April 07, 2021
You can teach a young dog new tricks, but first you need to teach yourself. Every essential dog command comes with multiple steps, usually ending with a tasty treat, and it is important to learn from the experts so your puppy or new arrival can master this stuff quickly.
Why is it so important? Because it will mean greater safety and overall enjoyment for years to come between you, your pet and the public. If your dog learns something like “Leave It,” there will be less chance of him or her eating a toxic item or getting into trouble. Teach your dog to “Stay” and you are less likely to fret over nearby traffic. “Heel” is a command that will forever make it easier to walk your dog and keep your rotator cuff happy.
No two dogs are alike, but the formulas for teaching these basic commands are all pretty similar. The key to the whole thing is patience, and a lot of yummy, strong-smelling treats. Let’s start with these 10 essential commands from expert sources, and remember that the most important thing is to start training early, because you know what they say about old dogs!
Here is where everyone has the smartest dog on Earth. It feels great, right? This is the easiest and most natural command for a dog to learn, and your pup will have this down pat in no time. It’s a transition command on the way to other actions. Place a treat in your fist and put it over your dog’s head, and then gradually move it behind the head so that they’ll naturally crouch. Say “sit” and hand over a treat while your dog is in that sitting position, not after. Soon enough, your dog will offer sits just to get that yummy treat. Bonus points if you can add the American Kennel Club’s “Sit Pretty” command.
This is good because if your dog is standing or sitting, it's easier for the pup to bolt. It also looks really cool to show off. Hold an irresistibly smelly treat in front of your dog, and then gradually lower it to the floor as they follow it like a magnet. Say “down” once that belly hits the floor and then hand over the goods. Or you can use the command “lay down.”
Start this one at a young age, and you’ll always have peace of mind knowing s/he won’t dart for the street if loose. It takes a little bit of patience but it’s a valuable command. Start with your dog in a sitting position, then slowly back up. If your dog comes toward you, say an authoritative “no” and make him/her sit. Say “stay” when your dog stops. Give your dog a treat and then use a release word like “free” or “release” -- so they know it’s OK to conclude that behavior. The release word is important because “stay” can be a command used just briefly or for a longer duration.
This should be one of your first steps, after mastering “stay.” It will be useful everywhere, especially at that dog run if there’s a brouhaha. Use a leash and give the leash a little tug as you say “come” to your dog. Reward with a treat when your dog comes forward to you. As with “stay,” this will take days of patience.
One person should stand outside the door of your house while you stay on the other side with your dog. Have the person outside open the door. Your dog will want to move toward the door, so just say “wait” as the other person closes the door. Note that “wait” is different than “stay” in that the latter can be for a long duration and requires a release word to end it. See this Come/Wait/Follow sequence guidance from VCA Hospitals.
We turned to the American Kennel Club for this because it’s probably the most important command in your average dog show ring. Start with yummy treats cut up into small bits, and put them in your pocket. Whether it’s in a hallway or a spacious room, call your dog’s name and gesture to the side you want your dog to walk on. (Left is the traditional heel side but it’s not a big deal unless you are entering dog shows!) Once your dog comes alongside of you, say “yes” or press a clicker, then reward. After doing this a couple of times, stop calling him and let your dog willingly walk up beside you. Reward each time your dog comes into that position. Increase your pace and add some zig-zags to “lose” your dog so he can rediscover that position, and gradually begin making eye contact for “watch me.”
As we just mentioned in “heel,” this lesser-known command can play an important role. For one thing, it will come in handy if you bring your dog to a crowded area. Hold out a treat near the nose, and slow move it toward your own face. Say “watch me” when the treat is right by your nose, and then reward your dog as it makes that visual contact.
Untrained pooches routinely jump on visitors or furniture when excited. They are just showing the love, fact of life. Still, some people are caught off-guard and some are afraid of dogs when they visit you, so this is one way to think of others. Put a treat in your fist in front of the dog’s head. When they back down, say “off” and give your dog the treat. Repeat this command in an area that has furniture. Before doing all that, you can also turn your back to the dog when it jumps, shaking a loud object for compliance. TV dog trainer Brandon McMillan offers three ways to teach this cool command.
TAKE IT & LEAVE IT
Don’t want your pup to be a bad-stuff detective? “Leave” is a good way to keep him or her out of trouble, like going after a chicken bone accidentally dropped to the ground or trash on the sidewalk. The key is to teach your dog to seek your permission before picking up anything off the ground. So first things first, utilize the AKC’s advice on how to teach “take it.” Then the “leave it” command should follow naturally. Line a row of marginally interesting treats in a room, and walk your dog by each one. If s/he heeds your command to “leave it,” give your dog a better treat as a reward for passing that one by. Repeat this over and over and it will click. Note: “Leave It” is interchangeable with “No” and you can read more about that here.
The only thing better than a game of fetch is your dog actually dropping the object at your feet when you ask for it. So here’s a good way to teach the “drop it” command. Give your dog a toy, and once it takes it from you, offer a treat. Your dog probably will drop the toy in favor of that. With the toy on the ground and your dog enjoying the treat, now pick up the toy again and give it back to the dog. Offer another treat and say “drop it,” and your dog will again likely drop the toy to get the treat. Repeat as often as possible, change toys if it becomes boring to your dog, and then gradually proceed to more exciting stuff like sticks and balls outside.
Remember what it was like when you went to school? Just think, your dog is cramming a lot of stuff into puppy or new-arrival status. So be sure you show a lot of patience and pour on the praise and affection. Show them how cool it is to learn new things in life, and it will pay off for both you and your dog in many ways for years to come.