We expect a lot of our dogs – to sit when we ask them (when they may have no idea what it is we want them to do), come when we call them (when they’re snuffling along investigating something much more exciting than us) and lie down (when they want to jump up to get a closer look). That’s why training – and the way we train – is so important.
Rather than bellowing commands to a bemused hound (who’d most likely love to help if he or she understood what it was you were asking for) training is all about opening up a way for you to engage with your dog in an enjoyable, mutually beneficial activity.
Navigating the human land of confusion
PDSA advises: “Training is a great way to keep your dog’s mind active. It also helps you bond and understand each other. Without training, the world can be a pretty confusing place for your dog. We all expect dogs to behave in set ways and follow certain rules. Your dog needs to understand those rules before they can stick to them. It’s easier to learn when it’s fun. The kindest and most effective method is called ‘reward-based training’ – also called ‘positive reinforcement’.”
The technique works like this – by rewarding your dog with a treat when they do what you want them to, they’ll want to behave that way again. With regular repetition, your dog will eventually respond to a command without needing the reward – although it’s always nice to keep the positivity going by giving your best furry friend the occasional treat when they’ve been especially good.
Reward-based training is the best way for dogs to learn
Rehoming charity Dogs Trust adds: “Training with rewards is the best way to encourage your dog to behave as you would like on a day-day basis (for example learning to settle themselves down when people are busy, instead of pestering!). Science tells us that reward-based training is the best way for dogs to learn, it’s fun, and helps build a positive bond between dog and owner. Reward based training can help build confidence and encourage dogs to think for themselves.”
Start each training session in a quiet, calm place such as your living room – without any distractions, interruptions or temptations – and when both you and your dog are happy and relaxed. You’ll also need lots of rewards to begin with, so small, tasty treats are a good idea.
Then, by using positive, reward-based training techniques, you can start teaching your dog the four essentials: sit, down, stay and come, as set out by the canine behaviour experts at Dogs Trust. There are also some great Dogs Trust Dog School online videos to accompany the charity’s top tips so you can watch how dogs learn.
Training your dog to SIT
- The best way to teach your dog to sit is by using a lure. Luring means using your dog’s reward to guide them into the sit position, so they get it right from the start and it doesn’t involve any pushing or pulling them into the sit – which might hurt and/or make them worried about you.
- You don’t need to say ‘sit’ at this stage – remember your dog no idea what the word means at this point. Take a treat and hold it out to your dog’s nose, then slowly and smoothly raise your hand above and over their head. Your dog should move their head back as they follow the treat with their nose and when doing so, as their body hinges, their bottom should touch the floor.
- As soon as your dog’s bottom touches the floor say “yes” and then quickly give them their well-deserved treat. Remember that dogs learn by repeating things. If they’re struggling, have a break and come back to it – learning is not always as easy for them as we might think. If we take things gently and go at their pace, they’ll be more likely to enjoy learning and remember what they’ve learned.
- After they’ve got the hang of this, start to say “sit” as you lure them into the sitting position. Carry on saying “yes” as soon as they sit down and following this with their reward. Repeat this stage several times so that your dog has lots of opportunity to connect the word “sit” with the action of moving into a sitting position.
Training your dog to LIE DOWN
- Starting with your dog in the sit position, hold a treat near your dog’s nose, and in a slow, smooth motion move the treat downwards right in front of their chest and in a straight line down their chest and between their front legs, until it reaches the floor. Your dog should naturally follow the treat and lower their back or even being to creep forwards with their front paws. As soon as your dog’s stomach touches the floor say “yes” and then quickly give them their well-deserved treat.
- Repeat this until your dog is reliably following the lure all the way into a lying down position. Repeat it several times so it becomes second nature to your dog to follow your lure until they are lying down, and they realise that the quicker they do lie down the quicker you will say “yes” and give them their tasty reward. Remember to say “yes” and then give the reward as soon as their stomach touches the floor and they’re lying down.
- Start to say “down” as your dog gets into the correct position, so they will start to connect the word “down” with this action. Remember to carry on saying “yes” when they lie down and always follow this with a reward. Repeat this stage several times so that your dog has lots of opportunity to connect the word “down” with the action of lying down.
WATCH the Dogs Trust Dog School video – Easy tips on how to teach a puppy to sit and lie down >>
Training your dog to STAY
- Ask your dog to sit and wait one second before rewarding them with a treat. Then encourage them to move about and have a brief break, before repeating. Gradually build up the time between asking them to sit and rewarding them, until your dog can stay sitting still for five seconds. At this stage you will still be standing right next to them.
- Now you can add the word “stay”. Ask your dog to sit, then say “stay” and wait five seconds before rewarding them with a treat. Then encourage them to move away and have a short break. Only say “stay” once, don’t repeat yourself as you want your dog to be able to listen after just one ask.
- Gradually continue to build up the time that your dog stays sitting still. Once your dog can sit still for 10 seconds, start to make the length of time you ask them to stay still longer before rewarding them. For example, ask for three seconds before rewarding them then letting them move, then four seconds before rewarding, then two, then five, then eight… and so on. This means your dog won’t be able to predict how long you need them to stay still for, so they shouldn’t start to get ready to move about until you have made it clear by returning to them and rewarding them.
- If your dog gets up before you have rewarded them, this could mean that the length of time you’re asking them to stay still for is too long at this point, or you have been training for too long and they’re tired or getting bored. Go back to some shorter stays, then finish the session or do something simple your dog knows well and can get right.
- Always return to your dog before you reward them. This is to reinforce that the position they are staying in is really rewarding, as it always results in you returning and giving them a treat. If you give the reward to your dog as you’re going back to them and they get up, you’re actually teaching them that getting up gets them the reward, so they’ll start to get up as soon as you start to return to them. Be careful to reward exactly what you want, which is your dog in the position in which you left them.
Training your dog to COME
- Teach your dog to respond to their name before adding recall as it makes it easier for you to grab their attention when you need it. After you’re confident you can get their attention, you can add in your chosen recall cue.
- Choose a short, snappy word like ‘come’ or ‘here’, or a whistle if you prefer. Also add in a visual cue, like holding your arms open wide, in case they can’t hear you. Make sure everyone in your household knows which word and movement you’re using to prevent your dog getting confused.
- Use your recall cue sparingly, giving your dog at least five seconds to respond before calling again. Don’t call again if you think they’re unlikely to return, as this could teach them that it’s okay to not come back.
- Start indoors, in your garden, or in another enclosed space with some tasty treats to hand. Get your dog’s attention with their name, then use your recall cue and take a step away from them. Reward them with praise and a tasty treat when they come to you. When calling them, use a happy, excited voice and welcoming body language (crouched down, arms open).
- Always praise your dog for coming back no matter how long it takes. As your dog improves, you won’t need to give them a treat every time they come back. But remember to reward them every so often to keep them motivated.
- Gradually increase the distance between you and your dog and the level of distractions you call them away from. Eventually leaving the garden and venturing out into the world. Let them move away from you before using your recall cue, and use a long line attached to their harness to keep them safe during training.
- If they ignore you, stay calm – getting angry or shouting will make them not want to come back to you. Instead, gently guide them in with the long line, or go and collect them. Never use the lead to pull your dog towards you. This could make them not want to return.
- Reward them with high value treats when they return without this extra guidance, so they build up a positive association with coming when called.
WATCH the Dogs Trust Dog School video – 3 easy steps to train your dog to come when called >>
The PDSA’s golden rules of reward-based training
- Know what makes your dog tick! The reward has to be something that your dog really likes, so that they’re prepared to work for it. Some dogs like food treats, others prefer praise or a favourite toy.
- Timing is everything. Help the dog link the behaviour with the reward: give the reward during the behaviour or within half a second after they’ve done it.
- Keep it short. Don’t make training sessions too long, or your dog will lose interest or get frustrated. Always end on a high, after a success.
- One by one. Focus on training one command at a time. When your dog has learnt one, then you can move on to the next.
- Clear commands. Use short commands. Avoid confusion by only using the command for the behaviour you want.
- Keep going. Keep rewarding when your dog does what you want. It may take lots of repetition but, with patience, your dog will eventually understand the command and what you want. It’s a great moment when, suddenly, the penny drops and your dog gets it!
- Ignore mistakes. Every dog makes mistakes sometimes. It’s not their fault – it just means they haven’t learnt the task yet. Ignore the mistake and give the reward next time they get it right.
- Never use punishment. Shouting, smacking, hitting, using gadgets like water pistols, or using rattle cans and choke chains are all forms of punishment. They cause anxiety and fear, which are proven to make animals learn slower. It’s unkind and doesn’t create lasting results. It teaches your dog that people can’t be trusted, and this can lead to behavioural problems later in life. Instead, use positive, fun, reward-based training – it’s kind and effective.
- Get everyone on board. Everyone in contact with your dog should praise the right behaviour, use the same commands and ignore mistakes. This is so your dog gets the same message from everyone, rather than gets confused by different messages.
- Get them to eat the right treats. Dog obesity causes health problems. Try using healthy food as rewards, such as a very small slice of carrot. If your dog is only interested in less healthy food, such as small pieces of sausage, give them a smaller main meal so they don’t get too much food on training days.
- For information on how to prevent and manage problem behaviours, visitDogs Trust Change the Tale.
- You can also find lots of advice and training videos through Dogs Trust YouTube.
- If you’re looking for training classes for your dog or puppy – be sure to sniff out Dog’s Trust Dog School.
- Members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers only use reward-based methods – visit their website to find a trainer in your area.
- Visit the dog advicesection of Battersea’s website for lots of tips and techniques.
- Canine Principles runs several ‘Dog Skills for Humans’ courses and workshops.
- Find out more about The Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Training Scheme.
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