Force-free puppy training: what the experts want you to know

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Cindy Feng, Sarah Pollard
Man giving Dalmatian dog treat

Excitement, adoration, overwhelm and at times, frustration — puppies bring out a surprising mix of emotions, often at the same time! In their first weeks and months of life, your puppy is like a sponge: so what should you do, to create a secure relationship and a confident, happy dog? 

The answer is force-free training: an approach centred on positive reinforcement to mark good behaviour instead of punishment for bad behaviour that can cause fear. 

To give you a roadmap on fear-free training, we’ve spoken to our expert friends at Mind Body & Bowl, The Kind Canine, and Chapter One Dog Training. These are Aussie small businesses whose approaches align with ours at Lyka.

Ever wished your pup could speak your language?

Turns out they do — but you may not have noticed! According to Bec Hamilton, Behaviourist and Founder of Mind Body & Bowl, dogs use body language to:

  • Ask for space, food, a toy, or something else; 

  • Show their full range of emotions; 

  • Avoid conflict.

Like us, dogs go into fight, flight, freeze or fool around (fidget) in stressful situations. If a small dog is on the leash and passing a larger dog, they’re not able to run away if scared — so they try to make themselves appear larger. Telling an anxious pup off for barking can unwittingly create a sense of learned helplessness, and can suppress early warning signals that come with trying to avoid conflict.

“Barking or lunging is usually a scared dog’s way to ask for space in this case, they are not necessarily trying to make themselves look bigger, they are often saying move further away from me.” 

— Bec Hamilton, Behaviourist and Founder of Mind Body & Bowl

When parents don’t pick up on a pup’s signals, this can lead to behaviours like growling, barking, biting, or lunging. To keep everyone safe, make sure the people in your household — especially if you have children around — learn how to read dog body language.

If you notice any escalated behaviour, seek assistance from a positive reinforcement behaviour professional as soon as possible. Addressing issues early often leads to a better outcome.

How to harness the power of conscious conditioning

There are two types of conditioning: conscious and unconscious. 

Unconscious conditioning

Picture this: your dog drops a toy on your lap. Even though you’re busy, you throw it and engage. This teaches your pup that your attention is theirs — on demand. 

Conscious conditioning

Now, imagine: that same toy drops onto your lap at an inconvenient time. You say “not now” and redirect them to another activity. This clear body language and redirection tells your pup that it’s not playtime. Whenever you’re ready, you can get the toy to let them know you are available. 

Puppies have two fear impact periods — at the 8–11-week mark, and then between the ages of 5–14 months. They need careful socialisation at this stage because exposure to new things can scare them and lead to negative associations.

Puppy fear impact period

8–12 weeks: top training priorities for the early days

In the first eight weeks with your puppy, Bec (from Mind Body & Bowl) says that training isn’t about teaching your puppy to sit or shake. It’s about helping them settle into day-to-day routines in your home.  

This means helping them feel safe and calm, even as they experience vet visits, treatments, examinations and grooming for the first time: treats can help make these experiences positive from a young age. 

For your sanity, toilet training is also age-critical — it’s also worth teaching them to feel comfortable being alone for short periods.

Redefining what it means to socialise your puppy

Socialisation is more than getting your puppy to make as many friends as possible — it’s about introducing them to the world more broadly. While they do need to learn to interact with other pups, a single interaction with the wrong dog can make them reactive or fearful later in life. 

Here’s what Bec (from Mind Body & Bowl) suggests to set your puppy up for social success: 


  • Start at the 8–12-week mark, factoring in vaccination safety precautions. The critical period for socialisation begins to close at 12 weeks, so don’t wait until all vaccinations are done! 

  • Be selective about the dogs you allow your puppy to interact with. Consider organising playdates with calm and confident adult dogs, or similar but known puppies. Look for dogs who adjust their greeting and play style to suit younger pups, responding to puppy rudeness or exuberance with patience. 


  • Take them to the dog park and hope for the best. This puts your puppy in a situation you can’t control — some dogs’ temperaments don’t mix well with shy and timid puppies.  

  • Let them say hello to every dog they see. This can lead frustration and barking, as well as reducing their ability to focus on or listen to cues or instructions from their human (even when other dogs are around).

Puppy socialisation do's and don't's

Happy vet visits

Most dogs are wary of the vet, but puppy socialisation has the power to change this! Happy vet visits are vet trips that aren’t for medical reasons like vaccinations or sickness.

They’re all about making your pup feel comfortable in that environment, without having to worry about painful or scary things happening.

"Try to create a high ratio of good or neutral experiences so they far outweigh potentially stressful ones — this helps minimise stress when they have examinations or treatment."

— Bec Hamilton, Behaviourist and Founder of Mind Body & Bowl

This could mean:

  • Getting lots of special treats in the waiting room; 

  • Standing on the scales; 

  • Waiting in a consult room; 

  • Not making your dog interact with anyone if they don’t want to. 

Dogs have a negative association with the vet because they only go for vaccinations, or when they’re sick or in pain. This can make visits more stressful and expensive than they need to be, especially if your pup needs sedation, anti-anxiety medication or longer consult times. It can also result in slower healing.

Puppy grooming visits for stress-free coat maintenance

According to Emma Walters, Certified Fear-Free Groomer at The Kind Canine, it’s a good idea to have at least one puppy grooming visit before attempting a haircut. This can happen as early as eight weeks, but no later than 16 weeks.

Grooming quote The Kind Canine

First timers get a bath, blow-dry and brush: as well as a tidy on the face, feet, bottom, and nails. If your pup isn’t coping, fear-free groomers like Emma will never force them through — her focus is on teaching them to handle new experiences to the best of their ability.

Socialisation at the groomer’s is especially important for dogs whose coats need more maintenance. Most coated breeds need to be groomed every six weeks at a minimum.

For Emma, these breeds include:

  • Low or non-shedding breeds like West Highland White Terriers (or Westies), Bichon Frisés, spaniels and Schnauzers. 

  • Double coat breeds need more work than parents might expect — Shetland Sheepdogs (or Shelties), Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, for example. This is because double coats become compacted and turn into a thick, heavy blanket without maintenance. 

  • Poodle and poodle mix coats (think Bordoodles, cavoodles, Groodles and Sheepadoodles) tend to mat faster if they’re not brushed and groomed regularly.

According to Lyka’s in-house veterinary experts, nails are a big issue for some dogs at the groomers! If you’re trimming their nails at home, never push your pup to tolerate it if they seem to be uncomfortable.

Toilet training

Puppy pads might seem like the best option for toilet training, but this isn’t always the case! Some pups see these as something fun to destroy with their little puppy paws; it can also lead to your dog developing surface preference, where they no longer associate grass-like surfaces with toileting. 

We partnered with Hannah Daniele, Puppy Training Specialist at Chapter One Dog Training, to produce a comprehensive guide on toilet training. You’ll learn about the toilet training method known as “capturing”, how to get the most out of overnight toilet training, and the importance of positive reinforcement.

Toilet training capturing step by step

Read the guide

Training your puppy with a holistic approach

Training goes beyond learning and behaviour: it’s about how your puppy feels. Their emotional wellness is influenced by many factors, which is why it’s worth looking at their health through a holistic lens.

Below, we delve into your puppy’s needs when it comes to mental and physical wellbeing — and the impact this can have on the success of their training.

Why does my puppy need enrichment?

Your puppy’s early days in the home will provide plenty of stimulation: but combatting boredom is vital, even when they’re young.  

Enjoyable enrichment has behavioural, mental and emotional benefits, while helping channel species-appropriate outlets. It supports:

  • Problem solving 

  • Frustration tolerance 

  • Healthy independence  

  • Resilience 

  • Body awareness and confidence

“When these qualities are combined, they help your puppy function in a fast-paced, ever-changing human world and reduce the chances of maladaptive behaviours.”

— Bec Hamilton, Behaviourist and Founder of Mind Body & Bowl

Need some enrichment ideas? These can take the form of puppy training sessions; sniffaris and nosework; and puzzles, toys and games. 

You can even put your pup’s Lyka meals and treats (like Lamb Straws or Pig Twigs) into an enrichment toy like a KONG — this can keep your pup entertained for longer periods!

How much exercise does my puppy need?

There’s no strict rule on how much your puppy needs: it depends on their breed, size, and individual energy levels. Different breeds have different heat tolerance for outdoor play.

Instead, focus on creating a positive experience for your pup and building things like recall. Bec (from Mind Body & Bowl) recommends playing to their strengths and instincts — when do they lose interest and want to stop?

“Puppy exercise comes with the benefit of exposing them to different surfaces and textures, which can boost your pup’s bodily awareness. It’s a good opportunity to build their response to recall, so prioritise consistency over strenuous or long exercise sessions. 

People with higher energy dogs are at risk of overdoing it, turning their pups into elite athletes who need even more physical activity to take the edge off. This is something the average person doesn’t have time for.” 

— Bec Hamilton, Behaviourist and Founder of Mind Body & Bowl

Speak to a canine fitness or dog physiotherapist for advice to suit the needs of your pup.

Leash walking

Should you use a short leash, or long? Like many things relating to your pup’s health: it depends. Overall, the goal should be a relaxed walk with your puppy — whether they’re out in front or by your side, don’t let them drag you down the street! 

A longer leash means your pup is less likely to pull, as they have more room to work with while they roam and sniff. A shortened leash has benefits for training, so you may want to consider a combination of both.

Leash training Chapter One

Here’s a tip from Hannah Daniele, Puppy Training Specialist at Chapter One Dog Training: practise standing still with your puppy next to your leg, and shower them treats and praise when they’re in this zone! On instinct, your dog will pull against the leash — it’s up to you to teach them to walk calmly by your side. 

Try practicing in a quiet, low distraction place first, like inside the house, and gradually work up to other places. Dogs tend to orient to the place they are when they are reinforced, so reward them heavily with high value treats in that zone. Take a small step forward and repeat as they calmly move beside you. 

This can be a challenging thing to work out for yourself: it’s about finding what works for your pup, and speaking to a professional trainer if you’re unsure. 

Do I need to crate train my puppy?

At Lyka, we’re big believers in crate training — a sentiment Bec (at Mind Body & Bowl) agrees with! She suggests combining your puppy’s play pen with their crate, as it helps them cope with alone time in a healthy way.

To crate train your pup, follow these steps: 

  1. Introduce the crate and let them explore. 

  2. Close the door for a few seconds and then reopen it. 

  3. Increase the crated time — be gradual! 

  4. While your puppy is crated, begin by introducing short absences. 

  5. If your pup whines, go back a step or two and progress through the steps at a slower pace. 

What role does nutrition play in my puppy’s behaviour?

There’s a clear link between your dog’s diet and mental health — this is known as the gut-brain axis

Lyka’s meals are high in protein and nutrients to support your puppy from an early age. With anti-inflammatory omega-3 and lots of antioxidants, fresh food can support mood, brain function, and physical health. 

Our Calm Pupper Supp contains mood enhancing probiotics like BL999 and PS128. These can give your puppy a calm start to life: especially when supported by a fresh, human-grade diet. 

For more information on the role nutrition plays in development for puppies, check out our in-depth guide for new puppy parents.

Read more

Lyka is here to help you raise a calm, confident pup

Embrace force-free training methods, and you’ll be well on your way to building a strong lifetime bond with your puppy. Our pack of parents are passionate about giving their dogs the very best: whether it’s real food formulated for their needs, or following tips from ethical, fear-free trainers.

Give your pup the best start in life. Join our pack and explore our puppy meal plans today.

This article was reviewed by Lyka's veterinary and nutrition experts

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