What follows is the first stage of command training. At this stage your job is to teach the dog/pup that a certain cue—in this case a word or command—means he should do a specific behavior. This work is done indoors, in a calm environment.
The second stage is described in “Hitting the Streets,” and talks about how to build response in more distracting situations, as well as how to physically enforce the command should that be necessary.
When to start training?
Right now, today, no time to waste.
Every time your pup interacts with you, she is learning to be polite and respectful, compliant and responsive, or she is learning to be rude and pushy, intrusive and demanding. Which would you prefer?
Rules to live by:
- Make a list of what you want to see in your adult dog. When you know where you are going, it is much more likely that you will get there.
- Only encourage behavior in your puppy that you want in your adult dog. That cute little game where you roll on the floor while your pup jumps all over you and bites at your face? Picture that with an adult dog. Does it still seem fun?
- If you let it slide when your pup does not respond to your “sit” command, your adult dog is likely to ignore you as well.
- Rude for people is rude for your pup as well. Falling into this category is leaping onto your lap without permission, mouthing your hands, bumping into you “by mistake,” growling over food, or “humping” you.
Every puppy should learn a few commands. Not only does this make them easier to live with, it also teaches them how to learn. Once they understand that sounds can actually mean something specific, they will learn more quickly throughout their life.
What you need: a leash, a flat buckle collar, some soft, easy-to-eat treats, a few minutes of free time, a willingness to have some fun, and knowing what to do.
Many wonderful methods are available these days, and we offer you a couple of favorites here. In general, persistence and practice will get you results using almost any method. Please, avoid methods that focus on catching your dog making a “mistake” and punishing him for it. If you aren’t spending the majority of your time praising/rewarding the pup, then stop! Find another way.
Keep the sessions short but frequent. Pups can pick things up astonishingly quickly, but keep in mind that it can take hundreds of repetitions for a command/behavior combination to really sink into a pup’s mind.
Used at curbs, at doorways, in the elevator, greeting people, and waiting in line, this is an essential command for every dog. It is also a wonderful way to quickly get some control over a rambunctious pup, work her brain when she is bored or restless, and start any dog’s education.
Goal: For the pup to follow a treat with her nose, raise her head, and lower her rump to the ground.
You: Holding treat between fingers so the pup can’t grab it, place the food just in front of your dog’s nose. Raise the food slowly up and back above the pup’s head.
Dog: Follows food with her nose, thus lowers her bottom to the floor. Immediately give her the treat and praise her when she does this.
Potential problems: Your pup jumps at food. The most common reason for this is that you are raising the food too high over your pup’s head, which causes her to jump up at it. Alternatively, your hand is remaining stationary (or moving too fast, so that your pup can’t follow the movement easily).
As for your pup, she may lose focus and miss where the food went. The solution is to move it slower and to reward slight head raises for a few repetitions. Or she may back up instead of sitting. If this happens, work her against a wall or piece of furniture so she can’t back up. You can also hold her collar gently to prevent any moving around. Once a pup gets the idea, she’ll have no problems.
The pup could also sit up—solution, lower the food so the pup is sitting when she gets the reward. Pup may wrap her front feet around your hand/arm, the solution for which is to lower the food again or to pull the food away and restart.
Goal: Dog hears “Sit,” sees food raised above head, sits.
You: Now that your pup can be guided into a sit, start saying, “Sit,” just before you raise the food up over her head.
Dog: Starts to associate the word “Sit” with the act of sitting.
Potential problem: Your dog doesn’t respond to the “sit” command. Most commonly, owners repeat the commands, causing the dog to learn that the command is not “sit,” but rather “sitsitsit.” Dogs learn exactly what we teach them. If you want your pup to listen and respond on your first command, say the command once.
Down is a safety command, a way to stop your dog. Leash breaks? Down! Dog chases squirrel toward road? Down! Dog thinks about growling at that person? Down! It also keeps your dog out of the way but under control when you are carrying groceries, making dinner, or talking to a friend you run into on the sidewalk.
Goal: Pup follows food as you lower it to the floor and lies down.
You: Bring the food to the pup’s nose, then in a smooth motion lower it to the floor and then pull it away from the pup slowly so he can follow it. This looks something like an “L.”
Dog: Follows the food with his nose; as the food moves away along the floor, he lies down.
Potential problems: Your pup stands up. You may be pulling the food out in front of him instead of lowering it straight down between his feet. Try lowering it more slowly. If that fails, then reward him for his best effort before standing up. By doing that a few times, you should be able to ask for more and he will give it happily.
Try resting your free hand gently on his back to prevent standing. Do not push down on his shoulders, as this will cause him to push against you and stand up.
Your pup fails to follow the food. If this happens, then the food is either not interesting enough, the pup is not hungry, or you are moving your hand too fast. Try a more enticing treat, working before your pup’s meals, or slowing down your motions, respectively.
Goal: To link the word “Down” with the action of lying down.
You: Say the command “Down” while your guide the pup into position.
Dog: Begins to associate the spoken “Down” with the action of lying down.
Potential problem: You repeat the command. Don’t. Say it once and guide him into it. Be patient. Reward him well with your attention, approval, and praise for compliance. He’ll get the hang of it.
If any command is going to save your dog’s life, it will be this one. Everything happens faster in the city. If a leash breaks, you have only seconds to call your dog to you before she is in the street—possibly a busy street. If she takes off after a squirrel, you have moments to get her back. A dog who responds well to “come” is safer and will have more freedom in her life.
Goal: To teach your pup that “come” equals fun!
You: Several times a day, walk up to your dog, say, “Come,” and give her a treat. Any time you have a toy she wants, say, “Come,” happily and hand her the toy.
We know, she isn’t actually coming yet, so what the heck is this about? What you are doing is linking the word with pleasure. That simple. This will pay off big-time later.
Dog: Eats treats. Takes toy.
Potential problem: We can’t imagine. You’ll have to write us and tell us.
Goal: Dog walks several steps to you when she hears “Come.”
You: Have treat/toy/dinner in hand, merrily say, “Come,” take a couple of steps backward. Your backward steps will entice your dog to move toward you. Good!
Dog: Moves toward you several steps to get treat or toy or dinner bowl.
Potential problems: Your dog is at your feet the whole time. You can’t step back because your dog is right there! Good! Perfect! Excellent! Her enthusiasm will serve you well later. Don’t worry. This is all part of the grand plan.
Your dog won’t move toward you. Hmmm, if you have a young pup who won’t approach you when you sound happy, have a qualified trainer/behaviorist come in for a look. It should not be hard to get a pup to approach, the hard part should be to get her to leave you alone.
Goal: Pup comes to you and sits.
You: Do as with step two, but this time keep your hands (holding the treat or toy) low in front of you. As you move backward and the pup approaches, keep your hands as low as you can manage—ideally right at the pup’s nose level, although that can be hard with tiny pups. Then, as you stop, lift the toy/treat to your waist level. Most pups will sit as their head comes up to watch your hands.
Dog: Comes toward you happily and sits when you stop.
Potential problems: Your dog does not sit. Work on your sit away from excitement. Link “sit” to all things good. Use it many times a day. Then try again.
Your dog jumps up. Ignore her when her paws are on you, and reward her when they aren’t. She’ll figure it out. Do not pet her or praise her when her feet are on you. Consistency on your part will create consistency on her part. Alternatively, you can use a treat to guide her off and into a sit before rewarding her.
Metrodogs are faced with temptations on almost every walk you take together. From taunting squirrels to sauntering pigeons, from food on the sidewalk to another dog on the street, “leave it” gets hard use in an urban environment. Don’t leave home without it.
Goal: Dog does not grab at food in your hand. (Really, stop laughing, this will work.)
You: Hold food in your open hand. When the pup dives for it, close your hand. Ignore all her efforts to get at the food. The moment she stops trying to get the food (and she will, even if it is in sheer frustration), praise her, open your hand, and give her the reward.
Dog: Stops trying to get food in hand. Often the pup will sit in puzzlement. Praise! And reward. Pups figure this out quickly.
Potential problem: Your pup does not stop trying to get food. Wait her out. If she is too wild, try teaching this right after a meal so she’ll be more full and less desperate. Do not give her food as she snuffles at hand. When she does give up, usually in a minute or less, open your hand and give her that food as well as a really good treat.
Goal: Have dog resist diving at food on the floor.
You: Place a bit of not-too-interesting food on the floor. Say, “Leave it.” If the pup dives for it, cover it with your hand. When the dog backs off, praise and reward with a really yummy treat.
Dog: Does not dive for the food (or stops herself quickly). Ideally she will sit and look up at you. Good job! Reward and praise!
Potential problem: Your dog gets the food. Oh well, try again. If your dog is just too quick, give yourself more room between her and the treat. Or tie her to something so she can’t grab the treat. Once she learns the basic deal of “resisting temptation will get you good things,” you can try it with her free again.
Your pup will, at some point, pick up that you don’t want him to have something and that you don’t want to pry open his mouth to get it. “Out” (meaning “spit it out”) prevents wrestling over some disgusting thing. It also helps prevent possessive aggression by teaching your pup the behavior you want in a positive way.
Goal: To play the exchange game of “give up that and I’ll give you this much better thing.”
You: Get your dog interested in a not-too-interesting object like a sock or a non-favored toy. If he’ll put it in his mouth—great! If not, when he is focused on it, tell him, “Out,” and give him a treat.
Yes, it’s basically a “leave it” at this point, but that will change. In fact, it is good to teach this after your pup understands the “leave it” game, as he’ll pick up the deal you are offering more quickly.
Dog: Begins to think that “out” equals “treat.”
Potential problem: Your dog does not take the treat. If this is the case, either the treat isn’t interesting enough, the dog isn’t hungry enough, or the object you gave him is too interesting. Try doing this before a meal, using a better treat, or offering a less interesting object. Your goal is always to be successful, not to test an untrained dog.
Work at this level for a while until he spits out mildly interesting things willingly. Once he begins to understand the game, try hiding the treat but rewarding him the instant he complies.
It is critical that you do not reward resistance. This is easier to do than you might think. Your dog has the item. You say, “Out.” The dog does nothing. You show him the treat. The dog holds on. You show him a better treat, and . . . your dog just learned that if he holds on, you’ll produce a better treat. Uh-oh.
A reward is anything your dog enjoys. Your pup’s list may include (but not be limited to) belly rubs, laughter, treats, ear rubs, praise, tennis balls, rawhide, dinner, curling up on your lap, chasing you around the apartment, an ice cube, gentle stroking, a chunk of apple, a chance to go out the front door . . . be creative. Use anything he enjoys as a way to reward a job well done. The more creative you are, the more interested and focused he will likely be.
If your pup doesn’t show any interest in treats or toys, you can still do the work. Start with your pup sitting and you next to him. Pick up his front leg farthest from you and put your hand on his shoulder closest to you. Now, with your hand on that shoulder, ease him away from you. This should settle him into a down position. This is our favorite method. Others include putting one hand on your pup’s back and, with your forearm, lifting both front legs up as you ease him down.
Any method you choose, use even pressure, praise him as you do it, and spend lots of time praising and petting him when he is down. Stay calm and keep at it, and he’ll get the hang of it. If you two aren’t making any progress, seek a professional trainer or a puppy class to give you some hands-on help.
If your pup won’t work for treats, try better treats (maybe bits of cheese or plain chicken meat) and try working him before a meal or ignoring him for half an hour before you train. If none of that helps, try a toy or play. See if something else will motivate your pup. If that doesn’t help, you can move on to placing your pup into position and praising. Generations of dog trainers have used it, and it will work for you if you keep at it. The real secret of training is sheer persistence.
A clicker is a small box that makes a clicking sound when you press it. Combined with food reward, it is used to tell the animal that he’s done something you like. Why use a click when praise tells them the same thing? you ask. It is a little bit different. Praise tells your dog you are pleased with him, while the clicker clearly marks the exact behavior you are pleased with. All we can say is, try it. (Hint: Start with it in your pocket or wrap your hand in a towel to muffle the sound to avoid stressing sound-sensitive dogs. Once your dog knows that clicks equal food, you can relax).