Let's start training! We will start with basic sit, down and stay commands, and progress from there.

By Lance Gardner (Lance) on August 19, 2011

Hopefully, you will read this and other training guides before you get your new buddy, so you are prepared to start working with your friend right away. Either way, let us start working on some basic commands, and make sure you have a good start on maintaining a mutually enjoyable and fun relationship.

First, some disclaimers to make sure we are all starting from the same point:  The advice given here is basic, and since every dog, person and interaction is different, cannot be guaranteed to work for everyone.  You need to be able to know and work with your dog, which only comes from experience and desire.  These training tips are meant to help you along the way to gaining that experience.  There are many wonderful books, videos and other training guides out there that can provide much more detail than what we hope to provide here; this is meant to be a basic primer, not a full length training guide.  The training suggestions given are also meant to work with dogs and people who do not have aggressive tendencies (it can happen both ways!).  If you have a dog who is aggressive or who has other problems with temperament, by all means get help from a qualified, experienced and knowledgeable trainer.  You may also think about maybe getting a dog more suited to your abilities.  There is nothing wrong with admitting you are not compatible, and both you and your companion will be much happier if you are appropriately matched.  If you are aggressive with your dog, rethink your methods and ability to interact with your buddy, or give the dog to someone who has more patience.

One of the basic premises of dog training is to teach the dog to associate a specific signal with a desired action.  The signal can be sound, such as a whistle, voice commands, or similar; or it can be a visual signal, like a hand signal.  Any signal that the dog can consistently recognize will work, providing that you consistently remember what the signal is.  Dogs do not understand English any better than they understand German, Spanish, or Tamashek – our task is to teach what the signal means.  To keep it simple, I will stick with standard English commands, such as sit, stay, come, etc.  We also need to remember to keep the signals simple and easy to communicate, just like naming your dog.  If you decide to confound your neighbors with made up commands, just make sure to use ones that your buddy can recognize.  A dog is also never too young or old to learn, but the methods you use, and the desired level of response, will often differ. 

One final brief thought on training:  reward and punishment.  This is a very touchy subject, and as mentioned above, what works for one will not work for another.  My preference is to use verbal and physical praise – a happy voice, petting, and frolicking to let the dog know they have done well.  I don’t use treats, clickers or similar, but if that works for you, then go ahead.  The main reason is that my voice and hands are always present, and when I am walking through the woods or biking, I want my companions to listen to me without resorting to finding tools that I hope they see (treats or toys) or hear (clicker or whistle).  Negative reinforcement, in terms of discouraging unwanted behavior, I also do with hands and voice.  I do not ‘hit’ my dogs, of course, but will give a light tap on the back end sometimes to remind them which end goes down for sitting.  Dogs are typically subtle animals, and a stern unhappy voice, cold stare, and similar negative gestures are all it takes most times to get your point across.  Again, each dog is different, and a sharp word may send one dog cringing in fear, while another dog may completely ignore the most ardent ‘no’ shout.  You will need to learn what works best for the given situation and dog.  For more on this, visit here and here

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I will start with one of the easiest commands to teach – sit.  Sitting is a natural position of the dog, as you can see in many photos of wolves, so we are not trying to force the dog to do something that does not already happen.  We are instead making sure that our companion does sit when we choose.  With a puppy, you can start teaching the association of sitting with the word ‘sit’ by getting the little fellow’s attention with a hand, toy, or similar, making sure they are facing you, and passing the object just over their head.  As they watch the object, they will start to lean back and naturally sit, at least this often happens.  As the bottom starts to go down, say the dog’s name and ‘sit’.  Do this only 2-4 times for a very young dog, as their attention span is similar to many little people I know – very short.  Remember to praise every time your young recruit does what you want him to.

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For an older or more challenging dog, you may need to also help situate him.  To do this, move him into the proper position facing you, and then try to pass the object over his head.  If you go too high, this will be an invitation for the dog to jump, which you do not want.  For really active dogs, you may need some help to keep them in the proper position and not spinning around like a top.  Another trick you can do to help them along, especially if the dog starts to back up instead of sit, is to grab their collar or scruff right behind their head, put another hand behind their knee, then pull the front part back.  Just like if someone bumps your knee from behind, they will start to collapse their hind legs and sit (we fall, but since dogs have 4 legs, they just sit).  This is a very gentle motion, not a big whack or shove.  I was surprised that even a finger in the right place behind just one leg will cause a dog to go right down.  I do not recommend trying to push their back end down, as they will resist this and the forcing can also contribute to damaging their joints. 

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In the beginning, whether the dog is young or older, keep these lessons short and simple, and then have fun after each session.  You don’t want either one of you to regret a training session, and instead you should look forward to it, or at least not dread it.  As you continue with the training, and you think your dog is getting the idea of sitting, you add ‘stay’.  Each dog is different, and will learn different commands at different rates, so I cannot say “Do this, and this will always happen.”  You need to be able to understand your own dog, and work with his own abilities.  And remember to always give praise for a job well done, every time. 

After your dog is sitting, say ‘stay’.  As his bottom starts up, keep a hand on it, and repeat sit and stay.  At first, 5 seconds is plenty of time for this.  However, just before he decides to get up, you need to say ‘OK’ to release him.  You are now teaching your dog he cannot decide on his own when it is acceptable to release himself from listening.  As your dog seems able to move along with the training, you can start to back away a little and lengthen the sitting time.  Don’t make this a test of wills or attempt to show off you can have them sit for 30 minutes, but instead just keep working on distance and time a little at a time.  You will have to decide how long your furry fellow can tolerate the lesson, and make sure to release him before he gets really bored or frustrated with it.  You should also end your sessions on a positive note.  If the dog seems unable to handle the length of time you hoped for, shorten it considerably so both of you can quit for the day with a final success. 

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Now we will progress to ‘down’, which for us will mean lying down.  Note this is different than ‘off’, which I use to mean get off me, the furniture, the fence, or whatever else they are jumping up onto.  Once you have your dog sitting for a few minutes, you take the same approach as before but now your hand directs his attention down instead of up and back.  Take your hand with an object and go towards the ground just a little in front of the dog’s feet – not so far he is tempted to get up and walk towards you, but enough so he can put his front feet down.  While you are doing this, say ‘down’.  If the back end pops up, put a hand on it to hold it in place and try again to encourage the front end to go down as well.  If this is not working well, you can also pull the front legs forward while holding the back part down, and he should start to realize you actually mean all parts going towards the ground.  Once he is down, praise him for a job well done.  Again, do this briefly and happily say ‘OK’ as soon as you can to allow him to get up.  As before, work in ‘stay’ to teach him to stay down, and slowly lengthen the time you do this. 

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After you have mastered these initial commands, congratulate yourself and your 4-legged friend, because you and your dog probably know more than most other doggies around already.  My 2 dogs must always sit and wait patiently while I put their food bowls down.  They know full well if they get up before I say they can, the food gets picked back up again and we start all over.  Since they want their meal sooner, they have little problem with sitting in place while I do this.  This is one way to stop the overwhelming excitement that some dogs get at mealtimes.  These basic commands can also save you from many headaches and jumping on friends that come over.  

I hope you enjoyed this brief foray into initiating dog training.  Please share your own experiences, successes, failures and other stories on training.  Most important, have fun with your family, regardless of how many legs they have!

Photo lessons: I was quickly reminded that it is best to work with a dog that has had some time for burning off excess energy, as a dog with too much energy or enthusiasm will have a very difficult time staying still for the training sessions.  My son (pictured above) took most of these photos, so please excuse the quality of some of them.  It is challenging to get photos of myself in action, but I think he did an overall good job.  You may also note my hair is a bit long, as I am trying an experiment of sorts to see if I can tolerate growing my hair long enough to donate to Locks for Love, which makes wigs for young people with hair loss.  I am not sure it will last much longer, as hair in my eyes and face is becoming a bit of a problem, but I have so much hair I wanted to at least try!

Related articles:
dog, dogs, down, off, sit, stay, training

About Lance Gardner
I have an interest in just about anything that gets me outside, as well as anything that is alive or grows, and in making things. So my hobbies include gardening, outdoors, photography, dogs, woodworking, and most importantly raising my son.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Just found your article Andi Jan 20, 2012 7:20 AM 8
Thank you Lance huggergirl Nov 16, 2011 7:49 AM 1
Hi Lance, Maridell Aug 20, 2011 6:32 AM 1
Very good article LaVonne Aug 20, 2011 6:28 AM 1

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