Training a dog is a challenge, especially since it needs to be practiced every single day. It also needs to be consistent, meaning the same response or non-response every time. But training is worth the trouble when you find that your hard work has paid off at the sidewalk café, at the park, when a guest comes to visit, and in your daily interactions with your dog. Training goes beyond the pride of having a good dog. Training can also save your dog’s life.
As we often remind our readers, knowing and practicing these behaviors can mean the difference between life and death. Here are some key commands that should be practiced every day — for life — and that all dogs should know and respond appropriately to every time.
(Credit to Dr. Lisa Radosta for the commands and their related behavior responses.)
"Sit": Sit until I tell you that you can get up.
"Come": Come running to me when I call you.
"Stay": Stay until I tell you to get up.
"Leave it": Drop what is in your mouth, look away from what you are engaged with, don’t pick that up.
And here are some of the ways by which you can train your dog these commands:
Start at home by giving your dog a treat each time he obeys the command to sit. Do this both when he is behaving appropriately and when he is not. Remember to ignore any unwanted behavior until it stops, and then give him the command to sit. In the beginning, give your dog a treat and words of encouragement every time he sits for you, and do not give him treats unless he sits.
Gradually increase the time he has to sit before being rewarded with a treat, giving words of encouragement and then following up with a treat. With consistency, you will be able to stop unwanted behavior simply by asking your dog to sit, and as you lengthen the time between the sitting and the treat, your dog will sit just for the pleasure of pleasing you and receiving your affection when he does as asked.
When walking outside, always have treats at the ready for opportunities, even after your dog has gotten older and is comfortable with his commands. In the beginning, when the situation presents itself, such as another dog out walking, or a cat walking by, or when it is obvious that your dog would really like to go in a different direction. Stop where you are and ask him to sit, following up immediately with a treat once he has.
At the start of training while outdoors it is even a good idea to take the treat your dog loves most — a "high value" treat. High value treats can include meats (like hotdogs and jerky), soft treats, peanut butter treats, and dog biscuits that he doesn’t otherwise get. These treats should be reserved for those commands that are especially critical, like stopping and sitting while outdoors, coming to you when called, and staying until you release him. Even if your dog does initially respond by pulling away from you, stay in place and wait for him to stop pulling and then ask your dog to sit. When he does, give him direct eye contact, a treat, and verbal encouragement. Do this every time you have an opportunity.
Practice the “come” and “stay” commands in a non-distracting environment at first. A game of fetch in the yard or at the park, preferably a closed in park or one that is far from a road, is a great practice opportunity. Keep your dog on a leash, and before you release him, ask him to sit, treat, and then let him go to fetch the toy or stick. As he is running around, call for him to come, making the treat obvious. When he does come, put him on his leash, ask him to sit, give him the treat, ask him to stay, and then release him to play, as long as he has been staying. Do this repetitively throughout every playtime — leash, sit, treat, stay, release, play — each time you go out to play, and then frequently once he has gotten the hang of the “come” command; so he doesn’t forget.
"Drop it" Command
Some dogs are protective of their toys, even non-aggressive dogs. If your dog appears to be overly protective of toys or food, he may be having a fear response. Fear can lead to biting, and biting leads to the dark side. Nipping this problem in the bud, as it were, is very important while your puppy is still young. Don’t wait for the growling and biting before taking action.
In any case, dropping toys on command is the first step to learning to drop anything that is in her mouth when she hears the command form you. While your dog is calmly playing with a toy, or playing with you and a toy, offer her a treat in exchange for the toy, saying "drop it" as you make the offer. In the beginning, when she drops the toy for the treat, leave the toy where she dropped it and walk away. If she does not drop the toy when you say "drop it" and offer the treat, toss the treat a little ways away from her so she can see it and then walk away. She will drop the toy to get the treat, but don’t pick up her toy just yet. After several successes with this, when she drops the toy at your command in exchange for the treat, give her the treat while picking up the toy and then give the toy right back to her. Gradually change the time that you hold the toy, making it a few seconds longer each time.
Practice these commands every time you see your dog with a toy or during play with your dog. If this is done several times a day, every day, she will drop the toy as soon as you say "drop it" and show her the treat. Make sure to practice this command with her outside, too. Keep treats in a bag in your pocket or carry-pack at all times so that you are prepared for opportunities.
"Leave it" Command
Once your dog has gotten into the swing of dropping her toys on command, you should start adding "leave it" into the process. When she drops the toy, pick it up and place it on the other side of you. She will probably go for the toy after she has had her treat. Saying "leave it," give her a treat when she steps away from the toy. Do this with several different types of toys.
Practice outdoors as well. Whenever your dog sniffs around something on the ground, say "leave it" and give her a treat when she stops and looks up at you. She will be learning that when she hears those words, stops what she is doing, and looks at you, she gets a treat.
Remember that with all commands, you should go back to one of the initial guidelines for puppy training. The dog should always be sitting before getting any treats, so adding the "sit" command to the other commands will help to keep this consistent.
These critical commands can also be practiced in obedience class, but classes should not replace home practice. Classes are a great complement to home training, and are even an ideal place for your dog to learn to ignore the distractions of other people and dogs, but they are still closed environments, and you want your dog to obey these commands wherever he, or she, may be.