Pearl’s Pupdates: Teaching your puppy basic commands

Teaching your puppy basic commands (also known as “cues”) is an essential component of behavioral training. Not only does command training help with home integration, but it also strengthens the communication and bond between you and your puppy. For this Pupdate, Pearl and Dr. Sackman will give you the knowledge you need to start teaching your puppy her basic commands.

It is important to first decide which commands you want to train your puppy. Here are the top five suggestions from Dr. Sackman:

  • Sit
  • Down
  • Stay
  • Go to mat/crate
  • Walk nicely on leash

Next, you need to prepare for your puppy’s training sessions. You’ll want to choose some extra tasty treats for your puppy, such as chopped up hot dog or string cheese. Treats provide motivation for your puppy to learn and focus. Save these special treats for training so your pup looks forward to them.

Treats are a primary reinforcement in puppy training, meaning they are the number one motivator for your puppy to learn and obey her command. However, it is also important to have a secondary reinforcement, which is simply a signal to alert your puppy that the primary reinforcement is coming. Dr. Sackman recommends using a clicker as a secondary reinforcement. Using a clicker marks a behavior and can accelerate learning. The clicker is a “promise” that your puppy will receive a treat after the command. You can purchase both a clicker and treats at your local pet store or online.Pearl and Bella

Dr. Sackman expert tip: “Purchase a treat pouch to easily prepare for training sessions. Make sure the pouch is lined with an easy-to-clean material. She really likes the ones with a metal snap that stay open and close easily.

Once you are prepared for your puppy training sessions, familiarize yourself with the steps of training a new command:

  1. Indicate the desired behavior – The first step is getting your puppy to act out the desired behavior. For example, the “sit” position can be achieved by holding a treat above her nose and then lowering it behind her which encourages her to sit down. In many cases, such as “lie down” or “go to mat/crate,” you will have to wait for your puppy to naturally perform the behavior.
  2. Click, treat, repeat – Once your puppy acts out the behavior, immediately click your clicker and feed her a treat. Continue this until she associates the clicks and treats with the desired behavior. Keep building this association until it is very clear that she understands what she is performing your desired behavior and being rewarded for it.
  3. Add in verbal or hand cues – Once your puppy is offering the behavior because she knows she will be rewarded, add in your cue.

This cue can be a word, phrase, noise (like a whistle) or hand signal. When your puppy offers the behavior, immediately give your chosen cue while you click and treat so she can begin to develop the association. Once she understands her cues for commands, the clicker should no longer be necessary. Continue to give her treats for her behavior.

  1. Practice with distractions – It’s easier for a puppy to focus in a quiet, calm room. However, you want your puppy to obey her commands in any environment. Add distractions slowly. Try taking her to your driveway or backyard to start. Once she masters these environments, take her to the park or an area of your neighborhood with noises, moving people and animals or interesting scenery for more advanced training sessions. In any new space, take a few moments to practice her commands until she is able to obey them under any circumstances.

These four steps are the foundation for learning new behaviors and cues. However, there are still other factors involved in successful command training. Here are some more tips from Dr. Sackman:

  • There is no such thing as “too young” for puppy training. You should begin training your puppy as soon as possible, which is usually between eight and 12 weeks, or younger!
  • Remember that puppies have a short attention span, so shorter and more frequent training sessions are ideal. Aim for about three sessions per day, with each one lasting 3 to 5 minutes. Also be sure to incorporate training into her daily schedule. For example, practice “sit” while preparing her breakfast.
  • To teach “stay,” begin with the sit command. Then, slowly add time (in one to two second increments each time) before you click and give treat. Once she understands the concept, you can add the “stay” verbal cue or a hand signal.
  • Make sure everyone in your family is using the same cues for your puppy’s commands. For example, if one member is saying “give paw” and another is saying “shake” for the same command, your puppy may get confused.
  • For loose-leash walking, begin in an area free of distractions (such as a finished basement) and practice for a brief period of time during each training session. When your puppy is not pulling on the leash and staying close to you, click and give treat. Slowly start to add distractions that would cause your puppy to pull away. Loose leash walking can take over 4 to 6 weeks to successfully train.
  • For training your puppy to “go to crate,” click and give treat any time she enters her crate. This command is useful for providing a place for your puppy to relax when you are eating at the table or have guests over.

Above all, Dr. Sackman advises that patience and consistency are the two most important factors to remember. Pearl’s parents are learning that training a full set of commands takes. Stay calm and maintain confidence in your puppy’s abilities. Always remember to make training a positive and fun experience for both of you.

Read Pearl’s Pupdates:

Pearl’s Pupdates: How to housetrain your puppy

Pearl’s Pupdates: All About puppy chewing and toys

Pearl’s Pupdates: How to crate train your puppy

Dr. Sackman is a specialty veterinarian and medical director for BluePearl’s Michigan hospitals. She practices on BluePearl’s veterinary behavior service and possesses years of experience as a behavior expert and dog trainer. She is currently a resident in the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists pursuing double board-certification. To learn more about Dr. Sackman, Pearl and her family, please visit our Introduction to Pearl’s Pupdates article.