How to Train Your Dog The Basics
Dog training is an essential part of dog ownership, and it's a great way to strengthen the bond between you and your pup. Your pet can benefit from learning basic dog training commands at any age. If you want to train your dog, remember to use plenty of positive reinforcement and build on small, successful steps.
Many different training methods can be used to teach your dog basic obedience, but positive reinforcement—using verbal praise, treats, toys, or petting—is most effective. Dogs tend to respond well to reward-based training.1 For the best results, follow these tips:
- Always have fun while training.
- Start by training your dog in a quiet area free from distractions.
- Vary your training sessions and treats, adding little challenges along the way, so your dog looks forward to training with you.
- Keep the sessions short.
- Always end on a positive, nurturing note, so your pup stays motivated.
- Focus on rewards, using love, treats, toys, and praise.
You can teach your canine companion many things, but sit, stay, come, place, walk nicely on a leash, and leave it are good commands to start with. Some of these are particularly good if you and your family enjoy outdoor activities with your dog. For ease of training, let's use “Fido" to refer to your dog when discussing the following commands.
How to Train Your Dog to Sit
"Sit" is a useful command that gives you control of Fido for your convenience and his safety. It also gives him a positive alternative to behaviors you don't want, like jumping on you or spinning in circles while you try to put his leash on.
- Hold a small treat in front of Fido's nose. Slowly raise it just enough to clear his head, move it slowly toward his tail, and say, “Sit." As your dog's head comes up, his rear end will go down.
- As soon as his fanny hits the floor, praise him and give him the treat. If he stands up before he gets the treat, don't give it to him. Have him sit, then give him the treat while he's sitting.
- Space several sessions of three or four repetitions throughout the day. When he responds quickly, stop guiding him with the treat, but do reward him once he sits.
When your dog sits promptly on command, slowly increase the length of time he has to stay sitting to get the treat. Eventually, you can wean away the treat. Do praise him, though, and give him an occasional goody. Keep the game interesting for him.
How to Train Your Dog to Come
Training your dog to "come" when you call him isn't hard. It's a lot more convenient to have a dog that comes running than one that ignores you. More importantly, a dog that comes when called will be safer than one that doesn't.
- To begin training, start with your dog on a leash. Say, “Fido, come!" one time in a happy, playful voice. Do whatever you have to do to get him to come to you without repeating the command. For example, go the other way, squat down, or play with a toy.
- When he gets to you, reward him—talk happily and give him a treat, a toy, or a belly rub. Then let him play. He should learn that if he comes when called, good things happen.
- Repeat two or three times, then quit for a while. Do this several times a day.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? But how many dogs do you know that come every time they are called? Probably not many. And that's because most people inadvertently teach their dogs to ignore them. Here are some ways to avoid doing that:
- Never punish your dog for coming to you, and never call him to do something he dislikes. Wait a few minutes before you do the “bad thing" (like nail clipping or confinement). Otherwise, get him for these activities rather than call him.
- Always praise your dog for coming when you call.
- Use the same word every time. “Come" and “here" are common. Don't confuse him with different commands each time.
- Call only once. If you say, “Fido, come! Come, Fido! Fido! Come!" your dog will learn that you don't mean it.
Even when your dog is fairly well trained to come, never, ever let him off his leash in an unenclosed area. A single failure to come when called can have tragic results.
How to Train Your Dog to Lie Down
"Down,"like "sit," is a very useful command for both safety and convenience. A dog that lies down and stays where you tell him is safely out from underfoot. A dog that learns to lie down on command is also a dog that learned to respect people as his benevolent bosses, and he is less likely to think he's in charge.
You can teach Fido to lie down from a sit.
- Hold a treat in front of his nose, and slowly move your hand down and toward him while telling him “down." As his head follows the treat, he should lie down.
- As soon as he's down, praise him and give him the treat.
- When he responds quickly and reliably, say “down," but don't move your hand toward him. Slowly increase the length of time he has to stay down before getting the treat, and praise and reward him while he's down, not after he jumps up.
Down is a hard command for some dogs because it is a submissive position. You may find your dog lies down at home but doesn't want to at obedience class. Be patient. As he gains confidence and learns that other dogs won't pick on him, he should be more willing to lie down, especially if you use really yummy treats.
How To Train Your Dog to Stay
The "stay" command tells Fido not to move from a place and position—like sit or down—until you say he can.
- Put your dog in position and say, “Stay."
- If he moves, gently put him back into the place and position where he was.
- Repeat the command just once. He needs to remember what you told him to do. When he has stayed put for a few seconds, praise him and give him a treat.
- Next, release him. Teach him a word such as “free" or “okay" to tell him he's off the hook.
Start with very short stays—a few seconds—while standing very close to him. Slowly increase the time until he stays for five minutes. Then move a step or two away, have him stay for one minute, and slowly build up again to five minutes. When he does that, add another step or two, shorten the time, and build up again.
Always shorten the time when you increase the distance, and don't increase time or distance too quickly—add one step at a time. If your dog moves up, fidgets, or whines before the time is up, stand a little closer until he's comfortable again with that distance for that length of time. This is a stressful thing for most dogs to learn, so be patient.
Practice in different environments, so your dog learns to stay where you tell him in any situation. Remember to keep him on a lead if you are in an unfenced area.
How to Train Your Dog to Place
The "place"command teaches your dog to go to a specific location when you say "place" or when he hears a specific cue, like a ringing doorbell.
"Place"is one of the simpler commands to learn. You can even teach him "place" first if you prefer. Use a pet cot that Fido can easily identify as his "place." First, take a big step toward the cot and hold a treat over it. When he gets on the cot, praise him. Then say "free" and invite him to leave the cot. Do this with increasingly smaller steps toward the cot until he jumps on it just from your slight gesture. Then start saying "place" first before stepping toward the cot, giving him a treat when he jumps on the cot. Do this until he quickly responds just to "place." Over time, you can train him with sounds instead of the word "place" if you prefer.
How to Train Your Dog to Walk Nicely on a Leash
All dogs should be taught basic leash skills. You should be able to take Fido for a walk around the block or into a crowded veterinary office without having your legs wrapped up, or your shoulder dislocated. When he is properly leash trained, your dog will walk steadily on one side of you with the leash slack. Like many other aspects of good training, teaching him to do this will require some time and effort, but the payoff is a dog that is a pleasure to walk.
- With Fido on a leash, begin walking with him at your side.
- If he starts to pull on the leash—ignoring you—turn quickly and walk in the other direction. He will be surprised and notice you're going the other way, and he'll come back to your side.
- As he rejoins you, give him a treat and tell him, “Good Fido!"
- Keep walking and keep reversing directions every time he pulls. Eventually, he will decide he'd better pay attention to the crazy human who keeps doing an about-face when he least expects it.
Tip: Work at keeping the leash slack. Every time it gets tight, it's time to tell Fido he's not the leader by reversing direction. You're the one leading the walk, not him.
How To Train Your Dog to Leave It
"Leave it" is another basic command that can come in handy, but you have to teach it in conjunction with the "take it"command.2 If you're on the other side of the room and your dog is about to get into something that could hurt him, you'll be glad you taught this.
- Put a treat in your fist and show it to Fido, letting him paw and play with your hand.
- Once he stops, praise him. Then open your fist, say, "take it," and let him have the treat. Fido should paw at your hand less and less the more you do this.
- Finally, start holding the treat in an open hand. Over time, he should start ignoring your hand. Say "take it" when you're ready for him to take the treat.
- Next, do the same steps but with the treat on the floor and your hand covering the treat. When you say "take it," give him a different treat.
- Eventually, you'll be able to do this without your hand covering the treat. And then you can do it when you're standing a few feet away from the treat. At this point, add in "leave it" when you want him to leave the treat alone. (Some dog trainers might advise saying "leave it" earlier in the process.)
- Try this again outside while your dog is on a leash. Then try it with other objects, like his favorite toys.
If you have trouble with any of these commands, it's perfectly okay to sign up for obedience classes or hire a dog trainer. And remember, your dog can learn much faster if he's not distracted by itchy skin or fleas, so treat him with a flea and tick shampoo or a topical treatment if needed.
Once you have the basics mastered, you can move on to more complicated commands. For example, you can teach your dog not to counter surf.
Your dog is never too old to learn new tricks—whether he's a puppy or an adult, these techniques will work. Just keep his health and energy levels in mind when choosing your activities.
1. RSPCA. "Dog Training." RPSCA.org.uk, https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/dogs/training.
2. Gibeault, Stephanie. "'Leave It': Training Your Dog to Ignore Items form Dropped Food to Bicycles & More." AKC, 22 November 2019, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/learning-the-leave-it-command/.