Written by FOTP Team
We love an Obedience class, but you can do essential dog-training at home. Want to know which commands are the most important – and how to practice them every day? Here’s our starter guide to dog-training!
You’ll need some really juicy treats (called ‘high value’ treats to those in the training know), a leash, collar, and outstanding patience. Ready to train your dog?
We recommend reward-based training. Why? Negative training just isn’t as effective. We’ve seen a number of studies proving that dogs become more defensive if they’re accustomed to punishments. In practice, a dog who is being scolded won’t enjoy training, and it will take longer to get the results you want. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, pups are trained using positive techniques (no reprimands) – trainers find that pups are now trained in half the time!
Reward-based training means no scolding, no smacking, and no force (like the alpha roll, which has recently been discredited). It means you’re rewarding the correct behavior, and it is extremely effective in producing a happy dog who is keen to please you.
Of course, it’s not always easy to stay positive. Training your dog can be a frustrating process, and it’s easy to slip into reprimands when you are tired or your dog isn’t “getting it”. Plus, your dog will know if you’re stressed. So it’s a good idea to keep your training sessions short and sweet. Choose a time when you have a positive attitude and spend only 5-10 minutes on training sessions, to avoid frustrations.
It’s also importance to take guidance from your dog, especially if they’re still a puppy. They’ll let you know when they’ve had enough, they’ll either become distracted more easily or they’ll stop following commands all together. If your dog doesn’t want to train any more, you can’t force them, just call it a day and try again tomorrow.
Do you really need to train your dog? Isn’t it easier to let them do what they like – after all, dogs were once feral, weren’t they?
Yes and no. Dogs were feral, but since we now expect them to live in human society, we need to lay down some basic rules.
Basic dog training will help you to look after your dog and other people. Consider the types of training that you need:
Training will help your dog to be a polite and respected part of your family as well as reducing stress (yours and theirs).
This doesn’t have to be difficult, although it is time-consuming. Most dogs love to please their humans – and yours is likely to enjoy a fun and busy training session. Many breeds have evolved with a certain purpose (like the Norwegian Lundehund, which was bred to climb cliffs in search of puffins) and they have an instinct to fulfill it. For smart dogs like Poodles and Australian Shepherds, training and agility offers excellent mental stimulation and keeps them from being bored (and maybe destructive).
First, pick the right biscuits. It might not be biscuits – the best reward to use for training will be a “high value” treat. That’s one which is special to your dog. The one they’ll gaze at longingly; perhaps it’s your cheese sandwich, or the strips of beef in the pan on Fajita Fridays.
Plain old dog food won’t cut it; training with kibble will soon become boring for your dog. So pick out their favorite treat, and keep a special stash for training sessions. If you are worried about overfeeding, cut up the treat into small pieces, they don’t need a huge handful, just the smallest taste will be enough to reinforce the reward once you get into the swing of things.
Another thing you might need is a clicker. These are often used by dog trainers and they help your dog to identify the correct behavior. For example, if you are training your dog to stop barking, you will use a clicker to make a sound when the dog is quiet. Your dog will notice that clicker = treat, and then they will notice what they’re doing when they hear the clicker sound.
Studies have shown that dogs don’t care much about verbal praise. You’ll probably praise them anyway, but keep the treats coming.
Dog trainers often say that they are training owners, not dogs. You need to learn not to give accidental rewards for undesired behavior – like stroking your dog when they jump to greet you, or walking more quickly when your dog pulls. That’s a reward – and a professional dog trainer will soon train you out of it!
Here are the five key dog commands that will help every dog (and owner).
Recall is one of the first commands to teach your dog. It’s obviously important as it will prevent them straying too far on a walk, or attending to unwilling dogs or people. They’ll also learn to be alert to their own name, wherever you are.
Fortunately, Recall is one of the easiest commands to learn! Start at home or in an enclosed space like your yard. Recall training always starts on a leash no matter how confident you are or how enclosed your space is.
If you’re starting from scratch, call their name and if you get no response at all, give the leash a short but firm tug to get their attention. When they turn their head to you, the second they acknowledge you, use your clicker and use a ‘praise’ word (like ‘yes’) and offer the reward.
Once they’ve learned giving you their attention earns them a reward when their name is issued, give them a longer leash or use a training line. Now they’ve got some room to move about and get a little further away from you. Again, call their name and the command you’re using to recall (like ‘come’ or ‘here’). If you don’t get the instant response, use the line to give the same firm tug just to help them understand the behavior you’re looking for.
When they’re on their training line, you can’t get the reward to them instantly so it’s important they’re rewarded the second they start to respond, this is why the clicker and the praise word is important. As soon as they start to come they’re praised, they hear the clicker and the reward word and they know they’ve acted as they’re meant to. Once they get to you, they get the reward.
The further from you your dog is, the harder it’s going to be to keep their attention. Even if they start to recall the second you call them, an interesting sniff could appear between you and them - it’s important they learn they must come straight to you the second they're called every time.
Remember: When calling their name, use a sharp, commanding voice - using a ‘sing song’ voice or anything too high pitched can make your dog think it’s a game. Anything too melodic or repetitive is going to tell your dog there’s no urgency. You’re in charge, your commands must reflect this.
If you’ve got a reactive dog, sit is also a great command to get their attention off whatever it is they’re focused on and back to you. After all, they can’t run over to that bouncing dog they’re staring at if they’re sat down and once they’ve acknowledged your command, they’re acknowledging you’re in charge.
Don’t push your pup’s bottom on the ground. Instead, hold a treat near their nose and raise it up – their head will go up and when their bottom goes down, give them the treat.
The most common way this goes wrong is if your dog starts jumping up to get the treat. Remember what we said about the owners being the ones who needed the training? Well, if your dog is jumping up, if their front paws are leaving the ground at all, it’s because you’re doing it wrong!
If you keep the treat close enough to their nose so that it’s almost touching it, there’s no need for them to jump up. They’ll have no choice but to keep raising their head which means they’ll have to lower their backs and their bottoms.
The second most common way for this training method to go wrong is if your dog starts backing up. If your dog starts walking backwards, make sure you’re practicing this near a wall or closed door so they can’t go back.
The second their bottoms are on the ground and they’re in that sitting position, give them the reward and praise word.
Move to encourage your dog to stand up, then repeat. Once your dog has the idea, try without a treat – instead hold up one finger and say “Sit”. Make sure you give a treat after they’ve sat! This is a really easy command to teach a hand gesture rather than (or as well as) a verbal command. Because they’re learning it from watching your hand go above their nose, they’ll associate this hand gesture with the command.
This is one of the easier commands for most dogs to learn because it doesn’t require them to learn any new actions. It’s perfectly natural for a dog to walk by their owners side so it’s just a case of reinforcing this behavior and teaching a command word so they understand the name of their behavior.
Unlike some of the other commands, the success, responsiveness and longevity or ‘heel’ will massively depend on the dog. If your dog is very active, loves spending most their walk sniffing about and investigating every nook and cranny or is very young, start with just expecting a few seconds at a time of heel (remember what we said about stopping the training when it’s going well and not forcing your dog if they don’t want to train any more!)
If you’ve got an older dog, maybe a slightly more intelligent breed or one that’s going to be a working dog, they’re going to need to learn to follow your command until they’re released from it.
With your dog on their leash, give them some slack and produce a high value treat. Keep it in front of their nose by your side so they’re walking with their nose (and head) about half a step behind you. Start repeating your command word, slowly, calmly but with authority, you can use ‘heel’ or ‘close’ or anything you like but make sure it’s nothing too similar to their name or any other common word. In your dog’s mind, they’re just trying to get the reward but they’ll soon start to associate your command word with walking by your side.
To take it up a level, you want them to walk by your side until they’re released without having to give them constant treats. Stretch the gap between the treats and lengthen the amount of time they’ll walk to heel before they get bored.
Once your dog starts to wander off and the heel command is wearing off, make them sit before they’re allowed to resume their usual walkies. This teaches them that you’ve ended the training session, not them.
You need two commands here: your praise word as well as “stay”. Start by releasing your dog from the “sit” position with your praise word, holding out a treat for them to eat when they respond and get up.
Then tell them to sit again, hold up one finger or your hand out in a stop sign - something very visual they can easily see. Issue the command to ‘stay’ and take one large but slow step back (sudden movements could be interpreted as play time and break the sit command). Don’t expect your dog to stay for more than a second or two to begin with so make sure you issue the reward straight away. When you’re only one step away you can quickly get them their treat but make sure you’re issuing your praise word too because you’re going to need it in a minute.
Now you want your dog to sit, issue the command to stay with your hand gesture and this time take two or maybe even three large, slow steps backwards. Once your dog has stayed for a few seconds, use your praise word and hold out the treat for them.
From this distance, you could throw them the treat and they could catch it but depending on the size and breed, this could result in them being unintentionally mouthy when taking treats in the future. By always hand feeding the treats, they’ll learn to take them gently.
The longer your dog can sit and the further away you can get from them, the better. Once they’ve really got the hang of it, you should be able to leave the room or their sight and they’ll stay until they’ve been released.
‘Luring’ is the easiest way to get your dog into a lying-down position. When they are sitting, hold a treat in front of their nose and move it downwards towards their chest and the floor while saying “Down”. Give them the treat when they shuffle down into a lying position!
Just like the ‘sit’ command, the most common way for this to go wrong is if you don’t keep the treat close enough to your dog. If you start moving the treat away from their chest, they’re going to creep forward to try and get it and now you’ve just taught your dog to follow food!
You’ve heard the old saying ‘following one's nose’ - this is actually referring to dogs. Keep the treat close to their chest and their nose will have to go down and if their nose goes down, so will the rest of them.
Keep practicing and combine it with “stay” so that you can keep your dog controlled in many different situations. When they’ve mastered lying down, “Roll over” is a fun trick that is an easy progression – hold out a treat and encourage them to roll by moving it around their head.