The earlier the better? This is absolutely true for dog training. Young dogs are extremely curious and still view the world objectively. It's possible to take advantage of this in order to show dogs playfully – but consistently too – what is expected of them and what types of behaviour are undesirable.
Dogs need rules
Loving and consistent puppy training is the foundation for dogs and humans living together peacefully and without stress. If dogs learn their position in the family and are aware of their boundaries from the beginning, this has a positive impact in terms of both a harmonious atmosphere at home and your dog's healthy development. Dogs are pack animals and need clear rules and structures for their mental wellbeing. More negligent or uncertain owners who allow their pet too much freedom or behave inconsistently confuse young dogs, leading to undesirable or even dangerous behavioural habits that can be difficult to get adult dogs to give up.
What do puppies have to learn?
But what does a puppy actually have to learn in order to make life together run smoothly later on? And when is the right point to start dog training? You will definitely already have asked yourself these questions if a young dog is to enter your home or has already moved in with you. There's no question that a boisterous puppy can in the first instance completely turn family life upside down and cause all sorts of hullabaloo in the home. Hence, it's all the more important to make it clear to your little whirlwind from the beginning what is allowed and what isn't.
Clear boundaries from the beginning
Of course, your new housemate with its loyal gaze and bumbling paws will make it very difficult for you to stay consistent all the time. Just who can resist a cute puppy when it's begging for a slice of sausage at the table or snuggling down in bed? But how is a dog supposed to understand that all of a sudden it is no longer allowed such privileges in adult age? You should therefore clarify from the outset how exactly you envisage life with your dog, what behaviour is important to you and what habits you definitely won't tolerate. If you stick to these clear boundaries from the beginning, your dog will soon learn its place and will hardly cause you any problems as an adult.
Who is boss here?
Dogs that have already learnt as puppies who is boss at home generally accept this hierarchy for the rest of their life – provided that you always maintain the position of “pack leader”. Although an authoritative leadership style is nowadays no longer sought-after in companies and for bringing up children, there is still no alternative when it comes to dog training. Dogs wish to depend on their owner and in order to comply with their decisions and orders, they need to be able to trust them and their judgement. Clear commands, a calm but purposeful tone and clear body language give your dog a feeling of security.
Clear commands and explicit signals
Dogs are masters of reading facial expressions and often react quicker to simple hand gestures than to complicated sentences, the sense of which they can only identify based on the tone. Consider exactly what you will call commands like “sit”, “come” and “heel” and which gestures you can use to show them. Teach these simply structured commands by always using the same key words and hand gestures. In order to avoid misunderstandings, you should do without long sentences like “Bello, you have to wait patiently in front of the supermarket because master needs to do some shopping”. Short, clear instructions that are always linked to the same desired behavioural habit are indispensable for learning required basic obedience.
Praise and treats? Learning motivation through positive reinforcement
So, your dog primarily learns who calls the shots in your pack thanks to reliability and clear commands. Excessive severity or a heavy hand are not necessary – on the contrary, they would scare your sensitive dog. After all, we don't want our dog to obey our commands out of fear, but to happily go along with our rules. But how do you get a puppy to take joy in learning? Praise and rewards play a big role in motivating young dogs. In this respect, they aren't too different from most humans. They choose the path that promises to be most successful for them. Blame and punishments demotivate them and actually distract them from the desired path.
In order for dogs to learn what behaviour is correct and brings yearned-for praise from their owner, a reward should come straight afterwards. Dogs live in the present and directly relate their owner's reaction to the current situation. Indeed, they only comprehend blame too when it comes straight away. If your still not fully housetrained puppy does its business in the middle of the couch and you only notice this when you wish to sit down to relax in the evening, there's no longer any point in reprimanding your dog for it. Instead, you're best off praising it for managing to “hold it in” until you let it out. You can praise your puppy with treats (be careful – not too many!), positive words, gentle strokes, gestures of praise or a much yearned-for toy. As well, permitting small freedoms like letting them off the lead for a short period, playing with other dogs or playing ball together are considered aspirational goals for your dog.
When is it time for puppy training?
In general, the right timing is critical for successful training. Your puppy should be ready in order for a short training unit or measure to go positively in terms of obedience. If it is frolicking in the garden, intensively exploring a new toy or simply hungry or tired, it's definitely not the right time to start with training. Although puppies are eager to learn, they don't like to be occupied with one thing for too long. Exercises that require your dog to concentrate for a long period are definitely not suitable at the beginning. On the contrary, you should integrate puppy training into your daily routine and get your dog accustomed to certain rules and rituals as early as possible. Try to train your dog in passing: ensure that it waits patiently when you prepare its food, never give in to it begging, offer praise when it remains calm when the doorbell rings and give it a treat when it manages to wait outside the bathroom door alone without whining.
What do I have to practise with puppies?
It's not easy at all to know what puppies should learn, what things you must praise in day-to-day life with your young dog and what behaviour you can turn a blind eye to. There are numerous training tips on offer from your circle of friends, advisers and online, which can soon overwhelm new dog owners. Hence, it's important to internalise the most important rules that you wish to teach your four-legged partner and to make them part of the daily routine. This is certainly a challenge at the beginning, but in the future it will make day-to-day life with your dog much easier. It might help you to initially write down what basic principles you wish to practise with your puppy. For the next step, you can create a training diary and make a note of the training methods that have been positive or negative.
An overview of the most important basics of training
The most important exercises that you should practise with your puppy don't just involve practising commands. Young puppies separated from their mother at approximately eight months of age and enter a new home must get used to their unfamiliar surroundings first of all. They have to build up trust with their new human family, understand the household rules and learn how to deal with human and animal strangers. It's recommended to take annual leave for your first few days with the puppy and to give it plenty of love, comfort and time. Frequently call your dog by its name, cuddle and play with it, letting it eat treats from your hand. By doing so, you build up trust and ensure that the puppy feels at ease with you – the most crucial foundation for all future training objectives.
In the first few days, you can already start housetraining with your puppy – certainly one of the most important requirements for you and your four-legged friend living in harmony together. Go outside with your puppy every two to three hours and offer it praise when it manages to do its business on the roadside or in a field. Establish fixed times for walks as early as possible, for instance, after waking up, before or after lunch and before bedtime. It's important that you closely observe your puppy. If it is sniffing nervously around your home, this could be a sign that it needs to do its business. Don't rant and rail if things go wrong at the start and it urinates on the carpet. If you catch it in the act, a short, sharp “ugh” or “outside” is sufficient to make it clear to your dog that this is undesirable. Housetraining puppies doesn't work overnight and requires lots of patience.
Setting boundaries from barking, biting and scratching
Puppies like to discover the world around them with their mouth. They still don't know that furniture is valuable and shouldn't be bitten, as well as not yet understanding that humans are more sensitive to biting than their littermates. Hence, show your dog its boundaries consistently and at an early stage. By rebuking undesirable behaviour and commending what you do want, your puppy learns how far it can go and what behaviour leads to a sought-after reward. You're best off breaking your puppy's habit of excessive growling, barking or begging at the table by ignoring it. If your dog shows such behaviour, it's primarily to win your attention – whether it be for you to focus on or play with your canine friend or to offer it food. If you refuse it the attention it seeks, it will soon learn that such behaviour doesn't achieve its objectives.
Behaviour on the lead
Adult dogs that pull on the lead can become a real problem – after all, it's not always as easy to hold them back as with a lightweight puppy. As a result, walking on a loose lead should be part of your compulsory programme from the very beginning. Even if it doesn't look as cute as your little dog discovering the surrounding world on its bumbling paws, don't do it! Show from the outset that you hold the lead, not the other way round. You decide on the direction, not your dog. From an early age, you should ensure that the lead always remains loose so that your dog takes heed of you on walks and adapts to your rhythm and changes in direction. Stop as soon as your boisterous puppy pulls on the lead. Only when it comes back to you and the lead slackens between the two of you should you continue walking.
To practise behaviour on the lead, it's possible to place a treat or popular dog toy at some distance in a large open area. Your puppy will probably rush towards it straight away, but hold it back or move even further away. Only when your puppy has managed to calmly keep your pace should you move closer. Thus, it only receives the reward when it learns to restrain itself.
You'll save yourself a great deal of stress and nerves if you teach your puppy at an early stage to wait for you when you call it until you allow it to move forwards and to wait on its own if you have to leave the house unaccompanied. There are many very different methods on offer in order to achieve these goals. You have to try out which is most suitable for your dog. It's important that you reward it every time it shows the desired behaviour. You're best off practising making recall signals (e.g. “come”, “here” or whistling) when you notice that your puppy is already running back towards you. Call or whistle at this exact moment and offer treats in the form of its favourite food. Your dog will learn that it's worth coming quickly to you as soon as you call it.
Training your puppy to wait is a similar process. Your dog has to learn that it must not jump straight out of the car as soon as you open the boot, that it shouldn't run outside as soon as you open the front door and that it shouldn't ravage its food as soon as you open the cupboard door where it is stored. Don't reward such behaviour by giving in to its jostling. Immediately close the car doors or front door as soon as you notice that your puppy is trying to go outside. Only open the door again when it manages to wait patiently. Repeat this until your dog sits or stands by the wide-open door of its own accord, then reward it by finally letting it go outside. You can also use food as a treat in the same way. Only fill your puppy's bowl when it stays quiet and waits patiently. Only provide the bowl when it has got its jumping or barking under control. If your dog immediately gets stuck in without you having given it permission to eat, take the food away again. Only when it waits calmly until you have given it the signal that it can start is it allowed to eat.
From the age of 12 to 18 weeks, you can gradually get your puppy used to remaining alone. Naturally you should never leave your adult dog alone for too long either, but obviously there are situations or events every now and then at which your dog would not be welcome. Your puppy should thus learn as early as possible that it cannot go everywhere with you and that sometimes it has to stay on its own. This works best of all when you quietly practise alone time as part of your daily routine and don't give it too much importance. Initially leave the room for just a few minutes every now and then without saying goodbye. Come in again and act as if nothing has happened. Gradually you can increase the amount of time until your dog has learnt to stay alone for longer periods. You should only leave the house when you are sure that your dog will remain calm and not cause any drama in your absence. If your dog is very clingy and immediately starts barking or whimpering as soon as you leave the room, you can vary the exercise by only coming back into the room when it stays calm. If you don't want to leave your agitated dog alone, at least ignore it when you re-enter the room and only give it a treat when it has calmed down.
Keeping a dog in species-appropriate conditions doesn't just involve taking care of its diet, exercise and training requirements, but also providing sufficient grooming. The fur must be brushed regularly, the paws, ears and teeth have to be cleaned and checked and the claws must be trimmed. Get your canine housemate used to staying still during these grooming rituals from the very beginning. In order to make later veterinary examinations easier, it's best to get your dog accustomed to having its ears, paws or stomach touched. When you're cuddling your puppy on the couch in the evenings, tickle its stomach, touch its ears, hold its paws, massage them or open its mouth with your hand. You will notice that your dog becomes more relaxed over time and will start to enjoy itself.
The more a puppy gets acquainted with in the first few months of its life, the less will later disturb or frighten it. A noisy hoover, the washing machine or TV, tumultuous children, speedy cyclists, loud motorbikes, people with sunglasses, people in wheelchairs or screaming babies, noisy traffic and strange escalators – there is a crazy amount of things for a small puppy to discover. Show it something new every day: you can make the most of your daily walks in order to keep showing your puppy unknown places, noises, people or animals. However, don't over-challenge your dog. At the start, a few minutes in unfamiliar surroundings are sufficient. For example, the first time you approach a noisy school group or enter a department store with your dog, always plan your retreat in good time – ideally before your dog becomes unruly.
Is it worth attending a puppy school?
You will notice that getting a puppy used to its environment and teaching it the rules of cohabitation requires a lot of work and mainly patience, consistency and not least, a certain expertise. In order to avoid failures in the formative first few months of your puppy's life, dog novices in particular should do sufficient research on housing, grooming and training. In such cases, attending a puppy school and carrying out exercises from an experienced dog trainer can be very helpful. In this way, your dog doesn't just learn fundamental rules of behaviour, but you also experience how you can practise such behaviour in your day-to-day life together. You will learn to assess your puppy and a foundation of trust will be built up playfully between you both – the most important basis for living together successfully with your four-legged partner.
We wish you and your puppy a good start together!