Bringing home a new puppy is exciting but can also be overwhelming. What are the first things to teach your puppy? Is there a right or a wrong place to start?
Remember that puppies aren't exactly a blank slate; genetics, early socialization, and maternal factors can all play a part in developing your puppy's unique personality. But while every puppy is unique, there are a few first things to teach your puppy that can be consistently helpful in easing their transition to your home and starting their training off right.
Bonding – You Are the Source of All Good Things
With a new puppy, you might feel pressured to begin formal training immediately. But while we're huge proponents of early learning, the primary focus in the first few weeks of your puppy should be building a mutual bond.
One of the first things to teach your puppy from an early age is that you are reliable, safe, and the source of many good things.
Here are a few ideas to accomplish this:
- Have all family members take turns handling your dog's mealtimes and walks.
- Find age-appropriate activities for younger children, such as helping pour food into the dog's bowl or delivering them a treat by hand.
- Reward the things your puppy does right – you can use a combination of food and verbal praise for this!
As long as you make it fun (we'll talk more about how to do that soon!), training can be an excellent way to bond with your puppy, and you can start from a very early age.
Socialization – The World is a Safe Place
The puppies' most critical socialization window closes at around 16 weeks, so socialization should be a primary focus in those first few weeks with your pup.
The goal of proper socialization isn't a large quantity of interactions between your puppy and new things; it's about the quality of those interactions.
Some ideas for people, places, and things to expose your puppy to in their critical socialization period:
- People of different ages, heights, and builds
- Friendly, healthy dogs of various sizes and coat types
- Different surfaces, such as slippery floors, grates, wet grass
- Bicycles, cars, scooters, wheelchairs, and other moving stimuli
- Animals they may encounter during their adult life, such as cats, horses, and birds
- Noisy appliances like the vacuum, dishwasher, and washing machine
- Before all vaccinations, please avoid dog parks, daycares, and heavily trafficked pet stores.
If your dog seems nervous during your socialization outings, try hanging back from the action and letting your pup observe the environment. Pairing unfamiliar objects or animals with food can help create a positive association for your puppy – which can last a lifetime!
If you're concerned about your puppy's vaccination schedule and how that impacts your socialization process, check out this position statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.
Potty Training and Crate Training
I've lumped these together because they go hand-in-hand as critical first things to teach your puppy; part of the potty training process will involve safely confining your dog for age-appropriate periods.
You can find our in-depth potty training process here, but the basics can be broken down into these steps:
1) Do not free-feed your puppy. Unless your veterinarian feels a medical reason requires your pup to be free-fed, stick to a set feeding schedule.
2) Be aware of your pup's activities. It may be time for a potty break if they have just eaten, drank water, and played.
3) Watch for sniffing, circling, or running into another room.
4) Do not give your puppy access to your entire house; baby gate off a room or two to start.
5) Your pup should be crated or penned anytime you cannot actively supervise them.
6) Interrupt accidents as they happen with a few claps, and get your pup immediately outside. Do not be scared or threatening with your interruption. Reward them for finishing outside.
7) If you miss an accident and find it later, clean it up and do not punish your puppy.
Ok, let's get to the actual training you were looking for! This easy hand-targeting exercise is one of the first things to teach your puppy from a formal training standpoint.
This exercise naturally acclimates your new puppy to a hand approaching their face. It is a quick and easy way to teach your pup how learning works, and it's always a favorite for kids to practice.
You'll find our video for teaching hand targeting below and an easy way to use it to help prevent or modify jumpy greetings.
Coming When Called
We love to teach coming when called from puppyhood, as pups tend to be naturally inclined to follow us when they're very young. Recall exercises are great for building a bond with you and can help instill a lifelong love for training in your puppy.
You can find our more in-depth recall tutorial here, but here is the first step to building a reliable recall:
- Start working on your recall inside your home with minimal distractions.
- When your dog is nearby but not paying attention to you, say your dog's name, followed by your recall word. Example: "Rover, come!"
- Then, use as many high-pitched noises and excited motions as possible to get Rover to come. If you start at a short distance with no distractions, your dog will likely come without issue.
- When your dog arrives, reward it with excellent food such as string cheese or chicken.
If you have other people, practice together by spacing out in your home or yard and taking turns calling Rover. To get your pup excited about recalls, have one person gently hold Rover back. At the same time, you begin calling to him, getting him revved up and excited for a few seconds before he is released to come to you.
Gradually build up this game in a more distracting environment, such as a backyard or fenced area. If you're practicing recalls in an unfenced area, use a 40' long line as a safety precaution.
If you need extra help with your dog's recall, we offer an online recall course that combines a video curriculum with personalized trainer coaching – check it out here.