you feel like you are in over your head, never fear! There are plenty of great resources and trainers out there who can help you. If you want to go it alone but need some guidance. I highly recommend the Levels training book by Sue Ailsby. You won't find a better curriculum out there! If you're more of the watch and learn type, check out the show It's Me Or The Dog (streaming on Prime and Discovery Plus), and check out Victoria Stillwell's website. If you want help from a trainer or more specific training, the Karen Pryor Academy is one of the best places to learn or find a top-notch trainer Good luck, and enjoy your pup!
Dr. Keira Moore is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who specializes in the assessment and treatment of sleep problems. She offers teleconsultation to parents of children with sleep problems as well as adults all over the world. For more information, visit www.moorebehaviorconsulting.com and follow Dr. Moore on Facebook @moorebehaviorconsulting. To see more of her & Frida, check out their training journey @frida_pawlo_does_tricks on Instagram.
Credits to the awesome dogs in the post. Bear & Turtle are Rob Scalise's best friends, owner of Villiv. Swiffer is Jessica Clausen's best friend, Operations manager at Villiv. Max is Jeanne Ambrose's best friend, content wizard at Villiv.