The instructional tools of basic obedience (lavish praise, food treats, collars of various types, leashes, and so on) are means to an end—verbal control over your dog. Almost all techniques incorporate operant conditioning, where the dog’s correct response to a command (the stimulus) results in a reward (the reinforcement). This reward increases the probability that the dog will behave the same way next time. Without constant reinforcement, dogs gradually “forget” learned behaviors.
Deliver positive reinforcement immediately after each obeyed command. Verbal praise is always an appropriate form of positive reinforcement; a smile, a quick game of fetch, or food treats are also effective. The more valuable the reward from the dog’s point of view, the faster the initial learning.
For many dogs, food treats are the most compelling reinforcer. But once your dog learns a command, “randomize” treats, gradually replacing them with other reinforcements. If the dog gets a food treat every time he or she sits on command, the reinforcement value of food diminishes. But if a treat is given only intermittently, the dog will be more likely to obey, not knowing the reward will be praise alone or praise and a treat.
“The most important commands are those that will keep your dog out of trouble,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman. The big three are:
Come—especially useful if your dog is running toward a busy road;
Down—which inactivates your dog in any situation;
Leave it—which discourages potentially harmful canine curiosity.
For more tips on improving your dog’s behavior, purchase Best Behavior from the Tufts Good Dog Library of Your Dog.