3 Steps to Teaching Your Dog a New Command

dog training

3 Steps to Teaching Your Dog a New Command

In dog training, just as in most subjects I would teach, I like to have simple models to explain processes.  For any command you want to teach your dog, I break it down into three simple steps or stages to the learning process.

These are:

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1. Manual Stage

This is the stage in which you first give the new command a name.  I usually pick one or two word commands that are intuitive, so you will remember, and do not sound too similar phonetically to the other commands your dog knows already.  You could pick whatever word you want.  However, if you cannot remember that PICKLES means "come" or FLUFFERNUTTERUPAGUS means "roll over" then you might have a problem...maybe more than one problem.  But I'm just the dog trainer, so stick to simple, recognizable phrases.   In the manual stage, you manually show your dog how to do the command.  This can include luring a dog to lay down or sit with a treat, or simply squashing his or her butt on the ground to make him or her sit down.  If you are teaching you dog to shake, you pick up his or her paw.  Give the command, manually show the action, the reward.  Reward every single time you do this to motivate your dog to learn the new command.  Do this several times in a row.

2. Experimenting Stage

This stage is probably the most important in the learning process.  This is where your dog gets to think for himself.  Without this stage, your dog will not learn the command as quickly if ever. In this stage, you give the command....and then you wait.  You hold very still.  As tempting as it is, do not encourage by talking at your dog.  Just be still.  It may not be readily apparent your dog is thinking about the problem.  Dogs piece through problems in different ways.  Some stare at the ground until they think of something to try.  Some spin in circles.  Some roll over.  Wait until the dog has given up by walking away or enough time has passed that it is obviously he is not understanding (longer than you normally would think).  You can go back and forth between the stages.  So, if you try a couple times in this stage, and it is not working, go back to manually doing the problem to keep your dog motivated.  This stage is called the experiment stage because your dog will probably try all the tricks she knows of in order to get the treat...sit, lay down, jump up, roll over, and then....maybe....miraculously, the command you just did!  Reward!  While your dog is trying everything she can think of, do not move.  Be still.  Be a statue.  Just wait until she does the thing you are looking for, and then REWARD!  CELEBRATE!

3. Understanding

At this stage your dog recognizes the word and does the command consistently.  Remember there is some flux between the stages, some progression and regression.  This is normal.  Just re-attack at an earlier step if your dog regresses.  ALWAYS reward for good repetitions when learning a new command.  Once your dog has a thorough understanding of the command, then you can start enforcing the obedience of the command.  If he or she does not do it, then there are consequences.  It is not fair to levy consequences for not following a command if your dog does not have a thorough grasp of the command.
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Why This Process is Necessary

McGowan et al (2014) found in their research study the reward center in your dog's brain lights up when he or she learns a new command.  This is vital for your relationship.  The age old bond between canine and human rests on teaching your dog commands, on building the symbiotic relationship between you.  By doing regular training with your dog, and teaching him or her new commands, you are fulfilling this drive in your dog and reinforcing this relationship.  Want a more confident dog?  Teach him stuff.  Show him how to roll over or bring his toys by name, or even my favorite, clean up his own toys...

Some commands are complex in nature, like cleaning up toys.  You have to break the process down into smaller commands, and then slowly meld them together.  But the process is all the same three steps, 1. Manual 2. Experimenting 3.Understanding...4. Thank your dog trainer?  I jest!  But if you do want to thank me, share my blog!

Sammy the Dog Trainer.


McGowan, R. T. S., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., Keeling, L. J., & Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet. (2014). Positive affect and learning: Exploring the "eureka effect" in dogs. Animal Cognition, 17(3), 577. doi:10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x


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