How to Get Started with Puppy Obedience Training
Positive reinforcement training can work wonders, but it can also reinforce bad behaviors. For example: if you let your dog outside every time they bark at the door, you are rewarding them (going outside) for a behavior you do not want (barking). Gradually decrease treats over time but continue to use verbal praise for following commands.
Before any real training starts, socialization is key, especially at ages 8 to 20 weeks. Begin introducing your puppy right away to as many people as possible, from as many backgrounds as possible. Your dog will begin to recognize people as people despite different ethnicities, clothing, and genders. After all, you don't want your puppy to grow up and begin barking at people wearing sunglasses or those who have beards simply because they were not exposed to it.
Socializing with other dogs will also help. Older dogs will teach your puppy proper dog etiquette. This can be a bit scary at first! Dogs communicate through body language and different vocalizations, so an older dog may growl at your puppy if they are doing something they shouldn't be. This is how they learn.
As pack animals, dogs learn through positive reinforcement. This means praise, pets, and most of all, treats! A reward after a behavior you want them to repeat makes it much more likely that they will continue that behavior. Here are some tips to effectively use positive reinforcement training:
Keep commands simple using one or two words
Reward immediately when completing the behavior to avoid confusion
Keep cues and rewards consistent
Use very small, softer treats to keep their attention
Combine with a verbal praise you only use with training ("yes!" or a clicker)
Positive reinforcement training can work wonders, but it can also reinforce bad behaviors. For example: if you let your dog outside every time they bark at the door, you are rewarding them (going outside) for a behavior you do not want (barking). Gradually decrease treats over time, but continue to use verbal praise for following command, and avoid rewarding bad behaviors.
Avoid Excessive Punishment
Gentle punishment definitely has its place in puppy training. For example, a stern "no", leash correction, and not letting your puppy outside when they bark are all examples of punishment. However, excessive use of punishment, especially forceful punishment, can hinder learning and lead to fear and frustration. Combine gentle correction with positive reinforcement training for the best results and a trusting bond with your puppy. Avoid:
Scruffing, shaking, or hitting
Using choke collars, shock, or other physical punishments
There is an abundance of research that shows positive reinforcement works better and faster than using punishment or negative reinforcements. Utilize more praise and less punishment. Your puppy is still learning!
Train in Different Places
Most owners start training their puppy at home. That's great! However, a puppy who has never been trained in a distracting area may not behave as well outside as they do at home. Try joining a puppy training class with others or clicker training near a dog park. This will help strengthen their training and your relationship with repetition. Just be sure to let them have fun afterwards!
Puppy Fear Periods
Puppies go through different fear periods as a natural progression of their development. During this time, puppies become more sensitive to the world around them and may suddenly appear fearful or aggressive towards things that they loved before. This is normal! Most puppies go through 2 fear periods: one at 8-11 weeks and another at 6-14 months of age.
During a fear period, especially the second period, your puppy may seem to "forget" a lot of their training from before. It is especially important to be sensitive during these periods and offer extra positive reinforcement and comfort. Studies have shown that excessive punishment, a lack of support, or forcing your puppy to interact with an object or person during these periods can cause behavioral problems down the road. Remember that this period isn't forever and give your puppy some extra space to experience their world.
If your puppy seems to be having an especially difficult time training or in a fear period, don't panic. There are so many professionals ready to help you including licensed trainers, behaviorists, and veterinarians. Don't be afraid to reach out for help and advice when needed.