3 Expert Tips for Training Your New Family Dog

published Mar 8, 2022
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Small Great Pyrenees puppy sitting on his paws in a green lawn. people picnicking in background
Credit: Dana McMahan

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Is there anything more endearing than a kiddo and their dog? They go together like peanut butter and jelly. But for every heartwarming movie scene of a family dog curled up with a little one, there are too many instances of mischief or worse, and heartbreaking cases of dogs being returned to shelters when the reality of having a creature with a mind of its own overwhelms families. 

Much of that can be prevented with something not at all revolutionary: Basic dog training. I’m not talking about tricks; it’s cute if Rover can roll over. But what if he could walk nicely on a leash, stay out of the trash can, wait calmly for visitors to pet him, and in general behave like an integrated member of your family? 

Sound impossible? I can promise from experience it’s not. My “oops puppy” — a giveaway from a farmer we knew whose Great Pyrenees escaped and came home pregnant — began training the week he came home. Cash was nine pounds then, and he’s ninety now. Thanks to that early training, he now gets to go on trips, we get to be relaxed about leaving food on the table — and we’re comfortable having friends with kids visit.

Credit: Dana McMahan

Teaching Kids Responsibility with Dogs

When my friends’ 7-year-old year old son Finley requested a pet, we were able to point to Cash as an example of the responsibilities that come with having a dog. “It’s a big decision … you know, it’s not just play time, all the time,” his mom Bonnie, who’s a lactation consultant in Louisville, Kentucky, shared. “We are trying to set up realistic expectations, so we talk a lot about how a dog will have to be cared for and walked; and there are vet bills and medicines and bathing and grooming, and training — there’s a lot of things that have to be done every day.”

Finley has grown up with Cash, who’s almost 6, so he’s had the chance to see how much work goes into training over the years — as well as the benefits.

On Building Family Bonds with Your Dog

And it’s key for everyone in the family, including (maybe even especially) the littles, to be involved in that training, says Tyler Ohlmann of Rosie Dane Dog Training. Tyler is our trainer and friend, and has shepherded thousands of dogs and their families through a challenging and rewarding training program that led to Cash getting his AKC Canine Good Citizen award. 

There are plenty more benefits than just being able to take a walk without a dog pulling you down the street. Training will “lessen the headaches and mischief,” Tyler says, as well as “build a better bond between the family and the dog.” 

The training isn’t just good for the dog, either. It teaches kids empathy, Tyler says, and helps increase their maturity when they share the responsibility for training. It can also boost kids’ confidence when they see the power they have to influence the dog’s behavior. And for kids who may feel intimidated by dogs (or dogs that are leery of kids), “having a dog trained by a kid can help both of them for their familiarity.”

I’m afraid there are no shortcuts when it comes to reliable training. Time, incremental changes, and repetition are essential. But Tyler shared some important tips to help smooth the way. 

Be Consistent

So one family member is great at requiring the family dog to have good manners. But everyone else lets them get away with everything. Dogs are pros of pattern recognition, Tyler says, and they will work that discrepancy. So it’s crucial for everyone to play by the same rules. It’s not fair to the person doing the work if they have daily setbacks because someone else is letting the dog eat from the table. And honestly, it’s not fair to the dog to have different expectations from different family members. 

Cash is never told to do anything more than once; he obeys the first time because there won’t be a repeat of the command. Go to your bed means go to your bed now; not later. “Come” when he’s playing off-leash means “come” right now. Think about it: If they know they will eventually get asked again, why would they ever do anything the first time? 

Credit: Dana McMahan

Train Them in the Right Location

Some families take their dogs to training classes at, say, a pet store. That’s great if you want them to behave in a pet store. The place you train can be just as important as the training itself. Otherwise you have a dog that can do tricks only when there are no distractions, Tyler says. Instead, train them in the environment(s) where they need it most, he explains. Like at home, with doorbells ringing; in the yard with people coming and going; at the park with enticements nearby. 

People marvel that Cash doesn’t look twice at a squirrel, but that was no accident; we did a ton of his training in the park with squirrels everywhere. Especially if you get a dog as a puppy, it’s critical to socialize them and expose them to as many places and situations as possible, says Tyler. 

Make Them Earn It

A balanced relationship with a family dog doesn’t involve letting them think they’ll get whatever they want whenever they want it, Tyler says. (For that matter, that’s not a balanced relationship among any family member!)

Following the philosophy laid out by author Deb Mckean, Tyler says the dog should earn their rewards. And that reward can come in the form of natural motivators, not just food and treats. Cash wants attention from people above all else. So before he gets love from visitors, he has to lie down on his bed and stay calm first. 

Dogs learn to self-regulate better with self-rewarding behavior, as well, Tyler explains. So Cash walks nicely, not for cookies, but for the joy of getting to go on a walk. That behavior transfers, too. So when young Finley takes the leash and says “Heel,” Cash walks nicely next to him. 
It can look like magic to anyone who hasn’t been through the training process, but there’s nothing magic about it. What is magic? Seeing a trained dog living their best life, which goes a long way toward letting your family live theirs.