When Is The Right Time To Start Training A Puppy?

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Yorkshire Terrier
SKimchee / CC BY-ND 2.0 / Flickr: SKimchee

There is so much conflicting information out there on when to start training a puppy, how to train a puppy and what to expect at the end of the training process.

Lots of dog trainers and authors claim that starting to train a puppy prior to six-months-old is a waste of time, and to let your puppy just be a puppy!

Training puppy
SKimchee / CC BY-ND 2.0 / Flickr: SKimchee

Still others say that actually, 8-weeks-old is the prime time to start training your puppy, straight after you bring them home.

So which one is it? 6 months or 8 weeks. As with all advice, try not to take everything you are told as set in stone. The following article will discuss these points of view, as well as offer information on when to think about starting to train your puppy, what your puppy can learn and whether or not he or she is too young to learn.

After you have read the article, think about what would work best for YOU and your puppy. Every dog is different, just as every human is!

Who Invented The 6 Month Rule?

The main reason for delaying puppy training, according to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ article What are Some of the Common Myths About Dog Training?, came about because;

(It)…originated from “old school” training where heavy collar corrections were used and therefore it was preferred that a dog be at least old enough to withstand wearing the collar and dealing with the pressure of collar corrections and punishment during training sessions.

Collar corrections were considered to be too hard for the growing bones in a young puppy and could cause some serious damage. It was also proved that whether you started puppy training at 8 weeks or 6 months, the results were the same in terms of the level of skill attained by the time the puppy reached adulthood, thereby negating the need to start young.

There was an unwritten agreement, therefore, that formal training could wait until the puppy was both physically and mentally strong enough to cope with the tough training described above.

As time has moved on, a range of gentler, more positive training methods have become widespread, meaning that today it is possible to start your puppy off on his training journey from a much younger age.

Why Is 8 Weeks Considered The Right Time To Start Training?

In contrast, the ‘8 week’ rule came about out of convenience, rather than any theoretical reasoning. 8 weeks is generally the age at which you take a puppy away from its mother and bring him home. However, 8 weeks is a pretty good starting point for starting training on a younger puppy.

Before this age, a puppy will be spending almost all of his time with his mother and litter mates, simply learning how to be a dog. They learn all about bite inhibition, canine communication, pack order, play, how to deal with discipline and much more. Taking a puppy away from its mother and littermates prior to 8 weeks could be detrimental to their development.

Another factor to consider is that prior to 8-weeks-old, a puppy lacks the cognitive ability to learn the kind of commands and activities you will want to train him in.

Remember this: The moment you bring your puppy home, whatever his age, you are training him every single minute of every single day, even if you don’t realise it.

You’re the Boss!

When you bring your puppy home at 8-weeks-old, you are effectively getting a blank canvas. They no pretty much nothing about the world and it is up to you to shape it for them.

Absolutely everything that you do, they see, taste, smell and touch, bad or good experience and reward or punishment trains them a little more.

You are their teacher to help guide them through these experiences. It’s time to step up and be a role model!

Puppies are extremely similar to small children. They can’t take care of themselves and are very naïve. Having said that, they are very observant and curious and so can get into all sorts of trouble if they learn the wrong behaviours!

It is up to you to teach them well and let them learn the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. (Yes, we’ve plagiaraised “The Greatest Love of All” there but the sentiment remains the same.) Show them what is allowed and what isn’t, what they should be fearful of, what they can play with and on and on.

Puppies are exactly like children. They cannot take care of themselves and are naïve to the world around them. But they’re highly observant and will be studying your every move as they learn about our world.

The good news is that as ‘clean slates’ of sorts, a puppy has no bad habits, preconceived ideas of bad behaviours that need correcting. They are an open book, ready to be taught all the skills they will need in life.

It is SO much easier to prevent problems occurring through effective training than trying to reverse bad habits later in life.

When Should A Puppy Start Training?

As stated before, there are a couple of schools of thought on this. We at the I Love Dogs Club tend to advocate the ‘8 weeks old’ school of thought, but as we said at the start of this article, there are no hard and fast rules. The world won’t end if you wait a couple more weeks or months to start your training.

The reasons we think that 8-weeks-old is a great time to start training are a) you are catching your puppy early, before any bad habits are formed and b) there are a range of modern techniques including clicker training, shaping and lure and reward training that are fun, easy and stress free ways of training your pup. Not a collar correction in sight.

Your puppy is learning by osmosis anyway at this age, so why not add some fun and informal training to get things started?

Take It Easy

Try not to start puppy training with all guns blazing. Slow and steady is the name of the game. Avoid correcting your puppy if they get it wrong. Patience, repetition and a positive environment are key.

Puppies are impulsive, have a short attention span and have very little self control. Imagine you are training a toddler!

You wouldn’t expect a toddler to get everything right first time, behave well all of the time and never lose interest in activities, so try not to set the standards too high with your puppy.

Your puppy will eat, play, chew and wander off whenever they feel like it. They will sometimes listen to you and sometimes not. Don’t get angry with them, instead enjoy the little rascal and gradually introduce more formal training as they get used to being told what to do. Once you DO get their attention, make the most of it. You will be amazed at the things they CAN learn during this time of distractions and wonder.

What Are The Training Rules?

Avoid stressing you and your puppy out by not setting your expectations too high. You could end up doing more harm than good.

Remember, very young puppies don’t have the ability to practice self-control, so it is both unfair and aggravating for both of you if you correct behaviours or get annoyed. Keep training games short, fun and friendly – never more than one to three minutes at a time. If your puppy seems tired or uninterested, stop.

It’s very important to start training off easy. Set your puppy up to succeed, not to fail. You aren’t going to have a Flyball or Agility master at the end of a couple of weeks, after all. Training is a lifelong commitment and you want to maintain your puppy’s enthusiasm for it.

What Can You Train Your Puppy To Do?

Most people start with obedience commands, not only to develop a well behaved dog, but also to make sure a puppy is as safe as possible in different circumstances.

Again, keep it simple, keep it slow and don’t expect too much. Star off with the following commands:

  • Sit
  • Lie down
  • Stay (for a couple of seconds, with no distractions!)
  • Roll over
  • Crawl
  • Paw
  • Basic retrieval.

Our Recommended Resources

If you are the type of person that likes to take a step-by-step approach to training, then we recommend watching Doggy Dan’s ‘Project Moses’ videos. This covers off training between 8-weeks-old and one-year-old in easy to digest nuggets.

You get to see what things you need to be thinking about at each stage of your puppy’s training development in real time. You also get to watch a professional dog trainer training his puppy so you know exactly what to do and what not to do.

Take a look here: Doggy Dan’s: The Online Dog Trainer (opens in new window)

This is a great tool to help puppy owners learn how to train their dog, without spending money on a professional trainer to show you how.

Here at the I Love Dogs Club, we are great believers in the positive reinforcement approach to training, advocated by Victoria Stillwell. This is based on the idea that “If you give your dog a reward (praise, play, food, toys, etc.) when he responds to you or offers an action or a behavior that you like, then that behavior is likely to be repeated.”

 

Essentially, your puppy learns that good stuff happens when he does something you want him to do. Victoria Stillwell gives an overview in this video of the different ways you can start training your puppy using positive reinforcement. It’s a great watch!

 

Other Training To Consider

In addition to the above listed basic commands, it is also worth starting off your training in the following areas:

  • Positive Reinforcement – get your dog used to knowing what makes you happy and he will try to make you happy!
  • House training – no one wants accidents on their carpet
  • Bite inhibition – those little teeth are sharper than they look!
  • Socialisation – get your puppy used to people, animals, sights and sounds, Make sure they get to experience a whole variety of things to ensure they are not fearful as adult dogs.

Final Thoughts

There are differing opinions on the correct age to start training a puppy. Ultimately though, your puppy’s training is YOUR responsibility. You can choose to let your puppy just be a puppy and start training when they are a few moths old, or start straight away when you bring them home.

If a dog is coming home to a family unit, it’s probably wise to start training sooner rather than later. Having a bitey, poopy, misbehaved dog is no fun, especially when you have bitey, poopy and misbehaved kids to deal with too (just kidding!).

On the other hand, if you live in a rural setting or are fine with letting your puppy just ‘puppy’ for a few months, they will soon catch up with their compatriots who are trained earlier in life.

Remember, whenever you start to train your puppy: keep it simple, keep it fun and don’t expect too much too soon.

All puppies are eager to please, but it is up to you to determine when your puppy is ready to learn how to be a dog.