The First Ten Skills You Should Teach Your Puppy

A male Bulldog puppy.

Bulldog puppy (Image via Wikipedia)

There are many skills that your puppy must learn in order to enjoy a good doggy life in our human world. It is your responsibility to teach your puppy these skills. Opinions may differ as to what are the most fundamental skills to teach your puppy. In my opinion, you should focus on the ten skills I describe here so that both you and your puppy enjoy being together and can safely begin to discover the world.

There are many ways to teach your puppy the skills I mention below and one method is not necessarily better than another. There are many ways to reach the same goal and you should choose the method or variation that best suits you, your lifestyle and your puppy’s temperament. The training methods I describe here have worked very well for the many owners and puppies we have coached at the Ethology Institute Cambridge over the years, but remember that they are only rough guidelines and you should adapt them to your own puppy as you see fit.

Dog friendly facial expression.

Dogs understand our friendly facial expressions (a slight pouty mouth and slightly closed eyes). They may even offer us a ‘lick,’ which is a friendly behavior in dogs (Picture from PetTastics)

The first ten skills

1. The puppy’s name

2. Yes

3. No

4. Come

5. Sit

6. Walking on leash

7. Hygiene

8. Socialization

9. Environmental habituation

10. Home alone

Two principles (=> means implies or is followed by)

One signal => one behavior: Give only one signal for each behavior that you want the puppy to display. Example: you give the signal ‘sit’ by means of ‘sound’ and ‘hand movement’ and expect the behavior of your puppy sitting. Strictly speaking, you’re giving two signals, but they both intend to produce the same behavior, which is all right.

One signal => one behavior => one consequence: Your puppy’s behavior will change according to the consequences immediately following the behavior. If you give it a treat when it sits, it will sit more often. If you don’t give it a treat and ignore it, it will sit less frequently.

Your training tools

signal is everything that changes a behavior. It indicates to your puppy that if it does something, it will get something. Remember: One signal => one behavior => one consequence. A signal can be a sound (a word), a hand movement, a body posture, and a facial expression.

A reinforcer is everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior of your puppy—it reinforces the behavior and that’s why it is called so. You use reinforcers to reinforce the behavior you wish to be repeated. Reinforcers are, therefore, the consequences of what you consider to be good behavior. They can be a food treat or a word of your choice. Most people say “good-dog,” or “good-job.” My chosen word is  “dygtig,” (which means “clever” or “competent” in Danish) as I find that the sound of it works efficiently as a reinforcer. A “click-sound” can also be a reinforcer if you have repeatedly associated it with a treat, but you won’t need the clicker for these first skills. Remember that a treat is only a reinforcer if the puppy is hungry and that your chosen word is only a reinforcer if you associate it with a doggy friendly body language and facial expression and say it in a pleasant tone.

Doggy friendly body language consists of deliberate movements (not quick, not jerky and not as slow as stalking). Don’t bend too much over the dog. Give the dog some personal space. When you walk, do it rhythmically: don’t change pace or direction abruptly. A doggy friendly facial expression consists of a quiet and self-confident expression. Don’t make big eyes. Dogs interpret closed mouths with lips together (as when you are going to give a kiss) as a friendly expression (I think this is why the sound dygtig works so well).

Important: Treats, toys and training devices are useful and sometimes necessary, but the greatest learning tool of all is the way you use yourself, your body language and your facial expressions.

You will need treats (if you use dry food, use some of it as treats), a collar and a leash (for skill 6).

Some terms and expressions:

  • DLO means Desired Learning Objective.
  • POA means Plan of Action
  • QC means Quality Control and indicates the number of times in a row (or similar criteria) you must have accomplished your DLO successfully before you move to the next level.
  • => means implies.

To fail to plan is to plan to fail. Therefore, you’ll find that I’ve organized each plan to train a skill like a ‘quick guide.’ Read each one carefully and make sure that you know exactly what you must do before you begin a training session.

1. The Puppy’s Name

DLO — to teach the puppy to look at you when you say its name.

The puppy’s name is important because you’ll need to have the puppy look at you on many occasions. The name of the puppy is not the same as “come,” but you can give it that meaning if you want, in which case, you don’t need to teach the puppy the signal “come.” However, I recommend you keep these two signals separate. Later on, depending on how much you would like to teach your puppy, you may need a signal for the puppy to look at you without coming to you.

Tools you need:

Name (means look at me) — choose a clear sounding name; a name with two syllables works well (in our example the name is “Bongo”).

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, a word (I use “dygtig” in the examples below) and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Stay close to the puppy, no leash.

  1. Say, “Bongo” and clap your hands.
  2. The puppy looks at you => say “dygtig,” show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression, and give the puppy a treat.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times. Take a small break and then continue.

Level 2 — Move 5-6 steps away from the puppy and repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times. Again, take a break.

Level 3 — Move 5-6 steps away from the puppy and repeat steps 1 and 2, but without clapping your hands. Just say the puppy’s name.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times.

2. Yes

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Yes.”

“Yes” is a very important signal. It means, “continue doing what you are doing.” It is a signal you teach the puppy from day one by using it. Initially it does not mean much to the puppy but, as the puppy associates it with your body language, it will begin to understand what you want.

Your POA:

You teach the puppy “yes” by using it repeatedly any time the puppy does what you want, such as running towards you.

  • When the puppy responds to your “yes,” say “dygtig” and show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression. You can give it a treat, if you have one, but it not necessary. Your friendly body language and facial expression are enough reinforcement.

3. No

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “No.”

“No” is also a very important signal. It means, “stop what you’re doing.”

Your POA:

You teach the puppy “no” by using it any time the puppy does something you don’t want it to do.

  • If and when the puppy stops, say “dygtig” and show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression.
  • If the puppy doesn’t stop, say “no” again with a harsher voice and maybe a slight foot stamp on the floor. As soon as the puppy stops, say “dygtig” and assume doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression.

Important: Don’t shout “no.” You don’t want to scare the puppy, only startle it slightly so that it looks as you. Remember that no is a signal as any other and it should not elicit any unpleasant connotations. You should always say your “no” confidently and politely as in “No, sir,” or “No, ma’am.”

4. Come

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Come.”

Tools you need:

Name (means look at me) — Teach the puppy “come” once the puppy is reacting promptly to its name, which it should be doing after skill 1.

Come (means move directly towards me).

Yes (means continue what you’re doing) — already taught in skill 2.

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Indoors in a quiet environment. Stand 5-6 steps from the puppy, no leash.

  1. Say “Bongo” and then when the puppy looks at you, say, “come” clapping your hands.
  2. While the puppy runs to you, repeat the signal “yes” as many times as necessary.
  3. Say “dygtig” when the puppy is in front of you, show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression and give it the treat you are holding between your fingers.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

Level 2 — Indoors with one or two other people present, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

Level 3 — Outdoors in a quiet, closed environment, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

5. Sit

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Sit.”

Tools you need:

Sit means put your butt on the floor and keep it there until you get another signal. You will be using two signals for sit, one is the sound “sit” and the other is your hand movement.

Free (means move now). You say “free” and, initially, you move around a bit to encourage the puppy to move as well. In the beginning, you are therefore using two signals—the sound “free” and your movement.

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Indoors in a quiet environment, no leash. Stand or kneel in front of the puppy.

  1. With a treat between your thumb and pointing finger make a smooth movement upwards right in front of the puppy’s nose and say “siiit” at the same time.
  2. When the puppy sits, say “dygtig” and give the puppy the treat you are holding.
  3. Wait a couple of seconds, say “free” and when the puppy moves, say “dygtig” and give it a treat.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

Level 2 — Indoors, stand 2-3 steps away from the puppy, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

Level 3 — Outdoors in a quiet, closed environment, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

6. Walking on Leash

DLO — to allow the puppy to get used to walk with a collar and leash.

Tools you need:

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Collar and leash.

Your POA:

  • Walk 3-4 slow, but steady, steps in one direction and then change direction several times, all in a smooth, rhythmical movement.
  • Don’t wait for the puppy—the puppy will understand after a few trials that it has to follow you.
  • In the beginning, for every change of direction, give the puppy a treat, then for every second change of direction give the puppy a treat.
  • Keep eye contact with the puppy and show friendly body language and facial expression.
  • Say “dygtig” whenever the puppy follows you.
  • QC: Repeat until the puppy follows you freely 8-10 steps.

7. Hygiene

DLO: to teach your puppy not to urinate and defecate indoors.

Your POA:

There is no standard way to teach your dog cleanliness. However, the following advice has helped many puppy owners, including myself. Dogs develop preferences for spots as well as surfaces on which to urinate and defecate. It is important we give them these preferences early on. You need to choose a suitable place outside your house where your puppy can relieve itself. This place should be relatively quiet, without too many distractions. Get your puppy acquainted with that area, but don’t make it a play area. When your dog has relieved itself, move away from the area. Allow the puppy to relieve itself without disturbing it. Do not reinforce the behavior. If you do, the puppy may associate the behavior of urinating and defecating with getting attention from you and will do it later to achieve that.

  • Take the puppy to its chosen doggy toilet area as soon as it has eaten, played vigorously for a while or has just woken up.
  • If you discover that the puppy has urinated or defecated indoors, just clean it up thoroughly, removing all odor. There is no point scolding the puppy or giving it any explanations.
  • If you see the puppy urinating elsewhere, pick it up right away and go to your chosen doggy toilet area.

Be patient.

8. Socialization

DLO: to teach your puppy how to live in our human world.

Your POA:

Socialization is the process by which individuals acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to conform to the norms required for integration into a group or community.

There is no standard way to socialize your puppy.

You must start socializing your puppy from day one, as soon as you get it. The opportunity for socialization is at its peak between 8 and 16 weeks of age and remains until the puppy is about six months of age. You must not waste this period. If you do, you will not be able to re-gain what you lost, only attempt to repair it.

  • It is not enough for your puppy to feel comfortable at home and in your favorite dog park where it goes for a walk every day, plays with the same playmates and greets the same people. You need to expose the puppy to (many) strangers, people as well as dogs, and to new environments.
  • Exposure to novel stimuli should happen gradually.
  • Allow your puppy to play with other puppies as well as (sociable) adult dogs. Growling, snarling, barking are all normal canine expressions and there’s nothing wrong with it. Rough play with other puppies teaches your puppy the boundaries of social interactions. Your puppy learns self-control by playing with others. It learns good manners and when enough is enough.
  • Your puppy should go out every day and have pleasant experiences with all different types of friendly people (adults and children) and friendly dogs (of many different sizes, shapes and ages).

9. Environmental habituation

DLO: to habituate your puppy to the environment.

Your POA:

Since our world contains many different stimuli, you should habituate your puppy to as many stimuli as possible, such as sounds, motions, people, animals, objects. Allow the puppy to discover the world. Do not control everything. You should coach, not control.

  • If the puppy has a bad experience, your role is to downplay it. Don’t give the puppy explanations that it cannot understand. Just proceed engaging it in some other familiar activity.

10. Home alone

To teach your dog to be home alone, please read “Teach Your Dog to be Home Alone in Five Steps” at http://wp.me/p1J7GF-6P.

Remember that your puppy is a living being with its own characteristics and that, independently of how well or badly it fares in its learning process, it deserves to be respected.

Enjoy your puppy training!

R-

FAQ

Q. When can I begin training my puppy?

A. Right away. The methods I describe here are so doggy friendly that you can use them as soon as your puppy comes home, when the puppy is eight weeks of age.

Q. What is the most important to teach a puppy?

A. To learn how to learn, which means to learn how to change its behavior in order to achieve the desired consequences, and to feel good about it. Life is a challenge and you should teach your puppy to enjoy being challenged. Coach your puppy; don’t solve all its problems for it.

Q. When can I go out and let my puppy meet other puppies?

A. Preferably right away. Socialization is a crucial factor in the puppy’s development and is time limited. Talk to your vet about vaccinations and other health precautions you should take.

Q. What about punishment? —Surely I will need to punish the puppy occasionally?

A. A punisher is everything that decreases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Remember that punishment has nothing to do with violence, pain or revenge; and it has nothing to do with the individual, only the behavior. You punish the behavior, but never the puppy. If your puppy is hungry, you can offer it a treat if it sits. If it doesn’t sit, you don’t give it the treat (this is called a negative punisher because you negate, take away something). If your puppy is not hungry, not giving it the treat will not be a punisher. Sometimes, to have the puppy stop doing something, you may need to use a startling sound, like a foot stamp or a particularly loud clapping of your hands. This is called a positive punisher because you posit, put forward, add something. However you may occasionally need to punish a behavior, remember that the best strategy is always prevention rather than cure. Creating good habits from day one will considerably decrease your need to punish unwanted behavior. Warning: violent or painful stimuli may not decrease the behavior (hence, are not punishers), but may elicit evasive behavior, traumas, or aggressive behavior.

Q. Do I need to train every day?

A. It depends on what you consider training to be. Living with a puppy you are training it constantly. Beware: the most important training happens when you are not training your puppy. Everything you do has consequences.

Q. Do I need a lot of time to train my puppy?

A. Again, it depends on what you consider training to be. Initially, your puppy will require a lot of your attention because you should be preventing unwanted behavior and creating good habits, which means that you’ll have to watch the puppy most of the time. If your life is stressful, you have too many responsibilities and you don’t think you can allow yourself enough time-out to dedicate yourself solely to the puppy with a relaxed, positive mindset, you shouldn’t get a puppy.

Q. Do I need to be bossy for my puppy to respect me?

A. You should lead by example. If you show your puppy that you are good at solving problems, the puppy will follow your directions more readily. If you lead by force, you create animosity that may one day turn against you. If you lead by example, you’ll be active and create opportunities for the puppy to expend its energy and develop its skills. If you do not, the puppy will find other ways to stimulate itself, which you might not find appropriate (the first step in creating a problem dog).

Q. Do I need to join a dog training class?

A. You don’t need to, but it’s a good idea. Good dog training classes are beneficial to both you and your puppy. You will receive coaching and your puppy will have a wonderful opportunity to meet a variety of dogs and people as well as be challenged. Be critical when you choose a dog training class, or a dog trainer to coach you, and remember that you are the one who decides in the end. Like in all professions, there are many excellent dog trainers out there, using different methods but all with good results—whilst, unfortunately, there are also many bad dog trainers, using bad methods with bad results. Choose carefully.

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10 comments on “The First Ten Skills You Should Teach Your Puppy

  1. Another great article!
    The only thing that makes me slightly uncomfortable is encouraging owners to teach ‘NO’.
    We need an interrupter for sure, maybe a hand clap or foot stamp as you suggest, immediately followed by a request as to what we want the puppy to do instead.
    Encourage people to say NO and everything inevitably becomes an emergency that needs “interrupting”.
    We have therefore always actively discouraged owners at puppy schools from using NO, NON, NIET, NAO in whatever language as NO is by definition negative and doesn’t teach the puppy what we want him to do instead.
    And what if the puppy is doing 3 or 4 ‘naughty’ things simultaneously? Which one does NO refer to?
    Once people are encouraged to say NO they will be forever be nagging their dogs and the word becomes white noise.
    We look forward to you being in Australia again next year when we can quiz you further.
    Oliver Beverly
    CLEAR Dog Training
    Brisbane

  2. My thought is why teach “No” when all you need to do is condition a positive sound such as a kissy noise to mean stop what you are doing and look at me or come to me. When you use verbal punishment often times it can cause other stress related issues such as more sniffing, displacement behaviors, shut down, disconnect with the owner, etc… A positive interrupter prevents any fall out. You can use it for anything, to interrupt bad behavior or to just get the dogs attention again. Check out this video on how to train it. In this video I showed how to use it to train a dog to come when called, but it can be used for anything and you will never have to tell your dog NO again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRg3FgmpjnE

  3. Oliver and Pamela,

    I understand your concern with ‘no.’ However, I never use it as a ‘punisher,’ only a signal. I always emphasize that we should say ‘no’ in a polite tone. Please, see also my “The Magic Words “Yes’ And ‘No’.” (http://wp.me/p1J7GF-aj). Nagging is not the fault of the word ‘no,’ rather of an attitude. That attitude is in my opinion what we should focus on changing, not single words. Naggers will always nag until they learn that there are better ways. Forbidding them to use a particular word does not solve the problem; they will still nag. Many dog owners say “come,’ ‘sit,’ or even their dog’s name is a naggy way.

    R—

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