First Things to Teach Your Puppy

Bringing home a new puppy is exciting, but it 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 right away. 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 tons of good things.

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 in 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.

The goal of socialization is not a high quantity of exposures to new things, but rather a thoughtful variety of quality, safe exposures.

Socialization – The World is a Safe Place

The most critical socialization window for puppies closes at around 16 weeks of age, 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 at a distance from the action, letting your pup simply observe the environment. Pairing unfamiliar objects or animals with food can help create a positive association for your puppy – and that 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 being able to safely confine 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 there is a medical reason requiring your pup to be free-fed, stick to a set feeding schedule.

2) Be aware of your pup's activities. If they have just eaten, drank water, and/or played, it may be time for a potty break.

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 scary 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.

Hand Targeting

Ok, let's get to the real training you were looking for! One of the first things to teach your puppy from a formal training standpoint is this easy hand targeting exercise.

This exercise naturally acclimates your new puppy to a hand approaching their face, is a quick and easy way to teach your pup how the process of learning works, and it's always a favorite for kids to practice.

You'll find our video for teaching hand targeting below, along with 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 actively 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 it takes to get Rover to come. If you are starting at a short distance with no distractions, your dog will likely come without issue.
  • The moment your dog arrives, reward with excellent food such as string cheese or chicken.

If you have other people in your home, practice together by spacing out in your home or yard and taking turns calling Rover. To get your pup really excited about recalls, have one person gently hold Rover back while 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 other 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.

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