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How to teach your dog basic commands

Good manners are as necessary for dogs as they are for people. A dog who jumps, pulls, barks or lacks self-control often finds themself left out of family activities.

An untrained dog may also put your housing situation at risk if you’re a renter or belong to a home or condominium owners' association.

Teach your dog a few basic obedience commands (such as sit, down, come and stay) using positive training methods, and you will be rewarded with a well-behaved dog who can handle most everyday social situations.

In dog training, timing is everything

Timing is very important. You must mark your dog's behavior the instant they comply with the command. Saying a single word such as "Yes!" or using a clicker is a good way to mark a correct behavior. It lets your dog know immediately that they've been successful.

Rewards work better than bribes

Rewarding your dog's good behavior with a treat is an excellent training tool, but if rewards are overused, they can become bribes.

To avoid the treat becoming a bribe, stop luring your dog with the treat as soon as they begin to catch on to what you're asking them to do. Ask them to "sit," wait two or three seconds for them to comply, then give them the treat if they sit. Your goal is to teach them to follow a verbal command alone; this will help during those moments when you may not have a treat handy but need them to be on their best behavior.

Give your dog life-rewards

Food is the easiest reward to use when you are just learning to train your dog, but it is not the only reward you can use. A toy, a game of fetch or going for a ride in the car can work, too.

For example, let's say you want to train your dog not to run out the door when you open it. Try this:

  • Tell your dog to sit-stay by the front door of your house.
  • If they comply, praise them, open the door and let them go outside. Going outside is the reward.
  • If they get up as you open the door, close the door and try again.
  • Repeat the process until they stay in position while you open the door. Only then does they get the reward of going outside.
  • Use the same technique for opening the car door so your dog can go for a ride. If they remain in position, they are rewarded by getting into the car and going for a ride. (Reminder: Never leave your dog unattended in the car).

When dog training, mind your Ps and cues

Your posture and body cues tell your dog a lot. Your dog learns to read your body language much as you learn to read theirs.

  • Stand up when you give your dog a command. If you only give commands while sitting or squatting on the floor, your dog will learn to respond only when you're in that position.
  • Keep your hands out of your pockets. If their treats are in your pockets, hands in the pockets becomes the cue that they will get a treat if they do what you ask. You want your command to be the cue, not the hand in the pocket. If your hands are always in view, you can keep them guessing.
  • Similarly, don't hold a bag of treats in your hand while training. Your dog will learn they only needs to comply with commands if they see the treat bag, not every time you ask them.
  • Train your dog everywhere, not just in one room of your house. If you only practice in the kitchen, your dog will learn they only needs to do a command in the kitchen.
  • As your dog learns to do a command reliably in one location, move to other rooms of the house and the yard. Practice wherever you can, even on your daily walks.
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