A puppy is born as a “blank slate.” He has no information written on his brain other than what is needed for basic survival (See References 5). As his senses develop and he learns about his world, he can listen to and start to obey some basic commands. Your puppy can learn very basic commands as early as eight weeks. It will take some time, however, before he can understand and act upon more complex commands.
Two Months to Six Months
Very small puppies cannot concentrate for long periods, so cannot be expected to listen to anything but very basic commands. He should have short training sessions that last about a minute or two. Training sessions should also be fun for both of you, to prevent him from becoming tired and bored (See References 1, p. 71, References 2). Use these brief sessions to teach him such useful things as his name, coming to you when he's called, how to sit and walking on a loose leash. Although not a command in itself, loose-leash walking provides the foundation the "heel" command, which comes later (See Resources 1).
When your puppy is 8 weeks old, his attention span has developed enough to enable him to start kindergarten puppy training classes, once he’s been fully immunized (See References 3). These classes are largely socialization groups that provide puppies with the foundation for learning while they are in this early stage of development.
The concept of clicker training or some other method of positive reinforcement training can also be introduced during this period. Discipline should be done through redirecting his activities to an incompatible behavior, not through correction (See References 2, 4).
Six Months to Nine Months
The six-month-old puppy is like an elementary school student. Having learned some early basics, the puppy’s brain has developed enough so that he can listen to slightly more complex commands. The puppy can begin learning to heel, for example, which pairs the basic command to sit with the basic concept of walking on a loose leash. He may also have developed enough mentally to allow him to listen for longer periods. Training sessions should still be kept short--perhaps five to 10 minutes at a time—and should still be wholly positive as it was in earlier months. Mild corrections such as withdrawing fun activities or withholding attention (See References 4) for biting or jumping can be introduced if your puppy is not learning through redirection, but redirection is still preferable. Do not assume that if your puppy does not perform a task you ask of him with physical perfection that he is not listening to you. He may be listening to your requests, but depending on his breed, his body may be incapable of completely refining his motions yet. Large and giant breeds develop more slowly and may be clumsy for quite some time (See References 6, What do BIG Dogs Need?).
Nine Months to One Year
Your nine- to 12-month-old puppy is in early adolescence. Raging hormones may come into play during this stage of training, if you have not already had him neutered (See References 2). He may act as if he has forgotten some of the things you have already taught him. He may also act as if he is never going to listen to your commands again. However, at this stage in his life your puppy is learning to test his boundaries. Training should still be fun, but you can also begin to add corrections or to use training aids to reinforce the commands he has already learned. Your puppy should be able to listen to your commands for up to 15 or 20 minutes at a time, but do not concentrate on a single behavior or command for more than a few minutes at a time. By this time, your puppy should also be able to stay in one position for a minute or two and should be able to perform several basic tasks chained together to make a single complex task.
Keeping Training Fun
Puppies love to learn new things. Unfortunately, like small children, they become tired or bored very quickly and will lose interest in a task if they are not allowed to enjoy it. Your puppy should always be able to feel as if he's had fun during his training sessions. If you are not using food rewards for your puppy, try using a ball or squeaky toy as a reward for tasks that have been performed well. Toss the ball or toy once or twice whenever your puppy shows that he’s listened well to your instructions and has successfully done what you’ve asked him to do. If your puppy is not doing well with learning new things, always backtrack to something he can do well and, when he succeeds at the task, end the training session (See References 1, p. 63, References 2). If you allow your puppy to succeed often and to enjoy his training, then you can be sure that he will not only listen to your commands, but that he will happily continue learning from you for the rest of his life.
- Karen Pryor: Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs
- The-Puppy-Dog-Place.com: The 7 Stages of Puppy Development
- Association of Pet Dog Trainers: Understanding Training Methods
- The Puppy Dog Place: All About Owning Extra Large Breed Dogs