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The Top Ten Commands and how to teach them!

'Command' is traditionally the term we use for telling our dogs what we would like them to do. Many trainers today prefer the word 'cue' not only because it sounds less like a demand for robotic obedience but also because it emphasizes the need to teach a signal or cue that your dog can easily recognize and respond to. The better a trainer is at associating the exact same signal with the same behaviour, the quicker a dog can learn. Many of us however spend little time thinking about the cues we use and how these cues may make learning easier or harder for our dogs.

Commands or cues need to be:

  • Clear
  • Consistent
  • Easily recognizable
  • Linked to the exact same behaviour everywhere, every time.

A Word about Words.

When most of us think of 'commands' we think of words. That's because we are human and we are very good at language. Dogs on the other hand are not very good at discriminating the finer points of language and most verbal commands are guessed at dependent on your tone of voice and the general sound of the word or phrase. For instance 'sit ' is a short sharp word, if you said 'hit', 'bit' or 'lit' in the same tone of voice your dog would probably also respond with a sit. Phrases which can be said in a different lilt can also make useful commands for instance a rising 'do you want to go out?' The most important factor is that you use the same tone of voice for the same command and a different tone of voice for different commands. Commands should be spoken clearly, consistently and with a little authority rather than a nagging plea - however they should not be harsh, loud or threatening. Dogs have very good hearing and if a pleasantly voiced 'drop' command is followed by rewards your dog will learn to drop just as reliably as a dog who is trained using a loud, growling, guttural 'drop!!!'. There is no right tone of voice or correct word choice that will magically train your dog for you.

Visual Cues

If you want to make life easier for your dog, you may choose to take advantage of some non-verbal cues. Dogs are expert at reading visual cues such as hand signals and body gestures. Indeed, most dog-to-dog communication is based on visual cues such as submissive roll-overs and play bows. It makes sense then to teach a visual cue such as a hand signal in addition to a command word whenever possible.

'Sit', 'stand' and 'down' are all behaviours usually cued with both a hand signal and a word.

Context Cues

Dogs also rely heavily on context cues such as time of day, what clothes you are wearing (walking shoes or work shoes) what you pick up (car keys/lead) or the presence of certain smells (dog shampoo - bath time). You can use these context cues to teach the behaviours you want in routine situations. For example, if you do not attach a lead until your dog sits, the dog soon learns that a quick sit leads to a faster exit out the door.

Clear commands + good rewards= effective training.

The elements of effective training are simple. Choose a command that your dog can recognize, associate it with the behaviour you want and follow correct responses with rewards such as praise, a treat or a game. The command or cue tells your dog what you want him to do while the reward provides the motivation or the why he should do it. When a dog fails to learn, there is usually a problem in one of these two areas. Either the dog isnt recognizing the cue (the what) or he's failing to see the why due to insufficient rewards or too many unintentional rewards for the wrong behaviour (such as the fun of playing in the park instead of coming when called).

The Top Ten Commands

So what does your dog need to know to be a good companion and how are you going to teach it? Our top ten commands are a great place to start!

1.Toilet time

The first and most urgent cue to teach your puppy is to toilet in front of you.Use context cues such as popping the puppy on a lead and taking him to your chosen spot in the garden. Use a phrase that you won't be embarrassed to say in public such as 'hurry up'. You may start with saying your cue 'hurry up' only while the puppy is peeing. Then slowly, move the cue forward to when the puppy sniffs or circles which are usually precursors to squatting and peeing. When the puppy has finished it's vital that he is rewarded with praise and if you want the training to go as fast as possible a treat. Eventually simply getting out the lead and heading for the garden with your cue words should be ample information to produce a toileting response.This is fantastic because now you know you can toilet your dog before you leave for work, or bedtime or a car trip. It puts you in control of the when and where of toileting.

2.Positions: sit/stand/down.

Position changes are like the ABCs of dog training. Although you can achieve a reasonable level of control over your dog just by having a reliable sit teaching stand and down gives you a greater variety of options and will make training more interesting for both of you. With three options your dog cannot predict which position will be next - really testing whether or not he understands the three different concepts. Ideally, your dog should respond to your word and/or hand signal both by your side, from in front and at a distance. Positions are most easily taught using a food lure.

To teach sit - slowly move a small treat above your dogs head as the head goes up, the bottom will come down and sit happens.

For stand - draw the treat straight forward from the dogs nose level. This will become the hand signal for stand.

For drop - take the treat toward the floor between the dogs toes. This will become the hand signal for drop.

Remove the treat from your hand after about three repetitions and repeat using the exact same hand movement. This will soon become your visual command or signal for your dog to sit, stand or drop.

When your dog is responding to the signal, add the word just before the hand signal.Reward AFTER each correct response, sometimes use food sometimes just praise.

Adding Distance

For an extra challenge work on position changes at a distance. Distance work provides extra control and safety whenever your dog is off lead. Imagine your dog running toward a road a distant drop command stops him in his tracks. Distance work is also essential for TV work where trainers have to be able to cue their dogs from behind the cameras. Start by leaving your dog in a stand and moving away just a few feet, turn and signal the drop or sit. Sometimes leaving your dog in a restricted spot such as a stair landing or table will prevent the dog from creeping toward you. Generously reward every correct response and soon you will have a dog that will happily sit or drop at any distance!

3.Release , Stay and Wait

Release is probably the most under-rated command in dog training. You must be sure to teach your dog that every behaviour has a beginning AND an end. Too often people ask their dogs to sit but forget to tell them to unsit. If you are unreliable your dog will also be unreliable. The first command tells the dog to start doing something, the release command tells him to stop doing it. Common release words are 'free', 'off you go', 'playtime' and O.K.'.

Stay adds a new criteria. It informs your dog that you are now moving away and he is to stay. Place an open hand in front of the dog's face, say stay/sit and move just a step away. Slowly increase either the distance or the time away. Always come back to release your dog. This will prevent creating a dog who anxiously watches for a release signal the whole time you are away. Stay should mean stay put until you return. Only your return will cue your dog that he will soon be released.

Wait is for a temporary pause or stay. It suggests that the dog remains attentive because in a moment he'll be asked to do something such as come, fetch or follow. Many people also use a different hand signal for wait and stay. Think carefully about what you want each of these terms to mean before you start to train your dog.

4.Come

Come is obviously one of the most important commands to teach your dog and one that many people have trouble with. Most people will get a new dog and immediately start calling 'come'. There is no point however in calling come to your dog unless you have first taught what come means - you may just as well be saying 26! 26!

Come can be described as either a direct movement toward you or a position close to you. If your dog is running directly toward you say 'come' to associate the word with that behaviour. Remember you need to reward your dog to encourage him to repeat this behaviour. Use a light long line (e.g. a 5 metre lead) and do lots of practices of come and reward. When you have set the dog up for success coming when called will eventually become a habit.

5.Speak and Quiet

Speak and quiet should always be taught at the same time - after all it's really just the on and off switch for the same behaviour. Most dogs will bark at predictable times such as when someone arrives at the door. Say 'speak!' (or whatever word you might like to use) and praise/reward your dog. Follow this with 'Quiet 'and immediately reward with several treats in succession. Reward either the speak or the quiet more heavily - depending on which your dog finds harder, or which is more important to you. By labeling both these behaviours you have more chance of putting them under your control. Note that choosing a different word for speak such as alert will make no difference to your dog but will change the perception of your dog's barking to other people so choose your command carefully.

6.Take /Give/ Leave-it

These three commands concern the taking, releasing and ignoring of an object. 'Take' means you are giving your dog permission to put an object into his mouth such as a piece of food, dinner or a toy. Take can be taught right from when you start rewarding your puppy with food treats. Precede the release of the treat with 'take'. This is particularly useful if you have young children at home who are likely to run around the house with food at dog-eye level. Teaching take should prevent your puppy from opportunity grabbing. The take can also be a great way to start teaching a retrieve by encouraging your dog to take a ball into his mouth. Follow this with 'give' - the release of the treat or toy. All games need rules and it is a good idea to teach your dog that in most cases 'give' results in either a food treat or the continuing of a game. Not giving results in end of game. Tug is a great game to play with most dogs but only provided they've learnt to take and give reliably on command.

'Leave-it' commonly means ignore that and look at me instead.This is a very useful command and may prevent the dog ingesting something harmful such as chicken bones or even baits. Practice at home, and reward 'leave-it 'with a really good reward from your own hand. You can extend this exercise to prevent your dog taking food from other people too by doing lots of practices with different people.

7. Up and Off

Up and off are general control commands to help move your dog around. Up can be permission to come onto the furniture, into the car, onto the grooming table or even jump into your arms. At the same time you will need to train the opposite command 'off' to remove your dog from such places. Again, reward the more difficult or more important part of this exercise more heavily. For some dogs and owners this may be getting off the furniture for others it may be getting up into the car.

8. Paces fast, slow and reverse!

Your dog will walk better on a lead if you have taught him cues for walking slowly and quickly. This is very easy to do simply by having your dog on a lead and as you speed up say 'quickly!' To slow up exaggerate a little and as you say 'steady' creep along as though you're sneaking into your house late at night. Dogs will really enjoy responding to your changing body language as you play this game. Say 'quickly' in a slightly higher, more excited voice. Say 'steady' with a lower, slower tone. These sounds have been found to be universal in speeding up and slowing down lots of domestic animals. Another aspect to add is 'reverse' or 'back'. This can be really useful in tight situations such as doorways where you may need your dog to step back. 'Back' can be taught in many ways. The main thing is to be on the look-out for when your dog naturally steps back. For many dogs this is when you hold a toy, or if you gently walk into your dog as he stands in front of you. Be ready to label the step back with the word back and follow with a reward.

9. Shake hands

This most famous of dog tricks is really a very useful command for several reasons. For starters, it's fun and it's a great way to make your dog appear smart, well trained and friendly especially to children. It's a good way for shy dogs to greet strangers, rather than have them reach over their head for a pat which is far more threatening. It's also useful for general care such as cutting nails or checking pads for cuts or ticks. Many dogs, notably terriers, will lift their paw to get a treat within a few seconds of a treat appearing. Other dogs are much less inclined to use their feet. Persevere and be creative. Ask the dog to climb onto your lap and reward the moment the first paw is lifted. Your hand reaching down is the most common cue for this behaviour to which you can add 'shake!' Practice will make perfect but remember it's the reward more than the word that will make the shake reliable.

10. Relax (or settle)

It's a great idea to put a label or cue on the sensation of relaxation. This may sound silly at first but it's so easy to do and the benefits can be wonderful. Whenever your dog is relaxed after a long walk and dinner, while undergoing doggy massage - say a word such as 'relax'. You may like to use other context cues as well such as soft music or scented candles.

What you are doing is classically conditioning these cues with relaxation. Now, when you need to go over your dog for a tick, or put eye drops in his eyes, or clear out his ears, or cut his toe nails or sort out knots in his coat you present your cues music, scent and word and the struggle disappears.

The wilder and more difficult to handle a dog, the greater benefits can be derived from this exercise. If you are able to teach the 'relax' cue really well, it can even be used to some benefit when out and about should you come across something that distresses your dog such as loud noises or a scary dog.

Disobeying commands

What most people refer to as disobedience can be traced back to three common training errors:

  1. Failure to link a consistent command/cue/signal with the behaviour you want

  2. Failure to provide sufficient rewards for doing a behaviour

  3. Failure to have the dogs attention before you ask for a behaviour.

Professional trainers rarely use terms such as 'disobedience' because they know that getting an animal to do the things we want is simply a training issue. If you think about it, a dog must first be obedient, that is nine out of ten times have demonstrated understanding and compliance to a 'command' before he could possibly be considered disobedient. Hence all puppies and most dogs are not 'disobedient' but rather are not yet fully trained.

It's all in the training.

Dogs are perfect at being dogs. If we want to alter their behaviour to fit into our human life style we have to teach them. If we hit problems along the way it's just because we're two different species still working to perfect our communication system. Every dog is smart enough to learn our 'Top Ten Commands' but the most important thing of all is that you both enjoy the journey.

DEAF DOGS.The hardest thing about training deaf dogs is catching their attention. Try using a light, a touch or initially keeping them on lead. Once you have your dog's attention the same rules apply only you'll need to focus on the visual and context cues mentioned above.

These cues are sometimes harder for humans to get use to but are more natural and easy for dogs and there is no reason why a deaf dog cannot be trained to a very high standard. If you run out of ideas for hand signals check out some American Sign Language signals which can be adapted for dogs.

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This article first appeared in Dog's Life magazine Sept/Oct 2005 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge, president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia and part owner and instructor at Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney - a dog training school specializing in positive training classes for pet dogs. She is a Delta Accredited Canine Good Citizen (TM) Instructor and writes and lectures frequently on dogs and dog related issues such as positive training methods, behavioural problems and responsible pet ownership.