Teaching a few basic dog training commands right off the bat goes a long way in terms of obedience, relationship building, and leadership.
The biggest keys to success for teaching these essential commands is consistency, clear communication, and accountability.
Working with your dog daily will result in better proficiency with obedience. For example, I set aside at least 20 minutes each day to work on basic training commands with Sitka. It’s fun, builds our bond, feeds him a meal, and reinforces his skills.
The five dog training commands in this list are the ones I use every single day and in a variety of circumstances and environments. As a result, these commands keep Sitka safe, focused on me, and provide structure when we’re out and about.
Understanding How Dogs Communicate
Dogs are excellent communicators, however, humans often miss what their dog is saying because they have not taken the time to learn dog language.
We teach dogs what we want in English, often without realizing that dogs don’t actually speak English.
Dogs speak dog.
It’s on us, their handlers to learn to speak some dog.
How dogs learn and communicate:
- Tactically (physical touch)
How humans learn and communicate:
When you watch dogs play with one another or observe how a mother corrects a puppy, you’ll see they use their teeth to communicate.
This is important to keep in mind when you’re training a dog and why it can take longer for a dog to learn if you communicate verbally primarily.
Leash pressure and the tools used in balanced training are incredibly effective communication methods to teach dogs what you want them to do.
I understand they’re not for everyone, and they’re certainly not the only way to train a dog, but I have found them to be the most efficient way to communicate with a dog.
You Must First Teach Your Dog What the Words Mean
Have you seen this person?
“Sitka! Sitka! Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit. No! Wait, stay. Sit! Wait! No! Staaaaaay. Staaaaaaay. Staaaaaay. STAY! No! Sit!”
I’ve definitely seen that person.
I’ve been that person.
As handlers, we are talking way too much to our dogs, which leads to a circle of frustration.
Consequently, we are frustrated because it seems like they’re not listening, and they’re frustrated because they have no idea what we’re saying!
Teaching your dog marker words gives them clear communication of what is expected of them.
Dogs Don’t Speak English!
In Suzanne Clothier’s book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky, she describes an exercise she performs at workshops to help humans understand what our dogs go through when we try to teach them new concepts in a way they don’t understand.
She paired participants in teams and asked one person to teach the other a new “trick” using only vegetables. For example, “sit” might mean “carrot,” but the student has no idea what that carrot means sit.
As the game continued, the teachers would become frustrated and raise their voices and repeat the same word over and over, but the students still had no idea what the word meant.
This is not all that dissimilar from how our dogs feel when we teach them new concepts.
This is where marker words come into play.
I use these four marker words to clearly communicate the dog training commands and behaviors I seek from my dog.
Marks the moment that your dog does what you want. Example: You ask for sit, your dog’s butt hits the ground. “Yes” them the second that butt touches the ground and reward.
Once your dog has a command down, you can use “yes” with less frequency. It’s more of a teaching marker.
Good means “keep doing what you’re doing.”
Use “no” when your dog breaks a command or when they are not following through on a command. Always follow up with the command you desire.
Here are two examples:
You ask for a sit, your dog sits, you say “yes” or “good” (depending on where you are in your training), after a few seconds, your dog breaks. You say “no, sit,” to correct and reinforce the command.
You recall your dog on the trail, they start to come back, then get distracted by a smell. You say, “no, come” and make sure they follow through on the command.
“Free” releases your dog from whatever behavior you had asked of them.
Used all together, the marker word sequence looks something like this:
Sitka, sit. → He sits → “Yes” → Treat → “Good” → “Free”
If you find that your dog is failing to respond to a certain word, you may want to swap it out for a different one. Overuse or incorrect training can render a word useless.
As an example, let’s say you’re trying to teach your dog recall using the word “come.”
When you first started out, you’d say, “Come, Sitka! Come, Sitka! Sitka, come! Come! Come! Come! Come!”
Sitka ignores you and therefore the word has no meaning.
Maybe you allowed your dog to run off and play with another dog you met on the trail or chase a squirrel before you taught them the meaning of the word.
Other dogs and squirrels are way more exiting than another treat.
If this sounds like your dog, then try a different word, like “here.” I know someone that uses the Spanish word for here, which is “aqui.”
Do I Have to Use These Exact Commands?
Nope! You can have as much fun with the command names as you like. The key is consistency. Pick a word and stick with it.
Keep in mind that if you choose random words, other people, like a friend or pet sitter may not be able to communicate with your dog as easily.
- Lie down vs down*
- Come vs here
- Heel vs with me
- Stay vs wait
- Out vs leave it
*Your grammar nerd author would like to encourage proper word choice for dog training by using “lie” down vs “lay” down. Lay means to put or place something down. Lie means to rest or recline. The phrase that helped me remember the rule is that chickens lay eggs.
To confuse you more, lay is the past tense of lie. “My cat lay on my keyboard while I was gone and sent out a few choice words to my coworkers.”
My List of Basic Dog Training Commands
The list of five basic dog training commands below are the words I use on a daily basis. Whether we’re at home, hiking, running, walking, you name it, these are the words I use.
I have created a meaning for them and I hold Sitka accountable when he breaks a command.
I view these basic obedience commands as safety mechanisms to keep Sitka safe.
You’ll notice the word “stay” is not listed below. This is because I’ve eliminated it from my dog’s vocabulary, and here’s why:
Sit means sit.
Down means down.
Place means place.
If I ask these behaviors of my dog, then they should not be doing anything else in the meantime. Therefore, it is unnecessary to add, “stay” when “sit” means “sit there and keep doing that until I tell you otherwise.”
The trick is keeping them accountable and teaching them marker words before you teach them anything else.
Sit is usually the first command most dog owners teach their dogs. It’s easy and frequently used.
The command gives a dog something to do when they might otherwise choose to react.
I have also taught Sitka to sit when I stop walking, before thresholds, and at crosswalks.
Down typically follows the sit command in training progression. It goes a step further than sit, because it puts dogs in a submissive position and makes it more challenging for them to react to stimuli.
I don’t know how I ever lived with a dog before I knew about the place command. It is one of the first behaviors I teach a dog and has proven to be among the most important.
Place teaches your dog to chill out on demand, allows you to eat dinner without a dog begging at the table, lets you enjoy happy hour at a brewery without having to manage your dog constantly.
On the trail, it lets you create space for passing dogs and people. Reactive dogs learn to process their anxiety around scary things like dogs and people by just learning how to chill out.
If you’re planning on letting your dog off leash for hikes or trail running, then a solid recall is a non-negotiable.
We practice recall on every single hike and run, which occurs most days of the week.
Before letting your dog off leash, make sure they can recall away from other dogs, their food, squirrels, and anything else they might find enticing. If they can’t recall off those high distractions, then they’re not ready for the wild.
I worked with a professional to have Sitka e-collar trained for recall and I love knowing that he will come sprinting back to me every single time I call.
We practice heel daily, on every single walk. We practice structured walking, which helps Sitka with his leash reactivity and teaches him not to pull on the leash.
I also practice heel on hikes and during runs. This way, we can easily pass other users without having to stop and put on a leash (though I will always do so when asked).
Out or Leave It
For the most part, “out” is synonymous with “leave it,” however, I find that it is more versatile.
In addition to using it to ask Sitka to ignore something on the trail, I also use it to release a toy or drop a stick or toy if it looks like he’s maybe becoming a bit possessive around another dog.