Congrats! You’ve just welcomed a new member into your family. No doubt this is an exciting and fun time for your entire family but I’m sure the question that has been racking your brain for weeks has been “how am I going to train this dog?” Just like every other member of the family, your dog must learn boundaries, how to be respectful, and what behavior is (and isn’t) acceptable in your home.
Training is a tough task that many new dog owners struggle with. You’ll likely be putting as much (if not more) self-discipline, consistency and effort as your dog. But fear not, learning to train your dog properly can be both fun and rewarding for you and the rest of your family. We’ve provided 10 easy-to-follow tips to ensure that your dog becomes the member of your family that you’ve always hoped he will be.
1.) Decide on the house rules and be consistent with them.
Before your new pup arrives, sit down with your spouse or family and lay out some ground rules that you can all agree upon. Will your new dog be allowed on furniture? If so, which pieces? Are some parts of the house off limits? Will the new dog sleep in a crate or in someone’s bed? How many treats will the dog be allowed a day? Who will feed the dog his/her meals and at what time? Who will be responsible for walking the dog and at what time?
All of these small pieces of information are easy to forget to consider in the excitement of a dog’s arrival but make all the difference in acclimatizing and training your new pup. And most importantly, consistency from all family members will eliminate any areas of confusion for your new family member.
2.) Use different forms of rewards.
There are a number of positive behaviors that you will want your dog to learn, such as sitting, waiting and fetching. Just as with humans, it’s important to reward these behaviors so that your pup will learn to repeat them. Most new dog-owners make the mistake of only using treats as rewards. Using treats isn’t inherently bad but if done right, you can save your dog from some major weight and health problems and save yourself some money too. Treats can be used most effectively if paired with another form of reward, such as attention or praise. Attention can include eye contact, an excited facial expression or a quick pat or hug for your dog. Praise involves using positive verbal cues, such as “good boy!” or “yes Spot!”.
Try this: When your new pup exhibits any positive behavior, start with a small treat and then add either attention or praise. After you feel confident that your dog is learning to repeat the behavior using this method, try rotating a treat in and out of your reward while still including attention or praise. You will be able to eventually wean out the treat and your pup will still be repeating the behavior no problem!
3.) Ignore bad behavior.
All behavior (both human and animal) occurs because it has been reinforced in some shape or form in the past. If you notice your dog is beginning to develop a bad habit that you’d like to nip in the bud, it’s important to remember that he/she has likely been rewarded for it before. As we discussed, rewards can come in the form of treats, praise and attention. When you eliminate these rewards, your dog will stop associating his/her behavior with it and it will eventually fade away.
Try this: Next time your dog demonstrates a negative behavior (such as barking to get your attention), simply ignore the behavior. This can be tough as any form of attention such as eye contact or saying “no!” can act as a reward and reinforce your pup to partake in the behavior again. Instead, take a deep breath and continue on with whatever you were doing. With consistency, the dog will eventually learn that barking will not lead to any form of response from you and he/she will stop.
4.) Timing is key.
A key tip in dog training that is often forgotten or ignored is the importance of timing. When your dog is learning multiple new behaviors, it can be easy for them to get confused as to which ones are good and which ones are bad. Following along closely with your dog will allow you to quickly reward their bad behaviors so that he/she will more easily associate the reward with whatever behavior he/she just demonstrated. For example, if Spot the puppy sits and then his owner waits 10 seconds to get a treat out of the bag and put it in his mouth, Spot’s brain has already moved on to something else and he will not associate the treat with his sitting. Try to reward your pup’s behaviors within the first 5 seconds so that he/she is confident that what he/she just did is what gained him the reward.
5.) Keep commands simple.
If you think about it, dogs live in a highly stimulating world full of confusing verbal sounds from humans. You want your commands to be simple so that they are easy for your dog to understand. Make sure to exclude any unnecessary words that may confuse your dog as to what you want from him/her, such as “Ready – sit!” Using your dog’s name frequently and consistently before commands and after rewards can take it one step further. Hearing his/her name will help capture your dog’s attention and let them know that the command is directed at them – not another human.
6.) Keep training sessions short and sweet.
Dogs are like children – they have very short attention spans. When training your new pup you’ll want to optimize your training so that your dog can get the most out of it. One way to do this is by setting aside slots of time for “training sessions” and keeping them short. An ideal training session should last 15 minutes or less, allowing your dog enough time to grasp a few different behaviors without getting bored or distracted.
Try this: Aim for between 5-10 repetitions of one behavior before switching to the next behavior. Repeat for 10 minutes and then spend the last 5 minutes of your session reviewing old behaviors that you have taught in previous sessions.
7.) Take baby steps.
Just like humans, dogs learn best when behaviors are broken into tiny steps. If you’re training your pup a new behavior (stay, for example), you can break it into steps by increasing the duration in which he/she does the behavior. Tell your pup to “stay” and then reward after 3 seconds of staying. After he/she has successfully mastered 3 seconds, move onto 5 seconds. Repeat until mastered and then move onto 7 seconds. Being systematic and increasing the level of difficulty at a pace that your dog feels comfortable will help him/her learn the behavior faster in the long run. Slow and steady wins the race!
8.) Practice everywhere.
Most of your training will likely take place at home because let’s be real, who is brave enough to take their new pup out into the world when he/she doesn’t listen yet? You may be surprised to learn, however, that dogs memorize behaviors most effectively when they are consistent everywhere. Your dog should know that he or she will receive praise 5 seconds after sitting whether he/she is at home in the backyard or out in a busy street surrounded by other dogs and humans. If your level of attention, praise and treat-giving is as strict as it is at home when your dog is surrounded by new stimuli, he or she will learn that that rule is simply the way the world works – no exceptions.
9.) Expand on “no”.
Sometimes as humans we forget that dogs don’t know English. Simply saying “no” to your dog when he/she demonstrates a bad behavior may not be giving him/her enough information about what you do want. Dogs also don’t generalize very well. Even if your pup does learn to understand the word “no”, he or she may try the same behavior in another way (ie. jumping up higher or jumping to the left) instead. A good way to combat this problem is to pair the word “no” with another command, such as “sit”. Being obvious with which behavior you want to see as an alternative will give your pup better direction when he or she misbehaves.
10.) Be patient.
We all know how frustrating it can be when another person doesn’t listen to you and it’s easy to feel the same way when training your dog. There will be times when your pup flat out ignores you, times when he is distracted and misbehaves, and times when he tears up those beautiful new floorboards you bought last year. Be realistic with your standards when training and expect that your pup will misbehave – he/she is learning after all! Demonstrating patience and persistence will show your dog that you take his/her behavior seriously and that you’re in it for the long haul and he/she will learn to follow suit.