Basic Training

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by Master Gerald Goodwine

COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR DOG: Many people do what little training they do with their dog rather haphazardly. If you ever wish to teach it any more complex tasks, then the communication between you and your dog becomes more important. A system of communication doesn't just happen, it is taught. This is how I go about some of this.

I start the minute I get a puppy but it's never too late to begin or to adapt to your current system. In training, I use a special syntax. It is essentially a 4 word sentence. Here I will use Axle as an example: “Axle” “sit” “good sit”. The first word is always the dogs name. It get's his attention.

The second word is the command word. It tells the dog what to do.

The third word is a praise word. It is his reward. It comes after the action is accomplished.

The fourth word repeats the command. It reminds the dog what he is being praised for and reinforces the command word. It comes immediately after the action and in conjunction with the command word. Note: Not “Good Axle”--Axle knows he is good, but he needs to know what he has done that is good.

When teaching a trick, I also use some form of hand signal. (Goes with and at the same time as the command word) I once had someone try to impress me by showing that he could command his dog entirely with hand signals. I was not so impressed when I discovered I had already unwittingly trained my dog to hand signals and already had a hand signal for almost every trick he did. Dogs are natural masters at reading body language. They learn it and anything that might be considered a hand signal many times faster than a voice command. I always pair a hand signal with a command word. They reinforce each other. Hand signals and leash lead commands can (and should be) natural and pretty much the same motion.

Treats for tricks and when to train: I use regular dog food for treats when I train. That makes training before meal times when the dog is hungry best. I feed twice a day. (Some people only feed once) Using their regular food makes it both cheaper and easier to control their diet. Fancy treats can make a dog fat and waste a lot of money if you train a lot. Some dogs will get just as much out of a moment with a favorite toy or a chance to retrieve a ball. Axle's first "silly dog trick" was a high five, and he just loves it, so I will often end a good session or a specially done task with a high five.

When you say the dogs name, he should look at you. Ideally he should know and understand that you are about to give him a command. He should look at you as if to say “what?” He should pay attention to you. If he does not there are some things you can do to improve this. In the morning or evening before he is fed, measure out his meal and sit your dog in front of you. (Do you have a “Front” command to tell the dog to face you?) Choose a command word like Watch! Or Look! Distinctive one syllable words are best. I use “Lookatme!” (so much for distinctive one syllables!). Take a piece of kibble and say “Axle” “Lookatme!” Move the piece of kibble in front of his nose and to the front of your face. His gaze will follow the kibble to your face. Pause there for a second then say “Good Lookatme” and immediately feed him the kibble at the same time. Spend a couple of seconds scratching his head. You can even repeat “Good lookatme,” while scratching or petting, but don't stretch it out too long if he is no longer looking at you.

Dogs live in the moment. They think they are getting praise for what they are doing RIGHT NOW, not 10 seconds ago. (The same for punishment, so if your dog is doing something bad, you can say NO! or BAD!, go to him and punish him. BUT, if you issue any other command like "come", "down", "sit", even "stop", you have to just get your dog without punishment. The time of his evil doing has passed and he has done something good. He has come, downed, sat or stopped and should be praised accordingly. (The new command canceled the opportunity to discipline the undesired activity.)

Important: The kibble, and the scratch on the head are both a pleasurable experience for the dog. It is being linked with the word “Good.” It is also being linked with “Lookatme.” And probably the hole idea of the command sentence syntax. Also I have used the same process after the dog was fed and did not finish their food. Dogs will usually do the trick and still take a piece of kibble even when they are obviously not hungry. Just the act of being fed seems to be a pleasure to them so don't just toss the treat on the floor. If the dog snips the food from your fingers too aggressively I say Ough! In a shrill voice - I have found that they gentle up pretty quick. Be a good actor. Eventually the kibble can be dispensed with. Some dogs will even stop nudging for a pet. Argent would take a treat (and I mean tasty homemade ones I knew he loved) spit them out and lookatme for the next command. Thus always, always, use the praise word. It will become your most powerful training tool.

You don't have to go through the whole can of food. If the dog starts acting bored or if he simply will not repeat a trick, find a stopping point that is a good success - try something else he likes to do, do it, and stop there. Praise him profusely and end on this positive note.

And, if you are nearing the end of a training session and the dog does a trick exceptionally well go ahead and dump the remainder in his bowl with lots of extra praise. This is called jack-potting. It leaves the last memory of the session stronger in his mind.

If you have a puppy, their attention may be shorter. He might get bored with doing tricks. You can still just sit there and feed him saying “Good!” playing with him and petting him with every bite thus reinforcing the praise word.

After you have taught your dog a couple of tricks this way he will come to understand that a training session is a very rewarding game. He will also start to recognize the syntax, and eventually when he hears a new command word become an active participant in trying to figure out what it is he is supposed to do.


There are trainers that use only positive reinforcement. It is however natural for dogs to be disciplined. Mama may nip a puppy when it gets out of line. Be careful when working this gray side of dog training. It is easy to fall into the dark side of confusion and damage the relationship and trust your animal has for you. NO! or BAD! are commands I use only for when the dog is doing something really bad. They are usually followed by punishment. They are spoken harshly and usually yelled. They are reserved for emergency or when I am sure the dog knows he has done wrong, especially the punishment part. And again only when the dog is in the act of doing the wrong. OFF! is another similar command, again often spoken harshly, almost like a bark. I use it when the dog wants to chase something or more softly when too much sniffing is going on. The bark like sound can perhaps startle the dog into stopping unwanted behavior. It is a command to disengage. The biggest difference is that NO! and BAD are followed by punishment. The words themselves become a form of punishment that invoke the masters stern disapproval. The OFF! command is a form of communication that can be followed by GOOD OFF! Lastly "Aaah!" "Aaah" isn't really a negative command, but more like the cold statement in the old childhood hot and cold game. I use it when the dog is working hard to figure out a new command but isn't quite doing the right thing. For the opposite (Hot version) of the command I use a drawn out Yesssss. To recap, be careful with the negative side of things. It is often quicker, easier, more dependable and more productive to teach and encourage a desirable replacement behavior than to flat out remove the bad one.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT Just like with humans, learning a new thing is stressful for dogs, even if it is their quality time with their human. Your dog will learn much more and much better if you spend multiple sessions of 10-20 minutes a day rather than cramming it all in your weekend. Learn the patience and attention span of your dog, end a session with some tasks your dog already knows well to build his confidence and quit each day while you're ahead. Extend the training time a little bit at a time and soon your dog will want to work longer than you do.