5 essential puppy training milestones

December 1st, 2021
5 essential puppy training milestones

We look at the five essential training milestones every puppy must reach

Everyone knows that puppies need training, but where do you start? When you bring your new puppy home, what are the most important skills and behaviours you need to start teaching him?

Let’s take a look at five key puppy training milestones you and your furry friend can target and how you can teach your pet to reliably perform each of them.

Puppy Training Milestone #1. Paying attention

You won’t be able to teach your puppy anything if she doesn’t listen to you, so it’s essential that you can get your pup to pay attention. One of the biggest frustrations any dog owner can have is asking their pet to do something and being completely ignored, but it’s a problem we’ve all faced at one time or another.

“When I see this, it’s often because the dog never realised it was being talked to in the first place — it was looking at something else and had temporarily switched its ears off,” Alisa Sannikova, animal behaviour scientist from Sydney dog walking and training service Perfect Dog, says. “Teaching the dog to listen and look at you is a fundamental baseline for asking it to do anything else and should be one of the first things you teach.”

But there’s a problem: dogs can find it hard to look at people’s faces for long periods of time because in dog body language, this is seen as confrontational. This is an obstacle you’ll need to overcome. As Alisa explains, a dog that learns to look at your face when you ask it to, or point to your eyes, gets so many benefits.

“They are definitely focused on you and ready for further commands, they’re actively ignoring other distractions, [and] they’re learning to increase their attention span and self-control. Asking your dog to keep his eyes on you for several seconds can help you get past something without your dog noticing, particularly if your dog is reactive to other dogs on leash,” she says.

So, how can you teach your puppy to pay attention? The first step is for the whole family to agree on what signal you will use, which might be harder than you think. If you want to use the dog’s name, for example, will you be able to avoid using her name when you don’t need her attention, to prevent her name being ignored as background noise?

“I recommend picking a nickname to be your ‘look at me’ signal. Then, in a quiet, low-distraction room of the house, have treats at the ready, wait until your dog turns away from you and then use your new signal. Your dog will probably look at you because nothing else interesting is happening — as soon as she does, quickly give her a treat as a reward,” Alisa says.

As your pup gradually learns that looking at you when you say the magic word leads to many wonderful things, you can soon start practising in more difficult areas or waiting for the dog to look at you for several seconds at a time before rewarding.

Puppy Training Milestone #2. Sit (and stand and lie down)

Next on the list is that core behaviour for all puppies and dogs: sit.

“I consider sit to be the most important behaviour because it’s such a useful way for getting dogs out of mischief. A dog that’s sitting isn’t jumping, running in circles, scratching at your legs or doing any number of other annoying things,” Alisa says.

“It’s also a good barometer for overexcitement or anxiety — a dog that won’t listen to a sit request may be too bothered to comply to anything at all, and that can be your cue to get them out of that situation any way you can until they calm down.”

Chiara Perri from Point Cook Dog Training in Victoria adds two other position changes — stand and lie down — to the sit milestone. She says that these three key position changes teach the pup body awareness and can help owners control their pets in all manner of situations.

“As an example, teach the pup to sit and you now have polite greetings, sitting at the kerb, sitting before a meal and sitting before entering a door. With stand, we have the position for a vet examination, grooming and waiting patiently. With the lie-down position, we are set up for stay and settling, cafes and [meeting] visitors,” she says.

Your pup may be able to learn these three important skills in a day, but then you need to practise daily to remind your pet and reinforce the behaviour. Never push or pull your puppy into the position you want; instead, use a treat and the motion of your hand to lure them into the desired spot.

“The key to these position changes is to do them everywhere and often so your pup rehearses exactly what you want, all the time, until it becomes quite natural for them,” Chiara says.

Puppy Training Milestone #3. Walking on a loose lead

Any puppy can be taken for a walk on a lead, but it takes training (and sometimes a great deal of patience) to teach your pet how to walk properly on a lead. This means that instead of pulling you this way and that as he races to investigate every new sight, sound and smell, your puppy needs to learn how to walk politely on a loose leash.

Why? “Walking on a loose leash teaches the pup to stay close to the owner when out walking, and it teaches the pup to connect with the owner and take notice of the owner by its side,” Chiara says.
It also means your pup will get to go on plenty more walks with you in the future — after all, you’ll be much more willing to take Fido for a walk if you know you won’t have to worry about him pulling your shoulder out of its socket.

“Walking on lead is a fundamental skill for all puppies,” Alisa says. “Although most puppies will tolerate a leash simply being attached with no prior work, they usually won’t learn how to walk politely unless the owner puts in the effort to teach it.”

An important part of loose-leash walking is that the puppy should realise when the leash is tight and take a step herself to loosen it again. The best way to train this, Alisa explains, is by practising indoors first where there are fewer distractions.

“Put the leash on, wait for the puppy to walk to the end of it and then make sure you hold the leash steady. Don’t let the puppy take even a single step forward while the leash is tight, but don’t pull back on it either — just pretend that you’re a tree the leash is attached to. At some point, the puppy will give up and turn back towards you, making the leash loose again, which is the exact instant you should give your puppy a treat as a reward.”

With practice, the puppy should think of a tight leash as an instant signal to drop back and make the leash slack again. Not letting your puppy walk forward and reward himself while pulling is crucial, so a front-attach harness can be a big help when teaching this to big, strong puppies.

Puppy Training Milestone #4. Coming when called

A good recall is an essential skill for all dogs and one that you’ll rely on as an owner time and time again. Ensuring that your dog will come when called is critical for her safety, and teaching this behaviour means you can broaden your dog’s horizons with confidence.

“Coming when called allows the pup to explore beyond its fence boundary. It can go to the dog park, the beach, the bush where allowed off-leash etc. Being off-leash allows for appropriate socialisation with other dogs and the owners can trust the pup will come back and will not run onto the road,” Chiara says.

But recall isn’t just important for when you intentionally let your dog off-leash, as even dogs that you never intend to release can get away from you — fences can be jumped or damaged, collars and leashes can snap, and doors and gates can be left ajar. Having a dog that is willing and happy to come back to you is very important for peace of mind in these situations, Alisa says.

“Puppies will usually naturally come closer to us when at home. The trick is to:
1. Say the label ‘come’ when you think your puppy will walk towards you anyway — are you holding a treat or a toy that’s enticing them to you, for example?
2. Always reward when the puppy approaches you — never punish — so that the puppy continues to think that coming is a good idea; and
3. Try to hold onto the puppy’s collar while giving the reward to prevent your puppy learning to stay out of arm’s reach.”

With patience and repetition, your pup will soon be an expert at coming to you whenever he is called, even in high-distraction environments.

Puppy Training Milestone #5. Relax when touched

Being happy about being handled is a necessity for any dog. Dogs should be able to allow vets, groomers and day-care workers to touch them without stressing themselves out, but most puppies aren’t automatically happy with being touched on all parts of their body.

“It’s of great importance that the dog is happy and looking forward to being touched everywhere, not merely tolerating it, so make sure all of these interactions are fun and rewarding for the dog,” Alisa says.

She suggests thinking of your puppy’s body like a map. There are “green zones” (areas where your dog really loves and looks forward to being touched), “red zones” (areas where your dog will flinch, pull away or maybe even threaten you with a growl or nip) and fuzzy borders in between. For really scared puppies, the red zone might even cover their entire body and the border might start 20cm away in the air around your pet.

To get your dog used to the idea of relaxing when being touched, start with your hand in a green zone and slowly move your hand towards one of the border areas.

“As you touch the border, give your dog a tasty treat and while they are eating, retreat into green. By doing this repeatedly in small amounts every day, your dog will learn to trust you and the green zones will slowly expand until your dog loves it no matter where you handle them,” Alisa says.

Getting Started

You can start training your puppy to reach these milestones as soon as you get her home. Or, if you have a proactive breeder, they can even start the process for you.

While there may be variations in the exact way you teach your pup each of the behaviours listed above, Chiara stresses the importance of using positive reinforcement. “This means you give the pup something it wants, like a treat or even play with a toy, for the appropriate behaviour and by reinforcing this behaviour, you are likely to see it again and again. If you don’t like the behaviour, you simply walk away and ignore it momentarily,” she says.

Remember, pups are young and still learning, so stay patient and don’t get frustrated or yell. Just keep showing your furry friend what you want, give him lots of chances to succeed and reward him when he gets it right.

“What we probably need to stress also is that training does not stop once your pup has become a teenager at six months,” Chiara says. “The brain is not fully developed until about two to three years of age, so good training and exposure need to continue right up until this age.”

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