Dog training is more than obedience — it’s teaching him the skills he’ll need to live successfully.
Dog training has undergone something of a revolution in recent years. People used to think it was only about teaching dogs obedience commands, usually with the use of heavy handed punishment-based techniques. But these techniques have largely been overtaken by more science-based positive training methods that encourage dogs to learn through discovery, play and reward. Not only are these methods more effective, they also encourage cooperation based on mutual trust rather than pain, fear and intimidation.
When teaching your dog basic compliance or “obedience”, think less about him “obeying” you, and more about teaching him the skills he will need to live successfully in his environment. Whether your dog is a puppy or a senior, it’s never too late to teach these skills, including basic cues that will help build a positive training foundation. Learning should be fun, challenging and something the whole family is involved in.
Although it never hurts to hire a trainer, the great part about positive training is that you can try these force-free techniques at home! You’ll notice that many of my methods outlined in this article involve letting your dog figure out what you want from him. It’s a more organic way of teaching; it encourages him to think rather than having you impose your will on him, or physically manipulate him into different positions. Your dog will learn faster and be more focused on you.
The sit cue is often one of the first people want to teach their dogs. But before you start, ask yourself why you are teaching your dog this cue. Is it so you can control him in different environments? Is it a safety cue you can use in busy areas? Will it encourage him to listen? If your answer is “all of the above” you’re ready to start. You should never push your dog into a sit – it’s incredibly easy to do without the use of force.
Teach your dog to sit quickly and painlessly by following these easy steps:
1. Hold a treat or toy near your dog’s nose and wait for him to figure out how he is going to get it out of your hand. Some dogs will lick or paw at the treat, but don’t give it to him until he puts his behind on the floor.
2. When your dog finally works out that he’ll get the reward when his behind hits the floor, give him the treat or toy and praise him.
3. Repeat this process until your dog is sitting reliably, then add the word “sit” as he is in the process of sitting, so he begins to associate the word with the action.
4. When he is sitting repeatedly, start saying the word “sit” as you present the treat or toy to him. He will gradually associate the word with the action and respond to your vocal cue.
This is another basic cue that can be valuable for impulse control and for encouraging your dog to settle in any situation. There is never any need to force your dog into a down – it can (and should) be taught in a completely force-free way.
1. Use a treat or toy and ask your dog to sit.
2. Place your hand, with the reward in it, palm down on the floor. Let your dog sniff it, but do not let her have the treat or toy. Do not give a cue yet, or say anything at all.
3. Your dog will try and work out how she is going to get the reward from your hand. As soon as she lies down on her belly, give her the reward and praise her.
4. Repeat the same exercise several times: wait for the action, catch it, give her the reward, and praise her.
5. The next step is to put in the vocal cue and hand signal. As your dog is in the act of lying down, say “down” and lower your hand, palm down, onto the fl oor. Repeat this, but not so many times that your dog gets bored. If you have a large dog, the action of having to lie down and get up again multiple times might be too much for her, so go easy.
6. Finally, ask your dog to “down” using the vocal and hand signal before she has even started to lie down.
7. Release your dog by saying “okay” when you want her to get up again.
Having a dog that comes when called is a critical part of the teaching process. This is one of the most important cues you can teach your dog. Do not make the mistake of using a shock collar for recall training. These devices can cause your dog extreme physical and emotional distress.
A really reliable recall is taught in stages. If you take this training slowly and don’t rush your dog through the process, you’ll find that he’ll want to come to you.
Stage one: Catching the behavior
• Start in a distraction-free indoor environment so your dog can focus only on you.
• Whenever he comes to you on his own, wait until he is a couple of feet away, then say his name and the word “come”.
• When he gets to you, praise him as much as possible.
• With this exercise, your dog will learn that coming to you is a really good thing. After awhile, you can lengthen the distance between the two of you and start using the word “come” when he is approaching you from further away.
• Coming to you should always be rewarded, whatever the circumstance and no matter how long it took your dog to respond.
• Motivate your dog to come by acting exciting, running away from him, waving a toy, or having delicious food for him when he gets to you. This will show him that coming back to you is the best thing he can do.
Stage two: Solidifying the cue through play
• Make sure you play this game with another person your dog is comfortable with.
• Start the game in a quiet indoor environment so it is easy for your dog to focus on you.
• Hold your dog back while the other person calls him excitedly. Try not to use his name or the cue word, but talk excitedly to “gee” him up. Do not release him until the person calls his name, followed by the cue word “come”.
• When the cue word is given, release your dog and let him run to the person calling him. As soon as he gets there, the person should praise and reward him with a game of tug or a food reward.
• When your dog has had his reward, have the other person hold him back as you call him, the release him as you say his name followed by the “come” cue word. When he comes to you, reward him with another game of tug or a treat.
• Repeat this game back and forth, but only do a few repetitions so your dog does not get bored or too tired. Keeping it fresh means the game is always fun to play.
Stage three: Adding vocal cue and hand signal
• Now that your dog knows what “come” means, you can use the cue word to call him to you while adding a hand signal. Hand signals are always good to build with vocal cues – this way, even if your dog can’t hear you, he will understand what the hand signal means. This is important if your dog is some distance away from you.
• Start in a quiet indoor environment. Walk away from your dog and call his name followed by the cue word and a hand signal. Praise and reward him when he comes to you.
• Start increasing the distance you call him from, and praise him for compliance. If he does not respond, go back to the previous shorter distance and repeat.
• Only practice this cue for a few minutes so your dog does not get bored. Again, the secret to success is to always keep it fun, exciting and fresh.
• When your dog recognizes the hand signal, try calling his name and using the hand signal by itself, without the vocal cue. You will then be able to use a combination of the vocal cue only, the hand signal only or the two together.
• Now that your dog knows what the “come” cue word means, you can start to call him from different rooms or other areas where he cannot see you. This will encourage him to respond even when you are out of sight.
Stage four: Taking it outside
• Now that your dog is consistently coming to you in a distraction-free indoor environment, you can proof your recall cue by taking it outside.
• Practice the recall in your yard and then gradually build up to the point where you can use it in a park or similar environment.
• The ultimate test is to use the recall when your dog is engaged in a different activity. Wait for a lull in that activity, and then call your dog to you. Praise his decision to comply.
Training your dog does not have to be costly or intense, and the more enjoyable it is for both of you, the better the results will be.
When should you call a trainer?
Even though it’s not essential, I advise people to hire a private trainer to teach compliance cues, or else take their dogs to training classes. There are some behaviors, however, that warrant calling in a trainer immediately, especially if there are children in the home. If you have a dog with anxiety/fear issues or who is exhibiting aggressive behaviors such as snapping, growling, lunging or biting, don’t waste any time getting help.
Avoid trainers who offer quick fixes, or who use physical corrections and/or devices such as shock and prong collars. While these types of training methods and tools may work in the short term, they will cause your dog long term stress and frustration that can lead to aggressive and fearful behavior.
Hiring a qualifi ed truly positive trainer will ensure that any money you spend on training will be returned to you and your dog exponentially in the form of a healthy relationship and a harmonious household.
Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer, TV personality, author and public speaker, best known as the star of the hit TV series It's Me or the Dog. Appearing frequently in the worldwide media, Victoria is widely recognized as a leader in the field of animal behavior. She is the Editor-In-Chief of Positively (positively.com) and CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT), the world’s premier network of positive (force- and fear-free) dog trainers.