Top tips on how to train a puppy from a clinical animal behaviourist

Written by Antonella Marsicano
9th Jan 2023
10 mins read
Training a puppy is a challenge, but consistency is key. Clinical animal behaviourist Antonella Marsicano shares her top tips for training a puppy.
These include building a routine, using lots of treats, toys, and praise to reward good behaviour, preventing problems is better than trying to solve problems and always ask for help if you need it, the sooner the better!
There’s nothing cuter than a new puppy (or kitten), but as any new puppy parent would know, they can be a handful. You’ll want to have them housetrained as soon as you can, but getting their training right can be overwhelming, even if you’ve had dogs before!
To help new owners get to grips with puppy training, Clinical Animal Behaviourist and CEO of the Animal Wellbeing Centre, Antonella Marsicano, has written her top tips on how to train a puppy.

In your experience, what do new puppy owners struggle with the most?

I would say that the three most common struggles for new puppy owners are how to train a puppy not to bite, how to train a puppy to be left alone, and how to train a puppy to walk on a lead.
Training a puppy to go to the toilet outside can also be challenging. However, if the puppy comes from a reputable source, the breeder or rescue centre usually has already started the training. There is a lot of online advice too, which for once is not contradictory to other advice on tackling different issues.

Are there any “golden rules” or vital tips on how to train a puppy that you wish every dog owner knew?

Here are my top tips on how to train a puppy to be happy and behave well:

Establish a routine

A good routine should include feeding time, social play and exercise, training tricks, mental stimulation/discovery walks, and lots of nap time. 
I recommend feeding puppies four times a day and sticking to it (e.g. 7am / 12pm / 4pm / 8pm) because it helps to build a nice routine around each mealtime. As your puppy gets older, you can reduce their meals to 3 or 2 a day.

Set Boundaries

Set the boundaries from the start and be consistent with your actions. It helps to write the house rules of what the puppy will be allowed to do and won't be allowed to do before they arrive. 
For example, don't sit with your puppy on the sofa if you don't want your dog to be on the sofa later in life. Instead, sit on the floor with them.

Praise good behaviours

It has been proven that the most effective and ethical way to train a puppy is by rewarding good behaviours instead of correcting unwanted ones. So don't be afraid to be generous with your praise and use food (treats) to reinforce good behaviours. 


Sadly, most of my work comes from dogs already displaying behaviour problems. So seeking professional help to learn how to train a puppy to prevent these issues from arising is vital.
Puppy classes are a great and affordable way to achieve this.

There are a lot of searches online for “tips on how to train your puppy in a week". Is there a realistic expectation new owners should have about how long it will take to train their puppy?

If things sound too good to be true, then they probably are!
For example, our puppy classes run for five weeks. So I would say that this is the bare minimum required for a new puppy owner to learn the necessary skills to train their dog. (It’s highly unlikely that your puppy will be trained within five weeks!)
How long it takes to train a puppy varies on what you want to train, and how much time you dedicate to the task.
For example, some training can take less than an hour, like teaching your dog to sit. However, walking nicely on a lead can take a few months to learn. 
What is crucial to understand is that "training" means "learning", and we certainly don't stop learning when we are kids;  that's only the beginning!

Most people bring their puppies home when they’re 8 weeks old, but some owners might pick up older or adolescent pups. Can you ever train a puppy too soon, or start too late?

It's never too late to train a puppy. In fact, you can definitely teach an old dog new tricks. 
However, what we cannot do is replace the nurturing and early learning socialisation skills taught by their mother. So it is crucial to ensure that puppies stay together with their mother until they are eight weeks old. Interestingly, the latest studies suggest that it would be even more beneficial if they stayed with their mum a bit longer (until the age of 10 - 12 weeks old). 
My advice would be to take it easy.
A puppies' ability to learn doesn't have an "expiry date". Yes, early socialisation is essential, but that's not training. Socialisation is about exposing your dog positively to novelties (e.g. new people, new dogs, new places, new sounds etc.).  
We all want the perfect dog like the one we see in the park, but I guarantee you that that dog is probably four years old, and the owner went through the same struggles you're going through when they were a puppy.

It can feel overwhelming knowing where to start. What are the key things owners should work on first with their new puppy?

Rather than training any specific skills, I would recommend establishing a positive relationship with their puppy. You can do this by being consistent with their actions, building a routine and being generous with your praise (i.e. spending time together playing, rewarding good behaviours with food). 
I would also recommend joining a puppy class to help you during this challenging time, and it’s also a great place to share your experience with other puppy owners. 
One piece of advice I give to all my puppy clients is to have a playpen and make it the best place in the world for the puppy by placing all their toys, chews, feeding bowl, and bed inside. 
Teaching your dog to stay in a playpen happily will ensure that they don't get in trouble (e.g. chewing on cables or books, digging on your house plants). It also means they have their own space and start learning to be independent, which is great for when you need to teach them to be on their own.

According to the PDSA, 13% of owners have never used any training aid (which includes treats and toys) when training their dog. How important are training aids when it comes to teaching a puppy?

Using training aids that motivate and reward a dog for listening to us and performing the correct behaviour are essential, especially when they are puppies and learning new skills. 
We must remember that the behaviours we don't like, such as jumping or barking at us, are normal dog behaviours. So instead of correcting unwanted behaviours, it is more productive to reward good behaviours by offering the dog something that it likes in exchange (e.g. a yummy treat or a toy).

Is it possible (or advisable) to train a puppy without treats?

Absolutely! Some dogs are very toy motivated, or would do anything for a cuddle. 
However, I highly recommend using food/treats to reward good behaviour, because when we eat something tasty, our brain releases dopamine, making us feel good. When that happens, our brain can quickly associate that feeling with what we're doing and who we are with. 
Think about it. We associate food with so many memorable moments. We have a special cake for birthdays, romantic meals, our favourite meal when we visit our grandparents etc. 
Well, the same principle applies to dogs. So using food is a great motivator but, most importantly, it’s also a natural way to bond with your puppy.  

Do you have any tips on how to train a puppy that isn’t food motivated, or isn’t interested in treats?

If your puppy isn’t food motivated, reward them with toys and play! 
We tend to give plenty of toys to our puppies to keep them occupied, which is excellent, but teaching puppies how to play with us nicely using a toy is so much fun. For example, tug-of-war is a great game to work on impulse control, and a fantastic way to bond with your puppy.
However, I would like to say that there is no such thing as a dog that isn't food motivated (unless the dog is ill). 
Food is essential for survival. So when a dog is not food motivated, there are usually two main reasons.
1. the food is not tasty enough
(i.e. always the same piece of boiled chicken)
So if you want to use food to motivate your dog, you can play with the flavours and variety of your rewards, or use your dog's mealtime food allowance for training.

20% of owners have used “aversive” training aids, like pet corrector sprays, water pistols, vibrating collars, citronella collars, even choke chains. Is there ever a place for aversive aids or should we always avoid using them?

Why use aversive training aids, when you can achieve the same result using aids that positively motivate your dog to behave correctly, such as toys or treats?
Plus, as a bonus, with the positive reinforcement, you will have a dog that looks at you for reassurance instead of being scared because of the consequences.

Training a puppy can be a challenge, and some owners may want help from a trainer or a behaviourist. What help is out there and when should people ask for extra help to train their puppy?

There is luckily plenty of help out there on how to train a puppy, from podcasts, blogs, books to professional dog trainers and behaviourists
The issue is filtering all the information and finding a reliable source. 
To help you with this, look for keywords such as "reward-based", "positive reinforcement", "science-based training", and stay away from websites or people that use words such as "pack leader", "dominance", "control".  
To find a reputable dog trainer or behaviourist, I would highly recommend to visit the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) website and check the practitioners and organisations associated with them.
The ABTC is the regulatory body representing dog trainers and behaviourists, so their job is to set the standards for the industry and ensure that the practitioners registered with them maintain the knowledge and professional skills required to meet those standards. 
Not sure what the different is between a behaviourist and a dog trainer? Here's a guide from clinical animal behaviourist and dog trainer, Hanne Grice.

When should people ask for extra help to train their puppy?

Getting professional help sooner is better if you feel like you need help to train a puppy. 
Don't wait for things to get out of hand to seek help. Puppies are unlikely to “grow out of it”. 
Ideally, I recommend seeking professional help before any behaviour issues arise, so you can work on preventing problems instead.

Finally, what are the most important tips on how to train a puppy to…

What’s your number one tip on how to train a puppy to go to the toilet outside? 

Toilet training is about management, so keep a daily tracker to understand how often your puppy needs to go to the toilet.
Check out our complete guide on how to toilet train a puppy.

What is your number one tip on crate training?

Feed your dog inside the crate to build a positive association with their crate or playpen. Don't use it as a place to punish your dog, such as a "time out."
For more info, check out our guide on how to crate train a puppy from veterinary behaviourist Dr Sophie White.

What is your number number one tip on how to train a puppy not to bite?

My number one tip on how to train a puppy not to bit is to avoid playing rough with your hands with your puppy. Instead, use a toy of decent length (e.g. long rope) to play. Hold one end of the toy and encourage your puppy to chase and bite the opposite end.
Here is a step by step guide on how stop puppy biting.

What is your number on tip on how to train a puppy to be alone?

The first step is to teach your dog to be independent whilst you are at home. I recommend using a playpen (or placing baby gates between rooms) to teach your puppy not to follow you around the house.
For more tips on how to teach your puppy or dog to be alone, check out this article.

What is your number one tip on how to train a puppy to walk on a lead?

Choosing the appropriate walking equipment is the key to teaching a puppy to walk nicely on the lead. 
Regardless of the breed, I recommend using a well-fitted harness that doesn't rub against the dog's armpits, and a fabric lead of approximately 3 to 5 metres. 
Here is some more advice on how to teach your puppy walk on a lead.

Need extra help training your pup?

If you feel like you could use some help training your pup, or just some reassurance you’re doing the right thing, puppy classes with an accredited clinical animal behaviourist or dog trainer can help.

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