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“Commands are opportunities the dog will eventually learn not to miss.” Jean Donaldson

In order to become a successful dog trainer you need to have a good understanding of how to use basic commands. It is the way in which commands are given and rewarded that will determine how a dog will progress. This applies to voice commands as well as to signals.

A command is not a request neither is it said with anger or in a way that it sounds as if you do not expect your dog to obey! Once a dog knows a command it can even be whispered or signalled.

To a dog, in the beginning, a command is but a note of sound which is accompanied by the body language of the handler. The dog understands the owner’s body movements long before he has made any sense of any of his words.

By way of example; I ask my classes to get their dogs to sit or lie down without speaking to their dogs. Everyone is successful in getting their dog to obey with body movements like bending down and with arm waves, in spite of not uttering a word. I then ask them to stand up straight with hands behind their backs and only to use a verbal command to get the dog to repeat the same exercise. The dogs stare at the handlers and very few, if any, will obey this time. This proves to the handlers that their dogs have been reacting to their body movements and NOT to their voice commands. Try giving the command “Banana” for an exercise your dog knows well and see his reaction.

The dog must learn the commands given but what is needed is to first “Capture” the correct position before the verbal command is given. In the sit exercise a treat is waved before the dog’s nose to sniff at it and as soon as he is following the movement of the hand (targeting) it is moved over his nose and eyes to capture the sitting position and now the “Sit” command is given the moment he sits. Click or say “Yes,” praise and treat each time after the verbal command. Repeat over time until the dog sits instantly each time.

The training principle we employ is to encourage the dog to do something for reward, to do it because it likes to and the command gives him that opportunity. This is a very important principle: the dog has done what it has been asked to do and the minute it has done so it has benefited. By rewarding the dog with food, praise and especially stroking its body, the handler is sending out a powerful message that it will be repeated. Do what I command and you will be rewarded. Food is to a dog like money is to people but it should be reserved for teaching something new and then phased out. Praise and touch should always form part of the reward.

Labeling a behaviour after the dog has learnt it is very important because it gives it a meaning. When handlers repeat “Sit,” “Sit,” “Sit” over and over again without a reaction means that the command has no meaning for the dog. Repeating a command over and over again makes it meaningless. The command “Sit” actually means sit and stay sitting until I give you another command. It has a beginning and an end. All too often handlers command a dog to sit and then forget to release the dog. They can actually be teaching the dog to be disobedient and ignore a command by doing so.

After many quick sits put the treats in your pocket and use your empty hand as a target to signal a sit. Praise like before but now give an extra reward or “Jackpot” for compliance. What is important is that the dog must believe that the empty hand signals will be rewarded each time as before. The hand signal should be a quick movement to get the dog’s head up and his tail down.

Now is the time to begin to reduce the rewards after a command to about 50%. Reward intermittently and only for quick and smart sits, downs and comes etc.

Once you are very sure that your dog will obey a command you can begin to say “Sit” before a hand signal. The word always goes first then the hand signal if necessary.

When club members are asked to “Down” their dogs there are usually one or two who battle to get their dogs to down smartly and happily. Although they may have followed the correct drill they were taught, they were not able to get the dog to connect the “Down” as a pleasant Command – Reward sequence. To the dog the word “Down” is associated with unpleasantness in being pushed or forced down. The dog will resist in the opposite direction. It is called Negative Thigmatoxis (pressure invites counter-pressure). No reward, be it praise, a pat, caress or food is forthcoming under these circumstances. The dog does not see the command as an opportunity to be rewarded in some way.

The solution is to go back a step, use another name for “Down” like “Platz” or “Flat” etc. and after a few days break start all over again.

I teach the 45-second rule in that I tell a club member that, “All dogs will obey you within 45 seconds. It is not necessary to keep repeating commands.” I then demonstrate by taking a dog that is not mine, make eye-contact, give it a “Sit” command and then wait for the dog to react. I invariably can get dogs to obey me within the time. This demo is most helpful to get club members to break a bad habit of repeating commands.

In dog training we TRAIN and PROOF (Test) for reliability

We add 1) Distractions Spectators, a ball bounced, another dog nearby etc.

Go to      2) Different locations

            3) Vary your distance from the dog

            4) Command change soft, signals, different handlers giving commands

5) Time of Day Train at different times of the day.

The aim is to vary everything except the command.

Come When Called

Dogs often do not always come when called because they “know” what “Come” means, that they are going to lose their freedom or that something like Heeling, jerking or boring is going to happen and that the owner can get angry etc. There is little point in fighting it. Change strategy. Do not use the word “Come” or the dog’s name for a while. Every time the dog comes near you; reward him with affection, play and food treats.

On walks or a run or at the play park, make a habit of going down in a sitting or submissive position. Your dog will come over to investigate what you are doing. Give him a pat, a treat and an “Off you go play.” My dogs know that when I am down it is time to check-in for a cuddle. I generally will do this three times before attaching a lead. Hide as often as you can so that the dogs can be in competition to see who is first to find you.

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