Dog training: the basics

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From teaching your puppy basic cues like sit, all the way to more advanced movements, the basic training principles remain the same. Once you know how your dog learns — the possibilities are endless! Discover some of the basic techniques to teach your dog four easy-to-learn cues and get your training off to a great start.

Dogs learns by making associations and by experiencing consequences. Generally speaking, dogs will repeat the behaviours that work out well for them, so if they find a behaviour rewarding, they’re more likely to do it again. This kind of training is known as positive reinforcement. Once you’re confident with some of the basic principles of dog training, you can apply them to teach any behaviour.

Watch our video to see how you can use luring to teach your dog to “sit” and “lie down”:

Why should I train my dog?

Dogs love the physical and mental stimulation of training, but these sessions can also offer all sorts of other benefits to you and your dog including:

  • Helping you meet your training goals
  • Establishing a strong relationship with your dog
  • Making it easier to keep your dog safe
  • Opening the door to more advanced training

Which dog training technique should I use?

Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective (and fun!) training techniques. It relies on the use of a reward, often dog training treats, to help encourage your dog to follow specific cues. You’ll need rewards and a marker word to let your dog know when they get something right.

Before you start training, read our guide to reward based training to find out more about this technique, including how to choose the right reward for your dog and how to introduce them to a marker. A marker is a signal that lets your dog know they’ve done what you asked and forms a key part of training new behaviours.

Remember that every dog is different. They all learn at their own pace and in the way that suits them best. Patience along with consistent, short training sessions will help you reach your goals.

What is luring and how to use a lure in dog training

A lure is a treat that your dog really wants, like a small piece of cheese, homemade treat, or cooked chicken. Imagine this lure as a ‘magnet’ that you can hold in your hand for your dog to follow into different positions.

Using a lure as part of your rewards-based training helps make it easy for your dog to understand the behaviour and body position they’ll be rewarded for. This technique can be used for basic commands like sit and down, all the way up to more complicated movements like spin and touch.

Teaching your dog to sit

Step 1

Hold a treat in your hand and show it to your dog so they can see and smell it. You want their attention focused on the treat — so if they don’t seem interested you might need to try a tastier, higher-value reward.

Place your hand in front of your dog’s nose and draw it up and over their head. As your dog’s head moves up and back their body should naturally go into a sit position. As soon as your dog sits, say your marker word and give them their reward. Repeat this step until your dog is consistently following the lure/treat into a sitting position.

Step 2

Now you can start removing the food from your hand, so that your dog learns how to do the behaviour when you don’t have food on you. To do this, pretend to get a treat out of your pocket and hold your hand as if it was concealing the treat. Repeat the same luring action from the previous step. As your dog sits, use your marker word and then reward them with a treat out of your pocket. At this stage, it’s still important to reward your dog with food! Continue with this step until your dog consistently sits even when your hand is empty.

Step 3 

Now you can add a verbal cue, which usually ‘sit’ but you can use any word you like as long as you’re consistent. Say your word ‘sit’, wait a few moments and as before, move your hand up to guide your dog into position. Mark and reward your dog when they get it right. Keep practising this step, but make your hand movement smaller and smaller. Your dog should start sitting at the verbal cue, even before you move your hand.

Step 4

Now you can start practising this cue in a more challenging environment (we’ve given you some ideas for this below). If your dog starts to find it hard, go back to the previous step and give them plenty of encouragement before trying again.

Teaching your dog to lie down

Step 1

Once your dog is confident sitting, you can move onto training them to lie down. Hold a treat in your hand and ask your dog to sit. Next, lower your hand to the floor between your dog’s front paws. Your dog will follow the movement of the treat and lie down. As soon as they do, use your marker word and reward them.

Step 2

As with the sit cue, once your dog is consistently following the treat lure into a lying down position, you can start to remove the food from your hand. Use the same hand movement as step one and then offer a treat from your pocket when your dog lies down.

Step 3

Now’s the time to introduce a verbal cue of your choice. Again, say this just before you move your hand to lure your dog into position. Gradually reduce the size of your hand signal until your dog can respond to your verbal word only.

Step 4

Once your dog is naturally lying down quickly and easily at home, you can try the same cues in different environments.

Top tips

  • Train little and often. Short, fun sessions will be more enjoyable for both you and your dog. Give your dog plenty of breaks then return to training a little later.
  • Keep it simple. Training sessions should be easy for your dog! Remember you want them to succeed so if it seems like they’re finding things too difficult, go back a step until they’re more confident.
  • A calm and patient approach to training will help you and your dog succeed.
  • Be consistent. If different family members are training your dog, make sure everyone uses the same marker, visual and verbal cues to avoid confusing your dog.
  • Choose the right reward. Your dog will find training seasons more motivating if you choose the reward they find most exciting. That might be food, play, or attention.
  • If you need more help and support with your training, speak to an accredited dog trainer or behaviourist.
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Using shaping during training sessions

Shaping is a positive reinforcement training method that rewards the gradual steps it takes for your dog to learn a new behaviour. You’ll still use a marker word and reward, but break the behaviour into smaller sections and reward each of these milestones. Over time your dog will be able to complete the new behaviour in full. As an example, to teach your dog to use a ramp you could shape and reward the following steps:

  • Looking at the ramp
  • Taking a step towards the ramp
  • Putting a paw on the base of the ramp
  • Putting two front paws on the ramp, adding one hind paw, then all four paws
  • Walking up the ramp

Training new behaviours like this can take time, but it’s still important to offer your dog lots of breaks, keep sessions positive, and reward any steps towards the right behaviour!

How to deal with new environments or distractions

Other dogs running around the park, visitors at home, or a busy street can all impact your dog’s ability to respond to your cues. Completing your dog training in a variety of different locations can help your dog learn how to apply their training around distractions and in new environments.

Once your dog can reliably respond to verbal cues at home, you can start adding distractions like other people, pets, or noises. Build up from a small distraction, like having the TV on in the background, to larger distractions, like their favourite person being in the same room.

Once your dog is confident following cues at home, move your training to new locations. Start with a relatively low distraction environment like an empty street or field and make sure your dog can confidently do what you ask here. Then move to a more distracting environment like the local park.

Remember to set your dog up for success. If your dog is finding things too hard, make it easier for them by going back a stage. This might include making your hand signals more prominent, using a higher-value reward, or reducing distractions by moving to a less exciting environment.

Once you’ve mastered these basic behaviours, you can use the same training techniques to teach your dog to walk nicely on the lead, or how to use a crate.

About Dogs Trust Dog School

Dogs Trust Dog School is a national network of experienced dog trainers providing educational courses and dog training based on up-to-date scientific research for all owners. They are passionate about dog behaviour, and want to help you train your puppy or dog to fit happily into your family life. Dogs Trust Dog School provides fun and educational training classes for you and your dog.

Dogs Trust Dog School prevents relinquishment by equipping the owners of more than 20,000 dogs with the tools to prevent unwanted behaviours from occurring. They enable owners to understand their pooch and enhance the bond with their dog through reward-based methods.

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