How to Start Training Your Dog

A chihuahua plays inside a small burrowing bed.

You may well wonder how entire books exist about dog training and obedience—whole shelves of books, actually, each purporting to hold the magic key to a well-behaved dog. Training your dog can seem overwhelming, but it’s pretty simple once you grasp a few concepts and apply them consistently. It’s sort of like all those diet books claiming to have secret formulas for weight loss, when it really boils down to fewer calories going in and more calories being burned up. You just have to stick with the program.

Like dieting, training your dog takes commitment and discipline (on your part), and while you may get faster results with some dogs than others, the results will always require some effort to maintain.

Dogs will repeat a response that brings them a reward—and they’ll be less likely to repeat anything that does not bring a reward. Embrace the simplicity of those two linked ideas and you’ll have everything you need. No need to buy books devoted entirely to dog training (and then give up halfway through because the theory bogs you down). No need to feel there’s something amiss with you or your dog because you can’t execute commands with military precision. Follow along with these ideas and discover how to start training your dog.

1. Find A Training Class For Your Dog

One of the best strategies to achieve a well-behaved dog is enrolling in a dog obedience class. But it’s important to evaluate those classes to be sure you’ll both be comfortable. The considerations that follow apply to any dog training you are evaluating—from puppy kindergarten to advanced agility training.

What is the dog training space like?

Is it safe? If it’s indoors, are there dangers to dogs like electrical cords or furniture in the way? If it’s held outside, is the area level and free of debris? Is there a designated “toilet area” for the dogs (with a trash can where people can deposit their dog's waste)? Is the place clean? Cool in summer, warm in winter? Is the space large enough? Crowding can create stress between dogs and lead to fights.

How do I choose the best dog trainer?

If possible, go watch the trainer before you sign up and bring your dog. That way, you can see whether you think it’ll be a good fit for you and your dog. The trainer’s method should feel comfortable and logical, even if there are ideas that are new to you. You should feel at ease with the trainer’s way of explaining things, of handling the dogs, and dealing with the owners. Get references for a trainer from your vet or the local shelter—someone who used the trainer and had a great experience and result. Decide for yourself whether that person’s dog behaves well.

How are dog trainees screened?

Based on questions asked of you, it will be clear whether all the practical aspects are considered. Are the sizes and ages of dogs matched up so that they are basically compatible? What about the vaccination policy? Even though some facilities require your puppy’s had two sets of shots, that rule should not be cut-and-dried because vets don’t all abide by the same vaccination schedule. Simply requiring a statement from clients that their puppy is under a vet’s care for overall health is a reasonable basis for inclusion.

How big is the dog training class?

Classes in cities tend to be larger. That is fine as long as the space accommodates the number of dogs, and the teacher has an assistant(s) so that all the participants get enough attention. A class generally shouldn’t be larger than fifteen students.

Is the class well organized?

Are all the “rules and regs” spelled out clearly so everyone knows what the classes will cost, what the cancellation policy is, and whether there is a refund or makeup policy for missed classes? Can other family members attend to learn what the puppy is learning? This is a good practice if they allow it.

What kind of dog training class is best for you?

Are group or private classes best for you, or should you consider sending your dog away for intensive training?

Choose a group dog training class if:

  • Your schedule allows it and you have time to practice on your own.
  • You know you can make all the classes over a two- to three-month period—missing even one class can put your dog behind the others.
  • Your dog has no special behavior problems except being out of control.
  • The class has no more than ten; closer to five is even better.
  • All the participants seem to have a good time.
  • Your dog has limited opportunities to interact with other dogs.
  • Your dog enjoys more success correcting problem behavior in a training environment away from home.

Choose private dog training lessons if:

  • You can afford it.
  • Your schedule doesn’t permit weekly class attendance.
  • Your dog has home-related issues: aggression, housetraining, barking.
  • You want lots of personal attention.
  • You don’t have patience for other participants in a class who might try to make it all about them.

Send your dog away for training if:

  • Money's no object—$1,000 a week is not an uncommon price, and most trainers need three or four times that amount to “shape” a dog.
  • You have no time to practice the training.
  • Your dog has serious problems you can’t tackle alone.
  • You are committed to upholding the good manners, responsiveness and respectfulness that the trainer will have instilled. A trainer can get things off to a good start but you still have to follow up.
  • You are ready to earn your dog’s respect by working with him when he returns, since he’ll come back responding to the trainer.

What is the best age to train a dog?

Older Dogs

There’s no such thing as a dog who’s too old to learn new tricks. It may take longer for an older dog to learn something than it does a puppy, but if the dog is motivated, he will soon catch on.

Young Puppies

Nor is there a dog “too young” to start learning. Ideas have changed about this. It was once thought you could not start training a puppy younger than six months (some trainers still think so), but for many puppies, sooner is better.

There is now KPT—Kindergarten Puppy Training—because studies have shown that even a puppy as young as three weeks can have adult brain waves and can learn. KPT trainers will work with you and a puppy as young as two to three months old.

2. Know The Principles Of Dog Training

  • Don’t judge yourself or your dog. Think of yourself as a beginner: don’t expect fast or perfect results. Expect and accept mistakes of yourself and your dog as part of the learning process. Ignore the mistakes. Praise the accomplishments.
  • Be patient with your dog. Be realistic and kindhearted in your expectations. If the dog isn’t learning as quickly as you’d like, picture him as a child learning to walk or ride a bike. Would you be impatient and critical with that child? You’d be kind to anyone else who was just learning something, so extend the same generosity to a dog, who is adapting his natural instincts and habits to human ways.
  • When the dog obeys, you MUST reward him. Drop any grudge you may have about how long it took your dog to follow a command, and instead be gracious and pleased. Put any impatience or frustration behind you—anger has no place in the learning process. Never grab at the dog or yank on his neck when he seems slow or stubborn. You may want to strangle him, but you have to park your frustration. Most dogs do their best to gain their master’s approval: give your pup the benefit of the doubt and praise all attempts to please. If you’re in a public setting and your dog won’t come back to you, for example, don’t allow yourself to feel humiliated that he’s not obeying you. His effort still deserves a reward.
  • Keep the dog leash on him until you maintain complete control. If you can’t recall your dog without his complete obedience, then don’t allow him to be off-leash. This will only reinforce the idea that he can disobey and take off. And if your dog is not yet a model host when guests arrive, the last thing you should do is allow him to be off-leash around them. You will be frustrated and annoyed with the way your dog behaves—and your guests may not be too thrilled, either. Furthermore, removing the leash before you have control sets you back in the communication and obedience you have been building in your training.
  • Keep your dog leashed in the house. But only when you are there. This allows you to enforce verbal commands calmly—having physical command before verbal command makes it much easier. The leash lets you avoid yelling, lunging, grabbing, etc. If the dog chews his leash, spray it with Bitter Apple. Say “leave it” right as he tries to put the (now-bitter) leash in his mouth. Give him big praise the moment he stops himself and lets go of the leash—or does not chew it at all. Shorten his leash on a walk so there isn’t a big, loose dangle in it to tempt him. Never ever leave a leash or any similar dragging/hanging equipment on an unsupervised dog. A caught leash could end in tragedy.

What to do if your dog threatens you

A growl or glare is a serious threat, and a threatening dog is neither normal nor acceptable. Sharing your life with a dog is not supposed to be a contest—training is not about proving who is the boss. Do not ignore or try to justify a threatening attitude or behavior, but do not try to resolve it right then and there, either. Confrontation is dangerous, and you could get hurt. If you feel scared of your dog, trust your gut instincts and back off. Stop what you’re doing and get a professional to help.

3. Make Dog Training At Home A Habit

There is really no mystery about getting a dog to behave in ways that please you. Dog trainers teach two simple fundamentals: reward the behavior you want and ignore behavior you don’t. There’s no secret to success other than an owner’s commitment to sticking consistently with this simple plan.

Shaping your dog’s behavior isn’t something you do once and it’s over. Training is part of an ongoing “conversation” between you and your dog. Every day you reinforce what he already knows.

  • Dog training is not a chore. Training need not be a boring obligation that you both try to avoid. It should be fun, a way to bring you together and develop communication pathways.
  • Dog training can make you feel awkward. Don’t be discouraged if in the beginning training is frustrating or makes you feel foolish. It’s natural for both you and the dog to be somewhat ill at ease until you get the hang of each other. Think of dog training exercises as two people learning how to ballroom dance together: you expect some toes to get stepped on before you glide smoothly across the floor.
  • Don’t change your personality when you train your dog. Instead of viewing obedience training as a fun project they’ll do together with their pup—a mutual discovery of ways to communicate—people often view dog training as a serious work assignment, a challenge to transform their dog into a super-obedient foot soldier who follows orders. Because of this, a person who is warm and cozy with his dog may suddenly adopt a military bearing and tone of voice in teaching and correcting the dog. This attitude is alien to the dog—especially a sensitive dog, who may think his owner’s harsh tone means he’s already done something wrong before he begins.

Training your dog effectively is finally about so much more than insisting on a prescribed, unyielding way for a dog to heel or come. It is instead about “civilizing” your dog so that living together is a pleasant experience on both sides and you’re able to develop a way of communicating.

Essentials for New Dog Owners