I know, you are a bit confused by the title, right? After all, is there a difference between dog commands and dog training? Actually, there is, and to make it as easy as possible, just consider them this way:
Obedience training – This is the sort of training that emphasizes setting boundaries, using commands and requiring quick responses. It is the sort of thing used on puppies and older dogs without any sort of behavioral issues.
Behavioral training – This is usually dog training that is meant to rewind or reverse specific issues with a grown dog or a younger dog that has manifested behaviors or issues that might fall under the categories of unhealthy, unwanted or plain bad behavior. It is often less oriented towards commands and more about changing behaviors and/or reactions.
As one expert noted, “Having a trained dog isn’t the same as having a balanced dog, but if your dog knows a few basic commands, it can be helpful when tackling problem behaviors — existing ones or those that may develop in the future.”
So, anyone who owns a dog has to use commands, but also needs to make certain behavioral demands on their dogs, which requires training. Hopefully that isn’t too confusing, and to ensure you have the option of using both commands and training, I am actually going to go over a long list of essential commands, tricks and training that can be used to keep any dog happier, healthier and safer.
The 6 Most Essential Commands
Safety is a major reason to focus on training and responsiveness to commands. How is that? Let me just reiterate a story from my own past. Janice and Leroy were puppies, and I had them at my parents’ home in the country. There were woods all around, but the road was also fairly close to one end of the yard.
Janice and Leroy were really whooping it up and racing up and down the yard. Suddenly, Leroy’s ears pricked up, and at the same time we all heard it – a loud motorcycle was roaring along the road and coming closer every second. Janice did not like the sound and high-tailed it back to us, but Leroy being Leroy, he bolted off in the direction of the noise. As the road rose up over a little crest at the end of my parent’s yard, it was a blind spot for motorists. Leroy was headed directly for that blind-spot.
I screamed his name, but he was pretty determined to see what that intriguing sound was coming from the road. I pulled myself together as I ran towards him (knowing I’d never catch him) and said very clearly (no longer screaming his name but speaking as normally as I could) “Leroy! Come!”
That grabbed his attention because it meant his favorite treat. We had been training for a few weeks and he was still rewarded for coming to me with his favorite food. His head whipped around, though his momentum was still taking him forward. I stopped running (as I didn’t want him to think this was some sort of game) and said firmly again, “Leroy! Come!”
He happily trotted back to me, even with the loud sound and I walked briskly towards him with my (empty) hand extended as if it held a treat. I got to him, grabbed his collar and gave him all kinds of love and praise. Just then, the motorcycle roared over the little hill and went flying past. It actually startled Leroy and he yelped a bit at the sheer volume of the bike’s exhaust system.
I knew after that we’d have to focus on making the road, and even the perimeter around the road a no-go zone. Yet, the point of my relating the story is this: I’d trained him in one of the six essential commands and it probably saved his life, and perhaps even that of the biker!
So, just what are those six commands? I teach them to my dogs in this order:
- Leave it
- Their name
Start with Positive Reinforcement
Note that I only advocate the use of positive reinforcement in teaching commands and doing any sort of training. As an example, rather than yelling at Leroy when he came back to me (thereby confusing him and allowing him to associate returning to me with a negative), I praised him for returning. Yes, I wanted to scream at him for running off, going towards the road and ignoring my initial screech, but that would have benefited no one. Instead, always look to reward, praise and recognize the desired behavior even if you are fuming, upset or scared.
Remember, most dogs are people pleasers and they take great pride in doing what their leader asks of them. Getting verbal and physical praise along with a treat (initially) lets your dog feel extremely successful, happy and confident. They can get small doses of this sort of happiness almost every day if you dedicate 30 minutes to an hour (it will vary based on the dog and its level of attention) to simple training sessions.
Start with the easiest and work your way up – which is I use the order listed above. So, if you are ready to learn the six key commands, let’s go!
Teaching a Dog to Sit
Simple and easy, it is ideal as a first command. It can help you to get a dog into a controlled position in the event of a problem, and it lets a dog feel the initial flush of success. To do it requires their favorite treats and a bit of space to work.
- Begin by standing in front of the dog and gaining their attention by showing them the treat
- Move it close to their nose
- Move the hand upward as you get close to the nose, as this forces the dog to tilt their head back to keep an eye on the savory morsel
- The higher you move it the more likely the dog’s behind is going to drop into a seated position
- As soon as the dog’s bottom moves downward and touches the ground, say “Sit” and give them the treat along with a bit of love!
Repeat this a few times per day and then expand on use of the command. For example, ask your puppo to sit as you prepare to head out the door for a walk, before you give them a meal in their bowl, or at any time you need them to be seated and/or calm and quiet.
Teaching a Dog to Come
This command is a lifesaver and all about keeping your dogs safe. It forces them to return to you should they slip their collar, or you drop their lead. It often gets their attention if they dash off after something, slip out of an open door or at any other moment they might be out of reach and facing jeopardy.
- Start by putting your dog’s collar and leash on them
- Walk a short distance from the dog, but not far enough to create tension on the leash
- Squat down and say “Come” while giving only the gentlest pull on the leash. NOTE: Some younger dogs will come to you the moment you squat or even as you move. Just say “Come” as they near you to give them a verbal cue (i.e. command)
- As soon as the dog reaches you, give them a lot of affection and praise, as well as a treat.
When your dog seems to have mastered the command while on a leash, transition to off-leash training. Do this in a fenced yard or inside, and just say “Come” when playing or at any distance from one another. Soon, you will not have to offer a treat and the verbal praise and physical affection will be enough.
Teaching a Dog the Down Command
I always wonder why so few dog owners see the value of this command. Yes, it is more challenging to teach, but it establishes you as the leader and serves as a good base for other, more advanced skills or commands later. However, the biggest and handiest reasons for this command (in my opinion) is that it gets dogs into a safe and subdued posture when they are around small children or people who might easily get knocked over by a boisterous dog, and it is also great if you are heading into a store.
The down position is simply getting a dog to put their entire body (and not just their bottom) along the ground or the floor. It is a completely submissive pose, however, and that is why it can be very difficult for some dogs to achieve. Just be patient, use positive reinforcement for every (baby) step in the right direction, and eventually even a stubborn dog can be trained to do this when needed.
- Never push your dog’s body downward at any time during this training and try to control your own level of tension or anxiousness during training. This is crucial to success.
- Choose one of your dog’s most coveted treats for this one, and keep it hidden inside your fisted hand.
- Start with the “Sit” command and get your dog in a seated pose.
- Put the hand to the dog’s nose and allow them to get a good whiff of what is hidden inside.
- As soon as you are sure the dog knows what is in your hand, move your hand toward the floor and get the dog to follow.
- Slide the hand hiding the treat along the ground directly in front of the dog as this will actually force the dog to bend down and put his or her chest and belly along the ground to reach the hand concealing the treat.
- The moment the dog’s chest touches the ground, say the command “Down” and hand over that delicious treat. Also use verbal praise and give lots of love to show your approval.
Repeat this training a few times per day. You may find that your dog wants to lunge rather than stretch towards your hand (i.e. the treat), or they sit up rather than stretch. Either way, you say “No” and move the hand away. Don’t try to force the issue and don’t use any negatives other than a gentle “No” and removal of the treat. Your dog will figure out what you want in a very short period of time and stretch out and lower his or her body to reach the treat soon enough! Then, just keep reinforcing with the treat and praise. Soon, though, you should be able to ask your dog to assume the Down position at any time.
Teaching a Dog to Stay
Another safety command that also asserts you as the one in charge is the Stay command. It simply requires the dog to remain wherever they are until you use the “Come” command to end the training. It is a good way to stop a dog from entering a roadway or other area that can jeopardize their safety and well-being, too. It is also great for getting a dog without a lot of self-control to build up their capabilities in this department. This is one reason that it takes a while for puppies, younger dogs and many high-energy puppos to manage the skill. Yet, if you find yourself using it just once in a crisis or emergency, it will be well worth the effort.
- Start with your dog in the Sit command
- Extend your open palm upward (like a stop sign) in front of the day and say the command, “Stay”
- Take two steps back, and if the dog remains in place give them a treat and some praise or affection.
- Begin again, holding up your hand, saying “Stay” and now taking three to four steps away. Again, if the dog remains in place, return and issue a reward.
- You keep doing this, increasing the distance and number of steps before handing over the treat. The point here is that you are using positive reinforcement when the dog says put – even if it is for one or two steps to begin with.
As your dog improves, and you cross a larger distance, try to build on it by saying “Come” and giving extra praise for the two-step success! Stay is a fantastically beneficial command that is all about safety, self-control and teamwork with your dog.
Teaching a Dog to Leave It
My readers know that I take my two boxers out on the woodland trails and for weekends of camping in the wilderness. They are not off leash often, but there are times when I give them a bit of freedom to sniff around a specific area. For example, once I’ve got a tent in place and our campsite organized, I will allow them to walk with me around the perimeter of our space.
This, however, can present some dangers. Someone before us might have left a potentially harmful item or material, there can be snakes or toads, and the natural world has all kinds of interesting smells that could pose a danger (mushrooms, dead things, and so on). Because of that, I teach my dogs to “Leave It” very early in their lives.
Even if you have dogs that might never know the allure of the woods and live in an apartment, Leave It is an important command. It helps you to train a dog that they’ll get something far more appealing from you than whatever it is they are about to sniff, explore, or even pick up in their mouth. It keeps them safe from such issues as poisoning, injury or attack.
- Hold your dog’s favorite treat in each hand
- Hold up one hand (formed into a fist) with the treat inside and say “Leave It”
- Allow them to sniff, paw, lick, and even gnaw or bark to try to release the treat, but ignore it all and do not hand over the treat
- As soon as the dog stops trying to get into your fisted hand, reward them with the treat in the OTHER hand
- Repeat the process. The goal is to get your dog to move away from the fist with the hidden treat as soon as you say, “Leave it”, and to get them to look at you when you speak the command
- You do this by giving the dog the treat only when they move away from your hand when you say, “Leave It” and then glance up at you as if to ask when that expected treat is due to arrive
It is important to be sure you get a dog to understand and act on the Leave It command, but also make eye contact. Why? Because there is actually a second phase of training for this command and it doesn’t work unless the dog is prepared to look at you after obeying your demand that they leave whatever it is they were initially focused on.
- Now, use your dog’s favorite treat and one that they are not always so eager to eat
- Give the “Leave It” command as you place the LEAST preferred treat on the floor and cover it with your hand.
- Your dog should naturally ignore it AND look at you. When he or she does that (ignores the hand with the treat hidden beneath and gazes at you), remove the unwanted treat and reward the dog with their favorite or preferred treat (and verbal praise)
- The next phase is to put the less favorite treat on the floor WITHOUT shielding it with your hand completely. You’ll use a sort of hovering and with each repetition of the training, you’ll move your hand a bit farther until the treat is entirely unprotected. Just keep using that pattern – say “Leave It”, put the treat on the floor, hover the hand over it and when the dog ignores the treat and gazes at you, pick up the unwanted treat and give your dog praise and a tastier treat.
- Soon, you will be able to stand up without approaching that treat at all. I suggest you keep yourself within foot distance of the treat on the ground. If a dog lunges for it, cover it with your foot and repeat the “Leave It” command. When they walk away AND gaze at you, go ahead and move your foot. When they don’t try to grab it, go ahead and pick it up and give your dog praise, lots of loving and a tasty treat.
Does this one take time? Oh, heavens yes. You may even have to take it back a step or two if your dog stumbles at a more advanced stage of the training. The point is to get them to understand that no matter what it is that they are attracted by, you are always the preferred option because you have the tastier food, verbal praise and lots of physical affection.
Teaching a Dog Its Name
Really, this could be one of the first (if not the first) command you teach a dog, and I should note that it is possible to integrate name training into every day tasks as soon as a puppy comes home or a new dog is adopted.
Does a dog actually recognize its name? Yes. As my readers know, I am obsessed with the world-famous Chaser and her thousand-plus word vocab. She knows nouns and adjectives as well as verbs and has memorized silly names for hundreds of toys. She is living proof that a dog understands its own name whether said with inflection, drama or as flatly as possible.
The trick here is to teach your dog to LOVE the sound of its own name as that is a great foundation for other commands. It is also a good safety net because the dog who is off and running after something will actually love its own name more than whatever it is thinking or feeling as it chases that squirrel, rabbit, cat or whatever. As one expert noted, teaching a dog its name “can also be a lifesaver when out and about.”
As an example, let’s say you discover that your dog has a tough time with other, unknown dogs and that their behavior is exacerbated if they are on a leash when they meet a new dog. You are out walking and see your dog get intensely focused on an oncoming dog. When your dog is in love with the sound of its own name (because it is associated with the very best treats and loads of praise), just speaking their name breaks the unhealthy response to a new or strange dog.
The name always brings the focus back to you and you can then hold your dog’s attention with treats or other commands until the threat (other dog, problem, distraction) is over and done. It is a major tool for avoiding problems, conflict or reactions/responses you may be unable to train out of a dog. It keeps them focused on you (or a member of the family) and guarantees them that this behavior will ALWAYS be far more rewarding than whatever it was that might have drawn their attention.
- Start to teach your puppy or adult dog its new name by busting out their favorite treats or snacks. I find putting a dog on a leash for the first few sessions is best because it prevents a distracted or immature dog from wandering away.
- When the dog is NOT looking at you, say their name in a happy tone of voice. As soon as they turn to look at the sound and tone of voice, say “Good boy” or “Good girl” and hand over a treat.
- Repeat this every day and be sure that everyone in the household does a few minutes of this training to acclimate the dog to their tone of voice and the way they say the name. Very soon, the dog is going to come running when they hear their name because they associate it with tasty food, lots of verbal praise and lots of physical affection, play time, a walk or romp outdoors and more.
- Remember that it is of the utmost importance to NEVER pair your dog’s name with a negative feeling, word or association. “Leroy, NO!” or “Bad Janice” are phrases never uttered in our home. This is because the dog will quickly fall out of love with their name and stop responding to it.
Once your dog is showing signs that they are clear about their name, start to integrate some distractions. For instance, test them off leash, practice their name when out in the yard playing a game, and even when they are napping.
And what if your dog doesn’t seem to get it? Then it is time to use “restrained recalls”. This is easily done and involves going out into your fenced in yard or an enclosed area, with the dog on a lead. Jump around as if you are going to play and then (with someone else holding the dog’s leash), you take off running. Your dog is going to be dying to chase you, but they shouldn’t be allowed to just yet. You should be saying “Come (insert name)!” as you are running.
Then, the assistant can allow the dog to chase you and as they do, you turn and keep repeating the “Come (insert name)!” command. As soon as the dog reaches you, say “Good (insert name)!” and give some treats and playtime as a reward.
Doing this several times gives the dog an immediate association of fun and excitement with their name and soon you can say the Come command with their name and they’ll respond. Eventually, just the name should get them to look at you whether sitting on the sofa, in the park or anywhere else!
After the Basics
As I mentioned a bit earlier, most of these basic commands can be built on or used to move into more advanced training. For example, a dog who understands “Leave It” is easier to train in the “Drop It” command. The dog familiar with “Stay” is also a good candidate for “Wait” and even “Heel”. Again, such commands are for safety, and I encourage you to start with the six essentials and then use my other articles offering specific tips and tactics for many of the key commands.
But, if it is about a behavior that you don’t like or that leaves a dog at risk, then it is time to do a bit of “training” rather than working specifically on obeying commands. Think of training more as remodeling or rewiring.
Basics on Dog Training
Okay, so if you have a dog doing something you dislike or that you feel could make them unsafe, unhealthy or problematic, you need to understand an important factor: Many puppy and adult dog behaviors labeled as “bad” or problematic are due to separation anxiety, lack of communication (i.e. the dog is not told or shown what you expect from them), lack of any actual training, or lack of boundaries. Naturally, most behaviors also have a trigger that sparks a specific issue, and as a pet parent, it is your job to figure out the trigger and then resolve the issue through training that emphasizes positive reinforcement.
Because so many dogs are surrendered to shelters because of behavioral issues, it is important that you be prepared to reach out to other dog owners if you become aware that they are misunderstanding what’s gone wrong with their own dog, too. I don’t mean you should be THAT person at the dog park. What I mean is that a friend who says their dog is driving them nuts or that they think they’ll have to “give back” a dog because of a behavior, is just the right friend to offer some help.
I’ve addressed several behavioral issues in the past and offered step by step training suggestions. If you are dealing with any of the issues below, you’ll find some answers by following the links:
- Your dog barks excessively
- You cannot get your dog to stop jumping on people
- Your dog is being super destructive by digging
- Your dog is eating poop or raiding the cat’s litter box
- Your dog chews on everything
- Your dog has aggression around food or other dogs
- Your puppy’s nipping has turned to painful gnawing and biting
- Your dog is whining and/or crying excessively when crated
- Your dog mounts (humps) everyone
Hopefully, that array of resources can help you address the most common behavioral issues using effective and surprisingly simple training and other techniques. However, because separation anxiety is one of the main reasons that people surrender dogs, I want to look at the things you can do with training to help your dog with such a problem.
Training the Dog with Separation Anxiety
So, what is separation anxiety? It is just an emotional response a dog will have when they are unable to be with their humans. They may show it when you put on your shoes and coat, pick up your bags to head to work, or as you follow daily routines in preparation for leaving. They may not show signs until after you’ve gone. The most common symptoms that a dog is not “being bad” but merely dealing with separation anxiety are:
- Soiling indoors
- Howling and barking when alone
- Destroying things by digging, chewing and shredding
- Trying to escape (or displaying constant injuries due to escape attempts)
- Pacing or tail chasing
If your puppy or adult dog manifests two or more such symptoms, it is highly likely that they are struggling with separation anxiety. Before you use any training to help them overcome it, though, be sure that they are not living with health issues that can show similar symptoms. Urinary issues, old age, Cushing’s disease, neurological issues and other health concerns can have many similar signs.
Some dogs might also struggle with behaviors like soiling and pacing due to medications, and still more might actually require basic house training and behavioral training rather than any steps to alleviate separation anxiety. For example, intact males may use urine marking and not technically be soiling indoors. Younger dogs may be destructive because they are teething, and some dogs are just bored rather than anxious.
Yet, it is not all that unusual for a dog (even with a housemate or fellow dog at home) to get upset by the departure of their bonded humans.
As an example, when I was a kid we had a German Shepherd and Yellow Lab mix dog named Rusty. He was one of those perfect dogs who was mellow and smart as a whip. He was easily trained, but he got wildly anxious whenever my brother and I would go for a swim in the small river behind the house. He’d also chew up our socks and underwear when we weren’t around, and have the occasional accident.
In other words, he had separation anxiety. My parents decided to put him in a run whenever we weren’t home. That is a sad solution and if Rusty were around today, I would have known to offer him some counter conditioning.
As an expert for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals explains, “Counter conditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead. It’s done by associating the sight or presence of a feared or disliked person, animal, place, object or situation with something really good, something the dog loves.”
In my household today, I have two super durable Kong toys that can be stuffed with my dogs’ favorite treats. These are great distractions for them and they’ll both be happy for up to an hour at a time trying to get every last bit of peanut butter or little chewy treats from inside of them. I have also invested in a few different puzzle toys that the dogs hit with their feet to operate, and these too have little treats inside.
And though I am hesitant to admit it, I also invested in one of those PetChatz HDsystems. I can use my iPhone to activate the video camera and talk to the dogs from anywhere I have cell service. I can use the app to dispense aromatherapy products and treats. Because I am home most of the time, the dogs are apt to be a bit tense if I am somewhere without them. Yes, they are spoiled. I love that I can whip out the phone, and in a few seconds the two of them are standing there staring at a tiny version of me inside the wall-mounted base. I know they like it because of the treats and not necessarily my cooing and praising. However, it alleviates my anxiety and ensures they haven’t wrecked the house while I’m gone.
I have written a lot around the issue of separation anxiety, and I encourage you to read up a bit more on it by revisiting some of my other pieces. However, the training component around it involves counter conditioning and desensitizing a dog who seems to struggle with the matter.
Often, it means recognizing any pre-departure clues and cues you give the dog and then training them to associate those cues with a positive. Such as putting on your shoes and coat, but instead sitting at the kitchen table, sitting on the floor and reading or simply NOT departing. If they don’t have pre-departure anxiety, it may mean using graduated departure and absence periods. Simply put, this is just planning your absences to be long enough to get a task done but not so long that it triggers anxiety. This may mean working with them intensely since some dogs have anxiety because an owner leaves the room! It can also mean simply leaving and returning in a short window of time. This tells the dog that there really isn’t much to get worried about because you return so quickly. It might also mean giving the dog a job to do before and after you leave.
Use the tips I’ve supplied in other articles about separation anxiety to help you determine your ideal course of action, and if nothing helps, it could be better to seek expert training and help.
Dogs need to be shown what you expect of them. This begins with teaching them basic commands, building on them and using training to overcome unwelcome behaviors. Training is a wonderful form of communication and bonding, and I encourage you to start today on the basics or consider adding fun tricks to your dog’s repertoire.