The first few days after you bring your new puppy home are some of the most exciting. They also happen to be some of the most important when it comes to teaching them new commands.
Puppy brains are like sponges. They are constantly learning from the world around them and forming new ideas about how to best navigate that world. That’s why organizations like the American Kennel Club (AKC) assert that puppyhood is the best age to teach basic commands and to enforce generally expected behaviors. Owners will have to think deliberately about how they interact with their puppy, and they should set a personal agenda for working on training a little bit each day.
With the right efforts, your new puppy will be more responsive to the basic commands needed to keep them safe and out of trouble. Not only that, but the puppy will also build a foundational understanding that their owner expects them to be disciplined, especially in a group or public setting.
To help you and your puppy start your relationship off on the right foot (or paw), try teaching these five basic commands first, as recommended by our certified puppy training instructors.
Responding to Their Name
If you think about it, the concept of being given a name you are expected to respond to in the first few weeks of life is bizarre — at least for humans. But puppies are highly mobile, and within their own family units, mothers expect their pups to return to them when they make certain calls.
Humans can take advantage of the same tools a mother dog uses to get their pups to return reliably: a bribe. Being brought back into the warm confines of the dog’s denning area almost always means a hot meal. Mothers also secrete a pheromone that provides them with “calm, comfort and a sense of well-being.” Together, these two rewards reinforce familial bonding and a sense of loyalty between mother and pup. The pup gradually understands that being called back is important for the well-being of their relationship — and their access to a reliable food source.
Once a pup has been weaned, the same reward process enables them to form a close bond with their owner. One of the very first things an owner should do is instill the connection between a name and the animal’s attention. In effect, dogs don’t learn their name as an identifier so much as an indication that they are involved in something. When we call them or say their name, it’s because there’s something important to do that involves them.
Start the process with the natural method: a tasty bribe! Say the animal’s new given name, and then offer them a treat at the same time. Then, after a few sessions of this, delay giving them the treat until you have their attention. Make sure they look at you and are focused when they hear this name, and then offer them audible praise before giving them the treat.
Remember that a “treat” can consist of some of the puppy’s regular diet. During training, owners can reduce the amount fed during meals in order to introduce it gradually throughout the day during a series of training exercises.
Once the connection between their name and a reward is made, you can begin strengthening that connection through distance and other factors. At first, try just seeing if you can get the animal to look up when they hear their name from across the room. You can toss them the treat or bring it to them once they have completed the task of responding. Then, start working on getting them to come when they hear their name in order to get the treat themselves.
The Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in the UK provides a helpful game to play when seeking to reinforce the dog’s response to hearing their name. Try tossing them their treat in order to get them to turn their back away from you. Then, before they naturally turn around to look for more tastiness, say their name. Gradually, the animal will begin to associate the treat with their name rather than the act of turning around.
“No” and “Leave It”
Is it any wonder that “no” is one of the most important words to teach a new puppy? They explore the world largely with their noses and mouths, and that can involve them getting into all sorts of things they shouldn’t be. A firm “no” command or “leave it” command can help halt the behavior in its tracks, priming the animal for further commands in the event that they are asked to them “come,” “sit,” or “wait.”
A major challenge with teaching “no” is that it is thought of by people as a lack of activity: the puppy has stopped doing something. In reality, puppies that respond to “no” or “leave it” make a positive connection between stopping the activity and, in many cases, dropping whatever it is they have in their mouths.
Counterintuitively, training “no” effectively can start with something you don’t actually mind the puppy getting into. One method offered up by the poshly named Dogue Magazine is to keep a treat in each hand. Present the treat clenched in hand one first, and the puppy will naturally start sniffing and licking to reach it. Wait until they are about to stop and perform another action, and then say “no” just before they break away. If the dog successfully withdraws from the treat around the same time that “no” is said, retract the first treat and then present the second one freely for them to take. Eventually, you will want to only provide the second treat as a reward when the dog successfully stops sniffing right after “no” is said.
Training can extend to other objects and targets throughout the house. Practice teaching your puppy to drop toys (or even food!) on command. Remember to always reward them with reinforcing praise as soon as the action is committed. Follow up with a food reward ASAP in order to strengthen the connection.
Remember to focus on the positive reinforcement aspect: you’re rewarding the detachment from the object. You are not trying to intimidate the animal into giving up something tempting out of fear of repercussion. In cases where reinforcing “no” or “leave it” are difficult, try practicing the command in an environment removed from distractions.
The reason the “sit” command is so important has less to do with the fact that the dog is sitting and more to do with the fact that the dog is now anchored to one spot. “Sit” is a prompt way to regain the dog’s attention, stop it from moving around, and hopefully trade out some of their energy into focusing on what comes next.
“Sit” is also an important foundation of other commands like “stay” and “lie down.” Once “sit” is taught reliably, it can also be the start of many other instructions and routines, including when it’s time to go out the door or get into the car.
Teaching a dog to “sit” would be made more difficult if it weren’t for one thing: they tend to sit automatically in certain situations! Once a dog is forced to look up, such as when they are following a tasty morsel with their eyes and nose, then “their back end should drop to the ground,” according to the AKC. Praise the animal immediately once their hips are firmly on the ground, and offer them a treat.
To improve the response to this command (through a process trainers call “proofing”), make sure the dog holds the sit pose for a longer period of time. This can be accompanied by the word “stay,” but the “sit” command can also be understood as in effect until the owner allows the animal to break from their posture. You can also try enforcing sit at greater distances or in the midst of other activities. Remember to reinforce positively with praise, a clicker, or other affection.
As an added bonus, cats can be taught to sit, too! Once you have their attention, they will often sit on the ground when looking up as a way to get more comfortable. If you can build the connection between the “sit” command and a tasty treat, magic can sometimes result.
“Lie down” is the second stage of the command “sit.” It is important because it often signals to the animal that it is time to be chill and remain in one spot. Often, an animal commanded to “lie down” will begin to relax of their own accord. At the very least, they will know that they are expected to stay in one spot for a while, no matter what other activities are going on.
There are two areas where reinforcement for “lie down” can come from, according to the AKC. One method is to reward the animal any time they lie down naturally. Providing them with praise and a treat in this situation can not only reinforce the “lie down” command as it is introduced, but it also rewards the animal for generally seeking a calmer attitude in the setting.
“Lie down” can also be built off of a “sit” command. Once the animal is sitting, they can often be coaxed into going all the way down to the floor, especially if they are following a tempting treat on its descent. Over time, the “lie down” command can be triggered without the presence of a treat or even just through hand signals.
As always, remember to reward the animal promptly with praise once they have given the expected action to the command. If the command isn’t working, try to regain the animal’s focus with a “sit” command and their name. If the dog is too hyper or distracted, wait until a more appropriate time and setting to work on practicing.
“Heel” and Loose Leash Walking
The “heel” command has two main components: heeling while stationary, and staying at heel while walking.
Start by teaching the animal to “heel” at your side while neither of you are moving. This is, essentially, a combination of multiple commands they have learned up this point. They should be able to respond to their name, come when prompted, and then sit (or maybe lie down) calmly right at the owner’s side.
Once the dog has performed well at sitting and staying seated for a while, begin to work on getting them to heel at your side without moving. You can use existing commands like “sit” to get them into the position, but then start saying the word “heel” or another command word to reinforce the idea that “you are now staying in this position, for the time being, little doggie!”
The other form of “heel” is for the animal to stay at your side while walking. This command is best reinforced at a young age while also teaching the pup to walk on a leash. Once they have gotten used to their leash and being led by it, begin teaching them to stay at your side while walking. You can do this initially by keeping an object of interest at just the right height for them to follow alongside you, such as a treat in a clenched hand. Reward the animal for traveling parallel to you in any manner, at first, and then work on extending the distance while maintaining stricter focus.
Teaching “heel” while moving is a great way to communicate that the puppy can be at your side rather than at the full extent of the leash while walking. Over time, the puppy can grow to understand that at certain points in a walk, they may be asked to come walk or sit beside you until the situation changes or the appropriate amount of time passes.
Teaching Puppies Is Hard Work, But Greenlin Can Make It Easier
Often times, puppy owners have their hands full, juggling their everyday life with caring for a new puppy. They often need help getting the puppy to focus long enough to start learning commands, and the owner may even need a few pointers on how to start teaching commands in the first place.
Puppy obedience training at Greenlin Pet Resorts makes it easy to get through those first few crucial steps. We work with puppies as young as six weeks to help them shape foundational behaviors, learn basic commands, and work on extending those commands into different settings. We also provide hands-on guidance to owners in order to help reinforce training and continue positive habits in the home setting.
Greenlin even offers a puppy training academy, which combines a multi-night stay with daily lessons and activities. Our play and train options can also combine training with puppy daycare, giving your puppy the chance to socialize with other dogs their age and size.
Find out more about our puppy training services and other offerings at a Greenlin Pet Resorts location near you!