Knowing how to train a dog is one of the most important things you can do for your furry friend, and it’s simultaneously one of the most daunting.
Dogs love to help their people, and letting your dog have a job will make them much happier. More importantly, your ability to control your dog out in the world can quite literally save their life.
At the same time, it’s an incredibly challenging thing to get started. It can be very time consuming, and if you do it wrong all that time could be wasted. How do you get started? Do you need a professional? What should you teach them? What method should you use? What equipment do you need?
Well, the good news is it’s actually pretty simple to do some basic obedience training for your dog. Dog psychology is well-understood, and there are a number of standard methods for teaching your dog the principles of how to be a good boy or girl. With consistency and proper technique, it is very doable to teach your dog some basic commands, house train them, and resolve some behavioral issues.
It’s also fun! Dogs love to be with their people, and your dog will naturally pay the most attention to you as their owner. You are the Great Dispenser of Treats and Pets, and they know it! Working on a task together like training can give you a wonderfully close bond with your pet, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
I’m not a professional trainer, but I work with dogs in a lot of different situations. I’m someone who knows it pays to have at least the basics of how to train a dog.
I’m not the one to show you how to train dogs who have extremely serious behavioral issues. I’ll point out along the way where I recommend seeking a professional.
As such, this isn’t a be-all, end-all guide to dog training. This is meant for the typical dog owner who would just like to instill some basic obedience principles in their pet, spend some quality time with them, and maybe save some money on professional training. Think of this article as your “Getting Started with Dog Training” pamphlet, and as a resource guide on where to go next.
I believe every dog has it in them to be a safe companion animal, but some need a level of rehabilitation and training that you may not be able to provide on your own.
Part of knowing how to train a dog safely is knowing when the dog’s issues are beyond you.
If your dog exhibits genuine aggression towards other dogs or especially people, I recommend contacting a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. That means not just barking, but biting or attempting to bite with intent to harm. That’s different from play-biting or herding behaviors, which are covered a little later on.
As far as how to train a dog basic safety and commands, no, I don’t think you do need a professional dog trainer! Your dog is your own, and you’re the center of their world. They’ll learn best from you, as long as you use your head and teach them correctly.
Like humans, dogs are social animals. They are also pack animals. Dogs have an innate need to belong to a group, and to know where they stand in that group. Left to their own devices, dogs will naturally link up with each other and form packs to hunt, eat, sleep, and play together. In order to make that work, they figure out what is called a dominance hierarchy. This is essentially two straight up-and-down lines divided by gender, with the alpha male at the top. Below him is a male dog who is subservient to him, but dominant to another, who has his own subservient dog below him, and so on. The females have their own dominance hierarchy.
It’s important to understand the concept of dominance in thinking about how to train a dog, but it’s not the only thing.
That’s because it’s also true that dogs have been domesticated by humans for over 12,000 years. That’s enough time for them to evolve and adapt to life with us, especially with the advent of animal husbandry and selective breeding. Dogs can read human expressions, understand human tone of voice, and science has shown that they truly do love us. They have evolved to be cute and appealing to humans, and to look to us for guidance. In some ways, we humans have evolved a natural instinct telling us how to train a dog. It’s a beautiful and amazing thing.
A lot has been written about the human-canine bond. It’s why we like dogs so much, and why they look up to us. The idea that domestic dogs think that we are also dogs has been largely discredited. Dogs don’t treat humans like they treat other dogs. They think about us differently, play with us differently, and most importantly, they do not place us within their pack hierarchy. For any dog of sound mind, humans are a higher order of being.
For the purposes of this article, just know that your dog’s natural inclination is to please you. You are the one who feeds them and cares for them. They know it and they love you for it. You’re the one in the best position to know how to train a dog, at least your dog, because your dog looks to you in all things.
The most basic principle of how to train a dog can be summed up in a single word: Consistency.
Dogs learn through repetition and routine. Performing an action, or refraining from one, over and over will quickly form into a habit. They are very capable of associating actions with consequences, good or bad. If you reward your dog each time they perform the desired action, like sitting down when you say “Sit”, then it won’t be long at all before they associate sitting on command with good things, like pets and treats.
At the most basic level, that is how to train a dog.
On the flip side, dogs don’t reason, at least not like we do. They certainly don’t understand exceptions and special occasions. If you are training your dog to stay off the couch, then it’s important not to let them on the couch. Period. If you let your dog on the couch only during football games, or only on Tuesdays because you vacuum on Wednesdays, then you’re just going to confuse them. That’s not how to train a dog.
The first thing you need to do in training your dog is figure out what motivates them. What’s the best way to reward your dog for a job well done? Some dogs love treats, while some could care less and just want a scratch behind the ears. Others may take their joy from chasing a ball or squeaking a toy.
You probably already have a good idea of your dog’s primary motivator. If not, just think about what gets them the most excited. Is it dinnertime? Is it going for a walk? Is it when you wrestle with them or give them a big hug? Whatever it is, that’s what you will use to reward your dog when they behave properly.
The keys to knowing how to train a dog are the concepts of consistency and correlation. Repeat an action over and over, and correlate it to the same positive result.
As you go through your dog training journey with your pal, keep in mind that they’re still a dog. You’re probably full of ideas on how to train a dog, but they don’t have the longest attention spans, and you’re asking a lot of them.
Your training sessions should be brief for the most part, no more than 20 minutes before a break. This is tough mental work for them, and depending on the dog they may not be used to it. Think about how you feel after hours of studying hard for a test.
Eventually, your mind just loses focus, and you stop learning. It’s the same for your dog.
This is what’s nice about dog training at home, though. Because you’re not going to a trainer and spending time and money with them, you can afford to take the little breaks that will help your dog learn.
Correcting your dog’s wrong behavior is absolutely a part of the process of how to train a dog. However, training methods that cause physical pain such as so-called “e-collars” are cruel and flatly unnecessary, period.
Furthermore, using negative reinforcement (also called punishment training or avoidance training) is typically not as effective as positive reinforcement, and can create worse problems than it solves. Punishing your dog in this way quite understandably stresses them out. Stress and fear inhibit the learning process, and can lead to dangerous defensive behaviors. It just isn’t how to train a dog.
One principle of dog training that I like goes something like, “Reward the good, ignore the bad.” Some trainers operate under this philosophy exclusively, using only 100% positive reinforcement. If the dog does something wrong, the trainer simply turns away and ignores them for a few seconds. This simulates rejecting the dog from the pack, and it is thought that dogs will respond since they certainly do not want to be excluded by their human.
Personally, I think sometimes you do need to tell your dog that they’ve done something wrong and you’re not happy with them. However, a sharp tone of voice (vocal correction), or at most a squirt of water from a spray bottle is more than sufficient.
As in most things, balance goes a long way in learning how to train a dog. That’s the best way to train your dog.
So with all that said, here are some specifics on how to train a dog. At last!
I’ve chosen a few common negative behaviors that pretty much everyone wants corrected (it would be pretty weird if you DIDN’T want to know how to train a dog not to pee in the house!).
There are also a few simple commands that anyone can learn how to train a dog.
If you would like more information or want any additions to this article, comment below!
House training, or house breaking or potty training or whatever you would like to call it, is one of the very first things most people want to know how to train a dog.
After all, who wants to find smelly little surprises when walking around at home?
The first thing to remember when learning how to train a dog to do their business outside is timing. This holds true for dogs of any age.
You want to set your dog up for success, and that means not making them hold it for hours on end when they don’t even understand what’s expected of them.
Setting a dog up for success, giving them no other option but the outcome you want, is one of the core principles of how to train a dog.
If at all possible, you should take your dog out every two hours or so while house training. Once your dog is trained, holding it in for longer won’t be a problem. But for now, they just don’t understand that they need to hold it. If they have the urge to go, they will go, and it’s your job to make sure that it happens outside.
Similarly, you should take your dog out 15-30 minutes after feeding. That’s about how long it takes for things to work their way through. Fifteen minutes after a meal, your dog will be starting to think about a little rest stop. Get that leash out and provide it.
And in that vein, don’t free feed while house training. Leaving a bowl of kibble out at all hours is convenient, but it makes it almost impossible to control when your dog eats, and thus when they’ll need to go for a walk. When house training, you do need to structure things a bit in service of how to train a dog.
When you take them out, go to the same spot every time. Remember, consistency. Your dog will learn to associate that spot with sweet relief, and pretty soon that will be the only place they want to go. If you’re planning how to train a dog to go in your yard and want a little extra oomph, there are sprays and scents that will attract your dog to relieve themselves in the right place.
Of course, many people aren’t in a position to stay home all day and take their dog out every two hours. That’s the ideal situation, but many of us do work and can’t devote 100% of our time and energy on how to train a dog. Sadly!
One great stopgap, especially at night, is a crate. Putting your dog in a crate or carrier overnight will ensure that there are no nocturnal accidents. Unlike humans, dogs are den animals, and they enjoy sleeping in a small enclosed space. And in that same vein, they won’t want to pee or poop where they sleep.
If needed, you can also crate your dog for a few hours during the day, but it’s best if you can come home 2-3 times to let them stretch their legs and go for a walk. I really don’t recommend crating your dog all day long unless you really, truly have no other option. Sometimes there are unavoidable reasons to do so, but keeping a dog inside really isn’t how to train a dog to go outside.
Pee pads or puppy pads are another stopgap solution in how to train a dog, but they are also not ideal. The pads are loaded with pheromones that will make your dog want to relieve themselves, so they’ll pee right on the pad and not on your floor.
But letting your dog go inside, even if it’s on a pad, is what you are trying to avoid. And as always, consistency is the key to how to train a dog. Using a puppy pad is effective in the short term and is preferable to long-term crating, but it may make the overall house training process longer.
When your dog does go while you’re out on your frequent walks to their special spot, give them plenty of praise, treats, pets, or other rewards. Remember that correlation is the other key to how to train a dog!
Eventually, they’ll take the hint that you like it when they do their business outside, and not so much on your new carpet.
Quick note before this section: If you feel your dog is aggressive or bites with intent to harm, please contact a professional trainer or behaviorist. This article is about how to train a dog, but there are some situations where it’s best to get professional help.
There are a lot of reasons a dog might nip, nibble, or bite. A dog’s mouth is one of their main tools for interacting with the world. They use their mouths to taste, feel, investigate, and yes, defend themselves from anything they might encounter.
Dogs can bite for a variety of reasons. Fear and stress, of course, but a dog might also bite in the course of play, or just plain excitement. Especially if you have a treat in your hand! Dogs use their mouths when playing with each other, and it’s understandable that they might extend that to playing with people.
Unfortunately for everyone, people don’t really appreciate that! As your dog’s owner, it’s your job to keep them out of trouble! That’s why every dog owner should pick up a few basics of how to train a dog.
The goal is to teach your dog that they should never go to their mouth when interacting with humans. We want to teach your dog the lesson that humans don’t like to have a doggy mouth on them. Because dogs learn the consequences of actions through persistence and repetition, we need to get our hands a little slobbery.
Play with your dog with your hands. Give them lots of pets, wrestle a little, or whatever you and your dog enjoy. When you get nipped or your hand goes in the mouth, yelp like a dog. Yes, say “YIPE!” like you just got hurt, and let your hand go limp. Your dog should immediately back off. If they do, give them lots of praise and a reward. Repeat until you’re satisfied that they took the hint.
This is another correlation, one of the key principles of how to train a dog. You’re teaching your dog that when they use their mouth, it hurts you! Your dog loves you and doesn’t want to hurt you.
If the dog doesn’t stop when you pretend to be hurt, give them a vocal correction. A firm “NO!” or “NO BITE!” should suffice. If that still doesn’t work, pull your hands back, turn away, and ignore your dog for about 20 seconds. This is a technique used by many professionals in how to train a dog, to simulate ostracizing a dog from the pack in the wild. It’s often very effective at letting your dog know you are not happy with them.
If none of this works, I recommend contacting a professional. Biting isn’t something to mess around with or leave alone.
This works on adult dogs as well, but play-biting is typically something learned as a puppy. It’s easier if a dog learns not to play-bite from puppyhood, but you might not have had that option if your dog is a rescue.
There are really endless commands and tricks you can learn how to train a dog. A few essentials, though, will give you and your dog a strong foundation in training principles and discipline, and help you keep your dog safe out in the big wide world. These are simple commands to learn how to train a dog, and very important ones.
A treat is useful in teaching all of these commands. If your dog doesn’t respond well to treats, then try a tennis ball or other toy.
Sit – This is probably the single most commonly taught command. It almost seems rare to meet a dog who doesn’t already know this command, but of course many don’t. Get your dog’s attention with a treat by waving it in front of them. Once they’re locked on, move the treat straight up. Dogs will naturally lower their butts when lifting their heads that high. Once your dog is seated, say “Sit!”, and reward them with the treat and some love.
Stay – A natural extension of “Sit”, this command tells your dog to fight their natural instinct to stay right by your side. That’s actually asking a lot of them! Have your dog sit. Next, open your hand in a “stop sign” motion, and say “Stay!” in a good, firm tone. Take a few steps backwards. If they stay seated, reward them with a treat. If they get up and follow, and they will the first few times, you can just start over, or you can give them a verbal correction if desired. Once your dog gets the idea, gradually extend the distance and time before you reward them.
Down – This command can be taught with a physical trick. Get your dog’s attention with a treat. Move the treat down towards the ground, so they follow it with their snout. Once their nose is down trying to get at that tasty snack, move your hand backwards. The snout will follow, and the rest of the body will slide down after it. Once your dog is laying down, say “Down!”, and reward them.
Leave It – This is probably the most important command you can teach your dog, and also one of the most difficult. Dogs tend to stick their noses in a lot of places they don’t belong, and learning to leave something alone on command can save their life. Whether they’re investigating a poisonous plant, a snake hole, or the butt of an unfriendly pooch, your dog needs to learn to pay attention when you tell them to knock it off.
This method is taken from Cesar Milan’s website, and works very well. Not everyone loves Cesar, but in my book he’s one of the foremost experts in how to train a dog.
Hold a treat in each hand. It helps to put one behind your back. Hold the other treat in a closed fist, and show it to your dog. Say “Leave it!” in a good, firm tone. Endure the snuffles and pokes of your hungry pet, but don’t give them that treat! Once they stop, praise them and give them the treat from your other hand. It will take a bunch of repetitions, but eventually they should give up immediately and look to your other hand when you say “Leave it!”.
Continue this exercise until they also give you eye contact.
For the next step and to establish the command as something with real-world usefulness, put a treat on the floor and hold another in your hand. When your dog goes for the treat on the floor, say “Leave it!”. You want the dog to leave the treat alone and look up at you. When they do, give them the treat in your hand and some love. You may need to cover the floor treat with your hand or foot at first. Ooh, floor treat! Anyone else remember that episode of The Simpsons?
There are all kinds of tools available to professional and amateur dog trainers. If you’re into gear, then learning how to train a dog will not leave you wanting!
For the simple overview tasks in this article, all you really need is a reward for your dog. Most commonly, that will be a treat. And the right kind of treat is any kind your dog likes! Special “high value” training treats are available, which basically just means they are extra yummy.
Not every single dog responds to treats. Some of them prefer affection, which is cheap and abundant! Others are extremely play-focused, and you may need to reward them by tossing them a ball or playing a quick game of tug-of-war. In training and in regular life with your dog, be sure to give them safe toys that won’t break off in their mouth, get lodged in there, or otherwise hurt them.
Advanced tools such as clickers can be used to reinforce training principles, but are outside the scope of this article.
Negative reinforcements such as shock collars are best used by tossing them in the garbage.
For a leash, I love the Mendota British Style Slip Lead because it’s so versatile. I’ll do another article on its many uses.
It’s high quality, very durable, a great price, and can be manipulated to emulate the correct leash style for any kind of dog. You can use it in place of a regular collar and flat lead, or turn it into a head collar or even a makeshift walking harness. It’s very cool.
Thank you for making it to the end of my little guide to how to train a dog. I hope you picked up a few useful tips along the way. Owning and bonding with a dog is a beautiful, life-defining experience, both for the dog and the owner.
In the end, your dog’s behavior comes from you. Any trainer worth their salt will tell you up front that they are really training you, not the dog. Having a solid basis in the principles of dog training and behavior will give your dog a healthier, happier life.
The human-canine bond is a powerful thing. Your dog reflects you, and looks to you for guidance in all things. Harness that bond, and learn how to train a dog to be a safe and happy member of your household. It’s one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.
Translation: Aw, doggies!