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Features April 2017 Issue

The Right Way(s) to Teach Basic Commands

More than one method will get you there.

Dog and toilet paper

© kozorog | Bigstock

Some things they’ll grow out of even without much training.

You have just brought home a two- to three-month-old puppy and have fallen completely in love, showering him with affection as he gets settled in his new home. That’s great, but you should also start training him within a day or two of his arrival. You’ll both be very excited about the new circumstances, and the motivation to bond will be high on both sides. That’s why there couldn’t be a better time to start teaching him.

What are you going to teach him? The basics, of course: “Sit,” Down,” “Leave it,” and “Come.” But what’s the right method? Some sources say to use the clicker method. Others talk about a “magnet” method, while still others talk about a “capture” method and “placement” method. Which is best?

We are happy to report that the best method is the one that feels comfortable for you and seems right for your particular dog. Here’s a short explanation of how each works, using the “sit” command as an example.

Clicker method. This approach uses a clicker that you can buy either at a pet supply shop or a party goods store. It goes in three steps.

a) Click the clicker once — and only once — and give your puppy a food treat “for free.” Repeat this several times. The pup will get it that the click and the food go together.

b) Click the clicker. Your pup should start jumping up, sniffing, and begging. Do not give him a treat. Just stay calm. Finally, the dog will give up and sit out of frustration. But that’s the behavior you want to follow after the clicking, so you immediately click the clicker (just once, always once) and give him another food treat, letting him know with warm praise that he has gotten it right — “Goo’ boy!” (Don’t go too overboard with the praise — you’ll lose the purpose of the lesson.) After a couple more rounds, he’ll learn that sitting is what makes the clicker click a second time and gets the food to appear.

c) Add the voice cue: “Sit.” If you don’t, your dog will assume that every time he decides to sit, he’ll get a click and a treat. It will be he who has trained you rather than vice versa. After you say “Sit,” wait for the desired behavior. He will finally sit, even if out of frustration, only to find he has once again hit the jackpot. There you have it — your puppy is learning his first word and the action you want him to associate with it. It may take a few days for sitting on your command to become second nature, but he’s well on his way.

Magnet method. Also called the lure method, this approach literally uses the food treat itself to elicit the behavior you’re after. Start by holding the treat right in front of your puppy’s nose and then slowly draw it upward, in an arc, over the top of his face and head. His eyes and snout will automatically go upward to follow the prize. And as they do, his rump will automatically hit the floor. Bingo — he’s sitting, so he gets the treat, along with a cheerful “Hurray” from you. Don’t let go of the treat until his bum truly hits the deck. He needs to learn that actual sitting is what brings on the reward. Once he gets it, add the word “Sit” to the drill, at first as he begins to lower his behind and later even before he starts to sit. Pretty soon, the verbal cue will elicit the behavior you want.

Capture method. With this tactic, you capture the moment at which your puppy spontaneously happens to engage in the behavior you want. When you see him sit, say “Sit” immediately and reward him with a food treat and a heartfelt “Bravo!” If you want, you can use this method in conjunction with the clicker method. It will take a few times before your puppy understands what leads to the clicking and the subsequent reward, but get it he will.

Placement method. This method is somewhat controversial because it entails moving the dog into the position you want rather than getting him to learn for himself what you expect of him. Indeed, with the placement method you run the risk of teaching your dog that you want to always be hands-on about commands. Truth be told, we lean away from this approach. That said, some people find it works well for them and their puppy and can be employed as a means to an end.

For “Sit,” gently slide your thumb and forefinger along your puppy’s back toward his hips. Then, with a gentle squeeze — what we call goosing — rotate his rear end back and down into the sitting position, immediately giving him a treat. After a couple of times, add the word “Sit.” The sequence of what he’s supposed to do will start to dawn on him.

Keep in mind that you can’t rely on a single method for all the basic commands. After all, you won’t be able to push your dog into position for “Come.” So you’ll have to pick and choose depending on what you’re teaching. Whichever method you choose depending on the trick, there’ll be a point at which you don’t have to offer a treat every single time. The dog will get it. But you should still offer a treat sometimes for his following through, even for something that has become easy for him. It will reinforce the bond between the two of you. 

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