The Ultimate Guide to Dog Training

A woman in sunglasses hugging her dog

So you’ve brought home a furry new companion, gotten your face licked and your shoes eaten, and maybe even cleaned up a housetraining accident or two. And as you hold a treat over your puppy’s head and painstakingly work on teaching them Sit, it might be dawning on you…what comes next?

Dog training is a lot more than teaching your dog to sit on command or potty outside. Training gives your dog tools to operate in a human-centric world and builds trust and understanding between you. Done right, dog training doesn’t just teach your dog to understand Human–it teaches you how to speak Dog.

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Dog Training Equipment

While technically all you need is a bag of treats, good timing, and a little know-how, in practice we find that having some basic equipment on hand makes life a whole lot easier.

The Must-Haves

  • Collar
  • Standard 6-foot leash
  • Long line
  • Assorted treats: Low, medium, and high
  • Treat bag
  • Clicker
  • Crate

Optional (But Recommended)

  • Harness
  • Training mat
  • Puzzle feeding toys
  • Potty bell
  • Puppy pen
  • Puppy gates
  • Dog whistle
  • Muzzle

Do Not Use

  • Prong collars
  • Choke collars
  • E-collars

Prong, choke, and e-collars all rely on positive punishment in response to a dog displaying unwanted behavior, such as pulling or jumping. Positive punishment, or the adding of something negative to decrease the likelihood of an action reoccurring, is linked to an increase of aggression towards other dogs and physiological stress responses. If you’re struggling to change your dog’s behavior, look for a certified trainer, veterinary behaviorist, or certified animal behavior consultant who can help you train your dog.

Finding a Dog Trainer

Because dog training is an unregulated industry, finding a professional dog trainer can feel overwhelming. A good trainer can be a wonderful asset and open up a whole new understanding of your dog. When looking for a trainer, you want someone who not only has experience working with dogs but the ability and education to transfer their knowledge to you.

Credentials

  • CPDT-KA/CPDT-KSA/CPBCC-KA: Offered by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. The CCPDT is a non-profit organization devoted to establishing humane standards for animal training and behavior professionals. All trainers and behavior consultants who obtain a certification through them have a minimum of 300 to 500 hours of experience, have passed an exam, provided professional references, and follow a professional code of ethics.
  • KPA: Founded by Karen Pryor, the Karen Pryor Academy uses force-free methods and teaches its graduates how to use operant conditioning to modify behavior. Students go through a 5-month training program in which they are required to work with different species of animals (including humans) and pass written and practical examinations.
  • IAABC: The International Association of Behavior Consultants requires behavior consultants to pass practical and written examinations on learning theory, species-specific behavior, dog training and biology, and other topics. These exams are reviewed by a board of experts. Behavior consultants who hold an IAABC certification are also required to follow Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) protocols.
  • AABC/CAAB: The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) offers two credentials, the Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist (AABC) and the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), requiring either a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. from an accredited college in behavioral or biological science. Behavior consultants must also meet a minimum number of years of professional experience, provide professional recommendations, and demonstrate a certain standard of competence for handling animals. The CAAB also requires holders to provide original research to maintain their certification.

Where to Find a Dog Trainer

Yelp, Google reviews, and word of mouth are easily accessible ways to find a dog trainer. Remember to cross-check their credentials against the registries maintained by the CCPDT, KPA, ABS, and the IAABC. You can also search their online directories directly to look for trainers and behavior consultants.

When trying to choose a dog trainer, remember that their interpersonal skills are just as valuable as their dog handling skills, if not more so. Training sessions should leave you feeling like you have a better grasp of canine behavior or psychology, and as though you can apply the skills

During the initial consultation, don’t be afraid to ask questions about their methods. Remember: dog trainers work with you, not just your dog, so if you don’t feel comfortable learning from them, there’s nothing wrong with passing and seeking out another trainer.

If you’re struggling to find a qualified trainer near you, online dog training is an excellent option. Gentle Beast offers dog training courses led by certified behavior consultant Alex Sessa, tailored specifically to you and your dog. Based on your unique environment and goals, you’ll receive a weekly training plan and access to a community of like-minded individuals working towards the same outcome, all led by a certified trainer.

Modern Dog Training

Modern dog training is rooted in learning theory and operant conditioning. The four quadrants of operant conditioning are:

  • Positive reinforcement: Adding something pleasant to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Example: When you give your dog a treat after sitting on cue, you have positively reinforced Sit.
  • Negative reinforcement: Removing something unpleasant to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Example: When you push your dog’s butt down to force them to sit, then remove your hand, the sensation of your hand on their butt is unwanted. In the future, if your dog sits as soon as you touch their butt, you have negatively reinforced Sit.
  • Positive punishment: Adding something unpleasant to reduce the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Example: When your dog jumps up and you knee them in the chest to make them stop, the unpleasant sensation of colliding with your knee decreases the chance of future jumping.
  • Negative punishment: Removing something pleasant to reduce the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Example: When your dog jumps on you and you remove yourself from the room for a few seconds, the loss of attention and contact discourages your dog from jumping again.

For ethical reasons, modern dog training only utilizes positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Studies have indicated that these non-aversive techniques are more effective and efficient ways to train your dog. Others indicate that positive punishment and negative reinforcement contribute to increased aggression and anxiety, and can even decrease obedience in the long run.

The Basics

True or false: dogs can’t be trained before 6 months.

Very, very false. In fact, we now know that most dogs enter adolescence around then. Their early puppyhood should be spent setting them up with a strong foundation to help everyone (including you) navigate the next several months.

Puppies can be trained well before 6 months as long as techniques are rooted in positive reinforcement and relationship building. Always make sure your expectations are in line with their developmental stage!

And if you’re adopting an older dog, then don’t worry–it’s never too late to teach them a new trick or two.

Before 8 Weeks

Some training can start as soon as your puppy opens their eyes and walks. Technically, any kind of interaction your puppy has can count as training–during this stage, they are constantly intaking new information.

Your puppy should be with their litter and mother. If you’re going through a breeder, ideally they are being safely exposed to new surfaces, sights, textures, and sounds, as well as other animals or children. Some breeders may choose to start the process of crate or pad training to help your puppy adjust to your home.

This period is crucial for helping your puppy learn bite inhibition as well as how to play and communicate with other dogs. There’s no better teacher than their own mother!

Weeks 8 - 10

Crate Training

Once your puppy has arrived in their new home, you can start the process of crate training immediately. Some puppies take to their crate immediately; others need help sleeping through the night. Remember: your puppy is an infant and has likely never slept alone in their life before!

House Training

House training is frequently the number one priority for new dog owners, understandably so. And it might surprise you to learn that your puppy probably agrees–dogs are naturally clean animals who don’t like to soil their sleeping and eating spaces. The main hurdle is getting them to agree with what we humans consider to be a living space. Be patient, consistent, and clear–your puppy can’t control their bladder until they’re about 16 weeks old, and may regress during adolescence.

Basic Obedience

Your puppy can start learning the basics immediately: Sit, Down, Touch, Leave It, Drop It, Stay, Place, and Come.

Use positive reinforcement only–your puppy will be very sensitive at this stage–and keep training short and fun. These cues may take a while to master, but starting early establishes the desired mindset early on. Your puppy repeats behaviors that get them what they want, and if what they want is food, attention, or play, a Sit or Down is much more polite than a Chomp or Bark!

Weeks 10 - 16

Your puppy’s socialization window is open until 16 weeks. During this stage, you want your focus to be on introducing them to as many sights and sounds as possible, focusing on neutral to positive experiences.

Think of this stage as an opportunity to introduce your puppy to their new life. Take them to the vet, stop in at the groomer’s for a treat, and work on polite introductions with strangers. Get them used to being handled and reward them for tolerating it. You can also introduce the basics of cooperative care and desensitize them to having their ears, teeth, and nails touched–being able to clean your dog’s teeth and trim your nails without a fuss will make life much easier.

This is also a good time to practice impulse control. Cues like Leave It, Drop It, and Come are all rooted in impulse control–the better your puppy’s impulse control, the easier it becomes for them to listen to you.

Weeks 16 - 24

Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce! House training, manners, basic obedience, and continued controlled exposure are your priorities. Once the vet clears your puppy, you can start taking them on walks and introduce loose leash walking to them.

It may have taken a few weeks to find the right balance, but at this point your puppy should be on a schedule. Consistency is everything. Continue to work on impulse control, bite inhibition exercises, and polite play. Your puppy may struggle with being left alone; crate training is a useful tool for teaching them that they’re safe and keeping them calm.

6 Months - 2 Years

For most people, this is when training gets hard. Your pup might look the same as always, but dramatic hormonal changes are occurring under the surface, transitioning them from puppy to adult. Adolescence begins anywhere between 6 to 12 months and can last anywhere between 18 to 24 months.

It’s tempting to portray canine adolescence as analogous to human teenagerhood, but avoid framing your dog’s behavior as “rebellion” or “stubbornness”--or “dominance.” During adolescence, your dog is highly motivated to explore, interact, and run, while also experiencing a big increase in energy.

That energy can be channeled into structured play, longer walks, food puzzles, nosework, and more. During this stage, focus on reinforcement and consistency. Your dog is testing the limits of their world, which is why behaviors that they had on lock suddenly seem to regress. Lower the criteria, increase the value of the reward, and you’ll both get through it.

During this period, you and your dog may greatly benefit from building on what they learned as puppies. And if you have a “smart” dog, you most likely have a dog that doesn’t just like to train–they need to train.

If you want to indulge in leisurely off-leash hikes and runs, build off that previous impulse control training and start practicing recall training in different environments. Teaching your dog to come when called is extremely valuable no matter the circumstances.

Teach your dog to relax on cue with mat training. All you need is a mat (even a bathmat!) or towel, a bag of treats, and a clicker. You can train your dog to go to their mat when guests come over, when you’re at the dining table, or when you’re vacuuming. Try running the Relaxation Protocol, a 14-day program designed to teach your dog to relax on cue in multiple situations.

If you’ve missed out on exposing your dog to certain objects, animals, or experiences during their socialization period, you can still work on desensitization and counterconditioning. This is especially valuable if you’ve adopted an older dog who has an unknown background. If you’re bringing home an adult dog for the first time, use the two week shutdown to help their transition–it gives your new dog plenty of time to adjust at their own pace and prevents them from becoming overwhelmed by all the new experiences, setting them up for success.

We tend to think of dog training as analogous to our own educational experiences. At a certain point, we imagine that our dogs graduate and are ready to participate in human society, no further reinforcement or training needed. In reality, although you want your dog to have a solid foundation in obedience and impulse control by adulthood, training is for a lifetime. The better trained your dog, the more tools they have to navigate a world that is fundamentally not designed for them. And if you’re not training your dog, chances are they’re training themselves!

Problem Behaviors

Problem behaviors can crop up in any dog of any age or breed. Even though we label them as “problems,” it’s important to keep in mind that these behaviors are natural for our canine companions. With that said, they’re not easy to live with–and with the help of a trainer, you can find a balance between your dog’s needs and your own sanity.

  • Inappropriate Pottying: Unsanitary and sometimes damaging, peeing and pooping indoors are most likely the most frustrating problems for pet owners to handle. Rule out medical or environmental issues, then discuss with a trainer if your dog may be dealing with submissive/excitement urination, anxiety, general house training issues, marking, or something else.
  • Counter-Surfing/Begging: If your dog steals food or is demanding you share your meals, remove your dog from eating spaces to prevent reinforcing the habit. Mat training and other impulse control exercises can help your pup develop some restraint.
  • Leash Pulling: Loose leash is a difficult skill, asking your dog to perform a wholly unnatural behavior (walking on a leash) in the face of overwhelming distractions. When your dog pulls the leash tight, stop moving until they look back at you, then start moving again when the leash is loose. This helps teach your dog that a tight leash leads to you stopping and helps you avoid rewarding them for pulling.
  • Barking and Lunging: Your dog might bark and lunge on the leash due to frustration or anxiety. Work with a trainer on teaching your dog to remain calm and neutral to different stimuli.
  • Chewing: Your dog loves to chew because, well, they’re a dog. Prevent them from destroying anything important by restricting access to furniture or other objects, and make sure they have lots of dog-safe chew toys available. Excessive chewing can be related to boredom or anxiety.
  • Separation Anxiety: If your dog howls or barks, destroys furniture or walls, starts peeing and pooping indoors, and seems to reserve these behaviors for when you leave them alone, they may have separation anxiety. Consult a certified trainer or behavior consultant on determining whether or not your dog has true separation anxiety and how to create a structured desensitization/counterconditioning program.
  • Resource Guarding: If your dog growls, lunges, and/or bites over food or toys, they are showing classic signs of resource guarding. They may also guard your attention and become defensive over their spot on the furniture. Resource guarding can be prevented or managed through training.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential problem behaviors that you might encounter, only some of the most common. If you’re dealing with any of the above, don’t worry–so are plenty of other people!

Advanced Training

While your dog probably doesn’t need to advanced training, most dogs would certainly love to! Training provides all-important mental stimulation and gives you and your dog an opportunity to practice communication. Most dogs love to work, and they love receiving rewards for good behavior. Not to mention, training builds confidence and lets you see what your pup is really capable of!

Trick Training

Trick training is an easy, accessible way of getting started. Shake is one of the most popular, as is Roll Over, Spin, or Back Up.

Trick training also gives your dog an opportunity to practice body awareness and build strength. For example, Sit Pretty requires your dog to develop a strong core, while Back Up asks that your dog think about and control their back half.

Obedience

Canine obedience trials ask that your dog perform, on cue, various exercises in front of judges. Once your dog receives a passing or qualifying score, they earn a “leg” towards an obedience title. As your dog progresses through the different levels, the exercises become more difficult. Common asks include scent discrimination, variations on heeling, cueing on hand signals only, and more.

Rally

Rally is a beginner-friendly dog sport that builds off your dog’s existing training, giving handlers and dogs an opportunity to showcase their teamwork. You and your dog navigate a course together, stopping at various stations to perform the requested exercise.

You don’t have to wait until your dog is an adult to start training and competing–the AKC sets the minimum age at 6 months.

Certifications

Canine Good Citizenship (CGC)

The Canine Good Citizenship test is open to all dogs, regardless of breed or age. It tests practical, functional behaviors for dogs in human society:

  • Accepting a friendly stranger
  • Sitting politely for petting
  • Welcoming being groomed and handled
  • Walking on a loose lead
  • Walking through a crowd
  • Performing Sit, Down, and Stay on cue
  • Coming when called
  • Behaving politely around other dogs
  • Remaining confident in distracting situations
  • Maintaining training and manners when left with a stranger

The CGC provides a goal for many owners to strive towards as they raise their dogs.

Farm Dog Certified

The Farm Dog Certification tests your dog’s ability to listen and perform in a farm environment. It’s designed to test your dog’s aptitude for working on a farm. Please note that this test does not ask that your dog herd animals; it measures self-confidence, control, and trust in your handling while around livestock or traversing unusual terrain.

Dog Sports

Conformation

The most well-known dog sport, conformation events are open to intact purebred dogs and measure how closely they adhere to breed standards. Conformation isn’t just about looks–the better a dog does in conformation, the stronger the argument for allowing that dog to contribute to the breed.

Agility

Another popular dog spot, agility trials have dogs race against a clock as they navigate an obstacle course under their handler’s command. Highly responsive dogs that love to run and get along with other dogs often excel at agility. The sport is open to dogs of all breeds.

Nosework

Nosework trials take advantage of one of your dog’s favorite activities: sniffing! Unlike conformation, rally, and agility, nosework puts the dog in control as they lead the handler to the target object. This can build confidence in a shy dog.

Performance Dog Field Trials

Some dogs were bred for a specific purpose. Field trials test how well they can perform. For example, beagles are tested on their ability to search and track a particular scent, their endurance, and their adaptability to changing environments. Herding breeds are asked to move livestock in a controlled fashion through a course.

Other Sports

The world of dog sports is vast. Some dogs are trained as protection dogs and in bitework, while others compete in flyball against other dogs. Frisbee-lovers can participate in disc dogs; others might enjoy channeling their pulling instincts into a sport like bikejoring. Many dogs (but especially those with terrier in their DNA) love events like barn hunting.

Working Dogs

The image of working dogs conjures up the hyper-alert border collie or the ever-serious German Shepherd, but the truth is, dogs of all breeds can serve as working dogs. However, the vast majority of working dogs spend only a portion of their lives tasking; the rest of the time, they live as regular companion dogs.

Therapy dogs can be found in all sorts of different environments. They do not need to be perfectly trained–most of the time, organizations will test them for a suitable temperament. Most therapy dogs only need to be friendly, calm, and responsive in multiple environments.

The Fab 4 (Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, poodles, and collies) are popular options for service dogs. Some people raise service dog prospects and work on building a solid foundation of training skills from puppyhood before they’re sent away for advanced training.

K9 Search and Rescue (K9 SAR) Training is a form of detection work open to any breed, but organizations do caution that not every dog is equipped for it. Most dogs live with their handler and need about 600 hours of training to be considered “field-ready.”

In conclusion...

At the end of the day, training should be fun for both you and your dog. We tend to associate “training” with “school”--and for the vast majority of us, school is something over and done with. And if school wasn’t the most enjoyable experience, we might be eager to get the basics over and done with on the assumption that our dogs feel the same.

But dog training is a lot more than teaching your dog to sit for treats and shake hands with strangers–when we first took in wild animals, bred them to work for our benefit, and welcomed them into our homes, we also assumed a responsibility for their needs. As our understanding of dog behavior grows over the decades, we’ve started grasping how differently they think and experience the world from humans. Training gives us an opportunity to explore and celebrate those differences and gain a deeper appreciation of the dogs in our lives.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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