Want a “Well-Trained” Puppy? Lesson #1 is Trust

(Photo: Kathy Callahan)

Alexandria, VA- People have high hopes for puppy training. Their life has felt a little chaotic since bringing home their furry friend, and they’ve been relying on “getting the puppy trained” to fix things. Then maybe they go to a class, and make great progress on cues like sit, down, stay, come and heel. After six weeks, they graduate with a certificate and a cute photo. All done! Trained!

Except life is still really hard with their puppy. Yes, the pup will sit and stay on cue, but as soon as that moment is over, it’s back to chaos.

Here’s a little secret that may seem odd for a dog trainer to share: simply teaching a dog to “obey commands” doesn’t have much to do with shaping a dog who’s great to live with around the clock. The dog training industry has always prioritized that piece of the puzzle — and yes, I hope you’ll teach your pup lots of cues! — but there is something critical that you need to focus on first:

Teach your puppy she can trust you.

Lesson #1 for Humans: You kidnapped this puppy from Planet Dog.

If that idea throws you for a loop – “why wouldn’t my puppy already feel safe with me?” — think about this: your puppy is essentially a baby that we have kidnapped from another planet. We take them from their warm, fun littermates, where they happily jump and bite and wrestle and chew all day long, and plunk them down in our human world. We immediately begin with the “no’s” as we discipline them for things that are as natural as breathing in their culture. It’s almost as if we’re angry at them for being . . . dogs.

Sorry for the unexpected heartbreak you feel as you ponder this concept — but it’s worth it because it will open you up to the surprising secret to puppyhood: Empathy. Instead of thinking “Ugh this stubborn puppy won’t do what I want,” the newly wise version of you will be wondering “Gosh, what is this confused little doggy thinking and feeling?”

That curiosity, my friends, will prove the fastest way to getting what you wanted in the first place. So whether you do it out of genuine empathy or smart science, starting with where your learner really is lights your path to success.

Lesson #1 for Puppies: You can trust this human.

Using the “kidnapped baby” mindset, you can see why the most valuable thing a pup can learn is that he’s going to be okay. The move from Planet Dog to Planet Human is confusing and scary — but having a human guide who makes the world feel safe and predictable can turn that around immediately. So how do you teach your puppy that you are that rock for him? It’s simple: Make it true.

First: Learn about canine body language! Your puppy is “talking” all the time. Be the person who listens. What worries him? What makes him happy? Let that lead you as you introduce him to his new world. It’s way too easy for us humans to constantly manhandle and force our puppies — picking up here; pulling by leash there — and to miss just how deeply this creates distrust and resistance. Instead, just slow down, and give your puppy a chance to choose to get on board with you.

Second: Be calm and consistent. You can’t be your puppy’s trusted guide if one minute you’re sweetly cuddling and the next you’re flying off the handle because a shoe was chewed. Instead, anticipate the realities of puppyhood, and set things up – the environment, the routine, the plan – so that it mostly goes right, and you can be the predictably solid adult in the room.

Will you get all of that right every time? Of course not! None of us can. But it’s a great goal (remind yourself every morning, while you’re brushing your teeth!) to act as your puppy’s trustworthy guide to Planet Human — rather than, say, a moody drill instructor. The two-way connection that results will do things for your dog’s behavior that “training” alone never could. And it just may create a human-canine bond stronger than any you’ve imagined.

Want more detail? My puppy guide, Welcoming Your Puppy from Planet Dog: How to Go Beyond Training and Raise Your Best Friend  is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Alexandria dog trainer Kathy Callahan (CPDT-KA, FDM) loves to help people and their dogs live happy lives together. More at

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