Cue: the word or signal used to issue the command
Prompt: the actions taken to suggest the proper performance
Lure: using a reward, treat or toy, to lead the dog into command performance
Mold: use of a leash or touch to shape the dog into command performance
Teaching a New Command
To teach a new command we want to make sure we can prompt, lure, or at least mold the dog into the command in a low distraction environment before beginning to teach the cue. There is no point issuing a cue that doesn’t result, even with our best efforts to prompt/lure/mold, in the desired performance. Furthermore, when a command is new, attempting to teach it with distractions present is likely to result in frustration for both you and the dog. If your dog already understands a command, but just doesn’t hold it well or perform it reliably you may skip to the next section.
Steps for Sit:
- Find a low distraction environment (ie. your kitchen), with some traction (like a rug).
- Use a cheery voice, your dog’s name, and a desired reward if needed (small treats work best), to capture the dog’s attention and get him positioned on the rug or other high traction surface.
- Pinch the treat, leaving it minimally exposed between your thumb, index, and middle finger, and bring the treat to your dog’s nose without allowing him to take it.
- Allow the dog to sniff the treat, then gradually/slowly begin to lift the treat up and back (towards the dog’s eyes) requiring him to look up to track the treat. This luring move should get the butt to drop to the ground.
- Should the upward lure fail, try again. This time slow down enough so that the dog never stops tracking the treat.
- Should the dog track the treat, but not drop into a sit, this time in addition to the lure move you’ll apply pressure to the lowest part of the dogs back, on either side of the tail with your index and middle finger (like you’re holding up a peace sign, and then using that to gently poke your dog down into a sit).
- If this fails, contact your trainer for help.
- As soon as the dog’s butt touches the ground say, “good sit” in a cheery, but not so enthusiastic voice that it is a distraction, and give the dog the luring treat.
- Repeat the above steps, gradually fading the lure to a prompt (gesturing the lure without an actual treat and at a further distance) and removing the molding support. Your goal is for the dog to respond to the cue, the word “sit,” with no additional guidance. That said, for a pet dog, we are always happy if they can perform a command with a cue and a subtle bit of prompting.
Teaching Holding the Command
Most dogs who come to us for training already know their command vocabulary, but tend to have poor duration and reliability. Here we’ll address duration as it is the scaffolding for reliability around distractions. The core idea is that we want to reward patience and settling in, and correct the impulsive choice to break early.
Tips for teaching your dog to hold a sit, down, or place command
- Use a release word such as “okay,” and stop saying (and repeating) a “stay” or “wait” command. By not saying “stay,” you teach the dog to hold the command as a default; thus, teaching a more tuned in and patient mindset. If you aren’t using a release word, the dog is deciding when he is done with the command, not you.
- Make sure the dog can wait for a treat to come all the way to him. Try bringing in the treat slowly from above and pulling it away (to provide minor feedback) should he reach or lunge for the treat. Make the game challenging by bringing the treat down slowly, but not too slow where it’s impossible. Speed up if you get more than two failures in a row to make things easier, and slow down further if he’s doing well with the game to add a challenge.
- Once the dog is fairly settled in the command and can wait for the treat to come to him, you can start to increase the challenge of holding the command from a small distance. Up until now, you’ve been standing right in front of your dog, now, while in command, take one small step back, while holding out a flat palm toward the dog to prompt the implicit hold. If successful, say “good sit”, if unsuccessful, provide feedback (see below) and reset. Again, make the game challenging, going further and further back, but not so challenging that the dog is failing more than twice in a row.
- Half the time when backing away return to the dog to give a reward while still holding him accountable to the stationary command. The other half of the time use your release word and then give them a reward (usually tossed on the floor). This helps cultivate a patient and flexible mindset.
- It is important to reward success and provide feedback for early breaking especially as you start to work in the back away. Provide treats and play breaks after big gains, and always provide praise for the small successes say “good sit” calmly as he holds when you take another step back. Similarly, feedback definitely should be given at each failure point. We like using a verbal “ah-ah” (not shouted) with a firmer tone, a light leash pop if working with a leash, or best of all, light E-Collar feedback (just a little above your dog’s perception level should be perfect – you should see him feel it just slightly). This method provides a fantastic contrast between success and failure.
Teaching Reliability (command performance/hold with distractions)
Making commands reliable around distractions once the dog has been taught the command, and the expectation that commands are held till release is a matter of deepening those expectations when temptations are present. Using the same gradually increasing productive challenge increase we used to get duration, we start adding in stronger temptations and fewer prompts to suggest the dog needs to hold.
Before working with high-level distractions/temptations make sure your dog can hold the stationary command in a low distraction environment while you can walk away at least seven full steps with no hand gesture or “stay” command, and can even break eye contact for a few seconds.
Here is an easy way to get started:
- Back away three paces.
- Say “good sit/down/place” should they hold.
- Now, it is time for the distraction/temptation. Drop a treat on the floor behind your back. Since no release has been given, the dog is not allowed to break the command to get the treat, though they likely will.
If the dog breaks, immediately provide feedback right as they are getting up. The feedback needs to be strong enough to interrupt the break and get them to get back into their command or at least freeze and look to you for guidance. Should they freeze, reissue the command and prompt them back into it if needed. If the dog was successful, walk back to them with a treat (perhaps even a higher value one).
If the dog is still holding the command you may allow them to go get the first treat off the floor.
Practice the above until it’s easy, and try it from closer with more dropped treats to increase the challenge.
From here, you should start practicing the same technique with other common distractions like door knocks, excited behavior (but not a release word), and sitting down on a chair or couch. This is a great place to get creative. By providing examples of the distractions/temptations that don’t warrant an exception to the rule, you train reliable obedience.