For many of us, our puppies are like our children and we want to provide them with the best things, like I do with my new German Sheppard after reading the barkbox reviews. We also want to teach and train them well. The early months can be rough as puppies teethe, throw temper tantrums, whine about the littlest things (like being unable to get up on the couch), and test our limits to see what they can get away with. A big part of bringing up your puppy is training them to become good, respectful dogs.

One of the oldest training tricks in the book is treat reinforcement. You give commands, the puppy responds to the command, you give them a treat and like Pavlov’s dogs your puppy is conditioned for this behavior. I will say up front that I dislike treat reinforcement as a training method. To be honest, I have always found with various puppies that it teaches bad habits and it teaches puppies that treats are given and should be given for EVERYTHING. In addition to creating entitlement issues treats also create eating issues and potty issues. If puppies are constantly being filled up on treats they do not eat their regular food or only eat small bits when it comes to normal meal times. They learn that when they are hungry treats are what they should eat and not their food. Too many treats can also be really rough on a growing puppy’s stomach. If you’re using treat reinforcement for training, do not be surprised when you find “little surprises” all over the house. My preferred methods for training are a combination of verbal and toy reinforcement.

If you want your dog to respond directly to your commands, then why would you condition them to respond to treats rather than your own voice? Pick single or double words like “Good,” “No,” “Stay,” “Good Job,” “Sit,” etc. As much as we wish they could, dogs do not understand English or any verbal language for that matter so speaking to them in full sentences is outside of their comprehension.

Dogs also understand tone of voice or word inflection. Baby talk will not work for this kind of training. Save that for cuddle time. Pick a positive sounding inflection, something that is softer and higher in pitch, as well as a negative sounding inflection, something that is a bit louder and lower in pitch. Your puppy will learn to differentiate “good” and “bad” based on the pitch and sound they hear coming from your response to their reactions.

Toy reinforcement works the same as treat reinforcement except you reward your puppy with his or her toys rather than with food. Combining this with vocal praise is a near full-proof way to train your puppy into a well-mannered dog. Here’s why these are my favorite ways to train:

1.  You can teach a teething puppy not to mouth hands, fingers, feet, ankles, etc.

  • When they start to nibble on your fingers or anywhere remove your body part from their mouth, tell them “No,” then hold one of their favorite toys up to their mouth. When they take the toy and bite on that instead reinforce them with a resounding “Good,” or “Good puppy.”

2.  You can teach them what is theirs to chew and what is not.

  • If you’ve ever had a puppy before, then you’ve lost a sock or shoe or five in the process. Puppies chew and they can be destructive in their chewing.
  • Make sure you have a special area that all of their toys are in and familiarize them with that “play area.” Hold up one of their toys and let them take it in their mouths while you follow with a verbal reinforcement word. Take that toy away and hold up one of your items, like a shoe.
  • It’s ok for the puppy to sniff it but he or she tries to bite or chew it, pull the item away and give a verbal command such as “No,” or “Stop.” Take that item away and bring the toy back so that you end on a positive verbal command.
    Repeat this method several as dogs learn best through repetition.
  • I would still recommend hiding away any personal affects you may not want your puppy chewing up, but this method will help minimize the overall possibility for damage.

3.  Vocal praise helps with potty training.

  • When you take your puppy outside to go to bathroom be sure to use your 1 to 2 word commands while they are actually in the process of going potty. This way they will equate your praise with their action of going to bathroom rather than simply the action of being outside.
  • Remember, if they go in the house use your negative verbal commands, but be sure to follow up quickly with a trip outside for some positive verbal reinforcement. Ending on a negative does not teach your puppy what to do; it only teaches him or her what not to do.
  • Be sure to take potty breaks outside frequently to test this training theory.

Training is not as difficult as it might seem if you make time to devote to it and pay attention to your puppy’s needs. Learn to communicate with them in a way that will be unique for you two (or three or four!).