Teaching Dogs Basic Commands Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Teaching Dogs Basic Commands

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A dog trainer gives a command to a Dalmatian puppy.

Training dogs can be hard work, but it is very rewarding when your dog behaves in the way that you would like, rather than in the way that he would like. All dogs deserve the chance to be trained, with understanding of the doggy mind, in the correct behaviour for living with a human family. In a wild pack he would be taught by trial and error, and a quick clout around the chops from the older dogs, but it is possible to teach basic commands without too much effort on your part.

Training sessions should be kept short, around five or ten minutes of concentrated learning a couple of times a day is better than an hour once a week. Once he's got the general idea you can hold a training session anywhere by simply asking him to do something - for instance sit before you enter the house, or go out to the garden, or lie down while you take his lead off for a run. Dogs will need to be taught each command anew in different situations and locations. Sitting in your living room for a treat is not the same as sitting in the park while you chat to the fellow dog-walker with the cute eyes.


We suggest that you create a small dictionary of the commands you intend to use for each action, and stick with them. Changing them halfway through is confusing for the dog, although this can be done (many dogs change owners and need to get used to new words for the same commands, and often even a new name). By noting them down you can share them with anyone else who might try to get the dog to do something. If you train your dog to come to you with the command 'here' and your helpful family use 'come on' it is not going to help the dog very much. Hand signals can be used at the same time, as this is very effective for dogs. Dogs do not understand words - they understand your commands as sounds, so try to use distinctive-sounding words for each command.

We will assume the use of certain commands for ease, but you can use any word or phrase for each activity as long as you are prepared to use it in front of people. Julian Clary had a dog that was trained to sit with 'take the weight off your sling backs'. This is long and unwieldy and while suitable for show business, it's not very convenient.


Some of these techniques are taught with the help of small treats. These should be very small, petit pois size, no larger. Something that is easy and quick to eat so the dog doesn't forget why he won it. Ideally it should be something really tasty that he doesn't get in his food bowl, for instance liver, chicken, cheese or ham. Any amount he has as a treat should be taken away from his food bowl, although as we recommend that training is kept to short sessions, this shouldn't affect his diet too much.

Some dogs are more motivated by things other by food, so be prepared to throw a ball for your retriever, have a tug of war (that you win) with your guarding breed, or anything else that your dog loves instead, even rubbing that certain spot that he really loves.

Some trainers do encourage owners to train without the use of treats, using praise only. However, for dogs that get 'free' praise regularly, this isn't going to be much of a reward. Would you work for something you can get for free? And it is harder work - this entry is about training in a way that is quick and simple, and easy to keep up. Once the dog has got the idea of each command, you should be able to reinforce the training with short sessions from the sofa. You can also use one of the many training aids that are supplied for dogs.

In General

Once your dog has got the idea of the command, stop rewarding him with a treat every time and give praise sometimes, and alternate in a random pattern. Do let him have one every now and then, to keep his interest.

His Name

You need to teach your dog his name, if he doesn't already come with one. Try not to get into the habit of using it as 'no' by shouting it as he's about to do something you don't want him to, and don't teach him it means 'come here' by using it to encourage him to come to you. You want him to really like his name and think it's a good thing, so just use it a lot until your dog starts paying attention when you use it. You can say his name, then when he looks at you, reward him, but this isn't always necessary.


If you teach your dog nothing else, you must teach him to come when called. If he won't come back to you, how can you ever take him off the lead for a good run? More importantly, if he is heading into trouble, or has found a way into the neighbour's garden and you can't climb the fence you can get him back with no problems.

Regularly call him to you during the day, at least 20 times a day, using a high-pitched and interesting tone of voice. Reward him every time, until he's reliable, then drop the treats to every other time, then one in three, then randomly until finally you are rewarding only the very best, super quickest returns.

Make sure to also practise this in the garden, in places where there are distractions and even on a lead regularly call your dog back to you, even if he is only a couple of feet of lead away.

If your dog is beginning to be a reluctant recaller at any stage, simply sit down, disappear around a corner and make intriguing rustling noises, or even lie down on the floor (being careful of your safety if you own a heavy or large breed!). Dogs are so curious they'll want to come and investigate. Try to never go towards your dog, as then they are training you.

Toilet Training

The use of newspaper in the house is not recommended, as this trains the dog that it's acceptable to go in the house. When you get your dog, the age and any previous training will affect the training that you give the dog now. Dogs are naturally clean animals; they do not want to soil their den, so it is generally quite easy to get them to 'go' where you would like them to. If he does make a mistake, just clear it up quietly and ensure the spot is thoroughly cleaned, including the smell, otherwise he'll go there again.

A puppy has a very small bladder, so he will need to go out at least once an hour, after he's been asleep and after mealtimes. Older dogs that need a reminder (for instance if they have been in kennels) will benefit from being taken outside this regularly too. If there is a specific place you'd like him to go, take him on a lead to that place and wait for him to relieve himself. Have a 'word' or short phrase ready for each 'activity', and when he goes, say the word. Do this each time he goes, and he will learn that when you say it, he is expected to empty his bladder and/or his bowels.

My dog learnt 'hurry up' as his code word to go, as I got fed up with standing outside all the time! But it taught me that dogs can be taught to go on command.

New dogs should not be left for any length of time when they are new to you, so if you can't dedicate at least a week to your new dog, then think if it is really a dog that you want, and if you have time in your life for one.


The leave command is an important command, more so if your dog is a scavenger, or if you have babies or young children (or intend to have them during the life of the dog). It can save a dog from injury or even death if they have picked up something like broken glass, or rat poison, and can be used in many different situations. There are different methods to teach this, here is just one that has proved fast and effective.

Put some interesting smelly treats in both hands (or one hand and a pot), and make fists. Sit somewhere comfy and hold a fist with treats out to your dog. He'll sniff, nudge, maybe nibble and try to get that treat from your hand. If he paws it, or uses his teeth a bit firmer than you would like, twist your hand away but try not to take it back towards yourself. Eventually (and it may seem like hours but will very likely not more than five or ten minutes and often is not as long as this, depending on your dog's previous experiences) he'll move away from the treat. Immediately give him some praise and a treat from the other hand.

Repeat. Repeat and repeat. If he doesn't approach the treat after a while, entice him a bit, maybe a quick opening of the hand to encourage him in close. Once he's got the idea of moving away to get the treat you can start saying 'leave' as he moves away. Soon he should move as soon as you say leave, and at this point he understands the command and you can start to say it before you present your fist. Once he's not approaching you can try a treat on an open hand, but you may have to go a few steps back. If you are feeling confident put a treat on the floor to try with, but keep your foot close to cover it up, just in case.

Keep practising in different places and with different items, even his own toys. You can add a word or short phrase for when he is allowed to help himself, 'take it' is a good one as it has a very different sound.


Every time they go to their bed, give your command. This way you will be able to send them to their bed whenever it is convenient for you. If they are reluctant when you start asking them to go, you can stand in the bed and call them to you, changing to your bed command as they step in, then reward them.


This is easy. Hold a small treat (remember it should be small and desirable) over his nose and say 'sit'. It should be just above so he can't reach it by raising his head. When you've got his attention, move it slowly behind his eye level, and he will hopefully put his bottom on the floor as he lifts his head back to watch it. He may jump up to grab it, so keep a tight hold of it - don't reward him for the wrong thing. He might try walking backwards - put him in a corner. If he's still not sitting, we can try teaching 'down' first, because he can't jump or walk backwards from that position - use the same motions as when he is standing, but make sure to reward before his bottom lifts from the floor. When he does sit, give him the treat. Repeat a few times in this session. If you are teaching sit from the down position, remember to also teach from standing when he's got the general idea. This could take some time, so don't panic.


This is one that can be done sitting down. Get your dog's attention, let him see the treat, and say 'down' as you hold the treat on the floor under his nose - cover it with your hand if you aren't confident he won't try to pinch it. He won't need to see it to know it's there. He'll put his nose down to investigate, but just sit there waiting. Eventually he'll lie down - you will see him move his body in preparation, so repeat the down command as he does it and reward him.

Moving On

This all seems very simple, and it is, really. Once your dog knows the words you can have a training session any time you please, without either of you noticing that it's 'work'. Every time they want to go through a door, for whatever reason, make them sit first. Once that's second nature, make them sit and don't let them get up until the door is open and you are through it. That takes a bit more practice, and perhaps don't try it when you are visiting Grandma as you may have to keep shutting the door again if your dog gets up.

Don't stress either of you out though - if it all seems a bit too much, you're going too far, too fast. Reverse a bit until you're doing basic work again, and then move slowly.

It can also be helpful to teach him the command 'wait', so that you can open the car boot without him jumping out and running straight off. Simply tell him to wait before you do anything, feed him, open the door, etc and he'll soon get the picture.

Other suggestions for ad hoc training sessions could be:

  • Make him lie down before you attach the lead for a walk.

  • Make him sit while you are preparing his food.

  • Make him get in his bed while you are doing other activities, such as cooking, when he could be dangerous under your feet.

Good luck!

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