7 Essential Commands Your Dog Should Know
Teach these to your dog, and both of you will be safer and happier outdoors
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Commands offer a basic language for you to communicate with your dog, and when they’re paired with a solid foundation of socialization, you end up with a very good boy or girl. While dogs can learn upwards of 150 words, they really only need to know these seven.
Whether a puppy or an adult rescue, the first thing any dog needs to learn is its name. The goal is to teach your dog to turn its attention to you anytime you say it. Since this is the first and most basic command, it’s also a great primer on teaching the rest.
Start in a distraction-free environment, like your kitchen or living room, when your dog is calm and attentive. Providing her with some exercise or play first will help her focus. It’s also important that you remain focussed. Only provide the dog with treats, attention, or any other validation when she responds to her name, and for no other behavior. To avoid creating confusion, make sure you provide that reward or validation immediately.
Now, simply say the dog’s name, and once it turns its attention to you, give it a reward. During the initial, formalized period of training make that a high value treat like a small piece of bacon.
Initially conduct formal training sessions multiple times a day, while keeping them short. Once a dog gets distracted or bored, it’ll stop learning. Practicing a command just a handful of times in any one session should be enough. Once your dog reliably responds to her name in that distraction-free place, slowly scale to noisier, busier, more exciting areas. From your kitchen, move to your backyard. From your backyard, move to a leashed walk. From a leashed walk, start visiting areas where you’ll encounter other dogs at a distance.
Start your dog on a short lead. When your dog becomes reliable on that lead, start using a longer training lead. After she’s mastered that, visit an area that’s securely fenced. Once your dog is reliable inside that fence, you may be ready to move to a public area where dogs are allowed off-leash. Use your judgement in making progress so that you never put a dog in an unsafe situation.
Use that same method to train any other commands, too.
Let the dog see you put a treat on the ground, but cover it with your hand before she can get it. Once the dog stops trying to get that treat, give her another from a distinctly different source (your pocket or counter).
When your dog starts ignoring covered treats, say “leave it,” then give her that other treat.
Scale into situations where you’re standing, where you’re a few feet away from the treat, and into environments with more distractions, just like when you taught the dog her name.
This command is important for conditioning your dog to avoid things and situations you tell her to. That may be as simple as not picking up a piece of food you drop while cooking to more consequential stuff, like avoiding a skunk.
Training a dog is simply a case of reinforcing desired behavior. While there are several ways to do it, they all use a similar methodology: when your dog does what you want, create a positive association between command and behavior by reinforcing it. I prefer to apply direct rewards by providing treats.
Load yourself up with treats in a distraction-free environment, and when your dog naturally comes toward you, say “come,” and give her a treat. Once you create that association between the command and the behavior, slowly move to places and situation with more distractions. In your backyard, for instance, find a time when your dog is distracted by a noise or smell, and try command-reward pattern again.
The real trick with come is to make sure the reward is more exciting than the distractions. By consistently applying high-value treats and other reinforcements, you’ll ensure that your dog remains stoked about coming back to you, rather than chasing a squirrel.
That positive reinforcement is key to the rest of these commands. Through training, you want to create a partner and friend who’s able to express their own personality and interact with the world on their own terms, not through a cloud of fear. The result will not only be a happier little buddy, but a more reliable one, too.
Avoid creating an association between come and the end of a dog’s fun playtime. Take a few seconds to ruffle a dog’s ears, give her praise, and provide other positive reinforcements before putting her on a leash.
In time, training a reliable come is what will allow you to let your dog off-leash on trails and in the outdoors while keeping her under control.
Hold a treat in your hand at the level of your dog’s nose. Raise the other hand up over their head, which will naturally encourage her to look up, raise her head, and lower her haunches. Once that butt is on the ground, allow her to take the treat. Progress by saying “sit” and providing treats once she’s done so.
Sit is important because you want your dog to ask for things she wants. Create the association between sitting and getting something by requiring the dog to sit before feeding her, giving her attention, or allowing her out the back door.
It’s also useful to create a nonverbal association for sit. Do that using the above method and raising your hand with the palm out. I find silent commands useful in noisy, crowded environments, or when I’m trying to keep quiet in the outdoors.
Once you have a reliable sit, you can train your dog to lie down on command. Tell your dog to sit, and give her verbal praise for doing so. Hold the treat in a closed hand and front of her nose, and move it down to the floor, so that she must lay down to continue to sniff it. Once she has, say “down” and give her the treat. Continue the method until she learns to associate the word with the action.
This is useful for demonstrating that your animal is tame and in control, and getting her to calm down and stay out of the way around the kitchen, dinner table, or couch, or in the car.
Once you have a reliable sit and down, you can also train up (follow the same method, but raise the treat back up). Then, you can put a dog through puppy pushups by running through sit, down, and up in order, repetitiously. This can help return a dog’s focus to you when she’s been distracted by other animals.
While any dog owner should plan on regularly carrying high-value treats, you can apply positive reinforcement to any situation, any time, by giving the dog love and attention. Once a dog is trained, you should seek to make the association between commands and behaviors stronger every time your interact with it. And that can simply be achieved through praise and head scratches delivered every time your dog does something you ask her to.
Choose a starting position. This is usually sit or down. Once you’ve put your dog into that, and rewarded her for them. Hold your hand up with your palm out, say “stay,” and give her a treat every few seconds while she maintains that position. Once she’s reliably sitting or laying, stop doing the hand signal, stop looking at her, and add a longer period between treats. Increase that period over time, and practice in more complex environments.
It will be harder to add distance. Start one step at a time, and return to your dog to treat her rather than calling her, to avoid confusion. Progress by walking around a corner or through a door so you’re out of sight.
The process for training any command is simple. The hard part is the patience and consistency required from you. If you want to create a dog that will reliably stay for minutes at a time, you’ll need to slowly scale this method over months, if not years, of positive reinforcement.
While stay is useful for keeping your dog still, it should not be trusted in your absence. If you’re going to a cafe or store while keeping her outside, always take the time to securely tie her up for her own safety.
Teaching a dog to walk on its leash without pulling will make walks a lot easier. It can also be scaled into training your dog to walk by your side off-leash.
With your dog on leash, and that leash in your hand, start walking, while using the other hand to offer treats. Associate “heel” with the treat. Then, if your dog begins to pull, stop, give the command, and wait for her to return to your side before treating her. Don’t yank the leash or provide any other physical correction. The dog must position herself by your side, on a loose leash, to receive the treat.
Practice walking on a loose leash first in a distraction0free environment, like a quiet street, before slowly progressing to more crowded or dynamic areas, or even to off-leash trails.