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.

Leadership Feeding

That may sound a little strange – the concept that you show your dog leadership in the way that you feed him or her.  Feeding is a primal ritual of basic survival that you can use to mold your relationship..

The best way to feed your dog is in one or two meal times per day.  (If you have  a puppy younger than five months, these meals will be more frequent, according to your breeder or veterinarian’s advice)

Do not just plop a day’s worth of food on the floor and walk away, letting the dog nibble at it all day on its own.

Here’s the leadership bonding ritual you should practice at feeding time:

1)  Your dog needs to be in a calm state of mind, just as we teach for other exciting moments like when visitors arrive at the door.  Ask your dog to sit, at least three feet away from you while you prepare the food.  Return your dog to a sitting position as many times as it takes.  If you need to, attach a leash to help him into position and to correct with an “upward” pop on the leash, if that helps to return him to sitting.

2)  Put yourself into a calm, patient state of mind.  Work on your own impatience.  Make sure you plan enough time into your mornings and evenings, (or just one of those times if you feed only once per day), so you can feel calm and assertive.  Move slowly, take your time.

3)  When your dog is waiting patiently, put the food down.  If he pops up, put the food on a nearby table or something, make him/her sit, and do it again.  (Once he’s gotten used to the routine, simply standing back up with the food in your hands is enough to remind them to sit).  Put the food down, stand up, and wait for eye contact from your dog, then say “okay”, and gesture to the food if you need to, to show him he’s allowed to eat now.

4)  If you have multiple dogs, it’s the same routine, but it’ll require more patience at first.  When one dog finishes, do not allow bullying of the other dogs.  They must be patient and wait until the other dogs are done, to lick each others bowls.

5)  If your dog is a slow eater (many dogs used to free-feeding don’t eat as quickly as a healthy, hungry dog should), give him five minutes, then put the bowl away.  I guarantee that at each meal, he’ll get hungrier and hungrier, unless you’re feeding him *way* too much food!

Now, to the *why*?  Why is this so important?  Here are a few reasons:

1)  Your power as a leader is enhanced a hundredfold when the dog never gets food except through you.  When your dog finds food – one of the primally crucial elements of a dog’s survival, along with reproduction and elimination – without you being the immediate provider – you are wasting a powerful and easy way to increase your bonding, trust and your dog’s conviction that you are the ultimate leader.

2)  Free-feeding/grazing is not natural for a dog’s system.  Canids hunt and scavenge for their food.  They work hard for hours, even days, to find one meal.  When they find it, they do not nibble delicately!  They bolt it down, not tasting, not hesitating.  Some serious dog people fast their dogs one day per week, to simulate this type of eating for their dogs. The canids have a short, powerful digestive tract that is perfectly set up for fast, heavy meals.  Dainty, all-day nibbling just isn’t as natural for their bodies.

3)  Another thing to think about, considering your dog’s eating habits, is that in the wild, canids must work their brains and bodies very hard for long times before finding their food.  Along with that work is the gratifying bonding of pack cooperation and communication to find their prey or carcass.  A perfect, healthy and natural habit for you to practice with your dog is to take him/her for a “Leadership Walk” combined with some vigorous play before meals.  When you re-enter the house, you handle the food first, like the leader of a pack would, you ask for respectful distance and patience from your followers, then you allow them to bolt that prey down gratefully.  🙂

4)  A word on fat in dogs:  Dogs have a short lifespan, and they use their bodies hard.  Please make sure you never allow your dog to get even chubby!  You should be able to see a defined waist in your dog, and feel his ribs with very little pressure.  Every bit of fat that lies under the skin is only the smallest concern – that subcutaneous fat is a flag that there is a lot more fat smothering your dogs’ organs, increasing his chances of cancers, diabetes and heart disease.  The extra weight shreds your dogs’ joints, causing arthritis, torn ligaments, and a lot of pain down the road. An obese dog often has a stronger odor, as their skin doesn’t cleanse and protect as well – their fur becomes dry and greasy and thin. They also feel miserably overheated, and pant far more than a normal-weight dog.

Thinning your dog down is ridiculously easy:  Scoop 25% less into their bowl!  They do not notice, or care, so what could be easier and more kind than that?  Avoid low-fat “diet” foods.  Dogs do not do as well on high-fiber, low-fat foods.  Again – they have a short, powerful digestive tract, not a long complicated one like a grazing animal.  They need a kibble with at least 12% fat to be at their best.  (I’ll just tell you my favorites:  Iams and PurinaOne.  Safeway has a cheap, pretty good knock-off of PurinaOne…just compare the labels)

Have fun with this easiest, simplest way to practice Pack Leadership!

Pete’s Problems

So, as I drove away with Pete, I formulated a plan for bringing a potential 8-pound unhousebroken chainsaw into our busy household!

My first priority was giving Pete a long, proper “Leadership Walk“.  When introducing a new dog to your household, it is imperative to walk him or her in a calm, follower mode for a long, long walk, including any dogs from the household that will be its new pack members, and ideally, your human family members too.  When you get back to the house, walk calmly inside, people first and your doggy pack following.  This is what I did with Pete, then I walked all around the house with him on leash, correcting any moves toward marking, toward chasing the cats, or snapping at people.  The most important safety rule I made very VERY clear to my three kids and husband too:  You can feed Pete treats but do NOT try to pet him!

He stayed either in a crate or leashed to me until bed time that night.

Bed time was difficult, because like many tiny dogs Pete was not used to sleeping  alone in a crate.  Since my intent was to retrain him for a new home, I wanted to teach him this skill so he’d be a more flexible companion, suitable for many types of new owners.  Also, the insecure type of dog benefits from learning self-esteem – that he can do things on his own, without clinging to their chosen person!  (And, that includes the skill of sleeping alone, in a crate.)  I put the crate inches from my head next to my bed and he fussed quietly (sometimes not so quietly) until about 2 a.m. when he finally surrendered.  I started by leaving his leash on for corrections through the wire sides, but that quickly stopped working.  I tried making a “sssh” noise, but that worked very little.  He needed to be forced to “calm”.  So, I opened the door when he’d start whining and stressing, and poke him in the ribs, causing him to curl head and hip toward me, sinking into the wooly blankets I’d tucked in there.  I pointed at him and loomed over him sternly saying “No.” quietly but firmly, not moving an inch until he surrendered and lay down.  This worked quite well finally!  The next day he practiced staying in the crate quietly with the same correction, and by the afternoon, he was doing great.  That second night was very quiet.

Pete detests losing sight of me.  He cries loudly even if I go outside for a few seconds to grab something out of the freezer, so I consistently open the door, point at him and say “No!”.  Because he is a really responsive, sensitive guy, this has helped a lot.  A tougher dog would likely need a squirt from a squirt gun, or a leash correction, or a forced lie-down and settle command, but…that tougher sort of dog usually does not fall apart when their human disappears for seconds either!

I had very recently worked with some clients on their problem with marking in the house by their male, long-hair Chihuahua, and had written this post on housebreaking, and leg-lifting in the house, afterward, so I had some ideas fresh in my mind for helping Pete with the marking issues.  Mostly the solution isn’t terribly clever, it just comes down to:  Supervision.  Supervision, and correction in the act.  Correction means giving him a tap on his side and sending him away from the area with a gesture, and a stern posture.  I am lucky with Pete in that he’s extraordinarily sensitive to any kind of correction.  Within a day and a half of extreme supervision (leashed to me for the first day, then following his every move for the second two days…) he’d given up thinking about marking.

Part of breaking the dog’s urge to mark the house is calming the dog too.  Marking is a sign of insecurity and excitement, both which are high when a dog joins a new household with five people, three indoor cats and three indoor dogs!  As with so many behavior problems, the Leadership Walk was  the most powerful my first priority Pete’s first priority in his rehab.

This is getting long, so I’ll talk in my next post about the most interesting and challenging part of Pete’s rehab – teaching him to never, ever use his teeth on people.

Re-training Pete

Pete front My cell phone rang while I was out doing errands.  “Hello?”

“Hi.  I’m here at the animal shelter, and I was trying to give my Chihuahua to them, but they said he is too aggressive…if I leave him here, they say they will have to euthanize him.  They gave me your number and said you might be interested in trying to re-train him?”

This is how our adventure started with “Killer Peanut” as his former family had named him.  We decided a cuter, friendler name was in order, and my oldest son Jackson liked “Pete”.

When I met the owner to take Pete, in the parking lot of our local mall, she gave me the brief rundown on his behavior issues:  He bit many people who tried to pick him up or pet him, he lifted his leg around the house (mostly when he was “mad” at them, she said), and sometimes he chewed on things.  His first birthday would be next month on November 2, and he’d recently come from Tennessee – which was the biggest reason she cited for trying to give him to the pound:  they were looking for housing and had Pete and a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix that made it more difficult.  Of course, that doesn’t make complete sense concerning Pete, because why would they be dumping him off at the pound, the 8 pound dog, before the 65 pound dog?  Who could take a tiny dog who was used to sleeping under the covers of his owner’s bed every night his entire life, and put him in a drafty, noisy concrete shelter where he’d be freezing cold and all alone?  One look a Pete shivering in her arms, his eyes darting around, and I knew he was a very insecure, frightened guy.  What an unthinkably cruel idea for a dog like him – to put him in such a terrifying situation.

When she attempted to hand him to me, he exploded as we expected, so she put his leash on, then I used it to hold his teeth away from me while I lowered him to the ground next to me by his scruff.  He was twirling and snarling, his little teeth flashing.  Once there, he quieted,  lifted a front paw and studied me with the most intelligent, questioning eyes.  I studied him back, ready for the adventure of bringing a tiny, potentially nasty little animal into my house packed full of three dogs three cats and three kids!

How has it gone?  (Hint:  Pete is curled on my lap, deeply asleep now, being scratched on his ears intermittently by my 4-year-old son Izaak…)  Story to continue later…