Puppy Skills Training: Why You Need A Plan
Bringing home a new puppy is very exciting. You want your puppy to grow up into an obedient and happy dog. Often, new owners bring their puppy home with no plan. Conversely, some more experienced owners begin drilling and training the puppy right away, not focusing on a few key skills. In order for your puppy to do well in your home, you will need to begin training from the moment the puppy comes homes. Structured puppy skills training is absolutely essential.
A Big Tip: Get Guidance
My first recommendation to any new puppy owner, including experienced trainers and dog sports competitors, is to get a qualified trainer to help you. Often, dog owners think that they don’t need any help as they have raised a dog (or 5) before. It is important to have a positive/humane trainer help you with your plan, no matter how skilled or experienced you are. When I bring home a new puppy, I sign up for multiple training classes. This is for both the socialization as well as having another perspective! I teach private, in-home lessons across Long Island.
Only 5 Skills? Yes!
Many new puppy owners become overzealous with training. Puppy skills training should be fun, not daunting! They want to do everything and they want the puppy to be perfect immediately. I recommend focusing on socialization and house training, and mastering a few simple skills before moving on to other things. More than anything, a new puppy needs to be successful in training and have some predictability. We don’t want to confuse our new puppy with too many exercises.
How do you train them, though?
I use positive reinforcement training, and more specifically, The Third Way. You can learn more about this method by clicking here. I do not believe in using physical pain, or force, to teach a new puppy. Using the puppies food and toys to teach them, and focusing on what we want them TO DO as opposed to NO NO NO I find to be far more effective. I can’t imagine putting a prong collar on an infant, or squirting them with water to make them stop crying or behave. I wouldn’t do it to my puppy or dog either. By being a calm and kind guide for your puppy, you will be building a strong relationship.
Skill One: Name Game
The first skill I teach my puppy is to respond to their name. Most people think that their dog knows their name. To me, a dog knows its name if it responds to the name 99% of the time, in almost all situations. This includes when they are chasing a squirrel, running after a dog friend, or wandering around in your yard. Name Recognition is a SKILL, not something that a puppy is born with. In short, we pair the name with a reward, so that the puppy has a positive emotional response to hearing it. We never use the name to scold the puppy, or if we know the puppy will not be responding.
Skill Two: Eye Contact
A focused puppy is one who isn’t becoming too distracted by the world around them. I teach eye-contact using The Third Way Method (not luring using a treat to my eyes). Right away my puppy learns that if they want something, the best thing to do is to gaze into my eyes calmly. Dogs become highly frustrated when they don’t know how to get what they want. I also work on teaching my puppies an automatic watch. This means that I reward them habitually for looking at me. You can see some here in this short video of my puppy, Lev.
Skill Three: It’s Your Choice
I believe that my dogs should make good choices, without me having to constantly nag and micromanage them. To me, “Leave-it” is a command that is overused. I would rather have a dog that doesn’t steal at all, instead of one who constantly tests the waters to see if I notice and tell him “No”. It’s Your Choice is a game where we teach the puppy that leaving items alone are the best way to get them. You can read more about it in this free guide, offered by legendary trainer Susan Garrett. It’s Your Choice is key for puppy skills training, and they take to it very quickly.
Skill Four: Tug of War
Playing Tug teaches impulse control, bite inhibition, tires your puppy out, can help with their obedience, and teaches them how to play appropriately with a human. It is a misconception that playing tug results in “dominance”. That’s kind of like saying that teaching children to play sports will turn them into delinquents. Playing tug also leads to a dog who will pick up and drop items on command. Tug should always be played with rules, and you must be gentle and not whip your puppies head up and down. This isn’t safe. See here for more information. I do recommend that you seek help with this skill, with a qualified positive trainer who has performance dogs.
Skill Five: Sit/Maintain(Stay)
I teach my puppies right away how to sit. I also teach them that “sit” means “sit and stay”. We call this Sit/Maintain in The Third Way. Most puppies and dogs think that sit means sit until something better comes along. To me, this doesn’t make sit very useful. Instead, I teach my puppies that it is highly rewarding to stay sitting once they have been asked to sit. I do this by reinforcing the sit repeatedly with tiny treats. I also teach my puppies a release word. My release word means, “this behavior is no longer being reinforced.” My puppies know that they are no longer at work when they hear the release, and so they are free to get up.