Three steps to train any behavior


There are just three steps to train your dog to perform a new behavior. 

  1. Get the behavior to happen. Whether it’s a “sit,” a “shake,” or a “go to your bed,” command, you just need to first either trick the dog into doing it by luring it with a treat, or catch the dog doing the behavior on its own.
  2. Label the behavior. Choose the command you’ll want to use, such as “fetch,” or “shake” or “down” and exactly when the dog performs the behavior, say the command to “stick” the word to that action.
  3. Reward! Quickly reward with a treat that’s fast and easy for your dog to eat. A soft, pea-sized treat is best. For the come-when-called command with a toy-driven dog, a quick game with a toy is a big reward too.

These steps work great for any new obedience command. If you’re noticing that your dog isn’t responding well to your training, check that you’re performing the steps correctly until the dog obviously understands what the command means.

If you’re training a command and the dog is not responding consistently, check for these pitfalls:

  • Did you label with the command when the dog was not performing the behavior? I see this most commonly when the dog is jumping on someone and its owner says “off” or “down” while the paws are not on the floor. When teaching this, you must label the behavior while paws are on the floor.
  • Did you use the label as a command before the dog thoroughly understood the command?


  • You can use your leash to make a behavior happen. For instance, practice letting your dog get distracted outdoors with its leash on. Make the “come” behavior happen by snapping the leash toward you, then as the dog moves toward you (look for the dog’s focus to switch to you!) label that and reward when the dog gets all the way to you. If the dog decides to leave you in the middle, snap the leash toward to you again, or lure him in with happy talk to get the dog all the way to you.
  • When your dog can respond reliably to the new command under easy, non-distracting conditions, then start adding distractions and challenges to strengthen the dog’s resolve to obey. When you say the command once, you help him obey by placing him in the position or using the leash to remind him how it’s done.
  • Practice your skills by teaching fun, easy tricks like “shake,” as you’ll be more relaxed with these fun little games.

Edna’s second week

Edna after a fun walk of exploring a muskeg.

Edna is growing quickly, and learning fast.

An important thing to remember when raising a puppy, or training a new dog, is that they are learning every minute. It is up to you to control their experience, so pup learns what you want her to learn.

If you cannot control pup’s actions, (i.e. you are in the shower, or engrossed in a cooking project,) put pup in her crate for a rest, or to chew a stuffed Kong toy or other tough, safe treat.

Edna has been working hard on potty training. She actually has gone to the door a few times, especially for poop, as that’s easier for them to sense when they need to go. Critical points on potty training:

  • success will take hundreds of repetitions.
  • you will have success, then failures. A couple of evenings ago, Edna was in a super crazy mood and had one pee and two poop accidents only a few feet away from me! I just couldn’t keep up with her. This is where your sense of humor and patience comes in handy. Stay calm clean up and you’ll have another chance to reward pup outdoors very, very soon. 🙂
  • Make sure you have treats in your pocket all the time, to reward good behaviors such as sit, down, potty outside, come when called, off (four paws on the floor), and anything else you like.

Edna exploring the beach while camping.

Edna is getting very good at learning to sit and wait for her food. I leash her after I have all five bowls filled. When I set all the bowls down, the leash keeps her in her spot. When the bowls are down I ask her to sit. She (and the four other dogs) are not given the “ok” command to eat until Edna is in a good sit — don’t get in a hurry on this one! This means sitting with a LOOSE leash. This is a great exercise to teach self control.

My husband, David pilots the skiff to the beach while my 9-year-old son, Izaak holds Edna on her first of many, many boat rides.

Another critical exercise to work on with a puppy or any new dog is food safety. Do not take the bowl away while they are eating at this stage, it only makes them defensive and less safe with their food. I save leftover meat bits and while Edna is eating, I stroke her body, touch her paws and put the meat bits in her bowl. That way, the dog learns that a hand coming toward them always is positive and they never should worry, growl or bite. I also ask kids to do this, as dogs often do not think of kids as worth respecting.

We continue to work on “come” although she runs to me immediately and at top speed right now. All pups, as they grow older, will become more distracted by the outside world (like any teenager!) and can lose that 100% great come when called if you are not careful to continue strengthening it with high-value treats, and practicing in all types of places, with all types of distractions, and following through to make pup come when it decides to disobey and wander off. If the wandering off or running away happens, put a long, light leash on pup and try again, using the leash to guide the behavior.

I had a couple of episodes this week where Edna, coming out of our fenced yard with me after a potty to our deck-side door about two feet away, would get distracted by a cat or a bird or … nothing (she’s a puppy, after all!) and wander away instead of following me straight through the door. I have been solving that by using a treat (actually, just a piece of her kibble – mostly I use her kibble for treats right now, to keep her tummy happy.) The way I give the treat in this instance is to lure her through the door while saying “let’s go” to encourage a habit of moving fast to the door, all the way indoors. Then, I drop the treat on the floor inside.

I also brought her out to our garden, dragging a light leash just in case I needed to control her, and she had fun walking around in our raspberry thicket, stealing berries that had fallen and biting weeds.

Edna helping with raspberry harvest.

I have been shaping some obedience trial behaviors, just in case I decide to compete with her later. A straight front sit, a fold-back drop down, a “get back” to heel position, eye contact and even a heel with head up (only one step at a time for now) are mostly what we play with for now.

The only Search and Rescue type things she’s done is explore creeks, ponds, muskegs (where she fell in many watery mud holes!) – obedience and socializing so she’s comfortable with all people, noises, floor surfaces etc. I also introduced her to carefully chosen new dogs.

She also had her first skiff rides this week, when we took her for a two-day camping trip to a nearby remote beach. She slept in her crate in the tent very quietly, and explored with great happiness. She loved the seaweed.

Quiet control: “Come”, Jumping, chasing

As Humans, we can hardly fight our urge to talk to our dogs.  Often a calming, therapeutical, and amusing way to interact with our pets, our urge to jabber can also be counterproductive to your training goals.

Dogs interact with each other, “command” each other, “punish” each other and “reward” each other with body language and very little sound.  They use posture, body position, eye contact, ear position, etc to convey their messages.  Put together into a whole, they emit an energy, or intent, that is as easy to read as a billboard for other dogs.

You can control your dog much easier by resisting the urge to command, shout and beg him to obey.

Do you want him to stop chasing your screeching 2-year-old nephew?  Don’t holler the dog’s name from across the room.  Raising your voice sometimes startles a sensitive dog into stopping for a moment, but more often, actually adds excitement to an already chaotic, unwanted behavior.  Simply go to the dog instead, and using a strong, assertive energy, stand up tall and block the dog.  Use a quick jab in the hip to switch his attention to you, or a sharp “hey” – something quick and strong to get his attention switched from the inappropriate target..  Using your biggest, strongest energy, direct the dog away from his target by pointing, sending him to his bed, or otherwise sending him away from the child.  This can work when the dog is rushing excitedly after anything – the cat, a chicken, a dropped hot dog…you get the idea.  Don’t be afraid to put a leash on him, let him drag it (only when supervised, please!) so you can use a leash to correct and redirect.

Another time people resort to shouting or too much talking is when the dog won’t come when called.  If you have any doubt at all that the dog will not come – do not call!  Go calmly and quietly to him, take his collar and bring him in.  Practice calling him, taking his collar, and feeding treats at non-distracting times to reinforce the come command when it’s not a critical situation.  Calling twenty times, getting louder and angrier each time only teaches the dog that you really only will come to get him when your voice gets to a certain pitch.  After you’ve trained your “come” command with food, in non-distracting environments, call him ONE time in more challenging environments, being prepared to go in to help him by retrieving him by hand.  Do not resort to yelling and repeating.

Jumping on people is another point that tempts people to repeat themselves and yell.  When the dog approaches a person, or you, simply go to the dog with the strong demeaner described above, in the chasing scenario, and block him *before* he jumps.  Tap him back near the hip to switch his focus, then strongly block his way and point him another direction with your hand, arm, body, eyes and strength of intention.  Really crazy jumpers are easier to block and re-train when on a leash.  Dogs must be taught to respect people’s space.  Do not let them crowd your door, your visitors, your children or you.

Use that calm, strong, energy – not your words, and certainly not anger.  Anger and frustration is perceived as weakness to dogs.  Take a breath, and relax for just a second if you need to.

It’s a wonderful thing to indulge in a new quieter, happier, calmer way to control your dog.  (p.s.  Yes, it works with kids and spouses too! )

Fix my dog

Recently, I was talking with a friend whom I’d been helping to train her dogs.  Her younger dog is especially difficult for her to walk on leash, but after showing them how to leave the house calmly, and to walk properly, the dog easily switched into a calm, follower frame of mind.

A few days later, my friend reported that it was wonderful to walk her amazingly improved dog, but then a few weeks later she started to report that the dog had reverted to pulling her and ignoring her.  Another few weeks later, she reported that she was utterly fed up, and was looking forward to sending the dog off to a doggy daycare where the dog would finally maybe be “fixed” because of all the off-leash exercise.

It is true that some off-leash running, sniffing, leg stretching is vital for a dog’s mental and physical well-being.  Every walk should ideally be mixed with something close to twenty minutes of on-leash walking, ten or fifteen minutes of off-leash playing like fetch, swimming or other games, then another twenty minutes or so of on-leash walking to finish the outing in a follower state of mind.

Wearing the dog out with too much unstructured running with other dogs, such as in dog parks, is actually detrimental for dogs.  I had a hard time believing this at first, until I watched the dogs first hand, and did more study.  The mental discipline of walking beside or behind a pack leader is more tiring for a dog than just careening about, following every scent, or chasing and wrestling with other dogs.  Some of the dog-to-dog play is very, very good for them, obviously, but if it is sandwiched between the disciplined walks, they will be actually more calm and worn out than if they’d had only off-leash play.

Too many people think of training their dog as “fixing’ their dog.  There is often a mindset with dog owners that the dog has a flaw and that things would be fine if it could be “fixed”.  I’ll tell you simply:  the solution lies in changing your own behavior. The great news is, that you aren’t a helpless victim of a “bad” dog!  You CAN change your own behavior, and thus re-balance your dog’s mind.

When acting in the role of leader for a dog, if you have the mindset that “she ALWAYS does that”, or “he’ll never be able to walk by that dog without attacking” – you’ll be tense, you’ll be weak, and your dog will fulfill your expectations.  Remember that you are the leader, you set the expectations and you set up the outcome.  Dogs live right in the moment.  Relax, stand up tall, envision exactly what you want the dog to do, where you want him to be, then follow through and do not give in until you get that.  Don’t give up and blame the dog.  If you are thinking:  “My dog is doing what he always does, I just can’t stop him”, or “She can’t help it, she’s afraid of small dogs running up to her”, then I can guarantee you that you,  are also “doing what you always do”.  That might mean you’re getting angry, frustrated, tense, or simply just giving up, thinking you’ll never accomplish what you want.

Don’t give up.  Don’t blame the dog.  Review yourself:  Are you calm, relaxed, assertive and confident?  Are your shoulders back, are you breathing easily, feeling positive, envisioning success?

Have fun