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Puppy Training 101: Ace Your First Lesson

The only thing you know, is that they know nothing. And we’ve got your back.

by Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie, KPA-CTP
March 27, 2021
girl with blue hair teaching white dog to shake

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

From practicing yoga to playing guitar, being the beginner in class is always a bit disarming. Kick-starting a dog training regimen can be a steep learning curve too — often more so for you than your dog. The rise of virtual training sessions during quarantine has been a godsend to many new pet parents, but if you want to give dog obedience the old college try, keep reading for our pro tips. (Heads up: we recommend a clicker for this class.)

1. Puppy-proof your home

At work, the maxim Ask forgiveness, not permission might get you somewhere. But if you give your pup free reign, you will regret it later, trust us. Set boundaries early on to avoid breaking bad habits later. You can do this by puppy-proofing your home: keep countertops clear, cover trash cans, hide cords and cables, lock cabinets, and hide away shoes and other valuables away from puppy teeth. Baby gates can also help create a puppy-proofed labyrinth. Once they earn your trust, you can start taking down borders. 

2. Reward good behavior

With bad choices off the table, it’s time to condition your pup to understand what behaviors you want them to repeat. Use a marker, like the word ‘yes’ or the click of a clicker, to pinpoint the exact moment they do something you want to encourage. Then, taking a page from Pavlov, follow your marker with positive reinforcement (treats are your most valuable currency). Click, treat, repeat. In no time, your dog will practically be salivating the second they hear your mark.

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3. Teach them to focus  

If you’ve ever zoned out during a Zoom call, then suddenly been called to answer a question, you know that winging it when caught off guard doesn’t always work. Likewise, when your dog is distracted, they aren’t going to perform well. Teaching them to focus on you is a useful command in dog obedience training. Find a quiet area in your home, stand just as quietly (with treats ready and hidden), and simply wait for your dog to look at you. The second they do, give them a mark-and-treat one-two punch. When your pup has figured out the power of a glance, you’ll be in for plenty of hungry stares. Once your dog masters this staring contest, try out this trick in places with more stimulation, like in your backyard. And so on and so forth.

4. Teach them leash manners at home 

Your mouth waters watching restaurant commercials, so imagine how ravenous your dog feels when every walk is an olfactory buffet for his keen doggo nose. Walking at a heel calls for an incredible amount of self-control for a dog, but is a must for your sanity and their safety. Keeping outside distractions in mind, start leash training your puppy at home. Leash them up and tell them to sit parallel to you. Say “let’s go,” mark, and treat. Timing is everything! Every step that follows, so long as they stay by your side, should be rewarded. If — rather, when, because it will happen — your pups pulls, don’t chastise them; just stop, turn around, and wait for your dog to get the hint and check in with you. Again, once they get the hang of it, you can take it outside and practice IRL.

5. Train them to come when you call 

Not to be dramatic but recall training can save your dog’s life. If you have a fenced-in yard, great. If not, use a 20-foot training lead in a distraction-free zone. Pick a cue, either ‘come’ or ‘here,’ and start by saying it when your dog is only a few feet away. When they come to you — you know the deal — mark and treat. Gradually increase the distance by stepping back further and further, cueing your dog to follow. Having a dog that’s on-call means that you can trust them to swiftly return to you in case of emergency, i.e. they get spooked and slip their collar on a busy street, or a fight breaks out in the dog park and you want them out of harm’s way.

6. Instill staying power

Nailing the ‘stay’ command ensures your dog’s (and your mail carrier’s) safety. Like a good true-crime series, it’s all about build-up, which just means telling your dog to stay, counting a few seconds in your head, then marking and treating before releasing them from the command with an “OK!” Put this routine on repeat, increasing the time before treating until you hit 30 seconds, then add some distance to the equation. Once they’ve mastered the basic command, level up by walking in a circle around your dog, leaving the room or, the ultimate test, break out the vacuum cleaner. Don’t get frustrated if your pup snaps out of ‘stay’ — this kind of mind control isn’t going to happen overnight. Trusting them to remain motionless until you give them the green light is a process, but one that’s worth it in the long run.

7. Desensitize them to being handled

The power of positivity isn’t just a self-help mantra, it’s also key for making your dog comfortable with you (and vets and groomers) handling sensitive body parts like paws and ears. Show your dog that they’re in good hands by pairing touch with treats. Gently hold your pup’s paw and give them a treat. You can eventually work up to a nail trimmer — just not on day one. Baby steps!

Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie, KPA-CTP

Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie, KPA Certified Training Partner and Family Paws Parent Educator, is the founder of Path and Paw and a training advocate on Dogly.