17 Training Tips for First Time Dog Owners

What first time dog guardians need to know about dog training.

A cocker spaniel relaxes at home on the settee
Photo: Angela Holmyard/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

Getting a dog for the first time is a wonderful experience but also a hard one. Having a dog in your house is a lot of work, and many first-time dog guardians struggle in those early weeks and months. It takes time to settle into an easy rhythm, and it takes time to train your dog how to behave. On top of that, people who get their first dog are more likely to use outdated training methods that are linked to poorer outcomes.

It doesn’t help that when you look for help, there’s plenty of old-fashioned and downright wrong advice out there—and some people even charge money for it. Dog training isn’t regulated, so you have to be careful where you get advice from.

The decisions you make about dog training make a big difference to the relationship you build with your pup. Here’s what first time dog guardians need to know.

1. It’s important to use reward-based training methods because there are risks to using methods that rely on pain and fear. In practice what this means is that you will use positive reinforcement (most likely, food) to teach your dog to do behaviours that you like and want to see more of.    

2. It’s important not to use prong collars, shock collars, little tugs on the leash, shake cans, etc. That’s because research shows that aversive methods like these are associated with a whole host of risks including fear, anxiety, aggression, and a worse relationship with you.  

3. Use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to do the behaviours you like.  

4. There aren’t any fixed rules about what those behaviours are. Common behaviours that people like include coming when called (important for safety), walking nicely on leash (so that walks aren’t a struggle), maybe a sit and a nose touch to the hand. 

5. The rules of the house are up to you, and you can decide what works for your family. It’s your choice whether or not your dog is allowed on the sofa and the bed, for example. Once you’ve decided what the rules are, be consistent, otherwise it will be confusing for your dog.

6. If your dog does something you don’t like, think about what you’d like them to do instead, like keeping all 4 paws on the floor or sitting nicely to greet people. Then train them to do that. Sometimes it can take a while, but be consistent in training. You’ve probably heard the phrase “dogs do what works”. Your dog will learn which behaviours earn them treats.

7. Don’t begrudge the treats. The whole point of them is to motivate your dog to do the behaviours you’d like, so they have to be food rewards that are motivating. Some people make the mistake of only wanting to use kibble. That might work for a few dogs who are very highly food-motivated, but even then you’ll get better results if you use better treats. It’s okay to use people-food like chicken, cheese, and roast beef for this, especially for behaviours that are important to you. It’s also okay to use food that people aren’t so keen on but dogs love, like stinky sardines or tripe.  

8. If you think your dog doesn’t like treats, ask yourself a few questions. Did they just finish a big meal? If so, they might be uninterested in treats right now, but you can try again later. Are your treats good enough or are they maybe a bit blah from your dog’s perspective? In which case, you can get better treats. Or is your dog actually stressed? Then you need to make the situation less stressful for them. 

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9. Dog training takes practice. We break behaviours down into small steps and teach a very easy iteration first, then one that’s a bit closer, and so on until we get to that final behaviour.

10. It’s a great idea to give your dog a treat whenever they just happen to be doing something you like. It rewards that behaviour so that it is more likely to happen again. Sometimes people make the mistake of only noticing when the dog is doing things they don’t want them to do. If you don’t reward your dog for doing things you like, they might stop doing them!

11. If you did put a prong or shock collar on your dog, take it off. Organizations such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour, Dogs Trust, RSPCA, (and many more!) warn against the use of aversive methods like these.

12. If you’re having trouble walking your dog because they pull, get a front-clip harness. It won’t harm your dog and it will help. Of course, you can also train your dog to walk nicely on leash, using positive reinforcement. And you should give your dog plenty of opportunities to sniff on walks, especially at the beginning. After all, the whole point of the walk is for the dog, so make sure they enjoy it.  

13. Classes are a great way for you and your dog to get some practice. Only sign up for a class that uses positive reinforcement. There are also some common mistakes that people make in dog training. Class isn’t just about training your dog; it’s for you to learn, too, and will help you improve your technique. Plus you’ll have fun with your dog.

14. When a dog is fearful, instead of teaching the dog to do something, we often teach them not to be afraid. We can do this using a very powerful technique called counter-conditioning. It essentially boils down to teaching your dog that whenever the thing they are afraid of appears, it predicts amazing treats (like mature cheddar cheese). But it is a bit more complicated than that, so consider hiring a dog trainer to guide you.  

15. Another important thing to know when dogs are scared is that it’s important to protect them from whatever they are afraid of. One of the best ways to do this is with management for fearful dogs. 

16. If you notice a sudden change in your dog’s behaviour, see your veterinarian to check for any potential medical cause. If your dog is very fearful, it’s also a good idea to see your vet, who will check for medical issues and might prescribe psychoactive medication. 

17. If you’re struggling, get help. Sign up for a class or hire a good trainer to help you. Here’s what to look for in a dog trainer.  

You’ll find plenty more tips to help you in my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog Magazine calls it “A must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

And if your dog is shy, fearful, or reactive, check out my latest, Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog, which is available for pre-order now.

The cover of Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog

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