12 General Rules for Training Dogs
By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman
1. Make training enjoyable
Training should be an enjoyable experience for you and your dog. If you
are not in the right mood for training, don't even start. Keep training
sessions short, on the order of 5-10 minutes, to maintain your dog's
If your dog doesn't respond appropriately to a command after several
attempts, don't reward him. Resume training a few seconds later using a
simpler command. Return to the more complex task later.
Always end training on a positive note. Ask your dog to respond to a
command you know he will obey. Then reward him for a job well done and
issue a finish command such as "free" or "release." Avoid common words
such as "okay." Following a training session, both owner and dog should
be left with a feeling of accomplishment.
2. Teach your dog basic obedience commands
Every dog should be familiar with the basic obedience
commands, including come, heel, sit, down and stay. Teaching your dog to
sit-stay and down-stay off leash is also a valuable lesson.
Additional commands that are
useful include: leave it, give it, stop it, and enough or cease.
Keep in mind that a dog's motivation to respond to a command decreases
as the complexity of the task increases. The odds of success, hinge not
only on the degree of sophistication of the task but also your dog's
motivation to respond. From a dog's perspective the question is, which
is more rewarding, chasing the squirrel or returning to the owner?
Understanding this aspect will increase your patience and chances for
3. Don't use negative reinforcement
Training should not involve any negative or punishment-based
components. There should be no yelling, no hitting, no chain jerking, no
hanging, and absolutely no electric shock. Each session should be upbeat
and positive with rewards for jobs well done.
Remember that the opposite of reward is not punishment; it is no reward.
If you ignore unacceptable responses, your dog will not be rewarded for
his failed response. Most dogs want to please their owners or, at the
very least, to obtain highly valued resources (food, attention and
4. Make sure your dog is highly motivated at training time
Ensure that your dog's motivation for reward is highest during
a training session. If food is the reward, train before a meal, not
after. If praise, petting and other aspects of your attention are to be
used as a reward, schedule the training session at a time when your dog
hungers for your attention (for example, after you have returned from
For complex tasks, such as the off leash down-stay, your dog will be
more motivated to comply if he has received moderate exercise before the
training session. Asking a dog that is bursting with energy to remain in
a prolonged reclining position is asking for failure during the early
stages of training.
5. Use powerful rewards
Make sure the reward you offer in training is the most
powerful one for your dog. Food-motivated dogs work well for food, but
the treats used should be favorite foods for the dog, such as small
pieces of cheese or freeze-dried liver. You want your dog to be strongly
motivated to obey commands to receive the treat.
Food treats, if used, should be small no bigger than the size of your
little fingernail. The texture of the treat should be such that it does
not require chewing and should not crumble, otherwise you will lose your
dog's attention as he Hoovers up the crumbs. Large treats, like Milk
Bonesฎ, take too long to eat, causing the dog to lose attention.
If praise is used as a reward, deliver it in high singsong tones, which
are most pleasing for the dog. Also, enthusiasm in your voice will be
much appreciated. If petting is to be used as a reward, it should be in
a way that the dog enjoys, such as stroking the dog's hair on the side
of his face in the same direction that it grows, or scratching him on
the chest. Note: Petting on top of the head is not appreciated by most
6. Timing of rewards is important
Timing of the reward is important. After a correct response,
reward your dog within ฝ second of the command to ensure that your dog
makes the connection between his behavior and the reward.
7. Use short words without repetition
Use short commands such as sit, down, leave it, quiet, out,
and off. Say the word once. Do not repeat the command. Dogs will
remember a command for about two minutes before the notion is lost.
Shorter words are better than longer words and words that end in a hard
consonant (C, K, T, X) are better than those that end in a vowel because
you can "spit" them out.
The only command that should have three sounds associated with it is
COME. In this case, you first have to attract the dog's attention by
saying his name, ROVER, then COME (the actual command word) and GOOD
BOY, even before the dog comes so that he knows he is not in trouble.
Make sure your tone is crisp and cheerful.
8. Get your dogs attention
before issuing an action command
Put your dog on a leash and attract his attention so he looks directly
at you and you at him ("Watch-me"). Then issue an action word, SIT. A
poorly trained dog might slowly get into the sitting position, at which
point you reward him IMMEDIATELY with praise, GOOD BOY, ROVER, (remember
the high tones and heartfelt deliverance) and at the same time as you
immediately produce the reward.
An untrained dog will have to be assisted into the sitting position by
moving a food treat over and above his head so that he has to sit to
reach it. Successful accomplishment of the task is meets with warm
praise and the food treat. In some cases, placement techniques (tension
on collar, downward pressure on the rump) may have to be used.
9. Begin shaping behaviour towards ideal reponse
Once you have a dog performing the desired response greater
than 85 percent of the time in a quiet undisturbed environment, you can
move onto the next stage; starting to shape the behavior toward the
ideal response. You might begin by rewarding a progressively faster SIT,
that is, rewarding the dog for sitting in 3 seconds, later in 2 seconds,
and ultimately in 1 second, or immediately.
Decide before you give the command what you are going to reward. You can
also start to reward longer and more definite SITS so the dog has to do
more than just touch his rear end on the ground to receive reward.
Withhold the food treat until the dog is sitting properly and then
gradually introduce a time delay before the reward is given.
10. Increase time of "sit-stay"
Gradually increase the length of time the dog must remain in
a SIT-STAY until he can remain relaxed in this position for one minute
while the owner is at a distance of 5 feet. Continue to increase the
time and distance the dog is asked to remain in a SIT-STAY after the dog
has been successful at the previous level for 5-10 trials.
For very long SITS, the reward should be given intermittently throughout
the SIT, at least during training. The owner should teach a key phrase
such as EASY or STEADY to teach the dog to associate relaxation with the
exercise. It also is helpful to have a release command, such as FREE or
RELEASE, which tells the dog when he has been obeying for the desired
period of time.
11. Keep it short, keep it interesting and challenging
Vary the commands during an individual training session
keep the training sessions short and frequent. Dogs will learn much more
from regular short sessions than from longer, less frequent ones. Once
the dog has learned several useful commands on the continuous reward
schedule, that is, the dog is rewarded for each successful performance
of the behavior, the schedule should be changed to one of intermittent
Initially, the dog may be rewarded two times out of three, then every
other third time, and so on until rewards are only supplied
occasionally. This is the way to wean a dog off food treats and is the
cure for a dog that "will only work for food." Remember, however, it is
always important to praise your dog immediately if he has performed a
command properly, whether or not any other reward will be forthcoming.
12. Introduce distractions
Once training has been accomplished in a quiet area, you can
gradually begin to work in environments with more distractions,
continuing the training in the yard, on leash, progressively lengthening
the leash between you and the dog and finally dropping it, so the dog is
now obeying without you at the other end of the lead. It may be helpful
to continue this training in relatively busy environments, so that you
can maintain control even in distracting situations. The Holy Grail of
training is to have the dog reliably obeying commands off lead, even
when other things are going on around him. This level of training can be
achieved but only after a lot of hard work and investment of time. It's
something to strive toward.
And remember, regarding training, "Art and science aren't enough;
Patience is the basic stuff." (Konrad Lorenz).