Dog Training For Dummies: A Computer Programmer’s Guide To Housebreaking Your Dog

Getting a new furry addition to your family is both exciting and daunting. Everyone loves their pets when they lay nicely at their feet or chase a ball, but what about when they pee on the floor? It isn’t uncommon for new pet owners to get in over their heads with their new furry pal and start looking for dog obedience training tips. This is a dog training for dummies, a basic guide for having the best possible experience with your new family member.

pug sitting

Have the Right Attitude

Dogs are pack animals and as such, respond best to kind, confident dominance. While some dogs are more or less inclined to follow commands, in general, they prefer to feel safe under your authority. 

To be clear, though, this doesn’t necessarily mean yelling at your dog or physical punishments! Dogs, like people, can read how confident you feel. If you approach a dog with uneasy nervousness, they will try to take the role of the leader of the pack. If you are confident, they will respond to that and be more likely to follow your commands.

Have the Tools for the Job

While having the right attitude is the most important thing, setting yourself up for success is a close second.

High-Value Treats

The best way to make your dog listen is an immediate reward or punishment for their actions. High-value treats are the most effective way to provide that positive reinforcement. What counts as a high-value treat is going to depend on your dog’s preferences. That said, some safe choices are sliced up hot dogs and pieces of bacon.

Physical punishments, while tempting in those frustrating moments, are largely ineffective. They only make your dog afraid to do whatever behavior you dislike out of your view. This is especially problematic with potty training! Putting your dog’s face in their mess is confusing and upsetting and tends to lead to eliminating in hidden corners of your home. The most effective punishment is a firm “no” or an end of playtime.

The Right Leash and Harness

The variety of leashes and harnesses on the market can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, quite a few of the options out there are going to make your job as a pet owner much harder.

The most common pitfall of new pet owners is the retractable leash. These are leashes that your dog can pull on to make longer while you hold a molded plastic handle. These leashes encourage your dog to pull on the leash and give you limited communication with your pet. A proper leash will allow you to communicate the sort of walk you want from your dog through your handling. These leashes make that next to impossible. They also are confusing to your dog because they don’t know how far they can go at any given time.

The best leash choice is the typical rope or nylon leash of an appropriate length for your needs and local regulations. If you are unsure, a six-foot leash is usually a good choice but if you live someplace with lots of space to run, a longer one might be a better choice for you. There are many varieties in this category but as long as you have direct control over your dog, someplace to slip your hand through in case you lose your grip and the ability to make quick adjustments, you can’t really go wrong.

Perhaps even more important than the leash is the harness. It is important to have a harness that fits well and meets your dog’s particular needs. For example, if you have a dog that likes to pull, the Gentle Leader might be the best choice. If your dog is generally a good walker but has a lot of different people walking them like if you have a dog walking service, an Easy Walk harness might be the best choice. 

For your own peace of mind, if you can avoid those harnesses that require an advanced degree from MIT to get on your dog, your family will thank you. For some dogs, these are unavoidable such as if your dog has arthritis, needing additional support, or is very reactive, necessitating extra handles. Generally, though, the most obviously worn harness, the better.

Whatever you choose, make sure it fits correctly and is comfortable. For most harnesses, there should be enough space for you to fit two fingers between the harness and any point.

dog on leash

A Correctly Sized Crate

If you are choosing to crate train, a properly sized crate is of the utmost importance. A crate that is too small will be uncomfortable for your dog. A dog is also likely to use the bathroom in a crate that is too large. You can buy crates by weight but generally, the crate should be only 2-4 inches longer than your dog, tall enough for them to stand comfortably in and wide enough for them to turn around in.

If you are getting a puppy, you need to consider their current size as well as their adult size. There are wire crates that come with a partition that is handy for a growing dog (read more on finding the right one).

Basic Commands

Now that you have all the tools you need, how do you get a dog to sit or any other number of basic commands?

You should have a dog training schedule each day. Training sessions should last no more than fifteen minutes for adult dogs and even less time for puppies. Once a dog starts to get bored or overwhelmed, the training session is no longer useful.

That said, you can work on commands outside of a training session as well! If you are working on the “sit” command, have your dog sit before putting on their leash or getting their dinner. Lots of reminders and reinforcement will support your training sessions.

In those training sessions, focus on one command at a time to start with. If you are teaching your dog to sit, give the command in a firm, authoritative voice then gently push their haunches to the floor. Once they are in the sitting position, give them a high-value treat and give them lots of praise. Be sure to give them a command for when to stop sitting as well! A happy sounding “free” or “done” will let them know when they are allowed to stop sitting.

Over time, the dog will put together that when you give the command, “sit” and they sit down, they get a treat. After a while, start only giving them the treats sometimes or switch out to less high-value treats. Dogs respond best when they are unsure if they are going to get their preferred reward or not. That said, always give them lots of praise, that is what dogs love most of all!

With all the basic commands, like sit, stay, come, start simple. For stay, don’t expect your puppy to stay for a long time at first. Catch them being good, if they stay for only 10 seconds, reward that. The next time when they stay for 20 seconds, reward that too. Just be sure you are rewarding them while they are showing the desired behavior.

black dog with ball

Crate Training

Crate training is a handy way to both give your dog their own space as well as to potty train them. Dogs are den animals meaning that they feel safest in their own den space, which their crate can replicate. Additionally, dogs will not use the bathroom in their crate as long as they are not kept in them too long, which is useful for potty training.

When you get a crate, be sure to make it as comfortable and hospitable as possible. Make sure the door is open and secure so it won’t hit your dog as they explore their little home. Have high value treats at the ready to lure them in and make them excited to be inside the crate. When not closing your dog up, keep the crate open so they can go in and out of it as they desire. Many dogs love being inside their crate.

The next step is to begin to feed your dog meals inside their crate. Once they readily enter their crate, give them their food then close the crate. This will give them positive associations with being inside their crate. Once they are done, let them back out. Each meal, keep the crate closed longer and longer until they stay in there without whining for ten minutes. If they do begin to whine, let them out and take note of how long they stayed there before wanting to get out.

Once they will stay in the crate after meals, begin to place them in their crate (with a treat!) for longer periods of time. Start with you being in the room with them while crated then begin to spend time outside the room. Once they happily stay in the crate for 30 minutes without you in the room with them, they should be ready to be crated at night or when you leave the house.

Because a dog won’t want to eliminate in their crate, it is a great tool for potty training. When your dog has been in their crate for some time, take them immediately outside. Once they eliminate, give them lots of praise and a high value treat. This will teach them that the outside is where they are supposed to go to the bathroom. If they have total free roam of the house, they will be more likely to find all sorts of places you don’t want them to eliminate. Use their natural instinct to not use the bathroom where they sleep and eat to your advantage.

A few important things to note about crate training. While dogs generally enjoy being in their crates, they still should not be kept in them for the bulk of the day and night. You might like being in your bed but you wouldn’t like being there all the time!

It is also very important to never use their crate as a punishment. A crate should be a safe, homey space for your dog, not time out.

Puppies under six months should never be in their crates for more than 3-4 hours since they cannot hold their bladder that long. 

Alternatives to Crate Training

While the crate can be a fantastic tool for both training and keeping your house in order, there are a lot of reasons it might not be the right choice for you. For example, if you have adopted a dog who was kept in a crate too long or put in a crate for punishment, a crate will be far from a comfortable, happy place for them!

Baby gates are a wonderful option to keep your dog from making a mess of your house while you are away. Pick an area that is easily cleaned and dog-proofed. As you choose the type of gate, consider the size and strength of your dog. A dog who is a jumper might require a taller gate or a fully closed door.

If you choose to keep your dog outside, it is extremely important to be sure your dog is protected from the elements. They should have a shady area if it is hot and shelter if it is cold or rainy. They also must always have food and water available to them. If you take this route, also check local regulations regarding outdoor pets.

Another option is a dog sitter or doggie daycare. Either of these options means a professional will be able to check in on your furry friend and make sure they are getting their needs met. There is a wide variety of budgetary considerations so if you take this route, be sure to explore all of your options before making the right choice for your family.

Enjoy Your Furry Friend!

Having a dog is a whole lot of work but it is absolutely worth it. Dogs are a wonderful addition to the family and should be treated as such. Giving dogs the confidence and consistency to fill their role in your household will keep both of you happy and healthy.