You will be training your puppy from the moment you bring him home. Young puppies have short attention spans but you can expect them to begin to learn simple obedience commands such as 'sit', 'down' and 'stay', as young as 7 to 8 weeks of age. The mainstay of encouraging trust and desirable behaviors is creating predictability and clarity in all interactions with your puppy. Unpredictable and inconsistent interactions can make your puppy fearful of you and strain you relationship. Whether you are teaching housetraining, deterring inappropriate chewing, or calm interactions with visitors it is important to create a learning environment that sets your puppy up for success. Avoid temptations that might encourage your puppy to perform the wrong behavior (i.e. leaving your turkey sandwich on the coffee table and walking away, or leaving your best pair of shoes in the middle of his play area). Such situations only set him up to fail and teach him behaviors that may be difficult to change later.
The first part of successful training is to reward behaviors you like, and ignore ones that you do not like, or prevent them from occurring in the first place. Once you have taught your puppy a few basic desirable behaviors (see below), you can practice by incorporating them into several everyday situations. For example, ask your puppy to 'sit' prior to receiving her food, 'sit' before you let her in or out the door, and 'sit' before you pet her. These are times when your puppy wants something and is more likely to comply. In this way you are training your dog all the time, throughout the day. Training your puppy prior to getting each reward also helps to prevent problems. Having your puppy sit before getting a food or treat prevents begging, while teaching your dog to sit before opening the door can prevent jumping up or running out the door. Keep in mind the undesirable behaviors we describe are a normal part of the dog behavior repertoire and will be offered if the behaviors we humans like are not taught in their place. It is important to teach your puppy what you want him to do, rather than expecting him to offer it automatically. Be creative. The time you spend training your puppy now will pay off when you have an adult dog. To have a well-trained dog, you need to be committed to reinforcing the training tasks on nearly a daily basis for the first year of your puppy's life. The more you teach and supervise your puppy, the less opportunity it will have to engage in improper behaviors. Dogs do not train themselves.
It is worth noting that undesirable behaviors, particularly those that are attention-seeking, can accidentally be reinforced. For instance, most puppies jump up on visitors as a means of seeking out a greeting and attention from that person. This behavior can be rewarded simply by that visitor’s eye contact, petting, talking to, or reaching for him. It is important that you and all persons interacting with your puppy are consistent in asking for desirable behaviors, such as “sit” in these situations and completely ignoring (i.e. no eye contact, talking or touching) undesirable ones. If you have visitors who you do not feel will comply with your consistent training regimen, you can confine your puppy behind a baby gate, in his crate, or keep him on a leash and ask him to “sit” yourself, before allowing your visitor to interact with him. Setting your puppy up for success by being prepared will have tremendous payoff in the long-run.
Also important to remember is that punishment should be avoided in puppy training. Keep in mind that punishment does not teach desirable behaviors, it can hinder the offering of new behaviors, and, most importantly, it can create fear between owner and pet. Please see the AVSAB Position Statement on Punishment for more information. Reinforcing what we want in our pets rather than punishing what we don't want is the focus a strong reward based training program
Teaching Desirable Behaviors
Before your puppy can start offering his or her tricks for a specific reward, he needs to learn them! When training is started at 7 to 8 weeks of age, use methods that rely on positive reinforcement and gentle teaching. Puppies have short attention spans, so training sessions should be brief, but should occur daily.
Puppies can be taught to 'sit', 'down', and 'stand' using a method called food-lure training. Small pieces of food or a favored toy can be used to motivate your puppy to perform most tasks. Provided the reward is sufficiently appealing, the puppy can be prompted to give the desired response by showing the puppy the reward, moving the reward to get the desired response and then after some time, pairing a cue (a verbal command) with the behavior.
You should only ask your puppy to perform a behavior with a verbal cue once you are sure they know it well. If the puppy does not immediately give the behavior on the first prompting, then you are likely proceeding a little too quickly. If you keep repeating the cue, the puppy will learn that several repetitions are acceptable before it needs to respond.
You do not necessarily need to train in a set session daily. Rather, integrate these tasks throughout the day. A goal to strive for is at least 15 minutes of training every day. These can be short 5 minute sessions spread throughout the day. Try to have all family members ask your puppy to do these tasks. Remember to try and train in every room of your house. You want your puppy to 'sit', 'lie down' and 'stay' everywhere, not just in the training location.
Teaching your puppy to sit
Using a food treat, hold the food over the dog's nose and slowly move it up and back over the dog's head. As the puppy follows the food with its head it will sit down. After several successful repetitions, couple the word 'sit' with the action. The upward motion of the hand as you hold the food treat also serves as a visual cue for the puppy. If the pup lifts his front legs you are holding the food treat too high. As soon as the puppy sits give the treat. After a while you can start using a verbal cue, like sit, when he performs the behavior that you want. Many repetitions will be necessary for the pup to learn the association. Gradually, as the puppy understands what you want him to do, you can start to give the treat rewards intermittently, rather than every time. For example, give a treat every 3rd or 4th time the puppy sits and give verbal praise in between.
Teaching your puppy to lie down
Start with your puppy in a sit position. To get the puppy to lie down, take a treat and lower it between the puppy's front paws. Usually the puppy will follow the treat and go down. If the puppy does not lie all the way down, slowly push the treat between the paws and if the puppy lies down give it the treat and of course add the cue 'down' when he successfully completes the behavior. If the puppy stands up, start over.
For some puppies, teaching the 'down' cue can be very difficult. An alternative method is instead of pushing the food treat backwards is to slowly pull the treat forward. If that does not work, sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you and slightly bent at the knees. Take a hand with a treat in it and push it out under your knee from between your legs. As the puppy tries to get the food treat, slowly bring it back under your knee. As the puppy tries to follow, it will usually lie down. Once the puppy understands the 'down' command, make sure that you vary the starting position. You should try to get your puppy to 'down' from both a stand and a sit.
Teaching your puppy to stay
Puppies can be taught to stay for short periods of time at a young age. Once they sit on cue each and every time they are asked, without the need for food inducements, training can proceed to more difficult concepts such as "stay". First the pup is taught to stay without moving as you stand in front for 1-2 seconds. Remember you are actually teaching two things; first, "don't move" and second, "don't move when I move". Initially give the puppy the 'sit' cue, say 'stay' (using a hand as a stop sign can be a good visual cue), take one step away, and then return to the puppy and reward it for not moving. Be very careful that the puppy does not stand up or move as you present the reward because then you will have rewarded 'getting up'. Gradually increase the distance by a step at a time and the length of the stay by a few seconds at a time, until the puppy can stay for a minute or more with you standing at least 10 feet away. It is important to set up the puppy to succeed. Proceeding very slowly, and keeping a long lead attached to the puppy so that it cannot run away can help ensure success. Be patient. It can take a week or more of daily training to get a puppy to 'sit' and 'stay' for 1-2 minutes. Over a few months it should be possible to increase the 'stay' to 15 minutes or more, and to be able to leave the room and return without the puppy rising from its 'stay'. For these longer stays it may be better to use a 'down-stay' (lying down and staying in place) combination, and to train the dog in a favored resting or sleeping area. Once extended 'sit-stays' are accomplished, the cue can be used to prevent many potential behavior problems. For example, if you practice 'sit and stay' by the front door, this cue can then be used to prevent running out the door and jumping on company. Have your puppy sit and stay while you place the food on the floor and then quickly give him an 'OK' or release command.
Teaching your puppy to stand
Place your puppy in a 'sit' position. Take the food treat palm facing up and move it forward and away from the pup as you say 'stand'. Your puppy should again follow his nose and stand up. Don't pull your hand so far away that the puppy follows you, but just until it stands up.
What else can I teach my dog?
Using the concepts discussed above a dog can be trained to perform anything that it is physically capable of. A 'down' or 'sit' can be extended from several seconds to many minutes as long as we progress gradually or "shape" the dog's behavior. In shaping, we determine our ultimate goal, such as a 20-minute stay, and reward successive increments of the behavior until we reach that goal. For example, once the dog will sit for 3 seconds before the reward is given, we can repeat the command and when the puppy sits we wait for 4 seconds before the reward is given. Proceed very slowly, ensuring that the puppy is performing the behavior properly a few times in a row before proceeding to the next step.