2. Little by little, turn away from the dog and let it come find you for eye contact.
3. At a full 180 degree turn, say, “Look,” and see if the dog will walk around to face you.
4. Move a few yards away, turn around and perform the “look” command once more.
5. Practice “look” while on walks or while playing. During fetch, pick up the ball, say, “Look,” and hold eye contact for a few seconds before tossing the ball.
The gentle command teaches dogs how to accept rewards like a lady or gentleman. Owners who have “chompy” dogs often dangle rewards a few inches away from the mouth out of fear. Although understandable, this only encourages the dog to lunge and chomp. Teaching a gentle mouth is necessary for good etiquette.
Casually hold a small reward in a closed fist and allow the dog to smell it. The dog may mouth your hand, which can be corrected by saying “ehh-ehh!” or “ouch!” to trigger bite inhibition. Puppies will naturally release a play bite from a dog that lets out a shriek. Should the dog attempt to paw at your hand, keep your fist close to its nose until a softer approach is attempted. For the less courageous, place the reward in the palm of an open hand.
The dog may lick your hand, wiggle its snout into your fist, or delicately nibble at the hand. Say, “Gentle,” open the hand, and when the dog takes the reward in a softer fashion, mark with “nice” or a similar word of praise.
THE ALMIGHTY SIT
A dog must be able to sit on command before you can effectively teach the heeling technique or the “stay” command. It is also a good rule of etiquette to have a dog sit when being introduced to a stranger, and in some circumstances, it may keep a dog safe. Its applications are endless.
Place a treat in your flat palm, facing skyward, and secure it with your thumb. Turn your palm over to allow the dog to smell the reward and then, with the palm skyward again, raise your hand a few inches, directly above the dog’s head. When dogs have to look straight overhead, they naturally go into the seated position. Should the dog sit, reward; if not, be patient and try again. An open palm facing and moving upward is the common hand signal for the “sit” command.
■ Justin holds the treat in the strike zone as Shamon’s nose gains interest. Notice how his eyes stay on Justin for instruction.
■ By moving the treat higher and over Shamon’s head, he is forced to look up, causing him to move into a sitting position.
■ Justin maintains his posture and the position of the treat as Shamon comes to a full sit.
■ A smiling Justin serves up the goodies to the working Shamon.
■ Standing tall and at a distance where the dog can clearly see Justin, Justin illustrates the hand signal for “sit.” Palm up and arm in front of his body, the hand moves through the strike zone to just below his chest.
Reward anything that looks like sitting. If the dog sits and gets right back up, try to reward while the dog is still in the seated position.
A little push on the butt can move things along and challenged dogs respond better to “sit” when on a leash.
Whether or not the command was requested, capture the behavior by rewarding the dog in the act of sitting. Should you catch your dog in the act of sitting, say, “Sit” and reward the dog.
Step a foot away and prompt the dog to sit solely by signaling with a flat, upward palm moving through the strike zone. Try using the word “sit” without the hand signal. Just before you reward, mark with a word of encouragement.
1. Practice from a distance.
2. Practice alternating hands to signal with.
3. Increase the length of time the dog stays in a sit before releasing.
4. Have your dog sit when you put the leash on, before you let him outside, before you throw the ball during fetch, etc.
5. Practice on walks, in parks, and in “real-life” situations, rewarding only the best performances before moving to a variable-ratio (random rewarding) schedule. If you remembered “variable ratio,” you’ve read too closely.
THE “COME” COMMAND
“Come” is among the most important commands, because it can save a dog’s life. It is the command that can stop a dog from chasing a squirrel into the street. Starting at a distance of a few feet, wave and call the dog to you with the word “come.” This is the one command where giving up your good posture is worthwhile. Feel free to bend and wave, squat and summon, or lay and pray; just get your dog to learn this vital recall. The waving over can be demonstrative or even exaggerated at first. Clap, whistle, or dance without sacrificing the integrity of your hand signal (which is not so easy). When your dog arrives, it’s time for rewards and affection. Don’t be shy.
Shuffle back a few more feet and use a marking word when the dog arrives. Repeat this by going backward in a straight line, and with each repetition, say, “Come.”
Meet the dog halfway or if it stops coming to you, reward it just the same. Should the dog veer off course or attempt to walk past you, intercept the dog and reward.
■ Command Come 1—On a long training lead, Justin beckons Chiquita to “come.” In the beginning, your enthusiasm will come in handy.
■ Command Come 2—Chiquita comes with happy abandon.
■ Command Come 3—Chiquita stops, sits, and is greeted with affection.
At first, use squeaky toys, treats, whatever it takes to get the dog to come toward you. The message is “If you come when called, it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Use a long training lead to guide the dog toward you.
Use opportunities to capture the command by saying “come” in situations where the dog would head your way automatically—as you pour food into a bowl, squeeze a new toy, or take the leash off the doorknob.
After the hand signal/“come” is mastered, try whistling and clapping. When your dog comes to you, add the “sit” command and delay the reward, so your dog learns to sit patiently.
The “come” command is one that needs to be worked quite a bit. Before upping the degree of difficulty, make sure the eighty percent mastery rule is more like ninety percent.
With two people standing far apart, call the dog and have it go back and forth, but make it worthwhile, with treats. Treats can be decreased using a fixed-ratio schedule, so reward the dog only after it has run a couple of laps. For example, the dog runs to Person A, then Person B, then back to Person A before being rewarded.
Play hide-and-seek: Run into different rooms and call “come,” only in this version of the game, let the dog find you. With a twenty-foot training leash, practice “come” on walks by allowing the dog to walk ahead of you and harkening it back. Practice in distracting environments: around a few people or other dogs (dog parks may be the ultimate proving ground; just ask Boomer’s dad), wherever the environment vies for a dog’s attention.
THE “STAY” COMMAND
In the beginning, eye contact is essential for this command, as most dogs need a line of sight to you in order to stay put. A longer leash, like the twenty-foot one you used for the “come” command, is helpful.
With the dog facing you, say, “Look” to get eye contact, and make the “halt!” or “stop in the name of love” gesture about a foot away from your dog’s snout. Take a small step back, then return to the original position and reward, provided the dog stays put. Always return to the dog and wait a beat before rewarding.
1. Use the hand signal and say, “Stay” before stepping back.
2. Take additional steps away from the dog before coming back. Extend the number of steps and increase the time with each additional pass.
3. Use a release word to signify the end of a series of repetitions. Work toward getting to the end of that twenty-foot leash.
■ Dave has a thirty-foot training lead on all 125 pounds of Dexter in the distracting environs of the Venice Beach boardwalk. Dave signals Dexter to “sit.”
■ Dave gives Dexter a very clear sign to “stay.”
■ Backing up, Dave repeats the hand signal in case Dexter had any plans of wandering.
■ Dave ups the ante on Dexter as he begins to walk around him.
■ Dave is all the way behind Dexter, who is staying put. Extra bonus points to Dexter for craning his neck around to seek out any further instruction.
■ Dexter is so good that even the leash running up his back doesn’t move him out of position.
■ Dave gives Dexter some earned praise for a job well done.
Should the dog stray from the “stay” spot, the leash can be helpful to move the dog back to a starting position. Reward liberally in the beginning, and you should be able to get a few steps back with eighty percent success fairly quickly.
Should the dog take a step or two and stop, reward.
Proofing and Advanced
Mix it up by walking away at different angles and add time by having your dog wait before releasing. Walk in a complete circle around the dog and if you’re indoors, go into other rooms or out the front door. Add more challenging environments and serve treats only to well-executed stays.
Practice throwing balls or placing food on the ground and have the dog stay until you issue the release command. This is known as the “wait” command, and it can be an excellent tool to curb compulsive behaviors and teach patience. For example: A good practice is to have a dog sit and wait before you place its food bowl on the floor.
THE “DOWN” COMMAND
The “down” command is the same as “lie down.” With your dog sitting, hold a reward in a loose fist, facing down. Place your fist in front of the dog’s nose and make sure the dog can smell the treat. Slowly lower your hand to the floor, and the dog’s head should lower to follow your hand. If it does, say, “Down.” Should your hand reach the floor, slowly slide it away from the dog. With practice, the dog will lower its body to follow the reward and go all the way into the lying position. If this happens say, “Down,” mark with “Good,” and reward with a treat. If he doesn’t lie down, reward him with a treat for bending his elbows or lowering himself. With each repetition require the dog go a little lower before rewarding. In the photos, you will see me performing this command on a dog that knows the command pretty well.
It’s very important to reward the dog should it bend at the elbows or lower itself in any way.
Use the leash to guide the dog down (do not pull or force), and it may lie down.
The moment the dog lies down, use a marking word and reward.
■ Shamon is sitting attentively as Justin shows him the reward. A rare instance where good posture is compromised.
■ Justin allows Shamon to smell what he’s working for.
■ Justin lowers the treat and Shamon follows his nose.
■ With Shamon fully in the down position, Justin opens his hand and dispenses with the treat.
■ Justin is more upright here, holding the treat, palm down, as his hand signal sends Shamon to the down position.
■ Shamon, being a model dog (get it?), willingly follows the command.
■ Justin gives Shamon a treat while he is still in the down position.
1. Use distance by starting a few feet away and advance to ten feet or more.
2. Practice this outdoors, preferably around other people and dogs.
3. Move to a fixed-ratio schedule and reward only after a few successful repetitions.
4. Pair the “down” command with “stay.”
Many commands can be paired; for example, “sit” and “stay” are commonly used together, as are “down” and “stay.”
THE HEELING TECHNIQUE
When a dog sits alongside its owner, it is considered to be in the heeling position. Should a dog excitedly run up to investigate someone, saying “heel” will cue the dog to come back alongside its owner and sit. The heeling technique is simple in spirit but the most complex command to teach and practice. I will offer an abbreviated explanation so owners can get started. In order to learn how to heel, the dog needs to have mastered the “sit” command.
One big difference between heeling and other commands is that the dog is at your side, not in front of you. The dog will need to adjust to this, as well as a decrease in eye contact. When delivering the treat, you need to turn only your upper body toward the dog.
■ Shamon is angled slightly behind Justin and giving great eye contact. Justin rotates his trunk and gives the hand signal right in the strike zone (between the belt and chest). Note Justin’s feet facing forward and though he’s shortened the leash, there is still a touch of slack in it.
■ An upright Justin strides forward, confident that Shamon will follow. Many beginners keep looking back to check on their dogs and this can disrupt the rhythm.
■ Readying for the big stop just a step away.
■ Shamon’s eye contact is legendary as Justin turns to give the hand signal. Shamon will be sitting slightly behind Justin and Justin’s feet will be facing forward as they ready for another rep.
1. With a treat in one hand and the dog on a leash in the other, have the dog sit alongside of you. Choose your left or right side. This is the heeling position.
2. Let the dog sniff the treat and keep about a foot of slack on the leash.
3. Say, “Heel,” take three strides with the dog, and come to a definitive stop.
4. Once stopped, quickly move your treat hand upward (a short version of the “sit” signal), turn your upper body to the dog, and say, “Sit.”
5. If the dog sits alongside you, reward.
6. Repeat steps 3 through 5 for a set of three repetitions: Each rep is saying “heel,” taking three distinct steps and stopping.
The trick with heeling is fluidity. Miscues happen when an owner raises his hand before stopping and making eye contact. In this case, the dog can’t see the signal. People with a lot of body language in their gait often send out too many signals. Mr. Roboto was perfect because his strict movements were so clear. Once the dog catches on, the movements become much more rhythmic.
The dog may be tempted to face you head-on; use the leash to stop the dog from walking around.
The main idea of heeling is to get the dog seated alongside you, so reward any effort that comes close. The goal of the “heel” command is for a dog to walk with you, then sit alongside you when you stop.
Once the dog is following the “heel” with eighty percent accuracy, you can phase out the “sit” command. Try calling the dog to you by saying, “Heel.” Add a visual cue by slapping the thigh you want the dog to heel beside.
Practice heeling from both your left and right side. Move to a fixed-ratio schedule so the dog has to perform three perfect reps before being rewarded. Practice in the house and around people, as well as in competitive environments. Practice this command on walks! It helps to eliminate pulling, teaches a dog to walk alongside its handler, and sends the message, “When I walk, you walk, when I stop, you sit.”
THE “OUT” COMMAND
This command teaches the dog to leave. With a reward in hand, lure your dog to the doorway of a room you want it to leave. Point toward the desired area you wish for the dog to go and say, “Out,” as a reward is tossed in that direction. As the dog progresses, wait a few moments before throwing the reward.
Use a leash to guide the dog into the other room or outside.
Should the dog leave and come right back, take it back out and reward. If the dog leaves but heads in the wrong direction, reward just the same.
Use areas where your dog typically wants to go, such as the backyard, and say, “Out” as it bolts out the door.
As the dog crosses the threshold into the target area and takes his reward, say, “Good” or a marker of your choice.
Practicing this at other people’s homes is hugely helpful, as the dog will understand that “out” is a request to leave, not necessarily a destination.
THE “GO TO” COMMAND
This command teaches the dog to go to a specific place, such as a dog bed or crate. To help with learning, teach one destination at a time.
With your dog on a leash, start a few steps away from the destination and point to the spot. Wait a moment and say, “Go to spot.” Walk the dog to the destination and use the “sit” command, followed by a reward and “stay.” As the dog gains proficiency, say, “Go to spot,” and only walk the dog halfway. Continue to point at the destination, and phase out the “sit” command.
Use treats and toys to lure the dog to the destination as well as to keep her there. A leash can be helpful in guiding the dog to the spot.
Use a marking word when the dog’s front paws hit home, followed by the reward.
If the dog is heading there but veers off, enthusiastically assist in the final steps and be sure to reward good efforts. Shaping is everything in this case, so please reward all attempts the dog makes to head toward the target spot.
In the beginning, a flat mat or towel works better than anything that has to be climbed into.
Practice the command from a distance and even try with the dog in a different room. Increase the time and use a fixed-interval schedule, rewarding the dog after a specified amount of time before releasing. A dog that performs this command without a line of sight on its owners has it down.
THE “OFF” COMMAND
“Off” tells the dog to get off your bed or couch, or to remove his head from the toilet. It is also used in situations where the dog may put its paws on a person or up on a table. “Off” is similar to “down,” but they are still separate commands. Many people say “down” when they want the dog to get “off” so please note the difference.
Point to the place where you’d prefer the dog to be—for example, a spot on the floor that is near the sofa that the dog hopped on. Say, “Off” as the dog moves from the sofa and delay the reward until the dog moves onto the desired spot and offers eye contact.
Use treats and toys to lure the dog from the place you don’t want it to be. Point your finger and lure the dog in the direction of where you want it to go. Reward.
Use the leash to guide the dog off the “no-no” spot and onto the desired area. Don’t yank, and be sure the dog doesn’t have to jump from a height that could injure it. Even if your dog found its way onto your kitchen counters, don’t practice there.
Practice in applicable circumstances, such as getting off the kitchen table or your bed. Practice issuing the command from a distance.
The “Up In” Command
This is to teach a dog to hop up on the couch or a bench or into your car, or to go into its crate. Whether to use “up” or “in” is a matter of preference and self-explanatory (I don’t want a dog in my sofa). Using a couch as the example: Let the dog smell the reward and lure it to the couch. With a treat in hand, point to the couch. Using the leash, lead the dog to the edge of the couch, point, and say, “Up.” If the dog does not go up, place its front paws on the couch. If that’s ineffectual, try to lure the dog by throwing a treat or squeaky toy on the couch. As you advance, “up” should be said in tandem with pointing at the sofa. Delay the reward until the dog hops up.
Capture and Marking
The dog may jump up on its own, and continuous reinforcement will help to capture the behavior. Say,“Up” as it jumps, and mark with “good,” followed by a reward.
Some dogs are intimidated to go up ramps or stairs. Enthusiastically jogging up a set of stairs with the dog can help to overcome its fear. Your encouragement is vital as both a motivator and a distractor.
Practice this on things a dog is not crazy about going up or into, like the vet or groomer’s table and bathtub. Pair the “up” and “off” commands so the dog learns them together. Decrease the rewards by having the dog perform a few “ups” and “offs” before being rewarded. I taught this by having my dogs jump in and out of the empty bathtub. When it finally came time to introduce them to the water, getting into the tub was not intimidating.
THE “LEAVE IT” COMMAND
This command teaches dogs not to pursue things like your shoes, food, garbage on the street, and the like. I use the word “object” to refer to anything the dog values, whether it is an object or food.
To begin, place an object of low value, like an old toy that your dog is over, on the floor. With the dog on leash, walk past the object at a distance of a few feet. When the dog looks at the object, say the dog’s name and give the “look” command in an excited way. When the dog looks at you, say, “Leave it,” and offer some praise as you two amble past the toy. Reward.
Whenever the dog walks by an object of desire, offer praise with a marking word immediately followed by a reward.
Reward the dog for minor investigating before it moves on or even if it stops to look but does not touch.
Increase the desirability of the object and move the game off leash. Delay the reward by having the dog go by the object more than once. Walk the dog past the object using “leave it,” then the “sit” command.
THE “DROP IT” COMMAND
This command teaches a dog to drop an object from its mouth. It all starts by giving the dog a toy, ball, or tug rope. This object should be something the dog enjoys holding but will give up without a major fight.
Place your hand under the dog’s mouth and gently hold the end of the object, but do not tug. Introduce the reward by allowing the dog to see and smell it. When the dog opens its mouth to take the reward, it will release the object. Upon release, say, “Drop it.” The physical cue is an open hand that says, “Give it here.”
As the dog advances, delay the reward and work until saying “drop it” and opening your hand simultaneously is understood. Try not showing the reward and see if the dog will drop it.
Reward any considerations the dog makes, such as loosening its grip or if it appears to be considering letting go.
Dogs tend to open their mouths quickly to snatch the reward, so marking the action with a word of praise is a matter of timing.
Play tug-of-war with your dog and periodically have it drop the tug toy. Pair the “drop it” command with “sit.” When the dog lets go of the object and sits, be sure to give high praise and certainly reward by giving the toy back and continuing to play. Once this command is understood, phase out treats.
THE “TAKE IT” COMMAND
The “take it” or “pick it up” command can be practiced by placing a desirable object a few feet away and having the dog “stay” before it can be picked up. Since we want the dog to take the object, teaching this is easy when the object is something the dog likes.
When the dog picks it up, mark with a word of praise and reward.
Reward the dog for smelling or mouthing the object.
Soaking an object in chicken stock makes most anything desirable to the dog. Use the leash to keep the dog in the “stay” position.
Proofing and Advanced
Use a fixed-interval schedule by extending the length of time the dog holds the object. Try having it run with the object in its mouth. Take a walk with the dog carrying the object in its mouth, and use rewards for continued holding. Practice with a variety of neutral objects, such as sticks, tennis balls, keys, and newspapers. Try naming the object as you mark it. “Pick up newspaper.”
The Exchange Game
“Take it” and “drop it” are easy to explain but difficult for dogs to master. The best way is to work them together by playing this easy game: Use two objects that are equally high in value, such as two squeaky new balls. Give the dog one ball and let it play for a minute before surprising him with the other. To make the exchange, use the “drop it” and “sit” commands. When you hand over the new ball, say, “Take it.” Pick up the other ball and repeat this exchange until the dog gets the hang of it.
Did you get all of that? I realize it’s quite a bit of information. Training a dog properly may seem daunting at first, but if you keep your eyes open, the dog will provide dozens of opportunities for you on a daily basis. Do your best to incorporate commands as part of the daily interaction with your dog. This is truly how the dog learns, as repetition is the mother of skill for both dog and owner.