They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but nothing could be further from the truth. With the right techniques, even the most inexperienced dog owner can teach any dog a few basic commands. A well trained dog is a happy dog, and happy dogs make for happy humans.
1. The key to successful dog training is positive reinforcement.
Rather than punishing a dog for breaking the rules (which it may not even be aware of or understand), reward it for doing what you want it to do. All animals, including humans, learn faster and respond better with this method. So if your dog goes potty in the house, don’t rub its nose in it or swat it with a rolled up newspaper. The dog will have no idea what message you are trying to convey. Rather, reward the dog with over-the-top treats and praise when it goes to do its business outside in an appropriate place. The dog will associate going to the bathroom outside with a positive outcome, and will be eager to replicate those results the next time. If the dog still goes inside occasionally, just ignore it- eventually the behavior will be completely eradicated.
2. One of the most basic commands to teach a dog is “sit.”
Here’s an easy technique to get started: hold a treat in your hand so the dog can see it. As the dog approaches you for the treat, move the treat up and over the dog’s head, so it is forced back into a sitting position as it follows the treat with its nose. As soon as the dog starts going into a sit, say “Sit!” and give it the treat within five seconds (this is the critical window for the dog making the association between sitting and getting the treat). Be sure to pet and praise the dog in a happy, excited voice. Repeat this over and over for as long as the dog stays interested. If the dog doesn’t seem interested in the treat, try a tastier one- bits of cheese or hot dog usually do the trick. Remember, the treats should be small, no bigger than your fingernail. Dogs value quantity over size, and we don’t want Fido getting too pudgy! As the training progresses, start raising your standards. Start rewarding only for brisk, neat sits. Carry some treats with you on walks or at the park and have the dog practice sitting in different environments. Soon the dog will not even need the treats for reinforcement and will gladly sit when you ask.
3. Almost as easy to teach is the “down” command.
Get the dog into a sitting position and then draw the treat forward and down, so that as the dog follows the treat with its nose it naturally moves into a lying down position. Follow the same strategy as above by saying “Lie down!” as the dog starts getting into the correct position, giving the treat within five seconds, and praising the dog in a happy voice. If the dog doesn’t understand at first and walks forward towards the treat, cheerfully say “Nope!” and turn your back for a few seconds. Then try again. Keep repeating until the dog is lying down on command like a champ. Repetition is the key.
4. A slightly harder, but very useful command, is “stay.”
Ask your dog to sit. Then say “Stay” and start backing away slowly. As you take a step back and the dog stays in a sitting position, toss it a treat. Set your standards low at first: toss the treat after one step back for several repetitions, then after two steps back, and so forth. It will probably take many, many practice sessions, but soon you will be able to walk into another room and the dog will still be sitting patiently.
5. A command that is very important for your dog’s safety is “leave it.
” You never know what a dog might try to eat while out on a walk- it might just be a harmless hamburger wrapper, but it also might be rat poison. Show your dog that you have a treat, then enclose it in your fist. Let the dog sniff, lick, and paw at your hand to try to get the treat, but do not open your fist. Finally, when the dog starts to lose interest, say “Leave it!” and give the dog a different treat with your other hand. Repeat, saying “Leave it!” earlier and earlier and giving a treat with the other hand as soon as the dog backs away. Soon you will be able to drop a treat on the floor and say “Leave it!” and the dog will look expectantly at you for a different treat.
6. A very useful command is “come.”
Stand a short distance away from your dog and say its name and “come!” in a happy, excited voice. As soon as the dog looks at you, toss it a treat. After several repetitions of this, wait until it takes a step towards you before you toss the treat. Slowly raise your standards until the dog must come all the way up to you to get the treat. Try standing farther away or in a different room. If the dog is interested in something else, like a toy, and ignores you, try a higher value treat with a pungent smell, such as wet cat food. This will grab the dog’s attention even at a distance.
The most important concepts in dog training are positive reinforcement, repetition, and patience. You didn’t learn the alphabet in a day; it would be unfair to expect your dog to remember every command perfectly after only a few tries. End your training sessions before the dog starts getting bored or frustrated, and try again another time, and have fun! If you stay calm and positive, the dog will pick up on your attitude and learn faster.