Teaching your puppy life skills

Written by: Carolyn Menteith, accredited behaviourist and trainer

Teaching your puppy lifeskills is such an important, but often neglected part of their upbringing. 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… so you have to teach them!

Lifeskills cover things like not jumping up, not begging at the table, being able to be groomed, 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 they need to learn to like being handled by you.

  1. Start with some really tasty treats. Give them one as you stroke a little way down the side of their body, linking your touch with the positivitiy of the treat - so it is all good! Don’t hold them though – you want your puppy to choose to stay with you so you know they are doing it willingly.
  2. Once they're happy doing this, try running your hand gently over the top of their head and down their ears – still using your tasty treat to make positive associations with your hands.
  3. Next you can start to slowly run your hand down their 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’ himthem.
  4. Now 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 their head, ears and paws.
  5. Also do this with your puppy’s collar on too, and slide your fingers into his collar while you are giving the treat. Don’t pull on it, just teach them that having your fingers in his collar is a good thing.

Never force your puppy to put up with something they don't like. If they squirm away, go back a few steps and make sure they're happy before you move on. If you just try and force them to get over it, you will likely end up with a puppy who is frightened of your hands or just avoids you.

One of the other best life skill exercises you will ever teach your dog is how to settle in the house. Sometimes, having an ‘off switch’ and lying quietly is essential – whether it is while you relax or when you go visiting friends and want to take themwith 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. 

Make sure there is a comfortable place 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 them to the floor or even next to you – just be short enough that they 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 them. They may bark, or try and chew the lead or pull at it but just carry on watching the TV until they get bored and eventually settle. Some dogs do this quite quickly, others take longer but don’t be tempted to give them a cue to lie down - they need to choose to settle down on their own.

As soon as they do, quietly give them a treat as a very clear signal of reward and continue to reward whenever they are settled. If they get up, go back to ignoring them again until they settle and reward again.

If you have a very food-oriented dog, you may prefer to reward by stroking or a nice ear rub instead, as they may not relax if they are 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 they can do this, practise it in lots of different places so you will have a dog who will settle anywhere you take them. This may well be one of the most useful life skills you will ever teach!

 

If you have an Kennel Club Pet Insurance policy, you can access the free Pet Health Helpline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The veterinary-trained team will advise on any concerns or queries that you may have over your pet’s health – much like the NHS 111 service for people. Call free on 03333 32 19 47.