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  • Kristen VanNess

Your Official Guide to Puppy Training

How long does it take to train a puppy? That depends mostly on when you start, what you want your puppy to learn, the environments where you want him to be, and the level of reliability you aim for. Having a strong focus on training over the first year and a half will give you a great start for the life of your puppy.

Puppy Training Timeline

8-10 Weeks

Your puppy is in his critical socialization period. Positive experiences at this stage of life can have important long-term impacts on his confidence and well-being. While skill training such as sit, down, and shake can be fun, you especially want to focus on confidence, attention, relaxation, and motivation.

A few helpful focus areas at this age may include teaching your puppy to relax in his crate, teaching your puppy to be comfortable being alone, helping your puppy learn to love playing tug and/or fetch with you, teaching your puppy to look to you for direction, and having him keep all four feet on the floor for petting. Puppies this age are not too young for house training.

Socialization is not necessarily interaction. A puppy this age is not yet fully vaccinated. Talk with your vet about the risk of infectious disease in your community. For many young puppies, you can provide socialization experiences by simply carrying him. From your arms, you can let him see, hear and smell different vehicles, people, animals, and environments. You should not allow your puppy to visit with other people while in your arms, as he is not able to move away if he is uncomfortable.

10-12 Weeks

Your puppy is approaching the end of his critical socialization period. Some puppies may be slightly more cautious towards the end of this time. If you notice your puppy is uncomfortable—for example, he backs away or is slow to approach—give your puppy the space he needs to feel safe. Continue socialization experiences in ways that are appropriate for your puppy’s vaccination status.

At this age, puppies continue to become more coordinated and more interested in the environment. If you have not fully puppy-proofed areas of your house, then now is the time to pick up rugs with fringes, decorative pillows, and interesting items at puppy height. An exercise pen can be used to block off shelves, bookcases or other areas you do not want to puppy-proof.

Now is a great time to build environmental confidence. You can find safe items for your puppy to go on, under, or through. This might mean encouraging him through a cardboard box tunnel with treats, using your voice and body language to invite him on and off a short footstool, getting him to go under a chair, or encouraging your puppy through a narrow gap between two cardboard boxes.

It is normal for puppies to explore the world with their mouths and for puppies to use their mouths for social play. We can provide for this social play by playing fetch and tug games with toys. Teaching puppies to grab a toy on cue as well as to let go of toys on cue can help with teamwork, cooperation, and give your puppy the experience needed to let go of other items he may pick up.

3-4 Months

By this time, your puppy is much bigger than when he came home, but you have to remember how much of the world is still new to him. You need to provide structure and controlled learning opportunities, and do your best to minimize rewards for behavior you do not like. Using rewards to teach your puppy to walk at your side as well as not going his direction if he pulls on the leash are good examples of this. Another example would be stopping to talk to the neighbors and rewarding your puppy for sitting and looking at you. It is a good idea to not allow others to pet your puppy if your puppy is jumping, pulling, or vocalizing.

Your puppy can learn about walking on a leash, coming when called, holding still, and being calm around strangers or guests.

For medium and large breed puppies, you should start teaching kitchen manners, such as staying on a bed while you prepare meals. It is much easier to start this now, before your puppy can reach the counter, than to wait until your puppy can easily steal items. Some of this can apply to dogs of all sizes, such as teaching them not to jump onto a coffee table.

Continue giving your puppy age-appropriate exposure to routines and experiences that will be part of his life. This might look like a few hours in the crate or pen while you are working, relaxing with a chew item during movie time, or practicing calmly walking in your neighborhood for a few minutes at a time.

4-6 Months

At this age, many puppy owners get frustrated with behaviors that may have seemed cute in a younger puppy. Address those areas and get additional help now rather than waiting longer.

Some puppies may display barking for attention. This behavior is typically learned because you tend to take the puppy outside, offer food, or start play time when he barks. While it’s essential to meet your puppy’s needs, you need to be aware of the timing so that your puppy is not learning to bark for attention. You want to provide play, interaction, and fun at times when your puppy is showing you behaviors you like, such as resting on a dog bed, quietly sitting and looking at you, or playing on his own.

Puppies this age look much more coordinated and mature, but are still very new to the world. While you can work towards walking on a loose leash, most puppies will do best with very short walks (2-10 minutes), broken up with activities such as tug or fetch, or with short training sessions. Many puppies do not have the patience or focus to enjoy longer loose leash walking opportunities.

Continue general manners training. You can continue to develop skills your puppy already knows, for example by changing environments, distances, or adding in distractions. You can also find new skills to teach your puppy—whether practical skills, or tricks for fun.

6-12 Months

At this age, most puppies are approaching sexual maturity—though many puppies are not structurally mature. Dogs may not be socially mature until about 3 years old. Many puppy owners may be concerned about adolescence and the challenges that may bring. While there is some research on this topic, there is a lot we still do not know.

Continue to provide your puppy with learning opportunities. Reinforce behaviors that are important to you, and set your puppy up for success. For example, if your puppy is very excited, then a trip to the middle of the farmers’ market might not be a valuable learning experience. On the other hand, working on loose leash walking or stay training on the fringes of the farmers’ market might be a great experience.

With seasonal changes, your puppy may be encountering weather, routine changes, neighborhood decorations, or people wearing/carrying different items that he has not seen before.

The Main Elements of Puppy Training

Provide Structured Training

Unfortunately, there are no special secret dog training commands that result in puppies automatically performing skills. You can teach puppies to do skills with you, add in cues/commands, test with various distractions, and work on real-world applications. Many of these learning experiences should be in structured, specific lessons to give your puppy the repetition he needs to learn.

Manage the Environment

You want to make it very hard for your puppy to make mistakes that could be a safety hazard for himself or others. You also want to avoid situations where environmental rewards may compromise your training.

In the kitchen, you might put a trashcan in a cabinet so that your puppy can’t learn to dig through the trash. During meal preparation time, you might have one family member work with your puppy on stay training while the other person is preparing dinner. This will help your puppy learn to not jump on counters. While you do the dishes, you might give your puppy a food puzzle toy so that he’s engaged with that instead of climbing into the dishwasher. You might hang the dish towels on a high cabinet or set them on the back area of the counter so that your dog is not pulling them off of your usual storage spot. You can anticipate environmental temptations for a puppy and change the environment so that your puppy does not get into trouble.

Recognize Developmentally Normal Behavior

Many “annoying” puppy behaviors will go away as puppies grow up, as long as those behaviors are not reinforced.

One example is biting and tugging on the leash. Many puppies find the temptation of the leash to be too much, and the puppies will grab the leash to pull with their mouths. Most puppies will do this, but most fully grown dogs will not. If you tug back on the leash—making a big deal out of it and giving the puppy a lot of attention—then the puppy may grow into an adult dog who tugs on the leash. If you mostly ignore the behavior, teach tug/drop it with toys, and provide activities for your puppy to do when he is on leash, then most puppies will outgrow leash tugging.

Puppy biting is another developmentally normal behavior. Most puppies will do a lot of puppy biting with their mothers and littermates. Sometimes this can be quite hard, even in play. As humans with more sensitive skin, it’s not something we find fun. If you are giving a puppy toys when he bites, pushing him away and giving attention, or yelling and pulling away quickly, then many puppies will want to continue playing this game. If you spend a lot of time with toy/social play, calmly remove yourself from the area if your puppy tries to mouth you, and teach your puppy to ask for attention in other ways, then most puppies will outgrow this puppy biting without any further interventions needed

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