There are three very important phases to teaching commands. Each phase has its unique characteristics and as your dog progresses, there will be some variations in your approach. In every phase, however, the key to success is communicating clearly, calmly, and consistently.
- The Teaching Phase Creating the association between a command and the action on the dog’s part. This is where the dog learns what sit or down is by being lured and guided into the behavior or position you want while hearing the word you will use for that behavior. Once the dog is in it that position, you reward with both praise, food, or some special treat your dog values. The dog learns that doing a certain action after hearing a certain word results in a reward! In order for the dog to make this connection without confusion, you must be sure to use the same word for the desired action every time. Don’t say “come” if you really mean “heel.”
- The Correction Phase Teaching your dog that his response to obedience commands is not optional. This phase begins when we know we have practiced sit or down enough that the dog knows the command. This is actually a two part phase. (1) Give the command without the lure. If the dog does not respond with the desired behavior, correct and repeat the command. The dog should respond to the correction by going into the desired behavior, at which point he can be rewarded with food and praise. (2) In the next part of the correction phase, you should only reward the dog with food if he responds to the command without a correction. If you need to correct, you may still reward with praise if the dog responds after a correction. However, a high value reward such as food or a toy is only given if he responds on the first command, without a correction. You may have to repeat this step numerous times.
- The Proofing Phase Using distractions and new environments to teach your dog that training is a way of life, not something that is done at a certain place or time. During this phase, it can be tempting to excuse disobedience because new factors make it more challenging for your dog to stay focused. Unfortunately, each time you fail to correct your dog for disobedience you reinforce his belief that maybe sometimes he can ignore your commands. You may need to be tough on your dog until he realizes he is not going to get away with disobedience just because he is in a different place or situation. This is important. If you do not correct your dog, he will learn that he does not necessarily have to respond to your command. He will continue to test whether or not he can get away with disobedience. Even if the new environment makes your dog nervous or has highly desirable distractions, he must realize he must be obedient to you. You can begin with a relatively easy new environment, but you should continue to take your dog to new and increasingly distracting environments for training. Each new and more challenging experience reinforces for your dog that he should be obedient in every situation. Your life will be easier and your dog will be more secure when it is clear to your dog that your expectations do not change with the setting or circumstances.
As you work through the phases, you will have good days and difficult days. Some dogs are eager to please, but may not catch on quickly during the teaching phase. Some dogs will test you repeatedly during the correction phase. And many will behave as if you are suddenly speaking a different language when you introduce new environments or distractions during the proofing stage. Stay calm and give commands in a calm tone of voice. Don’t over correct because you are frustrated and don’t under correct because you are feeling indulgent. Correct consistently until your dog finally realizes that every instance of disobedience results in a correction.
It is acceptable to end—or even skip–a training session if you can see that your dog is “burned out” or over tired. However, it is not acceptable to excuse disobedience because you decide your dog is “burned out” or over tired. If you are not going to follow through, don’t give the command. Whether you are doing a formal training session or setting boundaries for acceptable behavior, your dog must respond to your commands no matter what his attitude or demeanor is that day or that time of day. He must still obey the off command, even if he is excited. Why would you even need an off command if your dog didn’t get excited? He must still walk in heel if he is nervous. He must still come when called even if he is tired or distracted. If you give him a down/stay command in one place and he begins to crawl forward, correct him and return him to the original spot.
The goal of training is to ensure that your dog will listen to and respond to your commands in all different places and situations. We cannot excuse our dogs for misbehavior in unfamiliar, exciting, distracting, frightening, or hectic situations. These are the circumstances when obedience is most vital for your dog’s safety and your sanity. Your consistency will ensure that your dog realizes that no matter where he is, he should rely on you for direction and respond to your commands. This is the definition of a trained dog: He is obedient in all different places under all different circumstances. Successful training ensures that your dog’s response to a situation is not based on external circumstances, but rather on his respect for and his trust in you.