Everyone loves teaching their dog tricks, but your dog isn’t truly well-trained until they can respond reliably to these five basic cues, sit, down, stay, come and leave it even around distractions. These are essential cues you will use for your dog’s entire life. Touch up on them throughout each day, especially when you take your dog somewhere new, and your dog’s listening skills will become consistent and reliable. With this foundation, your dog will develop a love of learning, and will enjoy making you proud.
It’s important to teach the cue by saying it just as your dog performs the desired behaviour. For example, you do not want to start teaching sit by saying “sit!” and then trying to get your dog to do it, because the word doesn’t mean anything to them yet. Encourage your dog to focus on you and use a method such as luring – guiding them into position by holding a treat in front of their nose. Once you have rewarded them a few times for sitting, they’ll offer the behaviour with little guidance. Only then can you start to connect the behaviour with the cue.
Consider teaching a hand gesture to go with each verbal cue. A University of Naples study showed that dogs are more likely to respond to a visual cue than a verbal one. Hand gestures can be used to communicate with your dog in a noisy environment, or from a distance.
Use the “sit” cue when you need to your dog to pause, relax and control their impulses. You can use it when you’re waiting to cross a street, before you serve their meals and before you open the door for them.
Stick with a simple, one-word cue – “sit.” The universal gesture for “sit” starts with your hand at your side, then raised to elbow level with your palm facing upwards. Aim to have your dog “sit” until you release them, rather than tap their butt on the ground and expect a treat.
It’s easy to teach “sit,” as most dogs will eventually sit if you simply wait. There is no need to press your dog’s butt down. Even gentle physical maneuvering can make your dog anxious about being touched. You can lure your dog into a sit by holding a treat in the hand you are using to gesture, just make sure to fade out luring so your dog will listen even if you don’t have a treat in your hand.
Use the “down” cue when you want your dog to relax. For example, wouldn’t it be great to to have coffee with a friend and have your dog lying down beside you without a problem? Be wary of where you use “down,” don’t make your dog lie down on very hot or uncomfortable surfaces.
If you already use the word “down’ to have your dog hop off the couch, use a short, one-word cue of your choice, such as “flat” or “settle.” The hand gesture for “down” is a flat palm facing the floor, starting at elbow height then going down to your side.
At first, you can teach “down” by starting with a sit, then luring your dog with a treat until they’re in a lying position. Fade out the lure within the first few sessions. Once your dog gets the hang of it, you can experiment with having them “down” from a “stand” without sitting in-between. Also try “down” at a distance, with just the verbal cue, then only the gestural cue.
When you master a strong sit stay you can bring your dog practically anywhere! Imagine going to a store and having your dog sit and stay quietly while you shop! Powerful!
It’s best to teach an implied “stay” with “sit” and “down,” only having your dog get up once released. That way, it will always be clear to your dog that they need to wait for a release word before they can move around again.
Have your dog sit or lie down, then wait just a few moments before releasing them with a release cue like “okay!” or “free!” A release word is different than a reward marker. You want your dog to know that “good!” does not necessarily mean they can get up again.
To make your dog’s sit-stay and down-stay rock-solid, you need to gradually increase distance, duration and distractions – but only one at a time. Start by having your dog “stay” for just two seconds, then three, then four, then five. Then, have them stay for a short time, throwing a toy or treat as the distraction. Try having your dog stay from a metre away, then two, then three. Practice “stay” while you turn away, walk away, walk in a circle, tie your shoe – your dog should eventually be able to distinguish normal movements from your release cue.
When your dog fails to “stay,” there is no need to punish or scold them. It’s your job to set your dog up for success. Did you increase the duration too abruptly? Were they not ready for that level of distraction? Go back a step and make the exercise a bit easier, then try again.
Come or Recall
Wouldn’t it be nice to go for a walk while your dog explores off-leash, with the confidence that they will come to you at any time? No more worrying about your dog dashing off and getting lost.
Not every release from a “stay” has to be followed with “come,” nor does your dog have to be in a sit-stay or down-stay before you can call them. A strong recall can keep your dog safe if they ever get loose, and in some cases, you may be able to allow your dog to spend time off-leash in safe areas.
You may use several different cues for recall. You might say “Bella, come!” but you may also want to teach your dog to recall when you whistle, which would be easier for your dog to hear over a long distance. You can also teach a hand gesture for recall: hold your arm out, then bring it in towards your chest.
Try to recall your dog when they’re likely to come, not when they are distracted. If your dog does not come when you call them, try offering a toy or treat, or even running in the opposite direction – most dogs can’t resist a good chase. Always praise and reward your dog when they get to you, even if it takes a long time. Avoid calling their name repeatedly to help them learn to come at your first call, rather than waiting until the tenth.
Never recall your dog before doing something they might not enjoy, such as a bath or nail trimming, especially if you have not been able to condition your dog to enjoy being groomed. Also avoid saying your dog’s name in a negative tone. Being called should always be a positive experience.
Your dog is about to pick up something disgusting and you say “leave it”. They look up at you and walks away from the disgusting thing without an issue. Doesn’t that sound amazing?
Tell your dog to “leave it” when they’re about to, or currently eating something they shouldn’t, or rolling around in a delightfully stinky odour. You can also tell your dog to “leave it” the moment they notice a squirrel. The goal of a good “leave it” is to have your dog be able to completely walk away from something tempting.
There’s many great exercises for teaching “leave it.” A really easy way to start is by placing a treat in your hand and making a closed fist. Hold out your fist so your dog can sniff and try to lick and nibble the treat out of your hand. Eventually, they will give up. The moment your dog stops nosing at your hand, praise and reward them. After a few tries, they should almost immediately draw back and look at you.
Try putting a treat on the floor and step on it. Say “leave it,” and when they stop sniffing and look up at you, give them a treat (not the one on the floor!). Try this everywhere, tables, chairs… just make sure they do not end up getting the “forbidden” treat, as this would reinforce the unwanted behaviour and slow your progress.
If your dog shows signs of resource guarding, such as growling, “side-eye”, biting or lunging to protect a valuable treat or toy, you should not move forward with the “leave it,” cue. Work with a professional to resolve resource guarding and aggression issues so you and your family will not get bitten.
Want The Best-Mannered Dog On The Block?
Once you and your dog learn these five cues, it’s easy to incorporate them into your daily routine so your dog’s skills keep improving. But it’s tough to make steady progress without a solid foundation and guidance from an experienced professional trainer. You’ll save a lot of time and frustration and get your dog off to the right start when you work with Healthy Houndz through one of our awesome dog training programs. Don’t know which would be best for your smart pup? Get in touch, we’re always happy to help!