Never mind about puppy training stages — the picture-perfect puppy is all snuggles, wet kisses, and puppy breath, right? Sure!
You’ve probably already realized that your “perfect” puppy also comes with nipping, barking, peeing on the carpet, and knocking over your neighbor’s toddler!
That’s why it’s important to learn potential puppy training stages right away. In the natural canine world, mama dogs teach their pups everything they need to know about their world, survival, and living together happily in various stages of development.
Now that’s your job!
Puppies need training. It doesn’t matter how old, what breed, or how big your pup will get. Chances are, your dog will encounter the public, so don’t be that person with the worst-behaved dog in the vet waiting room!
You should start right away, so take a look at our ages and stages in puppy training guidelines below.
We’ve designed a series of basic puppy training stages that follow the natural development of canine behaviors.
Ages and Stages in Puppy Training
Puppy training should start very early – as early as 8 weeks old! If you wait until your dog is older, perhaps as much as 6 months, you might regret it.
“By 6 months of age, almost all behavior problems are already in place,” says Dr. Carmen Battaglia. Dr. Battaglia has studied the effects of early socialization and development in puppies.
In his article entitled “Early Puppy Training,” he says, “All dogs can benefit from obedience training as early as seven weeks and when the puppy enters its new home.”
Use Positive Puppy Training Methods
Training your puppy might seem like a big job, but it can be a lot of fun, too. Puppy training should be positive for both of you – in fact, we only recommend positive training techniques.
In the past it was traditional for trainers to use punishment or dominance to establish a “respect hierarchy for the pack.” But recent research is in favor of a style of training called “positive reinforcement.”
Don’t let the big words fool you – positive reinforcement is simply rewarding your dog for doing something you like, and ignoring the behaviors you consider “bad” or unwanted.
Rewards can include food, special treats, praise and petting, playing with a favorite toy, etc.
Today, we’ll be walking you through the basics of positive reinforcement training with your puppy.
Since puppies and their brains grow so quickly, we’re breaking down the best topics to train your puppy during various stages of their growth.
8 Week Old Puppy Training Stages
You’ll probably bring your new puppy home when he’s between 8 and 10 weeks old, after he’s completely weaned from his mama.
This is a critical time in puppy learning stages, so let’s start with some 8 week old puppy training concepts.
From here on out, everything your puppy will learn about “right and wrong” and “how to be a good pupper” will come from you, your family and friends, your home environment, and the routine you establish. 8 week old puppy training is focused on learning how and where to sleep, play and potty.
Start Practicing a Daily Routine
Puppies adjust to living with new humans much better when they’re on a strict routine. Yours could look something like this:
- Wake up – go to designated potty area for relief
- 5 minutes of playful romping
- Potty break
- Play on his own while mama gets ready for work/school
- Final morning potty break
- Into the crate while mama goes to work/school
- Mama comes home for lunch – go outside for potty break
- 5 minutes of playing outside, then back inside
- Mama’s home from work/school – you guessed it – POTTY BREAK!
- Playtime and training
- Plays on his own in his play area while mama relaxes nearby
- Potty break
- Potty Training
Noticing an emphasis on potty training? Here are a few tips to get you started in the right direction:
- Stick to a strict routine like the one above.
- The first two days, set a timer to take puppy out to the designated potty spot every 2 hours, and reward any relief in the right spot with praise and play.
- Always offer a potty break after your pup wakes up (even from a short nap), eats, drinks, has a heavy bout of playtime or comes out of the crate.
- By 10 weeks, following a good routine, it’s reasonable to think your puppy can “hold it” for about 3-4 hours during the day or 5-6 hours overnight. Yes, that means if you work a typical 8-10 hour shift, you’ll need to come home or have a pet sitter pop by around lunchtime for a potty break. It also means your pup will probably still be whining around 2-3 am for a potty break too.
- If you need more detailed help with potty training or have any issues, see trainer Pippa Mattinson’s How to Potty Train A Puppy
Many people are proponents of crate training for dogs. It will make your overall life as a pet parent much easier, knowing that you have the option to secure your pooch in certain situations.
It also helps to know that she is calm and happy to have her own quiet place to relax, nap, and play with a few puzzle toys, rather than whining, barking, or destroying everything (including the crate itself) because she thinks she’s being punished or held back from the fun.
Introducing your 8-10 week old puppy to her new crate is as simple as making it a game.
You can find full instructions on crate training here but here are a few pointers to get you started:
- Start with a new toy and a few treats staged inside the crate with the door propped open. Bring your puppy over to her new crate with an established favorite toy. Toss the toy into the crate with the others.
- Let your puppy wander in and out of the crate on her own to explore. Keep the door open.
- Over the next day or two, occasionally toss treats into the crate to encourage your pup to continue finding surprises there.
- Once she is going inside on her own, you can start closing the door before giving her a treat. Then open the door back up and start the game over.
- Repeat this version of the game for a few sessions, then add whatever cue you’d like, such as, “Go to bed,” or, “Go to your crate.” You can also start leaving the door shut for 20-30 seconds before giving her the treat and releasing her. Then start leaving the room and coming back to reward and release.
- By the end of her 10th week, your puppy should be comfortable going into her crate when you gesture/cue. She will likely still whine or bark after 5-10 minutes of being alone in the crate, but with continued training and maturity, this will fade out.
Your dog won’t know his name until you really teach it to him! Teaching your dog his name is actually about teaching your dog to look at you when you say his name. This is one of the more fun training games for 8-10 week old puppies!
To play the Name Game, all you do is say your puppy’s name and wait. Nothing more. When he looks at you (or more realistically, comes bounding toward you) say, “Good boy!” and give him a treat. Wait silently for him to walk away, and repeat.
What if your dog doesn’t look at you when you say his name? Then make a different noise or movement to get his attention. A high-pitched whistle or kissy sound typically gets a pup’s ears to perk.
So say his name, make the second noise, then reward. He’ll begin to associate the name with the game, so it won’t take long to skip the secondary noise.
You can also squat down to pup’s eye level instead.
What if your puppy doesn’t leave once you’ve given him the first treat? How do you start the game over? Simply stand up and ignore him. Turn your back and stand still. Look off into the distance. Wait in silence for him to get bored and start sniffing the ground for more treats. Then start the game again.
Puppy Training Stages at 10 – 12 weeks
Now that those first two potentially-difficult weeks of adjusting to life with a new puppy are over, we can move on to some other puppy training stages. Here are some things to teach your 10-12 week old puppy.
At 10-12 weeks, puppy play is very mouthy – it’s a natural canine way to learn about their world and to play. Start teaching your puppy not to bite your hands and ankles during play in two ways.
First, prevent the situation from happening by interrupting the biting behavior and redirecting your puppy’s attention to something more acceptable to chew on. Stand up and be still. Pause a few moments, and then hand your puppy a chew toy instead.
Second, train your puppy not to bite while being handled. Practice calm handling of your pup but pull your hands away if your puppy starts to bite at your hands. Read more about how expert trainer Pippa Mattinson trains puppies not to bite in her Complete Guide to Stopping Puppies Biting.
Introduce the leash.
Start your leash training very simply.
Do this exercise in a safe, fenced-in location like your back yard or apartment courtyard. Attach the leash and let it drag on the ground behind your puppy for a few minutes. She’ll investigate it and possibly even try to chew on it or pick it up and run around with it in her mouth.
Start walking in slow circles around your space, calling your puppy to walk with you. If she is so distracted by the leash that she won’t walk with you more than a step or two, try giving her a treat or two while you’re walking to take her mind off of the leash.
After a few sessions of this introduction, your puppy should be able to walk around the yard with the leash dragging behind her, ignored.
This is also a good time to start formal sit training, because you can use this behavior-on-cue to solve other behavioral issues that puppies tend to have.
Start your sit training by teaching your puppy to sit before her meals. You can learn in depth How to Teach a Dog to Sit here.
In general, you’ll hold her food bowl over her head until she can’t look any higher and naturally plops down into a sit.
Then quickly lower her food bowl to the floor. Puppies tend to jump and bark when their food is coming, so waiting for your puppy to sit before giving her the food bowl 2-3 times per day will help calm down meal times.
Once your puppy is sitting regularly for food, add a verbal or visual cue, like “Sit” or a closed fist over your puppy’s head. By 10-12 weeks, your puppy should easily sit on cue to earn a reward (whether it’s her food bowl, a small treat, or some attention and snuggles from you).
Once you have trained your puppy to sit on cue, you can apply this “trick” to curbing unwanted jumping. Your puppy is probably so excited to see you come home that he jumps up on your legs, right? If you have children, this can be dangerous, but it’s also uncomfortable to get scratched or lose your balance if you’re, say, carrying groceries.
So, if your puppy is jumping to say hi, train him to sit in order to say hi.
Practice in a calm environment. When you enter the room, ignore your jumping puppy and give the “sit” cue.
When he sits, drop down to his eye level and give him lots of praise and petting.
Then stand up and repeat if he starts jumping again.
Eventually, you can leave out the “sit” cue, and the puppy will jump once or twice, realize you’re ignoring him, and then sit in order to get your attention.
Voila – if your puppy is sitting to greet you, he can’t be jumping.
Puppy Training Stages at 3-4 Months
Here are some more training games to introduce once your pup reaches 3-4 months, as well as ways to strengthen the earlier ones. Training a 4 month old puppy focuses on being polite and safe in public.
Teaching your dog to walk calmly beside you while leashed in public is both incredibly important and incredibly difficult. To be fair, it’s only difficult because you must take time to practice properly several times per week and with incrementally-increasing levels of distraction for your dog.
Here are some tips on training a 4 month old puppy to walk on a leash:
- Pick up where you left off with introducing the leash – in the backyard with no distractions. This time, though, loop the end of the leash around your wrist.
- Carry a handful of treats (or one of these convenient treat pouches). Walk around your yard, giving a treat to your dog while you’re walking every few steps. Give the treat down at your side, by your thigh. The idea is to convey ‘being right here next to mama when she’s walking means I get treats!’ Otherwise, completely ignore your dog. If he moves off and reaches the end of the leash, just stop walking until you get enough slack in the line to keep moving.
- Over time, slow down the rewards to every 10 steps, then every 20, and so on. Some people like to add the verbal cue “heel” to teach the dog to slow down or walk calmly on cue (if, say, they get distracted or excited).
- By 3-4 months, your leash training should result in a puppy that is ignoring the leash, walking close to you, and looking up to you for feedback. This is all in low-distraction areas like your yard. We’ll start leaving the yard and adding distractions later.
It’s very important to start training your dog to come to you early on. We call this “recall training,” and there are several ways to do it.
Pick a solid cue – a verbal cue like “Here” or “Come” is best for most situations in which you need to call your dog to you.
Have someone hold your dog while you move away, and call out your cue when he is released.
Use “Chase” to prompt your dog’s recall. Running away from your dog will play off his prey drive to chase you.
Start praising as soon as your dog starts running toward you, rather than standing still and waiting for him to arrive.
Use heavy praise and play chase, tug, or fetch as a reward when training recall.
5 – 6 months puppy training stages
Now that you and your puppy have established a training routine and he has had all of his vaccinations, it’s time to take your training into the real world. These later puppy learning stages focus on generalizing behaviors to new locations and situations outside the home.
Sit to be petted by a stranger.
Continue your “sit for attention” training by extending the game to strangers coming up to your dog to pet him. To start, have a few friends practice the same exercise you did with “no jumping” while you hold your dog on a leash. They should only pet him when he’s sitting down.
When you’re in public and a stranger approaches, give your dog the “sit” cue before allowing the person to pet.
Practice “Come” in public.
Use an extra-long “training lead” to practice recall in public places. Start by giving your dog five feet to roam, and practice calling him back to you for a squeaky toy. Add length until he’s at the end of the lead.
As he gets farther away, the temptation to leave you to romp with another dog gets higher, so be sure your play reward and enthusiasm is super high!
If the space is fenced in, you can even end your practice session by letting your dog go play freely with the other dogs as a reward for one last recall.
Puppy Traing Stages for a 6 Month Old Puppy
Training a 6 month old puppy can be a little tricky. Around 6 months, your dog enters canine adolescence. This can be one of the most difficult puppy training stages.
You’ll probably notice some new challenges as hormonal changes and maturity cause him to have a little less focus on you and more focus on other dogs and things in the environment. Goals for training a 6 month old puppy include:
- Strengthening recall in public spaces.
- Keeping his attention on you during leashed walks to avoid pulling.
- Sit and stay on cue in various situations, like waiting at the vet.
- “Leave it” to interrupt a distraction like a food item on the ground or another dog walking by.
Moving Through all the Ages and Stages of Puppy Training!
As an overview, as you move through the various puppy training stages, think of the most important behaviors your young puppy needs to acclimate to for you both to be happy and healthy.
Start with teaching him about his new home and routine, being gentle with people, and appropriate places to potty.
Then move into training for safety, like crate training, leash training, and coming when you call. Everything moving forward is a continuation of these training basics by adding distractions and practicing in lots of different places.
Don’t forget – keep training sessions short and fun for both of you! And for more information on every aspect of training your dog check out: Dog Training, Obedience, Good Manners And Fun!
Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) & the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification) with regular continuing education courses from the top animal trainers from all over the world, including Michele Pouliot, director of training for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has trained zoo animals, search & rescue canines, gundogs, and helped people raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved canine companions for over ten years.
“Early Puppy Training” CL Battaglia. Breeding Better Dogs.
Periods of early development and the effects of stimulation and social experiences in the canine. CL Battaglia. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2009.
Early neurological stimulation. CL Battaglia – 2007
“Evidence for Positive Reinforcement Training” Pippa Mattinson The Happy Puppy Site.
Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching & Training. Karen Pryor. 2006.