Success in any field relies on building a strong foundation and training a puppy basic commands builds your foundation for the future with your dog. Your puppy is eager to learn and eager to please, and is desperate to hear those two magic words–’Good Boy'(or girl of course).
There are five fundamental commands your puppy needs to know: sit, leave it, stay, heel, lay down. I’ve ranked them in the order in which I recommend you teach them and I’ll explain why as we go through each one. So, let’s get started on the most important of all the basic commands–SIT.
Command #1 – Sit
This should always be the first command you teach your puppy. It is the easiest command to learn and will give your puppy the experience of attaining success and, that oh so important prize, praise. But the command to sit is not just an introduction to learning, it offers both a stepping stone to other training procedures and calls Time Out when your puppy needs to calm down or you need to grasp control of a situation to prevent it getting out of hand.
I use the command all the time with my dogs: they sit while I prepare their food; they sit when I put on their leads; they sit waiting at the door to be let out; they sit when I open the door to allow a visitor into the house; and if I see them getting into mischief or being too exuberant, I will command them to sit until they have calmed down. It’s a powerful tool for you to have. In time sitting will become a default behavior and your dog will start to use it to get your attention to remind you to feed him, take him for a walk or simply pet him.
To train this command, first choose how you will reward positive action. There are three main types of reward: an edible treat; a toy; a clicker. Which will depend very much on your puppy. Some dogs are always hungry and respond well to edible treats, others are not motivated by food but like to be given praise or a toy. You’ll discover very quickly what rewards your puppy wants.
- Stand in front of your puppy.
- Put a treat into your hand and let the puppy see you do it. You will get it attention.
- In a firm, calm voice say “SIT”. NOTE: You can add in hand commands at the same time, but don’t worry if you don’t, these can be taught to your puppy later on once it has a good grasp of the verbal commands.
- As you speak move the hand holding the treat over the puppy’s nose towards the top of its head.
- Your puppy will watch the treat pass overhead and will naturally begin to sit down as it tips its head backwards.
- As you see the puppy’s back end dip towards a sitting position, give the reward and praise him. This is also the time you sound the clicker if you are using one.
- Don’t worry if the puppy doesn’t sit all the way down on the first attempt as long as he has attempted to sit that’s okay. With constant practice he will soon associate the word with the action and you can start to delay the reward until he is in a full sitting position. This is where you can really find the value in using a clicker as it gives the reward in two stages: you click as the puppy starts to sit and give the treat when his tail is on the floor.
- To start with you must reward with a treat every time you train with your puppy, but after a while you can alternate giving just praise or praise and a reward. Eventually, the dog will sit on command whether you reward or not.
Command #2 – Leave It
My best friend is a veterinarian and I’ve spent some time helping out at the surgery. Over the years, I’ve seen too many dogs come in for treatment that have been poisoned or have eaten something that has made them sick. So, now I like to teach the command to LEAVE IT as soon as possible to protect my dogs from harm. But this command does not just protect the puppy. It can be useful to prevent him chasing next door’s cat when it comes into the garden, eating the leaves from the pot plant in the hallway or chewing your favourite pair of shoes.
To teach this command effectively, you need a short leash and a handful of treats.
- Tell your puppy to sit and attach its leash.
- Put two treats in your hand.
- Throw one of the treats just out of reach of the puppy and say LEAVE IT. When he tugs to reach it, hold him back with the leash.
- Now call the puppy’s name and touch him gently to get his attention.
- When he turns to look at you, reward him with the remaining treat in your hand.
- Pick up the other treat and return it to your pocket.
- After you are confident he is responding consistently to the command, place the treat close to his nose and say LEAVE IT. When he looks away, put the treat into your pocket and give him a reward.
- Keep repeating the exercise until it becomes second nature to him.
Command #3 – Stay
When training a puppy basic commands, I like to train SIT and STAY commands in combination. With three dogs living at my home, mealtimes could easily get out of control without the STAY command, especially as the smallest and greediest of them all would cruise around the others’ bowls taking the tastiest tidbits of the top of each, if he was allowed to.
To teach this command I use both my voice and a hand command.
- Tell the puppy to sit.
- Say STAY and hold up your hand palm facing outwards in a ‘halt’ position.
- Slowly back away keeping eye contact and repeating the command STAY.
- After a few steps, return to the puppy and reward him. Don’t get tempted to call him to you as this will confuse him and he will respond to the COME command not the STAY one.
- At the beginning don’t step too far away as the puppy will get a little anxious and break his position, but as he gets more confident with the command you can go back some distance and even turn your back on him while doing so.
Command #4 – Heel
Once your puppy has the all clear from the veterinarian to explore the great outdoors, you are going to want to take him on walks. It goes without saying, whatever its age your dog needs exercise to stay trim and agile. But walking also helps the dog to understand its environment, socialize with other dogs and people and be mentally stimulated. A well-balanced dog in mind and body is a happy and calm dog.
Whether you plan to take your puppy to the beach, the park, around the block, or rambling through the mountains, there will be times when you need him to walk to heel–both on and off the lead. This is not the easiest of commands to learn, but persevere its worth it.
When I started training my first dog, Finbar, I tried everything to get him to walk to heel with little success. He was strong and enthusiastic and kept pulling so much that it took the pleasure out of walking him. I followed the advice in the books, kept a pocket full of treats and a squeaky dog toy to distract him, but with no success. That is until I discovered the head collar which was one of the best purchasing decisions I have ever made. The collar is made of a soft webbing which fits over the muzzle and loosely around the neck, the lead is then attached. If the dog tries to pull and walk in front of you, the collar gently twists the dog’s head to look back towards you. Stopping the dog looking forward stops him pulling. If you reinforce this action by saying HEEL and rewarding with a treat when he falls into line walking by your side, he will quickly learn what to do. My proudest moment was walking my Labrador, off the lead, when we suddenly turned a corner to find a field of sheep. I grabbed for the lead which was hanging from my backpack and called him to come to heel feeling quite nervous as he was still young and the temptation of chasing the sheep may have raged strongly in him. But he fell into line and trotted next to me seemingly unaware of the bleating temptations surrounding us.
Command #5 – Lay Down
When dogs are feeling stressed or endangered, they will often lay down to show they are non-threatening to others. This natural response can be drilled into your puppy to help you keep him calm, signal it is bedtime, diffuse any threatening behaviour from other dogs and quiet him if he is over exuberant. This is a difficult command for your puppy to learn, but with persevenance he will ‘get it’.
- Tell him to SIT.
- Hold a treat in your hand and hold it close to his nose. Say LAY DOWN.
- Move the treat closer to the floor.
- As he tries to follow the treat move it slightly further away.
- As he moves his front legs fowards trying to reach the treat he will be forced into a laying position.
- As his belly touches the ground, immediately congratulate him and give him the treat.
- After he has perfected this try again from a standing position.
Training a puppy basic commands can be fun for you and your dog, but you must remember a few basic rules:
- Keep training sessions to under 10 minutes at a time.
- Seek training opportunities often throughout the day.
- Always reward correct behaviour. Don’t scold.
- Keep your voice calm, your tone light, your hand signals consistent.
- Don’t expect too much from your puppy too soon.
- Make training enjoyable and stress free.
- Keep repeating the training drills until they become second nature.
These fundamental five commands are the foundations of any effective training as they will teach you puppy how to learn, you how to teach and will help to create an inseparable bond between you both. There are not many more commands your puppy needs to know, but you will find that if you keep your training light and fun your puppy will get the learning bug and will want to keep on pleasing you with more and more good behaviour.
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