Summary List PlacementDog training builds effective communication between you and your dog.
Successful dog training relies on rewards-based methods that are rooted in the science of learning.
Three professional dog trainers came up with these 14 tips, tricks, and essentials to help you learn how to train your dog successfully.
Bringing home a new dog is a joyful experience. It’s also a lot of work. Among the many commitments you make to your new pet, including daily feeding and walks, regular veterinary care, comfort, and freedom from fear, there’s also building communication through training.
While you don’t need much to begin training your dog, you do need the right kind of guidance to be successful. There is no shortage of dog training “experts” on the internet, on television, and in the bookstore. However, the methods of many so-called experts are rooted in pain, fear, and intimidation, not the science of learning.
For science-based dog training tips, tricks, and essentials, we consulted two certified professional trainers in San Franscisco: Althea Karwowski, owner of Sit Stay SF, and Sue Minsuk, owner of Doggie Do Right Dog Training. I’ve also added my own insight as a certified professional dog trainer with almost a decade of experience.
At its core, effective training depends on figuring out what motivates your dog to learn, whether that’s food, play, or access to the outdoors, and using it as a reward for behaviors you want to encourage. If your dog struggles to progress or seems “stubborn,” there’s likely a fairly simple fix. You may need to give a dog more space and choice, especially if they are shy.
The trouble may also be related to the quality of the reward or the level of distraction. “Look more closely at what you’re trying to achieve and break it down into smaller steps,” said Minsuk. And if the environment seems too distracting, try training in a quieter setting.
Here are 14 tips, tricks, and products to help train a dog:A dog training book that uses reward-based methods
“The Power of Positive Dog Training” by Pat Miller, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, from $13.39
Because it can be a challenge to critically evaluate whether a dog training book, video, or website uses effective science-based methods, Minsuk recommends asking yourself a few questions to suss things out: Would you be comfortable with the training method presented? Would you enjoy the training method? Would your dog enjoy the training method?
“If all parties are not enjoying the activity, it’s not likely to be successful or create a strong bond or a good relationship,” said Minsuk. One of her favorite training books, “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” hits all the marks.
An accessible illustrated book on puppy training
“Perfect Puppy in 7 Days” by Dr. Sophia Yin, available on Kindle at Amazon for $9.99 and paperback at Barnes & Noble for $13.99
“Perfect Puppy in 7 Days” is the book that Karwowski most frequently recommends to her clients. “I love it because it’s very well-grounded in humane, reward-based training and it has really beautiful photos,” she said.
If reading a book feels overwhelming, Karwowski suggests checking out videos on the Youtube channel Dog Training by Kikopup. “I send out Kikopup videos to anyone that has a dog,” she said.
An advanced book on dog training to take your skills to the next level
“Excel-erated Learning” by Pamela J. Reid, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, $16.95
Although Pamela J. Reid’s “Excel-erated Learning” is geared more toward dog professionals than dog parents, I often recommend it to those who get bitten by the training bug and want to advance their skills. The slim volume is jam-packed with details about how dogs learn and the most effective ways to teach them.
A bait bag for holding treats and other essentials
Doggone Good Rapid Rewards Pouch, available at Walmart, $19.95
A bait bag keeps your rewards close at hand, a convenience that is particularly helpful when you’re working on leash or recall training. Both Minsuk and Karwowski are fans of Doggone Good’s version. The bag is spacious enough to carry a leash, stuffed toy, clicker, and poop bags.
“The size is just right and I think the magnet closure lasts longer than hinged bags,” said Minsuk. Even though this pouch is her favorite, Karwowski said the most important thing to consider when buying a bait bag is whether it’s something you’ll feel comfortable using regularly. “If fashion is important to you, choose a fancy fanny pack,” she said.
A clicker for marking behaviors
Starmark Pro-Training Clicker Deluxe, available at Amazon, $7.28
A clicker is one way to let your dog know when they’ve successfully completed a behavior. In scientific terms, it is considered a “secondary reinforcer,” which has value to your dog and elicits a positive response because it is frequently paired with a “primary reinforcer,” a reward like food or play. Research shows that a marker word like “Yes!” or “Good!” is also an effective secondary reinforcer and may be easier for newbies to use than a clicker.
A soft, lightweight mat that is easy to move around
K&H Pet Products Self-Warming Dog Crate Pad, available at Chewy, from $9.28
When a dog learns to settle on a mat with behaviors like sit, down, and stay, their relaxed demeanor can be transported to different, more distracting environments along with the mat. Choose a mat that is lightweight, affordable, and easy to fold up and carry but also soft enough for your dog to be comfortable for extended periods of time.
A comfortable harness with leash attachments at the chest and back
Ruffwear Front Range Dog Harness, available at Amazon and Ruffwear, $39.95
For leash training, Minsuk recommends a harness that has both a front and a back leash attachment. As you walk, treat your dog frequently for sticking close to you or for turning their attention toward you. “Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to keep happening,” she said.
All three of us advise against pinch/prong collars, choke collars, and shock/e-collars in any circumstance. “These are absolutely unnecessary and can cause harm to your dog,” said Minsuk.
For more harness options, see our guides to the best dog harnesses and no-pull dog harnesses.
A lightweight nylon or leather leash
Bold Lead Designs Traditional Lead, available at Amazon and Etsy, from $38
A 4-to-6-foot-long leash that is lightweight and easy to maneuver is ideal for leash training. Resist the urge to wrap the leash around your hand. Instead, Karwowski recommends putting your hand through the loop of the leash, looping the leash over your thumb, and holding it at the center of your torso. Keep your hand and arm relaxed so there is no tension and never use the leash to correct or drag your dog. Flexi or retractable leads are best avoided as they can break or become tangled.
A long line to help build a strong recall
Signature K9 Biothane Long Line, available at Amazon, from $23.95
In teaching recall, Minsuk said the first step is just getting your dog to come back to you from the end of a 6-foot leash. “Call your leashed dog to you and reward,” she said. “If your dog doesn’t come, help them with prompts like hand-clapping or high-pitched sounds. If that doesn’t do the trick, go to them and place a treat right in front of their nose and lure them back to you. When you call your dog, you have to make it happen.”
As your dog’s skills improve, switch from a 6-foot leash to a long line that’s 15-to-20-feet long. Your dog has more freedom with the long line, but there’s no risk that they will run off.
Tasty treats for training in low-distraction environments
Zuke’s Mini Naturals, available at Chewy and Amazon, from $13.97
When you first introduce your dog to basic skills like sit, down, and stay, start out in a low-distraction environment, ideally a quiet room where your dog is comfortable. A high-quality training treat will motivate most dogs to learn at home, and as they do, you can slowly increase the difficulty level by adding additional distractions.
Because dogs aren’t very good at understanding that a cue they learn in one location works the same way in another one, Minsuk said that training in every room of your home can help to generalize it. A good rule of thumb is not to increase the challenge until your dog is successfully responding to the cue 80% of the time or more.
Higher-value rewards for distracting environments or challenging behaviors
Stewart Pro-Treat Beef Liver Dog Treats, available at Chewy, from $4.69
If you’re working on leash training, reactivity, or fear-based issues, a higher-value food reward can make all the difference in motivating a dog to learn. While I like to use tiny, sliver-sized pieces of freshly cooked chicken or hot dogs, many dogs find freeze-dried organ meats just as desirable.
Break them up as small as possible to prevent your dog from filling up and losing motivation. Karwowski also recommends keeping training sessions short and leaving plenty of time for your dog to rest and process what they’ve learned. “Many 5-to-10-minute sessions are going to be more productive than doing a one-hour session,” she said.
An extra special treat to use when training recall
Gerber Purees 2nd Foods 10-pack, available at Amazon, $9.40
Recall is one of the most important behaviors a dog can learn. Convince your dog that coming back to you is part of the fun of going to the park by using an extra special reward like baby food. “By using really novel food rewards you can make recall the party your dog can’t wait to be invited to,” said Karwowski.
A squeaky ball for dogs who are highly motivated by play
Hartz Dura Play Ball, available at Walmart, from $2.54
Experts say that dogs learn best when the consequence for their behavior is a highly motivating reward. And while it’s often easiest to use treats, some dogs respond just as well, if not better, to a squeaky toy or a rolling ball. My go-to is the inexpensive Hartz Dura Play Ball which is bacon-scented, comes in two sizes, and is soft enough to easily squeak.
A Kong toy for building confidence and creating positive associations
Kong Classic Dog Toy, available at Chewy and Amazon, from $7.49
Food-stuffed puzzle toys like the Kong can be used for dog training in a variety of ways. Setting out a filled Kong for your dog when you leave can help them form positive associations with being alone, for example. Placing one in their crate can help them become comfortable inside the confined space. Puzzle toys can also help build confidence in a shy dog.
If your dog becomes frustrated easily by the Kong, you may have packed it too tightly. “You can start with peanut butter just smeared on the outside and work up to freezing food on the inside,” said Karwowski.