3 Most Important Starter Training Tips for Dogs from a Positive Reinforcement Trainer
Step 10 of 15 in the Dogly New Pet Channel
with Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals, Training Advocate

Recorded on
Friday, Mar 19, 2 PM EDT

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With so much excitement around the arrival of your new dog it's important to keep your focus on what matters most: setting your new dog up for success.

Here's what that actually means...

Everything you do the first day through the next few weeks with your new dog should be about letting your dog decompress and settle in comfortably in his/her own way into what is now your dog's new home. Seeing the world through your dog's eyes, anticipating your dog's feelings, and making it easy for your dog to be a secure family member sets up both you and your pup for success from the start.

Your focus should always be on making it easy for your dog to show the good behavior you want to see, to set the stage for endless opportunities for positive reinforcement ... to celebrate, praise, and reward your pup!


Professional trainers and behaviorists refer to this as positive reinforcement training - you can think of it as simply the proven, best way dogs learn and how to build the bond between you and your dog at the same time.

As a professional dog trainer/behaviorist, I'm often asked by pet parents about training tips for dogs. The big secret to a successful training process is training yourself to "think dog."

That means putting yourself in your dog's place, always trying to see our sometimes too-human world as your dog sees it, feeling what your dog is feeling, and remembering those things that make our dogs who they are. All-important things like their hugely magnified senses of smell and hearing or how they communicate with their body language instead of our human talk.

3 key areas where learning to "think dog" can help you anticipate how to support your dog...

1) Helping your new dog make your home his/her home

Your home is your sanctuary, and it will be your new pup's safe haven too, but at first it's all unfamiliar and can trigger your dog's wariness of the unknown. So how can you make this all-new place feel as comfortable and secure as possible from the moment your dog arrives?

Your dog's sense of smell and hearing are both superpower-level acute compared to humans'. That makes your dog hypersensitive to the smells and sounds in this all-new environment. In a previous guide, we covered multiple ways of making your home welcoming and secure for your dog, but it's worth underscoring that the world your dog smells and hears is vastly different from ours in its intensity.

Create a refuge from the stressful smells and sounds of your dog's previous experience

Putting yourself in your dog's place, think about what he or she may have experienced in a shelter or any group dog situation. Even in the best of circumstances, group situations are stressful, noisy with the sounds of barking dogs, people coming and going, cleaning equipment, clanging of doors and bowls... and more. The smells can be strong for us so you can imagine how overwhelming the scent of other dogs or the smells of bleach and various cleaning products are for dogs.


You want your home to be the opposite of stressful for your new dog - a haven from the sensory onslaught...

Your home/your dog's new home should be a place where the smells are intentionally comforting and naturally relaxing and scary sounds (like vacuum cleaners) are minimized as much as possible.

Try this

  • Walk through your home with your "dog perspective" on before your dog's arrival - consider all the smells and sounds through how they would impact your dog's nose & ears.
  • Replace any artificial, strong scents (cleaning products, laundry detergents, candles, etc) with unscented and natural products.
  • Proactively add calming, natural scents that gently help your dog relax and feel more confident throughout your dog's spaces, on beds, even in your car for the ride home. I use pheromones or tried-&-true essences that de-stress dogs like Drama Trauma, Welcome Home, or Calm Spray and more which you can find here.

Pro tip: for scent-free cleaning that removes messes on floors/carpets/wherever, try a natural, enzymatic cleaner.

I like Unique Pet Care which you can find here. Ditch the overpowering cleaners/bleach that can be reminders of stressful memories, not to mention trigger allergies!

Pro tip: create good associations throughout your home & yard upon your dog's arrival (& in days to follow)

Take your dog room to room on an extra long leash, doing scatter feeds with super-high-value treats in each space.

For more ideas on how to make your home welcoming and things you'll need & why like multiple beds (in non-allergic fabrics), stainless steel bowls, and baby gates, check out the 15 dog essentials you need here.


2) Reading your dog's body language

The key to setting your dog up for success is anticipating what's happening around and with your pup and his/her potential reactions so you can head off or manage stress triggers.

One of your big anticipation tools is learning how to read your dog's body language and behaviors so you can get a jump on averting tricky situations and help your dog feel secure and safe.

Watch for these body language signs of stress

  • Scratching (it's not always that your dog is truly itchy!)
  • Yawning
  • Drinking more water & urinating more frequently (be ready to take your dog out more often!)
  • Lip licking
  • Showing "whale eye" (when you can see the whites of the eye with a wary look)

These are all signs of stress telling you your new dog needs to decompress with some real chill-out time and space to relax without excess stimulus or perceived "threats" (too many family members, other pets, distracting unfamiliar activity). Time for a quiet room, favorite treats, cozy bed and blanket, maybe some calming music, and a good nap.

What about next-level body language aka "reactivity"?

When our dogs respond to stress, fear, or over-arousal with lunging, barking, or growling, it's often labeled reactivity. But you could simply consider it very clear information from your dog. It's your dog communicating with more urgent and obvious body language that he or she is threatened and wants the threat to go away.

Maybe you missed earlier more subtle signs from your dog or maybe the threat popped up in a flash, but either way, here's where you kick into action immediately to support your dog now before it escalates and deepens your dog's fears. And it's a gift to you to know how to set up your dog for success in the future by avoiding/mitigating the threat or gradually helping your dog to be comfortable with it (that can come later after your dog is situated and confident in this wonderful new life).

What's actually happening with dogs when they're "reactive"?

First of all, we're all reactive - meaning we react in various ways to all kinds of things. It's not a description of a "bad" dog or behavior to be punished ever; it's behavior that tells us something is stressing or scaring our dogs, an opportunity to get to know our dogs and understand what we need to do to help alleviate stress points.

When it's a reaction based on fear and a perceived threat, dogs react with their emotional brains and their actions tend to fall into 3 buckets:

  • flight
  • fight
  • fool and fidget

Give me an example

When another dog appears, your dog may excitedly jump up and circle around your legs (that's fool and fidget). Or your dog lunges and barks at the sight of another dog (that's fight, which isn't really fight but is intended to scare off the other guy and make him disappear). Flight is when your dog runs and hides to get away from the threat - that's why more dogs are lost on July 4th as dogs try to escape the sound of fireworks.

These are all clues - your dog speaking through his/her body and behavior sometimes loudly - for you to step in to set up your pup for success.


What to do when your dog shows reactive signs

  • Inside your home, always give your dog enough space to escape & never allow your pup to feel cornered or trapped (whether that's by other dogs or adults/children reaching or stepping into your dog's space).
  • If you're outside on a walk or in public (which shouldn't happen for a while yet), whisk your dog away from the threat (another dog, bicycle, scooter, etc) by crossing the street, making a u-turn, etc and happily, quickly heading in the other direction while making you & your quick exit more interesting to your dog than the threat. Reward profusely with high-value treats!
  • Use this information on what triggers your dog to anticipate and mitigate those threats in the future (eventually you can train your dog to see some current threats as no big deal but those training sessions can come later after your dog has settled in and is ready to start training).

You can find more on reactivity when you and your dog are ready for it in Dogly's Reactivity Channel here.

Once your dog learns you're there to always have his/her back, your dog will begin to feel more secure going forward, and you'll begin to see continuing progress and a bond between you that's stronger every day.

3) Understanding resource guarding & how to manage it

Resource guarding is a natural instinct for dogs. It doesn't matter whether dogs are puppies, adult dogs, or seniors, resource guarding to varying degrees and for different types of resources is a common, dog-like response. It's not "bad" behavior, it's natural behavior, but you do want to set up your dog to avoid it because it can be dangerous when other dogs or small children or even adult humans are involved.

Why dogs guard resources

Many dogs have come from the experience of little space and limited treasures like toys, bones, their own beds, and high-value food and treats. Whatever the circumstances, dogs can be instinctively inclined to protect and hang onto what they've got. It makes sense that your dog doesn't want you, another human, or another dog to take a treasure away!

Every dog is an individual in all things and especially so when it comes to resource guarding. Some dogs don't care at all, and some care a lot depending on the value they place on a particular resource.

Know your dog (as always!)

Our constant mantra in all things dog and certainly with potential resource guarding is know your dog! Your dog has arrived in the land of plenty, and you'll want to keep a sharp eye on how your pup acts around everything from treats to food bowls to toys, even to what your dog considers his or her space. You'll want to note how much space your dog needs and which resources might be worth guarding to your dog.


How can you manage resource guarding?

Resource guarding is one behavior that hugely benefits from being proactive and setting your dog up for success.

A few keys to keep in mind:

  • When feeding/treating your dog, make sure any other dogs, children, etc are not in your dog's space.
  • If you're giving what is a super-high-value treat to your dog (in our family, it's frozen raw bones), you might want to put your dog in a completely separate room with a door or gate if you have multiple dogs.
  • Note what your dog values (bed, ball, food, etc) and at what distance your dog sends stay-away body language (a wary eye, a growl, or bark) - and manage your dog's environment accordingly.
  • If your dog and another dog both enjoy playing with a ball, that doesn't mean they want to play ball together.
  • Never take anything out of your dog's mouth or reach into his/her bowl. (We wouldn't want someone grabbing something from us or putting their hands in our food!)

Later down the road when your dog is ready, you can begin to teach cues like "drop it" or how to trade one item for another. You can find all that and more in Dogly's Manners Channel. But managing your dog's environment to set your pup up to enjoy resources happily and safely is critical now and useful for your whole lives.

Remember this is just the beginning of your dog's new life with you...

Dog parents are often eager at the start to launch into dog training tips and frequently ask about basic "commands" (which we always refer to as cues since that reflects the partnership and communication you want to build with your dog). You can introduce simple learning as part of positive reinforcement and rewarding your dog such as clicker training if you'd like.

But for now, the best dog training tips are these that help your dog decompress and settle in, while helping you know your dog so you can set your pup up for success!

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Next up in the New Pet Channel on Dogly

Now that you know the 3 key training tips to set your new dog up for success, go back to the beginning of this Dog Prep series to learn how to help your new dog settle into your home or how to have a good first day with your new dog.

If you have any questions about bringing a new dog into your family, just ask in the community discussion in the New Pet Channel.

Or if you ever need more personalized dog training guidance, please reach out!

Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Ruby because she brings her rescue experiences to our dogs - to increase our bond, decrease behavior issues.

Ruby guides you

New Dogs - Manners - Enrichment - Reactivity - Barking - Walking

Ruby is certified

Low Stress Handling - Fear Free Veterinary Professional - Fear Free Shelters - Shelter Welfare - Enrichment - & Canine Behaviour