The First Few Months – Learning the Basics

 It’s a Wild Scary World

A therapy dog must have courage to visit places it has never been. Exposing them to different scenarios teaches them that different does not mean dangerous.

It is important that puppies who are slated for therapy work are exposed to a lot of new situations and places. Puppy will gain confidence and develop an understanding that changing scenery is normal. 

Remember to always: 

  • Keep the puppy safe
  • Do not use punishment to teach
  • The handler can lead the puppy and “do the thing” first or with the puppy
  • If the puppy becomes terrified, redirect the puppy. Do not do the “oh, you poor puppy,” routine. Engage the puppy in something that it likes to do. 

Video: Facing the Donkey

Learning About a Safe World

Holly was afraid of the new cardboard box.

  • Holly was allowed to investigate it on her own. (A treat at the corner would not hurt)
  • Lisa demonstrated that the box was safe. Dogs can learn by watching.
  • Lisa gave Holly physical support while Bill stood on the box to demonstrate safety.

This method teaches the puppy not only is the box safe, but also that her humans will be supportive of her.

Below are a couple of videos showing Holly getting used to new levels of height. Lisa will continue to work with her to build her confidence in negotiating obstacles. Positive reinforcement is always used. Punishment would make Holly connect the obstacle with fear. If taught with punishment the dog may comply, but out of fear, not out of confidence.

Video: Getting off the Skycraper Futon

Video: Stairway to Heave?

Holly learned a lot in her first month with Lisa. A different excursion every week is essential. Different experiences every day at home are very important, too. 

Teaching the Commands

Choosing what to say

You may use any word you want to teach any command. Do not use long phrases. Be sure the command does not sound like the puppy’s name. Remember that you will be using these commands around other people, some who may be mentally unstable. Be sure to pick neutral commands.

For example:

For a puppy that likes to playfully put its mouth on people.

  • Not – No Bite (humans will think the dog was trying to bite them)
  • Use – No Mouth

For a dog named Levitt, when teaching to not sniff or pick up something.

  • Not – Leave it (sounds too close to Levitt.
  • Use- No sniff

Develop a release word that is not something you use in normal conversations. (My experience – My dogs get up and leave when I am talking to someone and use the word, “Okay” in a conversation.

  • Not – Okay or alright or yes
  • Use – Free-Play, Free-time,  or Go play (unless you have kids too!)

Teach the puppy a negative command other than “No”, which can be saved for bad behavior. I use “Uh-uh” it has a gentle sound and the puppy eventually realized that Uh-Uh, means no reward, so it must do something else.

Basic trainer knowledge

Think of yourself as a vending machine. When the behavior is correct, the treat is dispensed. If your dog is food oriented, size does not matter! Use SMALL treats (I use cat treats for my 70 pound dog). If you dog responds to petting more than food, that is fine. 

Do not forget a “jackpot” like a handful of treats, or an especially wonderful belly rub when your dog does something wonderful. 

Break down each command into simple parts. “Come” can start at an arm’s length.

If you want your dog to respond in a happy manner, you must be happy when you teach. 

Clickers work well for basic shaping of behaviors, but using a word such as “good”, works just as well if you use it in the same way. 

Basic Commands

A therapy dog does not need to be a robot. Have fun teaching it! There is no room for punishment with a puppy. There are plenty of training videos on Youtube. Only watch the ones with happy dogs and trainers using positive reinforcement.

Your puppy will eventually learn that if puppy does something when puppy hears a particular sounds coming from your mouth, that puppy will get a reward.


This is usually very easy to teach. Hold a treat in above the puppy’s muzzle then slowly move it back in the direction of the tail. The puppy will do either walk backwards, or sit. If the pup walks backwards, try teaching the command with the puppy’s rear end next to a solid surface, or place your hand behind the pup, or gently press downward behind the puppy’s hip joints with two fingers.

When the puppy even starts to sit, click or say “good” and offer a treat within 1 1/2 seconds of the puppy’s sitting. Repeat a few times, but do not bore the puppy. Several lessons a day are better than one marathon lesson.

Heel on a lead

To begin with break “Heel” into two parts, two completely different lessons. After the puppy learns both, then combine them.

Lesson 1: Have fun getting used to the collar and leash.

Lesson 2: Walk with the human.

  • If possible, do this with no leash. (you can add the leash after the puppy understand walking beside you is fun)
  • Encourage the puppy to stay at your side while you walk.
    • Clap your hands playfully or use clicker or encouraging words
    • Offer treats only when the puppy is in the correct position/span>
    • Positive reinforcement when puppy is on target, walking beside you.

This is best started with the puppy in front of you, you holding a treat in your hand and then walking backwards while encouraging the puppy to come. You can also have someone hold the puppy and have them release the pup when you say come.

Below is a video showing happy Holly learning “Come”



Problem Puppies

Dealing with puppy problems is handled extensively at other web-sites. The primary thing to remember that there should be No Bored Puppies! A tired puppy is a happy owner.