Training & Behavior

Discover how to teach the training basics.

Have you noticed that your dog always comes running when you open the crinkly bag of dog treats or when the dog food rattles in the bottom of its bowl? Food is a big motivator for most dogs — after all, it meant survival to your dog’s distant ancestors. You can use this motivation in your dog’s training, and by doing so, your dog will be an eager participant.


For many years, training with treats had not always been considered acceptable to most dog trainers or dog owners. The most common complaint was, I want my dog to work for me, not for food! However, in the 70s and 80s, a few dog trainers, including myself, began experimenting with treats in training. We found that when treats were used in the training process, not only did the dogs pay more attention, but they seemed to learn faster, with a higher rate of retention. As a very real and positive side effect, fewer corrections were needed during the training.

Today, training with treats is an accepted and widely used method of dog training. The exact techniques vary, with each trainer developing his or her own method. In general, though, most use treats as both a lure (to help the dog perform on command) and as a positive reinforcement (to reward the dog for performing on command).

The Training Process
Teaching your dog is not a difficult project, although at times it may seem to be nearly impossible. Most dogs want to be good; they just need to learn what you want them to do and what you don’t. Therefore, most of the teaching process consists of communication. You need to reward the behaviors that you want your dog to continue doing and interrupt the behaviors you wish to stop. Rewards (or positive reinforcements) can be treats or toys accompanied by verbal praise and petting. You can interrupt bad behaviors by using the leash to stop or restrain your dog, putting your hands on your dog to stop the behavior (by grabbing the collar, for example) or by using a deeper than normal tone of voice.

For example, teaching your dog to sit will prevent your dog from jumping up on people. When guests come to the house, put the leash on your dog and tell it to sit. When your dog sits, praise it in a higher than normal tone of voice and give it a treat. If it should try to jump up on your guests, use the leash to restrain your dog, tell it, No jump! in a deeper tone of voice and have your dog sit again.

Did you notice the emphasis on two different tones of voice? As verbal animals themselves, dogs are very aware of different voice tones. When the leader of a wolf pack lets a subordinate know that it has made a mistake, the leader emits a deep growl to convey that message. When everything is fine and the pack has hunted, the leader may convey this with higher pitched barks or even yelps. When you copy this technique, use a deep growling voice to let the dog know it has made a mistake and a higher pitched tone of voice to reinforce good behavior. Your dog doesn’t have to stop and translate this information: it understands instinctively. Don’t confuse high and low tones of voice with volume, though. Your dog can hear very well — much better than you can — therefore it is not necessary to yell. Instead, simply make yourself sound like you mean business.

Don’t rely on just corrections (verbal or otherwise) to train your dog. Dogs and people alike learn more from our successes than we do from our mistakes, and we are more likely to repeat our successes. Don’t hesitate to set your dog up for a success to give you the opportunity to praise and reward it. If you want to make sure it doesn’t jump on people, for example, have your dog sit before people approach to pet it. Reward your dog for sitting with praise and a treat. If your dog then makes a mistake and jumps up, you can let it know this is a mistake, but have it sit again so that you can reward this behavior.

Basic Obedience Commands
The basic obedience exercises will help your dog become a better canine citizen — both at home and in public. The basic exercises are also very important when changing problem behaviors. In addition, these commands are the foundation for everything else you may want to teach your dog.

Sit: The sit exercise teaches your dog to assume the sitting position and hold still until released from the position. When your dog sits, it isn’t jumping up on people, and it is easier to feed your dog without it knocking the bowl out of your hands. Having your dog sit also makes it easier to get its attention — an important lesson in self-control.

Put your dog on a leash, holding the leash in one hand. Shorten it so that your dog is within two feet of you. Have a pocketful of treats within reach of the hand not holding the leash. In this exercise, you will use a treat as a lure. With your dog standing in front of you, have a treat in hand and command your dog, “Fido, sit!” as you take a treat and hold it above your dog’s nose. Slowly move your hand back toward your dog’s tail, over its head. As your dogs head goes up to follow the treat, its hips will go down. As your dog sits, be enthusiastic with your praise, “Good boy to sit!” At the same time, pop that treat in its mouth. Practice this two or three times and then quit, giving your dog a break, tossing a toy or rubbing your dogs tummy. Then practice it again two or three more times.

Release: The release lets your dog know when the command is completed. For example, the beginning of the sit exercise is when you tell your dog, Fido, sit! The end of the exercise is when you pat your dog on the shoulder and say, “Fido, release!” As you begin training, you can use the leash to encourage your dog to get up from the sitting position after you give it the release command.

The release command is also a release from pressure. Your dog, especially if it is trying hard to please you, will feel some emotional stress during training. When you give your dog the release from a command, pet, rub and massage it. Use your voice to tell your dog that you’re pleased. This release doesn’t have to be long — a few seconds is fine, just long enough to let your dog know you are happy.

Down: When combined with the stay command (which will be taught next), the down teaches your dog to be still for gradually increased periods of time. Your dog will be able to lie down and stay while people are eating, so there is no begging under the table. You can have it lie down at your feet while you’re watching television in the evening; or you can have it stay quietly while guests are visiting. The down/stay is a very useful command.

Start by having your dog sit, then show it the treat in your right hand. As you say, Fido, down! take the treat from its nose down to the floor right before its front paws. Use the treat as a lure to lead your dogs nose to the floor. As its head follows the treat, rest your left hand lightly on its shoulders. If your dog tries to pop back up before you give the release command, the left hand on its shoulders will keep your dog down. Once your dog is down, praise enthusiastically and pop the treat in its mouth.

When you are ready for your dog to get up, pat it on the shoulder and say, Fido, release! This command works the same from the down as it does from the sit, and it tells your dog that the exercise is completed.

Stay: Stay means hold still. Your dog will do this exercise in both the sit and the down. In either position, your dog should hold the position until you give it permission to move by giving the release command.

Start by having your dog sit. Praise and treat your dog for sitting, then make sure you have all remaining treats in your pocket so your hands are empty. With an open palm toward your dogs nose, say, Fido, stay! At the same time, put a little pressure backward (toward your dogs tail) with the leash so it won’t be as apt to follow you when you take a step away. When your dog seems to be holding still, release the pressure of the leash. After a few seconds, go back to your dog, give some enthusiastic praise and pop a treat in its mouth.

As your dog learns the stay command (in both the sit and down positions), gradually increase the time and distance in which you step away. For example, for the first few days, take one step away and have your dog hold the stay for 10 seconds. Later that week, have your dog hold the stay while you take three steps away and increase the time to 20 seconds. Increase it gradually, though; if your dog makes a few mistakes, then you are moving too fast.

Heel: A dog that pulls so hard your shoulder hurts is no fun to take for a walk. That’s torture not fun! However, when your dog learns to walk nicely, without pulling, and pays attention to you when you talk, walks are fun.

Hook the leash up to your dogs collar and hold the leash in one hand. Have some good dog treats in your other hand. Show your dog the treats and then back away so that it appears you are leading your dog by the nose. Back away 10 steps or so and when your dog follows you, praise enthusiastically and pop a treat in its mouth. After you have practiced this a few times (10 steps at a time), and when your dog is following you nicely, turn and walk forward so that your dog ends up on your left side and you are both walking forward together. After another 10 steps, stop, praise your dog and give it a treat.

Practice this often and keep the walking distances very short, with lots of sits, praise and treats. If while you’re walking, your dog gets distracted, simply back away and start all over. However, if your dog ignores some distractions and continues working and paying attention to you, give it a bonus reward. Stop training for the moment, release your dog from any commands, praise enthusiastically and pop a handful of treats into its mouth. Pet your dogpat, rub and massage itmake sure your dog understands how happy you are.

Come: It is very important that your dog understands that come means to come directly to you on the first call, every time you call. Your dog isn’t to come just when it suits its interests or when nothing else is interesting. Instead, it is to come all the time, every time.

Have your dog on the leash and hold the leash in one hand. In the other hand, hold a box of dog treats. Shake the dog treats (making the sound obvious) and as you back away from your dog (so it can chase you), call your dog to come, Fido, come! Let it catch up to you, and after a few steps, have it sit. Praise enthusiastically, Good boy to come! and give your dog a treat.

The box of dog treats is a sound stimulus that makes your verbal command much more exciting. Because the come command is so important, use the sound stimulus (the box of treats) often during your training.

When your dog is responding well on the leash, make up a long leash (20 to 30 feet in length) and repeat the training with the long leash. Continue using the box of treats. If your dog responds well, give it a bonus rewardpraise your dog enthusiastically, rub its tummy and tell your dog how wonderful it is.

Don’t be in a hurry to take the leash off your dog. Most dogs aren’t mentally mature and ready for off-leash training until they are at least 2 years old. Some aren’t ready for off-leash training even then. Your training on leash must be very, very good with few mistakes before you should ever try it off leash, doing so only in a fenced-in, secure area.

An OnGoing Process
Training your dog can be a lot of work. You must pay attention to your dog, respond to it and emphasize the behaviors you want your dog to continue doing. This means you need to help your dog be good, as well as praise and reward its good behavior. A well-trained dog is worth the effort. Not only is a well-trained dog a joy to live with, but it is fun to take places and play with. A well-trained dog can travel with you, go on picnics and to family reunions. It can participate in advanced training and dog sports. Best of all, a well-trained dog is your very best friend.

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Behavior and Training · Dogs