Master the five key commands and you’ll strengthen your bond with your dog for life
We wouldn’t expect a child to know how to behave appropriately without being taught. The same principle applies to dogs. In addition to basic obedience training, it is also important to teach your dog the household rules. Decide on the rules before bringing your dog home and ensure that all members of the household consistently maintain them.
House rules can include whether the dog is allowed up on the couch or on your bed, and whether some rooms of the house are off limits. When teaching your dog basic obedience, some commands are more important than others.
The ‘come’ command (also known as recall) is the most important command and one that people have the most difficulty with. Dogs that reliably ‘come’ are much easier to manage.
When it comes to the recall, dog owners often expect too much. Many say: “My dog won’t come back when we’re at the park.” But the dog park is likely to be one of your dog’s favourite places. All those other dogs, people and new smells are very stimulating. Why would your dog want to come back to you when it means the fun has come to an end and you’re going home? It is up to you to outwit your dog. Make it think that you are much more interesting than the excitement at the park.
Start in a place where there are few distractions, like the backyard. What motivates your dog – treats or toys? Use this knowledge to your advantage.
Walk away from your dog. Turn back and call your dog’s name in a loud, excited voice to get its attention.
Say “come” while holding out your dog’s favourite reward. When your dog comes to you, reward it immediately.
Repeat this exercise, rewarding your dog each time. You want to teach your dog that coming to you every single time is much more rewarding than not coming at all. This process is called ‘proofing’ the desired behaviour.
Once your dog reliably comes back, continue to proof the behaviour in other situations and places (try it inside or at the park), gradually increasing the level of distractions, such as other people and dogs.
When you’re at the dog park, ask your dog to ‘come’ several times and reward it each time. When you call it and leave, you don’t want it to associate ‘come’ with “we’re going now, the fun is over”. With lots of practice your dog will learn that it’s rewarding to come when called.
2. Give (or ‘leave it’)
Teaching your dog the ‘give/leave it’ command can be a lifesaver. Dogs (especially puppies) love to explore things with their mouths and this can pose a danger if they find something that can hurt them. Common household items such as rat poison, cleaning products, fertiliser, clothing and certain foods can cause harm so it’s important that you can tell your dog to ‘give’ or ‘leave it’ and know that you can safely retrieve the item.
When a dog has something it values, such as a favourite toy, it’s not likely to give it up easily. It’s up to you to outsmart your dog.
To teach your dog the ‘give/leave it’ command you need to use something it likes better than the object you want it to give up – a favourite treat for example – to serve as a distraction. Wave the treat in front of your dog while saying “give”. Once your dog drops the item, reward it immediately. Repeat this exercise on a variety of items.
You need to teach your dog that it’s more rewarding to give up the item than it is to hold onto it.
3. Sit (say please)
‘Sit’ is the most common command taught to dogs, and it has many useful applications. I recommend that ‘sit’ be used to teach your dog manners – to ‘say please’ when they want something. For example, you can ask your dog to sit before it comes into the house, before dinner and before giving it a pat.
You can then reward it with the thing it wants (to come inside, its dinner or a pat).
‘Sit’ is probably the easiest command to teach. Small treats work best.
Hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and move your hand (with the treat) over the dog’s head towards its rear while saying “sit”. Your dog will try to follow the treat and will naturally assume the sit position.
Once your dog sits, reward it immediately with the treat. Repeat this exercise many times, in different locations and situations.
Once your dog knows how to sit, use the command to teach your dog how to ‘say please’ for all the things it wants.
4. Drop (stay)
‘Drop’ is a very important exercise. It is a submissive position and can be used to teach your dog to remain calm. Teaching your dog to drop when people come to the house, for example, prevents it jumping all over your guests. Ask your guests to ignore your dog. If they call or acknowledge the dog, it will want to stand up and come for attention.
Ask them to only show the dog attention when it is calm. This rewards good behaviour rather than the jumping up. The ‘drop’ command can also be used to get your dog to stay. Your dog should know it has to stay there until it is given a release command (such as ‘free’).
To teach your dog to ‘drop’, first ask it to sit. Once it is in the sit position, use a favourite treat to lure it into the drop position.
Hold the treat in front of your dog’s nose. Slowly lower the treat until you are holding it just in front of your dog’s front paws. This should cause your dog to lower its head until it falls into the drop position.
Once your dog drops, immediately reward it.
Repeat this exercise several times and in different locations.
Start increasing the time you expect your dog to hold the stay position.
2. On Your Bed
If you are happy to allow your dog in the house but would rather it didn’t roam, add this command to the repertoire.
You can also move your dog’s bed to different locations in the house (ideally where the action is) so you can spend more quality time together.
Place your dog’s indoor bed (or folded blanket) where you want your dog to sleep and rest. This command is easier to teach to a dog that already knows how to drop.
Place treats on the bed. Say “on your bed (or mat)” while allowing your dog to eat the treats. This helps to create a positive association with the bed/mat.
Ask your dog to ‘drop’ while on the bed. Once it has dropped, repeat the command ‘on your bed’ and reward it for remaining on the bed.
Gradually increase the time you expect your dog to stay on the bed.
As responsible dog owners it is up to us to show our dogs the ropes. Obedience training is an ongoing process and should continue throughout a dog’s life. Training your dog also improves the bond between you and your pet – well-trained dogs are a pleasure to own and can be included in more family activities.