Training your dog starts with knowing the most important basic behaviors to teach him. The first part of this article looks at why “stay” and “come” top the list.

When training your dog, how do you know the most important things to teach him? This two-part article will look at the top four basic behaviors every dog should know – stay, come, leave it, and heel – and why they’re so crucial.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Easy-peasy. But as with everything else in life, things aren’t always as simple they seem, which is partly what this article is all about. Words mean different things to different people, and to their dogs. For example, you’ll notice I use the word “behaviors”, not “commands”. Because of my background, the word “command” implies some kind of tyrannical dictator issuing an edict with a clear understanding that, if the edict isn’t followed, dire consequences will ensue!

When I first started training over 40 years ago, that’s exactly what would happen; and the dire consequences would include the use of choke chains, pinning dogs to the ground, threatening them with yelled “NOs”, and all that other garbage. But in positive, reward-based, force-free training, which many trainers including myself switched to in the 1980s, there are no threats. Only signals.

Here are the top four basic behaviors I suggest every adopter teach their dog(s) to do.

  1. Stay
  2. Come (recall) and emergency recall
  3. Leave it
  4. Heeling and walk-without-pulling

For emergencies and safety, I suggest taking your dog to a PhD-like level of behavioral reliability, called stimulus control (see sidebar), for two of these basic behaviors: stay and come-when-called.

What stimulus control means

  • The dog understands the cue and responds immediately.
  • The dog doesn’t perform the behavior in the absence of the cue.
  • The dog doesn’t do the behavior in response to some other cue.
  • The dog doesn’t do some other behavior in response to the cue.


Teaching a dog to stay in position is one of the most important basic behaviors to teach your dog.

That being said, many trainers teach two similar concepts with slightly different meanings. One signal is “stay” and another is “wait”.

The difference between the two often has to do with the degree of rigidity or formality. When “wait” is used, it’s kind of like saying “hold on a minute”. “Stay” really means “freeze in that particular position”.

Some trainers use “wait” in situations involving boundaries, such as in the case of a dog waiting to get out of a car or go through a door. Other trainers use “wait” as a form of “leave it”. For example, if a dog is going for food on a table or running to greet someone at the door, the trainer might use “wait”, followed by a release or another signal to do something else instead.

To add to the confusion, some trainers don’t use “stay” or “wait” at all. They teach that once a dog is asked to sit, lie down or stand still, there’s a strict implication that he is to stay in that position until released. There is no follow-up signal of “stay” or “wait”.

All these are perfectly fine as long as your communication to the dog is clear. They all work. It’s just a matter of starting at your dog’s learning baseline and progressing towards reliability, gradually adding the three D’s – Duration, Distance and Distractions. Depending on a number of factors, reliability usually takes two to 12 months, and sometimes longer.

For me, “stay” means to stay in position, whether the dog is standing, sitting or lying down. The critical thing to remember is that whatever you choose to do, there must be a beginning and an end. I tell clients: “If you ever say ‘stay’ you have to say ‘okay’.” In other words, no matter what word you use, you must remember to release your dog. Your release word(s) can be “okay”, “find it”, “come”, “you’re free” or “that’ll do”. Just remember to always release.

Here’s a classic example of why dogs get confused. People don’t want their dogs following them when they leave the house, and often say “stay” so their dogs don’t run out the door. Once the door is shut, the dog looks around and essentially says to himself: “Well, there’s nobody around, so I’m getting up.” Then people don’t understand why their dogs won’t stay when asked.

Teaching come-when-called

  1. Use $10,000 treats (chicken, turkey, hamburger, cheese, etc.).

  2. Say “here” (or whatever your chosen word is) and immediately stick a treat in your dog’s mouth. It’s important you’re close enough to your dog that the treat is delivered within a half a second. Don’t ask him to come and get it at this point. Be sure to say “here” before moving your hands.

  3. Repeat up to 50 times a day, spread throughout the day, in different areas of the house and yard, for three to five times per exercise. You’ll do this every day for the rest of your dog’s life. It’s like putting money in your savings account so it’s there for an emergency withdrawal. Note that I say “up to” 50 times a day. It’s only during the first two to three months that very frequent repetition is important; after that, it doesn’t have to mean giving your dog 50 treats every day forevermore. As time goes by, a few times a day is all that’s necessary.

  4. Do not test this method for 60 days. At the 60-day mark, while your dog is in the midst of playing or eating, stand six to 20 feet away and say “here”. He should turn like a zombie and come running to you. If he doesn’t respond, do not repeat the word. It simply means those neural pathways haven’t “grown” enough. Wait another 30 days and try again. Here’s a video clip to help you out:

Recall, aka come-when-called

A reliable recall can be life-saving if your dog gets loose and starts running towards a skunk or the street. You can teach a PhD-level recall, and many positive trainers teach excellent techniques on YouTube. And here’s my method to help get you on your way, not only with “come-when-called”, but also with “stay” and “leave it”(we’ll go more into “leave it” in the next issue):

However, it has been my experience that most people simply don’t spend the time going through all these steps, so I also teach an emergency recall – see sidebar. This has more to do with classical than operant conditioning, and if done correctly, I have found it works at least 90% of the time.

Before you start, pick any word. I use “here” but you can use any word as long as it’s not something you use frequently: e.g. you might use “babaloo”, “bank”, “treat”, etc. There’s a great trainer on YouTube who teaches something a little similar using the word “bacon”. It may sound strange, but basically it’s the same training principle people have used for decades, without even knowing they were doing it. If your dog didn’t come when asked, for example, you might have gone into the kitchen and shook a box while yelling “treat!”

In the next issue (Apr-May 2017), we’ll cover the basic behaviors of “leave it” and polite walking (heeling and walk-without-pulling). Stay tuned!

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