Dogs share our lives and need to learn manners, the social lubricant that makes it easier to get along, whether interacting with humans or other dogs. As your dog’s owner, it’s up to you to demonstrate which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
Many training methods can be used to teach your dog basic obedience, but positive reinforcement—using verbal praise, treats, toys, or petting—is most effective. For the best results, always have fun while using any training method. Vary your training sessions and treats, and add little challenges along the way so that your dog looks forward to training with you.
You can teach your canine companion many things, but sit, stay, down, come, and walk nicely on leash are a good place to start, particularly if you and your family enjoy outdoor activities for dogs. For ease of training, let’s use “Fido” to refer to your dog when discussing the following commands.
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.
How to Teach Sit
- 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 most of the time. Do praise him, though, and give him an occasional goody. Keep the game interesting for him.
Teach your dog to come when you call him. It’s a lot more convenient to have a dog who comes running than one who blows you off. More importantly, a dog who comes when called will be safer than one who doesn’t.
How to Teach Come
- 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 go 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 who come every time they are called? Probably not many. And that is 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, go get him for these activities rather than calling 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 pretty 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.
Down, like sit, is a very useful command for both safety and convenience. A dog who lies down and stays where you tell him is safely out from underfoot. A dog who learns to lie down on command is also a dog who has learned to respect people as his benevolent bosses, and he is less likely to think he’s in charge.
How to Teach Down
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 that your dog lies down at home but doesn’t want to at obedience class. Be patient. As he gains confidence and learns that the other dogs won’t pick on him, he should be more willing to lie down, especially if you use really yummy treats.
The stay command tells Fido not to move from a place and position—like sit or down—until you say he may do so.
How to Teach Stay
- Put your dog in position and say “Stay.”
- If he moves, gently put him back in 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—with you standing very close. Slowly increase the time until he will stay 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 that your dog learns to stay where you tell him in any situation. Keep him on lead if you are in an unfenced area.
Walk Nicely on 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 who is a pleasure to walk.
How to Teach Walk Nicely on Leash
- 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 that 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 that 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 that he’s not the leader by reversing direction. You’re the one leading the walk, not him.