3 Essential Things to Teach Your Puppy First
First-Time Puppy Owners Often Wonder Where to Start When Training A Puppy
If you’ve recently brought a brand new puppy home, you may be wondering, “Now what?”! Well first, throw a little party for yourself! You have just embarked on an incredible adventure with your new fur-friend. You’re going to have some great times together, and you might struggle a little bit too. That’s normal!
It’s tempting to just snuggle up on the couch with this little creature and begin your new life as best friends. But wouldn’t it be great if you could take advantage of this time to teach your puppy a few essential skills while your puppy’s brain is young and soaking up new information like a thirsty sponge?
Some of the first things we teach our puppies will end up being their strongest skills. And, believe it or not, there is a right sequence and wrong sequence for teaching puppies new skills.
While it’s fun to teach your puppy things like “shake” and “speak”, do you really want your puppy to default to putting her paw on you to get your attention? Or maybe to bark to let you know he wants to play? Although these commands sound like a good idea at first, they could actually lead to too much of a good thing.
It’s better to teach productive skills that will help your puppy co-exist peacefully in a human world and skills that can be used in a lot of different situations to achieve the behavior you want.
As an expert dog trainer, experience has taught me that there are 3 essential skills you should teach your puppy first!
3 First Things To Teach Your Puppy
Skill 1: Bump It
Bump It is a fun game that teaches our pups to press their nose into our flat palm.
You might be thinking, “How in the world will that be useful?”. Well, imagine replacing your palm with all kinds of things that you might want your puppy to approach willingly:
- The leash
- The dog collar
- A grooming brush
- Something new in the home that might be a little uncomfortable to the puppy!
This skill is very versatile and can be applied to so many different situations. And it’s so much fun and easy to teach!
I used Bump It to teach my dog to get over her fear of the garbage can. We taught her to love to go near the scary garbage container when she was going through one of her fear imprint periods.
One day the garbage can was fine to walk past and the next day she thought it was going to eat her! That’s how fast these things can pop up. We started at a distance and gave her positive reinforcement for every step in a positive direction toward the garbage can.
Eventually, as training sessions progressed, she was bumping the garbage can to get her treat reinforcement. She learned to overcome her fear quickly and discovered that bumping the “scary” container was actually pretty fun.
Bump It is also a skill we like to suggest puppy owners use to help redirect biting, especially with children who might accidentally reinforce biting behaviors in a playful, energetic puppy.
A young person’s movements are usually more sporadic, their tone of voice is higher and often more exciting to a puppy, and of course they are a little closer to the puppy’s level. This often results in the children being the target of a little too much puppy energy!
Using the Bump It skill, you can teach the children to hold out their palm so the puppy will change his approach to a bump, not a bite. This technique is a win-win for both child and pup!
Bump It can even be a great game that helps your puppy overcome feeling nervous about walking past a stroller, jogger, or other scary trigger when you’re out on a walk. Using Bump It helps to redirect your puppy to a positive behavior and avoid barking or over-excitement.
Try using this great game to keep your dog’s attention on you! Anytime we can focus our dog’s mind on something we want them to do, instead of the undesired activity, it’s going to be better for everyone.
Keep in mind that it takes time, training and practice to get there, but Bump It will work for you! That’s why it’s one of the games I suggest you introduce early on in your puppy’s training.
Skill 2: Go Zone
Are you taking your puppy out for potty breaks on a leash? If not, you should be! Having her on a leash during potty breaks serves multiple functions. She can focus a little better on the task, not all the distractions of the outside world, and she will be learning how to walk while on a leash!
Many puppy owners don’t realize that leash skills start right away, long before neighborhood walks can begin. In fact, neighborhood walks are really the final step in a training process that’s designed to teach our puppy how to behave on a walk.
Go Zone is the zone where we want our dog to be when we are in a focused walking position. This is often thought of as the “heel” position, where the dog is calm by the side of our leg. You can choose whatever leg you want but we recommend you be consistent during the initial training before you start switching it up on your pup.
This zone is a really important part of loose leash walking. Although we want our dogs to have some freedom to sniff and explore while on walks (after all, the walk is for them, not you!), we also want them to return to us when we ask or when we need to keep them close for safety reasons.
A simple tap on your hip is all it’s going to take to get your pup to return to your side and focus on you, waiting for further instruction. That’s the beauty of Go Zone!
You start this puppy training game in the quiet of your own home, and you can use potty breaks to practice it. You then work up to more distracting environments only as the pup is getting the hang of the game and shows some real proficiency in the lower-distracting areas.
Of course, we want to use lots of reinforcement for a job well done so be sure to have the treats handy and give them out with enthusiasm when your dog does what you’d like. The mechanics of the training – the timing of your “yes!” and the timing of the treat, play a big part in helping shape the behavior you want from your dog. Be ready to capture every moment when he’s doing the right thing!
On a neighborhood or decompression walk with your pup, Go Zone is your best option when:
- You see something that might be distracting or exciting to your puppy
- You want to proceed with your walk to another location for another sniff-fest
- You just want to keep up your dog’s skills and excitement for training
Dogs love to know what is expected of them, especially when it’s easy. And returning to your side is definitely something your pup can and should learn right away.
Skill 3: Self Soothe
Are you surprised that I didn’t list “come” or “recall” in my Top 3 skills? Of course that one is really important, but it’s not something we can teach first. Our puppy’s brain has to work up to such a challenging skill like leaving something of interest to return to something a little less interesting, like their owner.
But self soothe is a skill you’re really going to want to teach your pup right away. This skill helps your puppy learn how to settle on their own, in your absence, and play independently while you are occupied with other tasks.
I know we all love the puppy snuggles but we also have lives to lead. We can’t spend all day, every day with a puppy on our laps! Nor should we.
Our pups need to learn some independence and the ability to cope and be calm and content when we are not around.
Until our puppies get used to their new surroundings and routine, they may cry for attention. If you cave and go to them when they cry, you will teach them very quickly that all they have to do to get your attention is make a fuss.
We always suggest that you wait for the exact moment they stop whining and then attend to their needs. Even if that moment is a split-second while he takes another breath to continue the whining, that’s the moment to open the crate or redirect his attention. Puppies have the attention span of a goldfish and sometimes we can use it to our benefit, like in that situation!
Your pup is going to have to cry many times without a response from you before the behavior can change and he can settle better. This is called the extinction burst.
At the same time she is going through the extinction burst, it is our responsibility to help her learn to have a positive association with her crate or pen or being alone. We do this through training games outside of the time we expect our puppy to be alone.
As Self Soothe training progresses, we can gradually increase the distance and duration away while the pup remains calm. And those training games with the crate or pen are a key part of this process.
You can find those games in module 1 of our online puppy training program, 30 Days to Puppy Perfection.
When it comes to helping our puppies learn new skills and behaviors, we always say that it takes time AND training to shape the behavior and that’s definitely true with the Self Soothe skill. You can’t just let it go and hope time will fix things. Your job is to put in the training so your pup can learn this important skill that will benefit him – and you – for a lifetime.
There’s one more added twist to teaching the Self Soothe skill: while it is important to teach our puppies to be content with being alone, we also have to keep them below their panic threshold while doing so.
If our puppies panic to the point of having an accident or potentially hurting themselves, we are creating a negative experience and no learning is taking place. So it has to be done just in that sweet spot between normal puppy fussing and complaining, but not so far that we see puppy panic.
When your puppy knows how to self-soothe it’s also going to help you a lot when it comes to some of the more undesirable behaviors like biting and chewing. If we can teach our pups to be content with some of their own toys – instead of our fingers, arms, pants or shoes – we will have better results when we redirect their attention to the desired behavior.
Interested in learning more? Let's start with the 6 essentials of 8-week-old puppy training and what to do when you feel, “my dog doesn't listen to me.” Then you’ll also want to check out these related blogs.
Which of the 3 skills have you found most useful?
About the trainer
After spending 20 years helping families with their dogs face to face as a professional dog trainer, Michele realized that so much of what she knows could be shared with families everywhere - in a way that actually works. People sometimes think their dog is just SUPER difficult because the advice they’ve gotten was incomplete, confusing or just wrong. So she set out to help. Michele loves training dogs because of the impact that it has on the families she gets to help. The peace and joy they get from being able to enjoy their dog LISTENING. Besides teaching classes, helping private clients and running seminars, Michele is also a foodie and fantasizes about being a food critic or secret shopper for restaurants. Talk to her about food and your instant best friends.