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Complete Puppy Training Guide for New Dog Owners

Haley Young photo

Haley Young

December 31, 2023

Dog Training

Complete Puppy Training Guide for New Dog Owners thumbnail

Welcome to life with your puppy! This is an incredibly exciting time. You just brought home a lifelong furry best friend, and the days ahead are full of laughter and adventure and so much fun.

But we know the first few months with a puppy can be overwhelming, too.

How do you prioritize what to teach your dog? What does all of the jargon in the dog training world even mean? How do you go about teaching certain behaviors? What life skills and schedule will set you and your puppy up for success?

We’re here to help. Our Dog Training 101 article dives into the basics of pet dog training across all ages and breeds — and below we highlight some key things to focus on with your young puppy, step by step.

Let’s dive in!

Why is it important to start training your puppy when they’re young?

Like children, puppies are like sponges in their early ages, which makes them ripe for learning and building good habits. Remember: It’s far easier to prevent a behavioral problem from the get-go than it is to try working through it later on!

Puppies get the most out of socialization — which can be a part of foundational engagement training with you — between birth and 12 to 16 weeks of age. This period is known as the puppy socialization window. Most puppies are ideally kept with their mothers and littermates for at least the first eight weeks of this time, in which valuable lessons and experiences take place. Once they come into your home, you can take advantage of the next few weeks to explore your typical environments and start honing the skills you’d like to see in the long term.

You can learn more about socialization and how to socialize your puppy in this article.

What you need before you start training

There are a few things you should prepare ahead of time before you start doing any real training work with your puppy.

  • Patience: First things first, remember that your new dog is just a baby! Puppies physically mature much faster than human children do (at eight weeks they can already romp and play, and within a few months they’ll appear almost full grown) but their brains are still developing for the first couple years of their life. If you’re going to successfully work with a young dog, you need to practice your patience.
  • Harness or collar and leash: You’ll need a comfortable way to keep your puppy secure when out and about in the world (or even while inside your house full of distracting things to explore and possibly chew). Harnesses can work especially well for young pups by giving them freedom to move around comfortably without risking trachea damage, all while still providing you with a way to rein them in if necessary.
  • Treats or toys: These can help motivate your puppy to work with you in training sessions. We talk more about rewards and reinforcers (including praise as well as physical objects) in the next session.

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

An overview of how dogs learn

Dogs primarily learn through association. They don’t think about the world the same way humans do. Researchers don’t believe they are able to recall exact past events precisely like we can. They also have poorer short term memories that might prevent them from clearly remembering even what happened just a few minutes ago.

Instead, our canine companions develop new behaviors and form habits through the principles of both operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Almost all dog training is based on these two common learning theories.

Operant conditioning learning theory

Operant conditioning is sometimes called “trial and error” or “consequence” learning. At its simplest, operant conditioning is what happens when our dogs learn to associate their behavior (actions they take) with certain consequences (things that happen as a result of those actions).

If a behavior leads to good things? Dogs will perform it more frequently. If a behavior leads to something unpleasant (aversive)? Dogs will perform it less often (and perhaps develop fearful emotions — more on that in the classical conditioning section below).

Classical conditioning learning theory

While operant conditioning deals with behavior (things your dog is aware of and actively chooses to do) classical conditioning deals with reflexes and emotions (things your dog can’t control). Pavlov’s dogs didn’t drool on purpose. They had just come to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food — their bodies essentially began to treat the unrelated stimulus (the bell) as a biologically relevant one (food) and have the same response to it.

Classical conditioning happens all the time with our dogs. We can never just “turn it off”! This means it’s important to be aware of what emotions we’re creating in our pets as we train them.

Some more common dog training terms and definitions

Rewards and reinforcers

Rewards are things 1) our dogs love that 2) are easy for us to give them during a training session. They are the foundation of positive reinforcement training, which is the most humane of modern dog training techniques.

Common reinforcers include:

  • Store-bought dog treats
  • Small pieces of human food (like meat or cheese)
  • Your dog’s kibble (if they’re particularly food motivated, have a sensitive stomach, or you need to be calorie conscious)
  • A favorite toy
  • Praise and affection (for some dogs, verbal affirmations alone aren't motivating enough — it's best to pair lots of praise with other tangible rewards like treats or a favorite toy)

Reward markers

If you’ve heard of “clicker training” (first popularized by marine mammal trainers) then you’ve been exposed to the idea of a reward marker.

In technical terms, a marker is a conditioned stimulus that predicts a primary reinforcer. Put more simply? A reward marker is a sound or signal that “marks” exactly what your dog did to earn their reinforcement. This makes it possible for us to communicate clearly during training sessions — even if we’re unable to deliver a treat precisely when our dogs offer the right behavior. Reward markers are great for everything from basic obedience training to complex tricks and give handlers the opportunity to be crystal clear while practicing repetitions of a new cue.

Common reward markers include:

  • Clickers
  • “Yes”
  • “Good”
  • A thumbs up (particularly useful for deaf dogs)
  • Other easy-to-make noises

How your puppy’s growth stages affect their training

Remember when we said your puppy’s brain isn’t fully developed until a couple years of age? While young dogs can learn so much, it’s important to understand their impulse control and attention span limitations to meet them where they’re at. In order to be a good dog guardian, you need to be fair to your puppy!

Here are the key things to know about your new dog’s different growth stages. Use this as a guide to introduce new things during the right period of time.

Eight to twelve weeks

This is the start of your puppy’s first fear period. We know this sounds a little counterintuitive. Why would you bring them into your unfamiliar home and family just as they’re starting to become wary of new experiences? But it’s also when your puppy is at their most impressionable. Positive experiences will help them quickly adjust to their new environment!

This is an important time to prioritize exposing your puppy — in a safe, controlled way — to the things you hope they’ll be comfortable with throughout their life. Try to introduce them to as many situations as you think they can handle, all at their own pace.

Most rewarding of all? This eight-to-twelve week range is when puppies form strong attachments to their people. By being a steady source of support and guidance, you and your family will build a lifelong relationship with your new dog.

Focus on:

  • Taking your puppy into new environments to experience sights and sounds while being supported by you
  • Housetraining with regular bathroom breaks to set a healthy foundation for your dog’s potty habits
  • Looking for a reputable positive reinforcement “kindergarten” class that focuses on structured, safe socialization with other dogs and people
  • Getting your household all on the same page with a puppy raising schedule

A young puppy is sniffed by an older dog, part of the socialization process

Twelve weeks to six months

Around twelve weeks, puppies become less fearful. Curiosity blooms — and with it comes independence! Your new dog will start to show more personality and develop more advanced social skills both with humans and with other animals. It’s important to continue your thoughtful socialization process to set them up for success. By sixteen weeks, your pup is ready for some more impulse control in their basic training.

This time period is also when your pup’s permanent teeth start to appear. Teething can be a difficult process for both dog and owner! Prepare yourself for a lot of chewing — puppies have very sharp teeth — and be ready to redirect from your hands and furniture to acceptable alternatives like designated chew toys. Remember that it’s natural for your puppy to explore the world using their mouth. They aren’t being aggressive or disobedient. They’re simply learning and growing up. Take a deep breath and try to enjoy the journey.

Six to twelve months

By six months of age, your puppy will be approaching their adult size — and might even look a little funny if they haven’t fully grown into their paws or ears yet. (Yes, even adolescent dogs have their awkward stages!)

This period in your puppy’s life is when they’re often equated to human teenagers. While their attention span will be much longer than when they were littler, they might also start to test boundaries, which is only natural for a young dog growing up and figuring out how to influence the world around them.

You’ll need to provide plenty of mental stimulation and reasonable physical activity throughout your dog’s entire life, but especially during their adolescence. Your puppy won’t have much of a threshold for boredom — and a frustrated puppy isn’t fun for anyone involved.

You can also expect some undesirable behaviors during this stage. Your pup will reach sexual maturity and might appear to “regress” in their training even after successfully performing cues and behaviors around a variety of distractions previously. Don’t worry! This is completely normal. Keep up your routine, engage in lots of play and exercise, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional trainer for support if you need to. By staying consistent, you should be able to prevent long-term bad habits.

One to two years

In general, dogs reach emotional and physical maturity between 12 to 18 months of age. At this point they have the temperament and personality they’re likely to maintain through adulthood — but it’s important to recognize that impactful experiences (especially traumatic negative events) can continue to influence who your best friend becomes. Make sure to be thoughtful about your outings and keep your now-adult dog’s comfort top of mind.

Smaller dogs tend to mature sooner while larger dogs take longer. Keep this in mind if you’re going from owning one breed to owning another — every dog is different! 

Know that even in young adulthood, your dog will likely retain some puppy energy and silly shenanigans. Try to continue meeting them where they’re at even as you progress to more advanced training.

Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

Sniffspot Dog swimming in pool

What behaviors and skills should you teach your puppy?

The sky’s the limit when it comes to training your new puppy as they grow up — but the following three things are usually top priority for most dog parents. 

Crate training

Crate training is a vital skill for dogs to have. There are many situations where your dog might need to be comfortable in a confined space for a little while, ranging from vet visits to traveling in the car to staying at new locations like hotels out of town to attending sports trials and more. When trained through positive reinforcement, the crate can become a safe space for your dog — it can even make training other skills (or working on a behavioral modification plan) easier!

You can learn more in our crate training article below. A greater range of information is always available on the dog training section of our blog, too.

An important note about crate training: Some puppies might come with a negative association to a crate, especially if they’re from a rescue situation. Even if your dog is from an ethical breeder, it’s a great idea to set up a combination of an x-pen (like a larger crate without a floor or ceiling that you can position around your house as you like) with a smaller crate inside to ease your puppy into the process of loving their new den.

While crates are an important part of most dog training and management, it’s inhumane to leave your dog inside for hours and hours on end without adequate fulfillment — and it isn’t fair to just expect your puppy to be comfortable left alone right away. Take the crate training process slowly just like everything else.

Potty training

Every puppy needs to be house trained growing up. We know how difficult it is to enter a room only to be greeted by a big, smelly accident. This is one of the most common and most frustrating parts of dog ownership. Struggles in the house training department can take a toll on our own stress levels, routines, and homes — but we promise the process is worth it in the end.

You can read more about finding a successful potty training process in our house training focused articles:

Basic manners and cues

Teaching your puppy some basic skills can open up your world. If your pet is able to sit, lie down, and come when called, you’ll be able to take them more places with you! They can enjoy the freedom to frolic off lead and join you while meeting a range of new family and friends. Plus even this simple training can do wonders for building a lasting, positive relationship between you and your companion.

Take a look at some of our articles on teaching basic cues below. Be sure to start training in a quiet environment and work up to greater distractions slowly over time.

Professional dog trainers are here to guide you

When in doubt? Professional trainers have your back! Helping you and your furry companion live your best life together is exactly what experienced force free trainers are here for. If you and your dog are struggling with anything — as simple as polishing up one of their basic cues or as complicated as devising a plan to treat severe reactivity — reach out to a professional who can guide you one on one and help you set the most relevant training goals.

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Kaia Wilson
CPDT-KA, Owner - Dogspeed Training
kaia.dogspeed@gmail.com dogspeed.dog
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Haley Young photo

Haley Young

December 31, 2023

Dog Training

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