We’ve all heard the saying, “you can’t teach a dog old tricks,” but that simply isn’t true. Even the most high-energy, rambunctious dogs can learn good manners that keep them safe and make them a canine good citizen. But it does take work.
Training a dog requires the use of command “cues,” which are used to help your dog understand what you want her to do. These commands guide your dog into successful social behavior as well as keeping her out of harm’s way in any situation.
But before you can train your dog to do anything, you need to be able to reliably get her attention.
“The first command any pup should learn isn’t really a command at all; it’s their name! Teaching a pup to reliably respond to their name means that they will listen when you give them other commands,” says Colleen Demling, dog behaviorist for Dogtopia, a provider of dog daycare in North America. “Say your pup’s name in a happy and upbeat tone. When they look at you, give them a treat and repeat. It’s that easy!”
Once you got that down, it is time to move onto the command cues. But before you get started, make some preparations and decisions. Find a quiet place to begin training sessions. Figure out whether your dog will respond best to treats, a toy, or affection as a reward. Decide what words you are going to use and be consistent. Come up with a schedule you can stick to, with several short sessions of no more than 15 minutes every day. Finally, before you begin, make sure you are relaxed and can remain patient throughout.
The following commands will teach your dog manners, give her appropriate structure, keep her safe, and can even help solve some common behavior problems
1. Look at Me
In order to train a dog, you have to be able to get her attention first. Use a treat that your dog doesn’t get every day, like a small piece of skinless roast chicken or turkey.
Hold it up in your hand until she sees it. Then bring it up to your eye level while saying “look at me.” Keep her attention on your eyes/treat for a few seconds, and then say “good!” and give her the treat.
One of the most basic commands, the “sit” gives your dog a time-out, helps her control her impulses at places like street crossings, and teaches her social manners when meeting new people.
To start, use the “lure” method. Take a treat that you know she really loves. Hold it to her nose, and then move it up and over her head while saying “sit.” Usually, her nose will follow it, and the direction will cause her body to automatically sit.
As soon as her furry butt touches the floor, say “good” and give her the treat. Repeat until she understands what you want her to do. Then use the command alone. While holding the treat in your hand, say “sit,” and as soon as she does, say “good,” and give her the treat.
You can also add a hand motion, such as raising your hand palm up at the same time that you say “sit.” That allows you to signal her to sit when there’s a lot of noise and commotion.
Practice in different places. Eventually, don’t use a treat every time. Instead, give her a kiss, praise, or a toy. You want her to sit at any time, and you may not always have a treat handy. This is applicable for all the following commands.
A “down” position is a more settled position than “sit” for getting your dog to calm down. It’s helpful for keeping impulse behavior under control.
Teaching the command “down” also uses the lure technique. Put your dog into a “sit” in front of you. Then hold a treat close to her nose, but not close enough for her to snatch it. Move the treat downward in front of her. Her nose will follow until she’s lying down.
As soon as she’s in a full “down,” meaning her whole body is on the floor, say “good,” and give her the treat. Then begin pairing the command with a hand signal, such as holding your hand out, palm down, and lowering it as your give the verbal “Down.”
Use “down” as a positional command rather than using it when you want her to get “Off” something, like your antique chair. Teach “off” as a separate command, but not until she masters the basic commands.
This is a critically important command, as it will possible save a dog’s life. “’Come’ makes sure that your pup will always return to you when needed,” says Demling. “This means they will come back if they run out the door or get loose on a walk.”
There are several ways to teach this command. Start off by simply saying your dog’s name followed by “come” and give her a treat once she arrives by your side. This will teach your dog that all good things “come” to pups when they hear this word. You can also use a long leash, so you know she won’t run away from you.
The next step is to have your dog sit or lie down. Sit down a few feet away, say the word “come” and hold out the treat. Give it to her when she is close and remember to use the word “good” as reinforcement. Gradually increase the distance until she is reliably understanding what you want her to do.
Another method is to sit on the ground a few feet away and hold out your hand with your palm to her. Say the word “come” or “touch.” Most dogs will put their nose to your hand. When she does, give her the treat. Use your hand as a tool along with the command. This works well in places where it’s chaotic or noisy.
Be sure to never use the “come” command for anything your dog perceives as negative. Don’t use it, for instance, to give your pup medicine. Your dog will reliably come to you if she understands that it results in something good, like kisses, toys, pets, or treats.
5. Leave It
This is another command that can save your dog’s life. Dogs will pick up all kinds of things on the street, and things like discarded chicken bones can be dangerous to her health. Your furry may also steal your dinner, your shoes, or even your sunglasses.
To teach this command, use a “bait and switch” tactic. Use “leave It” before your dog has picked up something.
Put a treat on the floor and cover it with your hand. Have another treat in your other hand that is more attractive to your dog. As soon as the dog sniffs the treat on the floor under your hand and tries to get it, say “leave it” and show her the other treat. Wait until she stops trying to get at the treat on the floor, say “good” and give her the better treat from your other hand.
When she reliably leaves the treat on the floor alone, start doing the exercise without covering the treat on the floor with your hand — but be ready to slap your hand over it if she gets sneaky. The idea is to prevent her from getting the treat that you want her to leave alone. When she backs off or shows disinterest, say “good” and reward her from your other hand with a better treat.
Next, do the exercise standing up, but put your dog on a leash. Cover the treat on the floor with your foot. Use the leash if you drop the treat by accident or she tries to get it. Tell her to “leave it” before she goes near your foot. As soon as she backs off or shows disinterest, give her the better treat from your other hand.
Repeat the training outside in different places. Use different things to practice, such as a toy, to reinforce that the command applies to anything you don’t want your dog to pick up.
6. Drop It
This command is for those situations when your dog already has something in her mouth that you don’t want her to have. The “drop it” command can save your dog from eating something on the street that can make her sick, or worse.
You’ll need a toy and a treat for this. Wait until your dog has the toy in her mouth, then show her the treat and say, “drop it.” If she doesn’t drop it immediately, move the treat closer to her nose until she drops the toy in her mouth to take the treat.
Do this a few times. When she understands and will drop the toy in her mouth consistently when you say the command, then it is time to up the challenge. Move a foot or two away when tell her to “drop it,” but don’t bring the treat to her nose. Wait for her to drop the toy before you give her the treat. Always mark the correct behavior, using a word like “good” or “yes” or using a clicker.
When your dog can do this reliably, try the command at times when you aren’t doing a training session. Use it when your dog is chewing on a chew toy, for example. Be sure to use high-value treats when practicing.
Work up to training without a treat, using a favorite toy or some high-powered praise and affection.
This is one of the more difficult commands, since many dogs tend to follow us around. It is important for your dog to first master a “sit” before moving on to this command.
Start by simply putting the dog in a “sit.” Use a hand signal, like raising your hand upright with palm toward your dog, along with saying the word “stay.” For the first few times, repeat the word so your dog learns the new word, but always use a happy, calm tone.
Then take one or two steps away while keeping your hand out and repeating the command. If she starts to follow you, say “no,” in a gentle voice. Put her back in a “sit,” hold out your hand, and say “stay,” while stepping away. Keep doing this until she remains sitting. Then give her a treat and enthusiastic praise.
When she has mastered keeping her “sit,” move on to teaching her a release word. Put her in a “sit,” step away, wait a few moments, and then say “okay” while lowering your hand in the “touch” position. When your dog comes to you, give her the treat and say “good!” Practice by increasing the distance, and then take it outside.
Set Your Dog Up for Success
If you make training fun for your dog, it will be easier, faster, and…well…more fun. Remember to do your training sessions in a quiet place with no distractions.
Keep them short and sweet. Practice all commands at least 15 minutes, three times a day. This consistency with training will help your pup learn the basic commands and house rules, says Demling. Also, she says to make sure to break down any commands into small and easy parts that your pup can easily learn and understand. Taking this slow and calculated approach will help you reach your training goals faster.
Besides training at home, consider taking dog to a training class — no matter her age.
“Proper socialization and training are very important for puppies,” says Demling. “This is especially true if you live in an area where your pup doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to interact with other dogs or people.”
Even when your dog gets older and is a command master, an obedience class can be fun and helpful. “Lifelong learning is good for everyone, including our pups,” says Demling. “Taking your dog through a group class at least once a year not only keeps their skills fresh but also solidifies your bond and engages their mind.”
Lastly, Demling says that we need to forgive the failures and celebrate the wins. Remember that your puppy or dog is never trying to dominate, be stubborn, or blow you off. Be kind when she messes up, and remember to tell her how incredible she is when she does something correctly— even if it took her 20 times to do it right.