How To Teach Your New Dog 7 Basic Cues

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JUMP TO: Sit | Stay | Come | Heel | Lie Down | Leave It | Place | Paw | Training Tips

Did you get a new puppy or rescue dog and you’re looking to teach her some basic commands?

You’ve come to the right place.

Not only are commands (aka training cues) important for making sure your pup’s safe, confident and secure, but the entire training process is also a great bonding experience for you both.

The Dodo spoke with Shelby Semel, head trainer at Animal Haven rescue in New York City, and Clare Grierson, a dog trainer, behaviorist and founder of Muddy Mutleys in London, to find out which commands are the most important for your dog to know and to get tips on how to teach her.

How to train a dog basic commands

It’s always important to use the basics of positive reinforcement when training your dog. This is a form of dog training that involves giving your dog something she likes as a reward for a behavior to make it happen more often.

When it comes to training your pup, it's up to you to discover what works best for your individual dog in regard to the motivation you use (i.e., what kind of treats she loves the most), length of training sessions and how quickly you progress through each new skill.

“All dogs are different,” Semel told The Dodo. “There is no set way to teach commands that will work for every dog on the block.”

This means that if you have two dogs, you might notice that one picks up on learning new cues faster than the other — or even that one dog gets more restless faster. These sorts of nuances will only come as you progress through training your dog(s).

“When you start out training a new cue, always keep it simple for your dog,” Semel recommended. “Start out with an easy skill in a familiar place to your dog and with no other distractions present.”

According to Semel, it’s important for you to always provide clear, consistent and timely feedback to your dog. “It’s amazing how much your dog will look to you for cues and guidance,” Semel said. “Ensure that you are relaying the right message to your dog in a timely and consistent fashion.”

What you’ll need to teach your dog

You’ll only need a few things for basic obedience training: you, your dog, treats and possibly a clicker.

It’s best to get training treats, which are usually smaller and have less calories than a standard dog treat, so that you aren’t giving your pup too many snacks for your intense training days.

Try these Crazy Dog Train-Me! dog treats from Amazon for $3.99

If you’re looking to use a clicker — which is basically just a device that makes a ‘click’ sound to help reinforce training cues — you can get one online.

Like this two-pack from Amazon for $6.99

The best time to teach your dog a new command

“Generally speaking, you are better off not training tricks immediately after feeding your dog or when he/she is bursting with energy,” Semel advised. “It’s ideal if your dog is in a somewhat calm state and ready to focus on the task at hand — I know, this is not easy!”

Once you’re all set and ready to go, here are the seven basic commands with steps recommended by Semel and Grierson:

How to train your dog to sit

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“Sit” is probably one of the first cues you’ll teach your pup. It helps develop your dog’s impulse control and her manners (like having her sit when meeting a new person).

  1. With a piece of food cupped in your hand, put your hand directly in front of your dog's eyes.
  2. Slowly move your hand towards your dog’s forehead and then above her head.
  3. You want your dog to look at and follow the food in your hand without moving her feet. When her head goes back, her butt should go down.
  4. Say the word “yes” (or click) when her butt hits the ground, and she has done a sit!
  5. Once your dog knows how to sit every time you use this “lure” technique, use the same motion to get her to sit but without the food in your hand (you can hide it in your other hand for now). If she sits, say “yes” and give her a treat from the other hand.

“This teaches your dog to give you behaviors (sit, in this case) without you having to bribe her with food,” Semel said. “It also teaches her to tolerate a short period of waiting for the reward.”

How to train your dog to stay

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“Stay” is also important for impulse control. Teaching your dog to stay will help ensure she doesn’t run out of the door before a walk, and it keeps her in check during walks if you come across any interesting wildlife, like squirrels.

  1. Remain close to your dog and have her “sit” or “down,” whichever cue she’s stronger at following.
  2. Show your dog the palm of your hand as a hand signal (do not use the verbal cue yet).
  3. Count to “two Mississippi” (in your head), and then mark with “yes” or a click and treat.
  4. After three successful performances, stretch the count to “four Mississippi.”
  5. If your dog doesn’t stay for “four Mississippi,” then go back to two or three. You will slowly work up to 15-second-long stays.
  6. If your dog gets up before the predetermined amount of time, make a discouraging noise (like “eh-eh”) and turn your back for three seconds. Then try again but for a shorter count so she can succeed.
  7. When you are reliably getting 20-second-long “stays,” begin adding the verbal cue “stay” at the same time you give the hand signal.

How to train your dog to come

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“Come,” also known as a recall, is important for making sure you can get your dog out of potentially dangerous situations, because it trains your pup to run to you when she hears the cue.

  1. Say your dog’s name once and give her a reward in order to build the association between her name and the treats coming from you.
  2. Then say her name whenever she comes to you voluntarily, say your marker word, like “yes” (or click), and give her a treat.
  3. Once your dog knows she gets a treat after coming to you when her name’s called, you’ll want to slowly build up distance away from your dog. Call her only once (making sure that her nose isn’t down when you do so, because she just isn’t paying attention at that moment), mark and reward her if she catches up with you, and give her a treat. Repeat while increasing the distance each time.

How to train your dog to heel

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“Heel” helps to make sure your dog’s relaxed and polite while walking on a leash. It keeps her attention on you instead of on distractions, like motorcycles or other dogs.

  1. Once you’ve mastered the “come” cue, use it — and once your dog gets close, hold a treat in your hand and guide your pup’s nose to join you at your side, say your marker word “yes” (or click), and give her a treat.
  2. Let your dog walk away, and when she’s a little ways in front of you, say the cue and wait for her to return to your side, then mark and treat.
  3. Repeat, slowly building up the number of steps you can take with her next to you before you mark and release her off in front of you with a release cue, like “OK.”

How to train your dog to lie down

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More of a fun cue to learn, teaching your dog to lie down does come in handy to help enforce manners and a calm state. You can use it interchangeably with “sit” or “stay” if you want to prevent your dog from bolting out the door or jumping on someone.

  1. Get down on one knee in front of your dog.
  2. Put a treat in your fist and hold your index finger out.
  3. Put your index finger in front of your dog. You may need to put your dog in a silent sit first — meaning you don’t verbally say “sit,” you just perform the “sit” hand motion (so your pup doesn’t get his verbal commands confused).
  4. Once your dog’s sitting, put your hand in towards your dog’s chest, and move it slowly down to the floor. Then move your hand and index finger slowly towards your own body as your dog follows it. She should follow your finger and lie down.
  5. Don’t allow her to have the treat until she’s fully down. Once she’s down, mark it with a “yes” (and a click if you have one) and open your hand and allow her to eat the treat.
  6. If she won’t go down, you should “shape” this behavior by using the marker signal (saying “yes” or clicking) if her elbows bend or she gets part of the way down. Gradually get her to lie further down each time.
  7. When she’s consistently going down, use an empty hand, but don’t let her know there isn’t a treat.
  8. Once she’s down, mark with “yes,” show her that your hand is empty, praise her and then give her a treat from your pocket. This helps teach her patience and willingness to work without food being present.
  9. Next, start changing your body posture little by little each time you give the cue with your hand until you are in a standing position.
  10. Introduce the cue word (like “down”) by saying it each time you give the signal. This can be done once you are in standing position and the dog’s doing the cue by following your hand signal 90 percent of the time.

How to train your dog to leave it

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“Leave it” is a great cue to help make sure your dog isn’t picking up anything she shouldn't, like anything weird she sees on a walk or a piece of your sandwich on a plate.

  1. Hold a treat out to your dog in a closed fist. If she slobbers on your hand, move your hand behind your back. If she sniffs and then withdraws from your hand, mark and reward from your other hand.
  2. Once she’s reliably moving back from your presented hand, start cueing “leave it” just as she’s moving her head back. You can then start having your hand open and presenting the treat to her, marking and rewarding backward movement from your hand, from the opposite hand.
  3. Then try putting a boring treat on the floor with your foot ready to cover it. Increase difficulty by increasing the value of the item you want the dog to leave, but always try to make the reward just as rewarding or better.

How to train your dog place

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“Place” is great for making sure your dog knows where to go when you want her to be calm. You’re essentially training her to go to her crate or mat when you ask her to.

  1. Give your dog a treat as you put down a mat or a bed.
  2. Put a treat to your dog’s nose and run with her to the mat, saying, “Go to place.” Reward her on the mat. Then release her off the mat with a release cue word, like “OK.”
  3. Repeat, saying “on your mat” or “go to place” (whichever you decide will be your cue), and go with her to the mat and reward her on it. Keep going and see if your dog starts to run ahead of you towards the mat. When she gets there, give her lots of rewards, then release her off the mat.
  4. Build up the distance and practice sending her to her place from farther away.

Learning how to give paw

By Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

Now that your dog knows some basic cues, it’s time for her to learn one of the easier, fun tricks: paw!

Here’s how it’s done, according to Semel:

  1. Put your dog in a sitting position.

  • Tap gently behind one of your dog’s front kneecaps until she lifts her leg off the ground. Say “yes” or click and give her a treat.
  • Now, as you do that, swiftly put your hand under your dog's paw as she lifts it off the ground. Say “yes” or click and give her a treat.
  • Repeat 5 to 10 times.
  • Now try just leaving your hand in that same spot where her paw should go without tapping behind her kneecap. If she does the action — JACKPOT (which means just a bunch of extra treats *heart eyes*). If not, repeat step three 5 to 10 more times and then try again.
  • Once your dog’s doing this consistently with your palm out, add a verbal cue, like “low five” or “paw,” as she’s performing it.
  • Start weaning out treats by using an intermittent schedule of reinforcement — meaning you give her a treat every other time until you wean them away.
  • Additional tips for training your dog:

    Here are some additional tips to make every training session a good one:

    Exercise your pup

    Most behavioral issues (or total boredom when it comes to learning new cues) occur due to a lack of physical and mental activity. “Walks, running, playing fetch, playdates with other puppies, puzzle toys, etc., are great ways to provide this stimulation,” Semel said.

    Because of this, it’s a good idea to make sure your pup’s been exercised before training with some physical and mental activity.

    Train new cues before mealtime and when your pup is calm

    “Your pup is more likely to be interested/receptive to the training when your pup is more food motivated and has burned some energy,” Semel said. “You may also use your puppy's mealtimes as trainable opportunities!” Meaning instead of using dog treats to reward your pup during training, you can use the kibbles from her dinner (which can also help cut calories).

    Keep training light and fun

    The more positive the training experience is for you, the more enjoyable it will be for your pup (which increases her ability to focus!). So make sure neither of you are stressed out going into your training session, and if you sense your pup (or yourself) is getting frustrated during it, simply stop the session and come back later.

    Keep training sessions short

    The ideal training session is actually very short, coming in at just between two to five minutes each session (for as many times as you and your pup can throughout the day). “This ensures ending sessions on a high note to help improve performance,” Semel said. “If either of you get tired, take a break and go back to it later.”

    Always have some treats with you

    To teach your dog that anytime is a potential opportunity to earn something (so she’s always on her best behavior), place containers of treats in different areas around the home or carry a pouch with three types of treats that vary in value:

    Low Value: Kibble or cookie-type treats.

    You can use these treats when you’re not necessarily training but your dog does a good behavior. You can also use these if you’re training but just for a few cues your dog’s already mastered (since they might not be enough to convince him to try something new).

    Medium Value: These consist of treats that aren’t just regular ole kibble but also aren’t your pup’s most prized possessions.

    Semel suggests pea-sized soft-chew training treats, like Zukes, Wellness Soft Treats or True Chews Jerky Cuts.

    “Use [medium-value treats] for cues that need more practice or [when you’re] working in a new environment with low to no distractions,” Semel said.

    High Value: These consist of those super delicious treats that your dog goes crazy over.

    Semel suggests using dehydrated treats, like Stella & Chewy's, or human foods such as cooked chicken, deli turkey, hot dogs or cheese.

    “Use high-value treats when learning a brand-new cue, asking for a cue in a higher distracted environment (like outdoors or around people/dogs/city sights) or when the other treats are just not cutting it,” Semel said.

    Vary how many treats you give

    To keep your pup engaged and motivated, switch up how many treats you give her. Go between one, two and three treats — and sometimes just give her praise after she’s perfected certain cues. “If your pup exceeds your expectations, reward with a jackpot of 5–10 little treats!” Semel said.

    Teach the hand signal first, then add the verbal cue

    Dogs rely on body language for communication (including learning) primarily, while verbal is secondary.

    “To effectively teach a dog any cue, have them learn the associated hand signal first, and when they are consistent (successfully performing the cue 9/10 times), add the verbal cue to your practice,” Semel said.

    Say the verbal cue one time only

    When training your pup, you’ll want to teach her that your verbal cues carry importance. According to Semel, if you keep repeating a cue again and again, you’re teaching her that words have little value and that she doesn’t have to listen to you.

    “Say [the verbal cue] once, then give your pup a few seconds to respond,” Semel said. “If your pup responds appropriately, mark and reward generously! If your puppy has trouble with responding to a verbal cue, don’t worry! Take it back a step or two, work on just the gesture 5–10 more times and try again.”

    Practice in new environments

    When your dog’s performing cues consistently, practice training those cues in different areas of your home and then move on to more distracting places. This helps reinforce the cues and build up your dog's confidence.

    Eventually wean your dog off of treats

    “Slowly wean off food by randomizing when you offer rewards (more or better treats for behaviors performed in difficult places),” Semel said. “You can also use training cues to earn other rewards, such as toys, bones, water/food bowls, going outside for a walk, petting, praise, etc.”

    Once you have your basic cues down, you’ll be able to build and layer into more advanced cues and tricks, like “Get me a beer!” — promise, it’s not impossible.

    Just remember to be patient, always use only positive reinforcement and give your pup plenty of breaks if you start to notice her getting restless.

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