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Teaching your puppy life skills - Tips from Agria's Behaviour and Training Advisor

While we all want a well-trained dog, it is important that you also teach your puppy life skills – those things that aren’t the traditional obedience exercises we often think about when we think of training but instead are those seemingly simple things that will transform your unruly baby into the dog of your dreams.
Teaching your puppy life skills - Tips from Agria's Behaviour and Training Advisor

This is all about teaching calmness, focus, confidence and ultimately self-control. Often people think these things are just something a dog should know – but they don’t come pre-programmed… You have to teach them.

Teaching your puppy to be handled

These include things like not jumping up, not begging at the table, being able to be groomed, coming back when called, not pulling on the lead, being able to visit new places and meet new people without worries, and being able to relax and settle… all those things that make life easy for you and fun for your dog.

One of the most important life skills for your puppy to learn is to enjoy being handled. This includes being groomed, and being touched around his feet, face, mouth, and ears without complaint.

Too many dogs grow up fearful of their owners’ hands and not wanting to be touched because this vital lesson has been missed. Hopefully the breeder you got your puppy from has already started with this, and your puppy is already happy being handled – but now he has to learn to like being handled by you.

  • Start with some really tasty treats, and give him one as you stroke a little way down the side of his body. You want your puppy to link your touch with the treat so he has positive associations to being touched. Don’t hold him – you want him to choose to stay with you so you know he is doing it willingly.
  • Once he is happy doing this, you can begin to run your hand gently over the top of his head and down his ears – still using your tasty treat to make positive associations with your hands.
  • Now you can start to slowly run your hand down his legs and paws too. Some dogs are very sensitive on their paws so make sure you don’t grab them or pull them – and take it very slowly. If your puppy looks uncomfortable or backs away at any point, you need to go back a few steps. This should be something you do ‘with’ your dog and not do ‘to’ him.
  • Now you can do exactly the same thing with a soft brush to get your dog used to being groomed. Use the treat as before and first brush down the side of your dog, then very gently around his head, ears and paws.
  • Also do this with your puppy’s collar on too, and slide your fingers into his collar while you are giving him the treat. Don’t pull on it, just teach him that having your fingers in his collar is a good thing.

Never force the puppy to put up with something he isn’t enjoying. If he squirms away, you need to go back a few steps and make sure he is happy before you move on. If you force him to just ‘get over it’, you will be far more likely end up with a puppy who is frightened of your hands or just avoids you.

Teaching your puppy to settle

One of the other best life skill exercises you will ever teach your dog is how to settle in the house. He needs to know that there are times when you just need him to have an ‘off switch’ and lie quietly – whether it is while you relax or when you go visiting friends and want to take him with you.

This is a really easy exercise to teach but one that should be included in your training from the very start of your life together.

Start when your dog is already likely to be able to settle – so after a walk or playtime is the perfect time. If you try and do this exercise when your dog is full of energy or is anticipating a walk, you are just setting him up to fail – and why should he settle down when you haven’t met his basic need for exercise?

Make sure there is a comfortable spot next to you where your dog can lie. Attach a lightweight lead to your dog’s flat collar, and then attach it to the chair you are sitting on (or put your foot gently on it). The lead shouldn’t be pulling him to the floor or even next to you – just be short enough that he can’t jump up on you or wander around and find more interesting things to do!

Sit down and relax! No matter what your dog does, ignore him. He may bark, or try and chew the lead or pull at it but just carry on watching the TV until he gets bored and eventually settles. Some dogs do this quite quickly, others take longer but don’t be tempted to give him a cue to lie down. You want him to choose to settle down himself.

As soon as he does quietly give him a treat as a very clear signal of reward and continue to reward him on occasion while he is settled. If he gets up, go back to ignoring him again until he settles and reward him again.

If you have a very food-oriented dog, you may prefer to reward him by stroking him or giving him a nice ear rub instead when he is settled, as he may not relax if he is waiting all the time anticipating another treat! Or if he finds it hard to settle you could give him a stuffed Kong* he can chew on while lying down quietly. Do what works best for your dog.

Start slow. Only expect him to stay settled for 30 seconds or so before unclipping him and finishing the exercise. You can then slowly build it up to longer periods but always vary the length of time so your dog isn’t anticipating being released and is more likely to just settle down and rest. Most dogs once they understand the settle, will take the chance of a snooze.

Once he can do this, practise it in lots of different places. Different rooms or outside in the garden, when visiting friends, at the pub etc so you will have a dog who will settle anywhere you take him. This may well be one of the most useful life skills you will ever teach!

About the Author

Carolyn is an accredited behaviourist and trainer with over 20 years experience working with dogs and other companion animals. She has written books, over 500 published articles and trains owners and professionals alike both nationally and internationally. Carolyn is also an experienced broadcaster and presenter, has appeared in five TV series’ and countless radio shows. Her passion is for helping owners build a strong and positive relationship with their dogs and fully develop the potential of the bond between them.

More articles from Carolyn Menteith

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