Dogs are naturally attentive to the body language and voice of their owners. By observing us, a dog learns to anticipate our intent. By consistently associating a certain word or phrase with a dog’s specific action, you can communicate with your dog.
Obedience commands allow you to teach a dog-desirable behavior in any given situation. Practicing obedience skills with your dog is also good exercise for your dog and provides it with mental stimulation. In addition, your dog enjoys constructive social interaction, for which it is rewarded with your praise.
Obedience training allows you to instill appropriate behavior in your dog and, with regular practice, ensures good habits for life. Your dog can learn how to reliably gain your attention with desirable behavior and earn praise for doing so, without resorting to undesirable behavior.
Obedience training is not punishment but an enjoyable interaction for both owner and dog. There is no difference in training small and large dogs. Various obedience commands should be practiced during training sessions, and applied throughout the routine activity of each day and over the course of a dog’s lifetime.
When to Begin Training
The best time to begin obedience training is the moment you acquire your pet. As soon as a puppy begins exploring its environment, it begins to learn what types of behavior are acceptable and not acceptable.
Behavior learned early, desirable or not, is the basis for all future patterns as an adult. This does not mean that adult dogs are untrainable; however, appropriate habits should be instilled from the start, regardless of your pet’s age.
Basic Obedience Commands
Five basic commands can be applied to set the limits for acceptable behavior in an endless variety of situations. The 5 basic commands are sit, down, come, heel, and stay.
Issue the command the same way each time to avoid confusion. This is particularly important when your dog is first learning to connect your command with an expected action. Always say “come,” not “come over here” or “come here.” Use the command alone, rather than including it in the middle of a sentence. Say “come,” not “you had better hurry up and come over here or I will not take your for a ride in the car.”
Precede each command by saying the dog’s name in a firm but gentle tone. For example, “Heidi, come.” This will get your dog’s attention and keep it alert in anticipation of your next command. If the command word is not preceded by the dog’s name, the animal may not realize that you are addressing it.
Say any command in a firm and low tone. You need not shout to make yourself understood or to make your dog understand that you are in charge. In fact, raising your voice may only frighten the dog or raise its level of excitement, which will make the animal more difficult to control.
Exhibit a calm but controlled attitude, conveying authority without anger. There is, however, one exception. The command to “come” should be said in a light and happy tone of voice. Your dog must never anticipate any problem when you call it to come to you. If it learns to associate punishment with this command, it will not respond and could learn to avoid you.
Inform all family members or other frequent visitors of your rules. Everyone’s consistent commands will avoid confusion when interacting with your dog. Review the command words and their significance with other people. Practicing obedience training with your dog and visitors can be an enjoyable activity for all.
Consistent use of a gesture in conjunction with a verbal command can be a useful addition to basic training. Hand signals may be used under special circumstances when verbal communication might be undesirable or as an extra challenge to both pet and owner. In hearing-impaired and congenitally deaf dogs, this form of training may replace verbal commands.
By making the hand signal each time you pronounce the corresponding voice command, your dog will eventually make the association between your hand signal and its behavioral response. You might even decide to rely only on hand signals, without any voice commands. This is a more advanced level of obedience training for both you and your dog.
Once your dog has consistently demonstrated mastery of the basic commands, you may teach additional ones of your own choosing. It is important, however, to learn the basics first.
Teach your dog the command to “jump” (or “up”, if you prefer) and “off,” for example, so that you can control it if it jumps onto furniture or into bed. This training also helps prevent inappropriate dominance in your dog.
While your dog urinates or defecates outdoors, say “hurry” or “do it” and always give abundant praise. This teaches it to void on command so that you won’t freeze unnecessarily on a cold winter night while the dog seeks just the right spot. During play, teach your dog to relinquish objects by saying “drop it,” or not to touch an object by saying “leave it.” This can help prevent undesirable guarding.
Make sure that new commands are distinct from each other and consistent in form so that your dog will not become confused. It is often useful to introduce a command that releases a dog from some other activity or command.
Release commands let your dog know when it is acceptable to be at ease. Every dog should be taught to sit calmly before it is fed. The dog should not touch its food dish until you release it from “sit/stay,” for example, with the command “okay.” When you walk your dog on a leash, it should “heel” on a short lead at your left side. If you choose to let the dog investigate something along the way, say “okay” to release it from the “heel.”
Praise and Other Positive Reinforcement
At your dog’s first sign of obedience to your command, offer immediate and generous praise. Do not wait until after your pet has complied. Praise the dog as it begins to obey your command, even before its response is complete, so as to help the dog associate your command with that action. If you delay, or worse, don’t offer praise, your dog may not understand what is expected of it.
Praise may be verbal, such as softly saying “good dog.” Your tone of voice should be soothing. If you excitedly praise your dog for a successful “sit/stay,” your dog will respond to your excitement and break out of its position to jump at you. You can also praise your dog using an affectionate gesture, such as a caress or pat on the head.
A food treat can help increase a dog’s motivation to cooperate but should not be continually used, particularly for pups. If you are retraining a misbehaving dog or a recently acquired adult dog, its cooperation may be better motivated by supplementing your praise with a small food treat. A food reward, unlike other forms of praise, need not be given at every command, and may be given at intermittent intervals.
Your dog can learn which behavior is acceptable and which is inappropriate, depending on your response. For example, when a young dog hears a noise in the yard, its first reaction might be to jump at the windowsill and bark. This behavior may be acceptable to many dog owners. If you respond to this by saying “good dog” and pat it on the head, chances are that your dog will bark the next time it hears a noise outside your home. Some owners, however, may be irritated by excessive barking and potential damage to the windowsill.
If you say nothing, the barking will likely continue. If you respond by sternly saying “bad dog,” your dog may momentarily be interrupted from barking. After a pause, it is likely to resume barking. If you respond to undesired barking by saying “no” and follow this immediately with an alternative and appropriate command, such as “sit,” your pet will learn not only what you disapprove of, but also what behavior is acceptable.
Nylon or leather collars are adequate and effective for many dogs. For small breeds, lean-muscled dogs, or those with a medical condition that would be aggravated by a collar, a halter can be used. Metal choke chains are not necessary unless other collars are ineffective to control misbehavior. For large dogs with muscular necks and that resist training, a “toothed” choke chain may be effective. Both “ring” and “pinch-type” choke chains should be used firmly but without exaggerated force so as to avoid injury to the neck.
A less severe option to choke chains is a nylon lead that encircles both the neck and muzzle of the dog. This forces the dog’s head down and toward its chest when gentle pressure is applied to the leash.
For training sessions, a short training leash is best. A longer leash of 4 to 6 feet can be used if you can control the clack. Retractable leads are awkward and difficult to firmly grip, and provide little control for training. Retractable leads and harnesses should not be used during training, but they may be useful after your dog is fully trained.
Daily Training Sessions
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During the initial phase of obedience training, you should practice obedience commands in 1 or 2 daily obedience training sessions of 15 to 30 minutes each. During these formal training sessions, practice the 5 basic commands in every room of your home. In this way, your dog will learn to obey you regardless of where you are, in the kitchen or the den. Use a leash at first during indoor obedience reviews so that your dog will be more in control. Once your dog is more reliably obedient, you will not need to use the leash inside your home.
In addition to indoor training, practice obedience commands during walks outside. This will teach your dog obedience everywhere, regardless of distractions. Your dog should be kept on a leash outdoors at all times, regardless of the leash laws in your area, until it is reliably obedient in all situations.
The leash is not intended to prevent your dog from enjoying life. It should be viewed as a lifeline between you and your dog. If there is any question as to whether your dog will obey you under any circumstances, regardless of what may be occurring nearby, or if the dog could be injured off the leash, use the leash.
In addition to the formal daily training sessions, by applying them to your interactions throughout each day, obedience skills should be continually reinforced. From the moment you acquire your dog, make it earn its rewards.
Do not feed, walk, brush or play with it without asking the dog to perform an obedience skill. For example, if your dog follows you into the kitchen, call it to “heel” as it walks by your side. Tell it to “sit/stay” as you prepare your snack. Return to you place and call your dog out of its “sit/stay” in the kitchen by calling it to “come” to rejoin you in the other room. Make the dog “sit/stay” before its food dish is delivered. Make it “sit/stay” while you remove its leash.
Obedience skills must be practiced throughout a dog’s lifetime so the skills are not lost. In the absence of clear and consistent behavioral guidelines, your dog could regress to unacceptable activities at any age.
View every episode of misbehavior as an opportunity to teach obedience. Just as wild and undisciplined behavior can be intentionally or unintentionally trained, appropriately calm and controlled behavior can be taught. Do not just scold your dog when it misbehaves. Rather, show it is a desirable alternative activity by giving a command, such as “down/stay.” If your pup is chewing on your favorite easy chair, say “no” and immediately place a rawhide chew toy in its mouth. If your dog greets quests by jumping on them, place it in a “sit” or “down/stay” position when visitors arrive.
Training should be consistent in a variety of similar situations. If you want your guests to be greeted calmly, for example, train your dog to greet you in the same way. Double standards of behavior will only confuse your dog and create behavior problems. Consistency is fundamental for a well-trained and socially acceptable pet.
Obedience training by professional trainers can be a positive experience for both you and your dog. A competent dog trainer can correctly demonstrate the skills that you, the owner, must use to communicate your desires to your dog. The purpose of a trainer is to teach you how to train your pet.
Group classes are also beneficial because your dog can learn basic skills in a very distracting situation. If it can demonstrate obedience while surrounded by other dogs and other people in an unfamiliar location, the training should be easier to transfer (with ongoing practice at home) to relatively calmer places. The advantage of group lessons over private lessons is that they allow your pet to socialize with other dogs and people.
Do not send your pet away to be trained. The purpose of an obedience trainer is to train you so that you can then train the dog. You are the one that must function from day to day with your dog; therefore, it must be trained to obey you.
To locate an obedience trainer or training classes in your area, consult your veterinarian. Speak with other people who have attended classes there. No recommendation, no matter how glowing, can replace a personal visit to the location of the class.
Observe a class in session and speak with the trainer after the class. Rely on your first impression if you have any doubts. Group classes should be small, and the trainer should be able to give personal attention to every group participant. Force should not be used to demonstrate a command or to restrain your dog. Abuse is an unacceptable way to gain your dog’s attention or cooperation.
Obedience skills set the tone and standards of your dog’s relationship with you and your family and friends. Teaching acceptable behavior to your dog and rewarding it with your praise are not only immediately gratifying to you, but they also improve the quality of your dog’s life.