They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and while that's not actually true, what's more important today is that you very much can teach a new puppy new tricks.
Puppies are very receptive to training, and it's often only a matter of a few weeks to teach them tricks that they'll use to wow crowds, solicit a chorus of "aww!" from your friends and family, and help you keep them under control when times are a little tougher.
Tricks are really just commands your puppy has learned to follow, and with time you can start building on learned commands to make them more impressive to friends and family.
If you want to teach a dog any trick, you need four things.
First, a high-value treat. This should be something they're very interested in, usually a bite of some kind of tasty snack or treat they aren't usually able to get. It can be a bit of cheese, a bit of meat, or a specially designed dog treat is just fine. Other dogs respond better to toys than to treats, so find out which your puppy prefers and stick with it during training sessions.
Second, you need to pay attention. Yep, I said you. The key to any dog training is to watch for when they perform the specific behavior that you're looking for and to reward them immediately upon performing it so they associate the performance of that behavior with the treat they're given.
Third, you need a distinct command. We tend to think of dog commands as fixed – that "sit" works on any dog that has been trained to sit – but that's not actually true. You could, if you wanted, use a completely different command for any trick. You could say "barrel roll" for roll over, or "perch" for sit, or pick a funny German or Finnish word, or whatever you like.
With that said, I don’t recommend picking unusual words for the basics. In the event that someone else needs to control your dog when you're not available, common commands are important.
The good news is common terms aren’t as important for performative tricks like shake or roll over, but it's very useful to use common commands like "sit" and "heel" for commonly expected actions.
Fourth and finally, you need consistency. You're basically trying to create an association in your puppy's mind between the behavior (the trick), the reward (the treat), and the command. Eventually, you remove the treat from the equation, so they are simply responding positively to the command because they know it's a good, rewarded behavior.
Consistency is especially important for training away bad behaviors, like constant barking, that you would want to address before they become problems. Having a dog that obeys and is under control is not actually difficult or unattainable; it just requires consistent effort.
While your pup is a sponge waiting to learn new things, it’s important to master one trick before moving on to the next. Once each trick is performed with command and no treat, move on to the next while continuing to reinforce the earlier trick.
"Sit" is probably one of the single most important tricks to teach a puppy. It's extremely useful for keeping them in place, whether they're being a hyperactive nuisance to the neighbors or a visitor, or they're chasing critters and smells outside, and you want to keep them safe when a car passes by. Thankfully, it's also very easy to teach and is one of the simplest tricks for a new puppy to learn.
How do you teach a dog to sit?
Start with your high-value treat in hand. Get your puppy's attention and hold it in front of them but out of their reach. Slowly move the treat up and over their head toward their rump. Your puppy will naturally look up to follow the treat and try to get at it.
Here's the cool part: as part of lifting and moving the treat back, your puppy will try to go for it, and most of the time, they'll sit for more stability while they do. When they sit down, say "sit" (or whatever command you want to use) and give them the treat and some praise.
Repeat this periodically until you eventually no longer need the treat. You can initially start by still moving a finger above them in the same way, and eventually, you can stop the motion entirely and just tell them to sit. It won't take long at all!
Second to Sit, Stay is probably one of the most important tricks any dog can learn. Often accompanied by the Sit command, Stay ensures that they'll stick to one spot rather than following their impulses to be distracted and run off, follow you, or do something they shouldn't.
Stay is a very important trick for two reasons. The first is impulse control. It helps you keep control over your dog when a visitor, a mailman, a distracting animal, or something else is around, and you don't want your dog raising a ruckus over it. Second, it's for safety; by ensuring that they aren't going to run off at the drop of a hat, you can keep them sitting next to you before you cross a busy street. It's also useful if you need to step away for a moment, somewhere your dog shouldn't follow.
How do you teach a dog to stay?
As I mentioned early, you’ll need to build on previously mastered tricks, in this case sit. This is because sitting can prime your pup for other training; they'll be more receptive when they're sitting and know they shouldn't just maintain their location but also their position.
Next, leave them sitting for a few moments, or a bit longer, if you can. Young puppies are easily distracted, so they won't stay in place for long; when they stand, say their release word and reward them. Gradually increase the amount of time you leave them sitting before giving the release command and reward, and they'll learn that they can stay for a longer amount of time and be rewarded for it.
"Expert dog trainers often use release words to let dogs out of a command. Introduce a release word to tell your dog they are finished with the trick. Common release words for dog tricks include:
"O.K." "Release" "Go" "Break" "Free"
Your release word can be whatever you want. Be sure to practice the full "stay" command until your dog perfects it. Then, introduce the release word. Repeat this process until your dog stays put until you say their release word." - Petfriendly.
Once you believe your puppy has mastered the art of sitting in place, you can start to make it harder on them. Wave a toy around, add distractions, or even leave the room for a few moments and reward them when you return, that is, if they stayed.
While evacuating waste is a natural process every puppy is going to do, training them to focus is actually a good idea. You aren't actually training them to pee or poo on command, though; rather, you're helping provide context for their late-night trips around the block or out to the yard. Since a big part of potty training a dog is teaching them when not to potty, it's very helpful to train them when it's okay to go, as well.
This is a great skill for your pup to have to understand when you’re going for a leisurely walk and sniffing everything in sight is permitted vs when time is limited and when s/he needs to do the deed and head right back inside.
As you might expect, training this is pretty easy. All you need to do is, on your normal walks, just add the "potty" command when they go, and reward and praise them when they're done. Over time, they'll associate the command and action, and they're more likely to restrain themselves in situations when you haven't given it – and be more free when you have.
Another extremely important trick is to teach your pup to come to you when you need their attention or presence – or want them to stay away from someone or something else. It's extremely useful if they get distracted and run off, especially if they're off-leash, and it's one of the most "impressive" tricks you can have. If you want friends, family, and neighbors to remark about how well-behaved your fur baby is, teaching them to come and stay by your side is an easy and effective way to do it.
Fortunately, this is also one of the easiest possible tricks to teach a dog. All you need to do is be some distance away from them, with a treat in hand. Get their attention and show them the treat, and chances are, they'll come rocketing right up to you for it. As soon as they start moving in your direction, say your command word and reward them when they arrive.
You can expand this trick over time. Start from further away, add on a sit or stay command, or start from a sit/stay and call them over. The more complex you make the chain, the more you test how well your fur baby is obeying your commands.
A natural extension of sitting, laying down is another useful trick to keep a dog from begging, jumping up at you, or otherwise bugging you or a guest.
Teaching "lay down" or just "down" starts with sitting and is trained the same way. Once your pup can sit, use the same treat to lure their head to the ground. Make sure they keep their rump down, lower their head, and lie down to follow the treat. When they do, give the command, and the reward and praise.
Bonus trick: Once they can lay down, you can pull the treat further away from them and encourage them to crawl towards you. This "army crawl" can be another fun trick to teach, but it's more advanced and less practically useful than other tricks, though adorable to watch.
Another very useful trick to teach a puppy is to drop or let go of whatever they're holding in their mouth. Whether they're getting into some garbage, holding an item like a toy that you don't want them to have, or just playing fetch poorly, having a command to get them to let go of whatever they're trying to hold onto can be useful for both play and for their health.
This is also a good command in the hopefully rare instance where they pick up something valuable or important that they really shouldn't, like a fragile item, someone's wallet, or a kitten they don't know how to interact with. Getting them to let it go immediately is very critical.
If you've ever tried to get a puppy to let go of something, you know they can be very obstinate; that's why you need those high-value treats. The key here is to have something they can swap to and enjoy; they need to drop whatever they're holding to get at the treat, after all.
A variation on fetch, Find X, or "Go Get X," or some other variation is a great way to distract a dog that is otherwise getting into trouble. It’s also a great enrichment exercise to get them thinking.
You can make X anything you want and, over time, build up a library of different things for them to go get. This can be toys (go get your stuffy, go get your blankie, go get your bear), or it can even be people (go get mommy!)
This is a two-part training. First, you need to associate specific names with specific items or people. Having a selection of items is important, so you know they can pick the right one and aren't just grabbing the only item present. After that, you need to teach them to retrieve it and drop it for you, which can itself be a two-part trick. Reward them when they identify the item at first and later when they bring it to you.
To teach a dog to go to a particular person, have that person reward them, rather than rewarding them on returning to you; that way, they won't try to drag the person to you every time.
This is a trick you'll keep building up over time and will change as you get and replace items.
Another great trick to teach a puppy is to know where their bed is and to go to it. This is particularly useful in those early months where you might be doing crate training until your pup is fully potty trained. It's also useful for getting them to settle down at night, but it can also be great for giving them a place to go when you don't want them disrupting some other event, like dinner or a party.
Just like the other tricks, it's all about creating the association between the word and the behavior: go to a specific place identified by name and sit/lay/stay in that place.
What are your favorite tricks to teach a puppy? I picked these because they're useful and practical, but there are a bunch of cute tricks you can teach as well. Let me know all about them!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).