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PUPPY: OFF-LEASH OBEDIENCE

Most people need their dog to be obedient off leash. I am not suggesting that owners violate local leash laws and take their dog for a jaunt down a public street off leash. What I am saying is that at the very least your dog needs to respond to simple commands such as “come,” “sit,” “stay” and “down” in the house and yard, and around distractions, without a leash. Believe me, it can be a lifesaver for your dog to consistently respond to these commands.

In Chapter 2 I also discussed why it’s so difficult for people to get a dependable off-leash response from their dogs. Part of the reason is that for many years, most training techniques were based on punish- ment and involved using a leash and some sort of collar as a correction tool. Dogs were taught to avoid being yanked, and while this type of training sometimes generates decent control on leash, when the leash is removed the dog realizes your ability to inflict punishment on her no longer exists. At that point, the dog often does not comply. Today, modern training methods are based on reward rather than punishment, thus eliminating that focus on punishment tools—such as the leash.

The other reason owners have  found attaining off-leash control  to be so difficult is that some dog owners inadvertently teach their dogs not to respond to them off leash. This happens when owners give hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of off-leash commands from the first day they bring their dogs home, without any reinforcement at all. If you are unclear about why this creates problems in getting an off- leash response.

The focus here will be to teach you an effective way to establish off-leash control of your dog before you start on-leash training. In point of fact, if this is done correctly, the leash and training collar will probably not even be used to teach “sit,” “stay,” “come” and “down.” Instead, it will be used as a safety measure (just in case) when you take your dog around difficult distractions, such as other dogs, cats, people, public places and so on. Of course, it should also be used to teach loose leash walking and/or heel, which I will not cover in this book.

Owners who successfully train their dogs to consistently respond to the “sit,” “stay,” “come” and “down” commands off leash with distrac- tions around the house and yard will have what I call foundation level obedience. Please understand that foundation  level  obedience  does  not mean your dog is completely trained. To attain that, you will need to work your dog on these obedience commands around numerous distrac- tions in a public place, on leash. This should begin in a professionally run group obedience class. For instructions on how to find a good trainer and what to look for in an obedience class, please read Chapter 8.

FOUNDATION LEVEL OBEDIENCE

The most important command you will ever teach your dog is “come.” If your dog comes on command, regardless of distractions or circum- stances, you will be able to take her to an almost unlimited number of places. Imagine allowing your dog to run across a field, on a deserted beach, ahead of you as you hike on a mountain trail. Do you care if she’s 100 or 200 feet ahead? Not if you know she will come every time you call! Is this really possible? Yes, but it’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. It will take you many, many months, possibly years. The first rule in teaching “come” is to become aware of how many times you tell your dog to come without enforcing it. Remember, any time you tell your dog to come (or anything else) and don’t follow through with some form of reinforcement, at best you are teaching your dog not to listen on the first command, and at worst not to listen at all. This sabotages your obedience training and must stop immediately.

I’m going to assume that anyone reading this chapter needs to teach their dog to come consistently off leash on the first command around distractions, so I want you all to please stop giving the “come” com- mand under any circumstances other than the ones listed in this chapter.

Inevitably, when I give suggestions like this to students in my classes, a dialogue something like this ensues:

Student: “OK, I understand. So tell me, Steve, what do I do when my dog has grabbed my sock and is running across the room? Are you saying I can’t tell him to come? What about if he’s running out the door? Or about to get into something? Can I call him then?”

Steve: “No. Telling him to come doesn’t work, as evidenced by the fact that you’re here to teach him to come. All you’re doing is rein- forcing that he doesn’t have to come.”

Student: “So, what do I do when he’s stealing things, running out the door or getting into something?”

Steve: “If he’s stealing things, he needs to be more strongly focused on chewing the correct objects and better managed by being kept on a leash when he’s around you in the house. If he does get some- thing, you can certainly call his name, but I would not give the ‘c’ com- mand, because we’ve already established that he won’t listen to it. Running out the door is also a management and prevention issue and not something that you will stop, at this point, by giving him the ‘come’ command. The bottom line is, at the level your dog is at right now, giving the ‘come’ command is counterproductive to training.”

Student: “Then how do we teach our dogs to come?”

Steve: “I’m glad you asked.”

COME

Before I go any further, a word about puppies and adult dogs. These exercises will work best with puppies under the age of four months. There are a number of reasons for this. First, puppies under four months are usually more inclined to follow and come to you, especially if you squat down. Second, younger puppies haven’t had as much training not to listen. That being said, owners with dogs from four months to 15 years have shown dramatic training progress using these methods.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Yes, but it takes longer. Actually, it’s not so much about the age of the dog as it is about the age of the behavior. Unfortunately, the older the dog, the greater the likeli- hood that an unacceptable behavior, such as not coming when called, has become ingrained. Don’t get discouraged; just remember to prac- tice, practice, practice.

Should You Use Food?

Should you use food in training? Let’s face it, a great many dogs are far more effectively motivated to work for treats than they are for a pat on the head. I invite owners to observe their dogs’ reactions when food is involved. When you pick up the dog treat box and your pet hears the treats shaking around inside, does she come streaking to you? When you show your dog a treat or your dog thinks you have one, is she focused like a laser beam? Will your dog ignore most everything else going on around her if she thinks treats are forthcoming from you? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then food will likely work very well with your dog. If the answer is no (and some dogs are not food motivated), you need to find something that does motivate your dog.

Some dogs are ball crazy. They would rather fetch a ball or play with a toy like a Kong or a Rhino than get a treat. If this is your dog, give her five or ten seconds of quick play as a reward.

Some dogs aren’t motivated by toys or food. They would rather just get petted. If this is your dog, then the big reward will be a nice five- to ten-second pet and/or scratch. The key isn’t food, it’s finding the strongest conditioned reinforcer. Do you remember what that is? If not, go back to Chapter 3.

If you use treats, you need to understand and master a few rules. You should use something small—half the size of your thumbnail for dogs 35 to 55 pounds, slightly larger for bigger breeds and smaller for dogs under 35 pounds. The reason for this is twofold. First, we’re going to be doing a lot of repetitions and you don’t want your dog to gain weight as a result of training, nor do you want to spoil her appetite for her nutritious main meals. Second, small treats are less distracting. The objective is to avoid making the focus of a training exercise the treats. The perfect food treat gives the dog a quick, tantalizing taste of something yummy. It is not something the dog needs 30 seconds to eat. Treats should also be relatively odorless. It is also important to keep food treats hidden until the instant you give them to your dog. If you keep small, odorless treats hidden, your dog will not visually focus on the treats. This is an important point, and one many owners misun- derstand. All too often, owners hold a big treat in plain view and encourage their dog to come get it. I can just picture you shaking a huge box of dog biscuits. The problem is, when you don’t have the big

treat in plain view, many dogs are far less inclined to respond.

For years, many trainers believed that using food in obedience training was a bad idea. Part of the reason for this was a belief that the dog would become dependent on the food and not work without it. This will not happen if the food is used correctly. By “correctly,” I mean you must keep it hidden. By the way, for those of you using toys, you’ll need to keep those hidden as well.

Another reason trainers had problems using food relates to the schedule they recommended their students use in weaning the dogs off the food rewards. Frequently, trainers would go from having owners use food 100 percent of the time to zero—in the same session! This was much too rapid, and inevitably resulted in a poorer response when the food wasn’t used. A bit later we will discuss how to properly wean dogs off food rewards, so that they work as well without them as they do with them.

First Assignment: Days 1 Through 7

Seven to 10 “come game” sessions per day, with five to 15 repeti- tions per session.

Getting back to teaching “come.” The first step to teaching an off-leash “come” is to play what I call the “come game.” Squat down, and in a happy, excited way quickly say “puppy, puppy, puppy” or your dog’s name three or four times. You can clap your hands, or gently pat them on the ground, or on your legs. If your dog is sensitive to noise or a bit timid, try to keep your voice low and less excited.

Most dogs will come to you if you call them in this way. As your dog comes toward you, continue to coax her and show your excitement by speaking in a happy, positive tone. When your dog reaches you, pet her, praise her (say “good”) and give the dog a small treat.

Please note that at no time during this sequence is the command “come” given.

What I’ve described here is one single repetition of the “come game.” Try to do five to 15 repetitions in a short, positive training ses- sion. Don’t make it too long or the dog will lose interest. Try to do seven to 10 training sessions per day. This sounds like a lot, but it’s really not. Remember, a single session will probably take one to three minutes, so you might spend 30 minutes a day working on this all- important command. For most of you, that’s no more time than you’ll spend chasing after an untrained dog.

On the eighth day, we will advance further. By now, when you squat down and start to coax your dog, she should be highly motivated to come to you. During this next week, two variations of the come game will be added.

Second Assignment: Days 8 Through 14

Backing up game, five to 10 repetitions per session, for five to 10 sessions per day. Group come, 15 to 20 repetitions, two to five ses- sions per day.

Variation One: The Backing Up Come Game

The backing up come game is an excellent beginning “come” exercise. The purpose of this exercise is to increase the amount of time the dog focuses on you while coming to you.

Start off using the standard come game, but when the dog gets roughly three feet from you, stand up and back away approximately three to ten feet. As you’re backing up, continue to coax the dog toward you and praise as the dog follows you. If the dog stops moving toward you, stop backing up, squat down again and resume coaxing.

Don’t back up more than 10 feet or the dog may lose interest. You don’t have to back up in a straight line, and in fact, it’s a good idea to back up in zigzag patterns. When the dog reaches you, pet, praise (say “good”) and if you’re using food, give the dog a treat. If you’re not using food, use whatever conditioned reinforcer works best for your dog. If you’re using food, keep it hidden and use it 100 percent of the time. Do this exercise five to 10 times per session, five to 10 sessions per day.

It is also important that your dog learns to be comfortable when you reach out and grasp her collar when she gets to you. Make this easy and nonthreatening. Don’t lunge at the dog and grab the collar. Instead, gently grasp it as you’re petting, praising and treating. This is important, because it is inevitable that at some point in your dog’s life you will need to grab hold of her collar. Usually it’s to stop her from running or walking into a dangerous situation. If you condition your dog to associate positive things with you grabbing her collar, you will be far less likely to wind up with a dog who bolts when you reach for her. Remember to add this to the end of each come game repetition.

Variation Two: Group Come Game

Some owners find that after the first couple of come game repetitions, the dog starts following them around. This makes it very difficult to move far enough away to coax your dog to you in the first place. If this happens, enlist the help of a friend or family member and play a group come game.

The group come game is simple enough. One person stands approximately 10 to 15 feet away from the other. The first person (it doesn’t matter who) coaxes the dog. When the dog reaches them, they should pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. At that point, the second per- son squats and coaxes, which will likely stimulate the dog to come to them. If the dog doesn’t respond because she is still focused on the first person, that person should stand up, stop praising and petting, and ignore the dog. The second person should continue to coax, at which point the dog will go to them. When the dog reaches the second per- son, they should pet, praise (say “good”) and treat.

Two people can encourage the dog to go back and forth between them dozens of times. Some dogs pick up on this exercise very quickly and, without coaxing, start running back and forth between the people. There is nothing wrong with this. Each person should remember to squat, pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. The objective here is to reward the behavior of the dog coming to you.

Don’t do this exercise for too long at one time, or the dog will become bored. It’s always best to end a training session with your dog wanting more. After 15 to 20 repetitions, stop the exercise (one repetition is when the dog goes to each person once). Try doing five ses- sions per day, and remember to do the backing up come game as well.

Third Assignment: Days 15 Through 20

Backing up game with “come” command when the dog is one foot away; five to 10 repetitions per session, five to 10 sessions per day. Group come with “come” command when the dog is one foot away; 15 to 20 repetitions per session, two to five sessions per day. Remember to stop squatting starting on day 17.

Variation Three: Standing Up and Adding Commands

By the beginning of the third week, you can start to add the verbal command “come” in situations where it is impossible for the dog to fail. The best way to ensure this is to wait until the dog is no more than a foot away from you before you actually give the “come” command. This is a critical point. If you command too soon and the dog stops or doesn’t come all the way, you really have no way to avoid teaching the dog that there’s no need to come to you without delay. You are much better off commanding when the dog is almost all the way to you. The purpose of this is to teach the dog to associate a very positive act (com- ing to you) with the command. The stronger this association, the bet- ter off you will be.

For the next week, your two exercises (back up come game and group come) will remain the same, except:

  1. Add the “come” command at the end of each repetition.
  2. Starting on day 17, you can stop squatting and simply bend slightly as you coax your dog to you. If the dog doesn’t respond to coaxing when you’re not squatting, resume squatting for another week before you try this again.

Remember, continue to lightly grasp the collar after the “come” command is given. Food is still rewarded 100 percent of the time and remains hidden.

Fourth Assignment: Days 21 Through 27

Backing up game with “come” command when your dog is two feet away; five to 10 repetitions per session, five to 10 sessions per day. Group come game with distractions; seven to 15 repetitions per session, three to five sessions per day.

By now you have had three solid weeks of teaching your dog some critical lessons. These include:

  • A positive association with coming to you
  • Connecting the command “come” to the act of coming to you (at least for the last week)
  • A positive association with having her collar grasped

Hopefully, there has been little or no inconsistency in the way the command “come” was given. If you’ve done this properly, then at this point when you coax your dog, chances are she comes zipping to you in a very positive way. And why not? You’ve done this hundreds and hundreds of times. Now it’s time to add distractions.

Variation Four: Adding Distractions

Have a friend or family member stand off to the side with something that will likely distract the dog. It could be a large bone or a sandwich. It could also be a ball or a favorite toy. Squeaky toys are often excel- lent for this type of exercise. You can also get creative. It might be an adult holding a child or a cat or another dog. Please note that if you are using toys to motivate or reward your dog for coming, then the dis- tracter can’t use toys to distract your dog.

While your distracter (the person creating the distractions) stands to one side, you gently hold the dog’s collar and pet and praise her. A third person stands 15 to 20 feet away, so that the distracter is roughly halfway between you and the third person.

Let go of the dog and have the third person squat and coax the dog to come. If you’ve done your homework consistently, about 90 percent of the time your dog will ignore the distracter and head right for the third person. Needless to say, the third person needs to coax, pet, praise (say “good”) and reward the dog for coming. The verbal command can still be given when the dog is one foot away, with you grasping the col- lar during praise, petting and treating. After a few days, if you’re get- ting a consistent response, stop squatting and just coax from a slightly bent standing position.

The distracter should try to distract the dog, but not in a way that causes confusion. For example, distracters must not squat and/or coax the dog. Additionally, they must be careful not to do anything that would reward the dog for not coming to you or the third person—for instance, if the distracter has food and this food is held low to the ground, the dog might get it. If this happens, you will likely set your training back, since your dog will be rewarded by getting food as a result of straying over to the distracter.

Even though the distracter can’t confuse the dog, there’s a lot the distracter can do. Keys can be dropped, squeaky toys squeaked, food visually presented, etc. If the dog goes to the distracter, the person coaxing should continue to coax and the distracter should immediately stop any distracting behavior. In the case of food or a toy, the distracter should hold it well out of the dog’s reach and out of sight, ideally over her head. This will ensure that your dog will not be rewarded for being distracted.

It’s a good idea to start with the distracter using easy types of dis- tractions, and gradually build up to more difficult ones. For example, if the dog is food motivated, you might start with the distracter hold- ing a toy or squeezing a squeaky toy, then move up to holding a piece of food close to their chest, and then to waving a big bone.

When you first try this exercise, some dogs will spend 20 or 30 seconds sniffing around the distracter. Don’t worry. Just keep coaxing her, and remember to reward and praise the dog when she comes. Try seven to 15 repetitions per session, with three to five sessions per day. Remember on this exercise to use food rewards 100 percent of the time. Eventually the dog will ignore anything the distracter does.

Continue to play the backing up come game, as well. However, starting this week, instead of giving the “come” command when the dog is one foot from you, give it when the dog is two feet away.

The Second Month

Moving into the second month, a number of improvements will be added to the “come” concept. First, you will start to use the command when the dog is farther and farther away from you. Second, you will start to wean the dog off food rewards. At this point, you are working on some exercises with no distrac- tions and others with distractions. Assuming you’ve done this consis- tently, most owners should have close to 100 percent response with no distractions. This means when you coax your dog, she comes zipping to you every time. If your dog falls into this category, you’re going to start to do what the top trainer at Animal Behavior College, Debbie Kendrick, calls “upping the ante.” This means you are going to stop rewarding the dog 100 percent of the time with food or play. Instead, you are going to reward only the best responses. This will cause the dog to work that much harder to receive the reward. You will slowly continue to up the ante, meaning you will only reward better and bet- ter responses.

Variation Five: Teaching Come From a Distance, Weaning Off Food, Continuing to Work With Distractions

To start off, do the group come game with distractions. Watch your dog. When she comes to you, does she sometimes come quickly and other times stop to sniff or come more slowly to you? If yes, she should only receive the food reward for coming quickly. This does not mean she shouldn’t be praised and petted for coming. It simply means the food or toy reward should be withheld until you see the more desired fast response.

If speed isn’t an issue, look at other possible weaknesses. Does the dog sniff and stop during some part of the come game? If so, when the dog does get to you, praise and pet, but don’t treat. Only treat when the dog goes directly to you without sniffing. Does the dog veer off and go to the distracter? If yes, only treat those responses in which the dog comes straight to you without veering.

It’s best to pick one “mistake” at a time to not treat. Otherwise, you may find yourself not being able to treat at all. This is not desirable. I recommend grading the dog’s response. Let’s look at an example.

  • Grade A: The dog comes within one second of hearing her name. She comes straight to you without pausing, sniffing or veering off, regardless of distractions. She moves quickly and comes all the way to you, allowing you to grasp her collar. She does this from distances up to 40 feet away.
  • Grade B: The dog comes within one second of hearing her name. She comes straight to you, although she may slow down some- times to sniff or look at a distraction. She does not veer and comes all the way to you, allowing you to grasp her collar. She does this from distances up to 30 feet away.
  • Grade C: The dog comes within one to two seconds of hearing her name. She comes to you, although at times she may slow down to sniff and/or veer off to check out a particularly interesting distraction. She eventually comes all the way to you, allowing you to grasp her collar. Occasionally she may run past you or only come within two or three feet before starting to run back in the other direction. She performs from distances up to 25 feet away.
  • Grade D: The dog comes within one to five seconds of hearing her name. She comes to you, although at times she may slow down to sniff and/or veer off to check out a particularly interest- ing distraction. Sometimes, she will pause for as much as 15 or 20 seconds around a distraction. You continue to coax and she eventually comes all the way to you, allowing you to grasp her collar. Occasionally she may run past you or only come within two or three feet before starting to run back in the other direction. She performs from distances up to 20 feet away.

If your dog is not performing at least at grade D with a distracter, you need to continue to work on the earlier exercises to make sure you have established the foundation level of understanding before you move on. If your dog is performing at least at grade D, you can use food to improve the dog’s performance, while at the same time slowly weaning the dog off the treats.

Please remember, toys as motivators should be handled the same way as treats. And if your dog is best motivated by simple petting, you should not withhold petting but rather cut down on the duration and excitement you show when petting your dog. This means a grade D response might get a pat on the head and a quick “good dog,” while a grade C response would get a scratch behind the ear for 10 seconds as you repeat “good dog” in a more excited way the entire time you’re scratching.

To move from grade D to grade C, simply treat only grade C responses or better. Since most grade D dogs will perform the “come” at grade C some of the time, treating grade C responses will result in the dog very quickly understanding what she needs to do to get the treat. This is an extremely important concept.

Once the dog advances to a point where she is consistently (90 per- cent of the time) working at a grade C level, start to treat only when the dog works at a grade B level. The same rules apply.

Once the dog is working consistently at grade B, stay there for an extra week and start using the “come” command when the dog is four feet away, instead of two. This has no bearing on when you give a treat; it’s simply a good time to start increasing the distance your dog is from you when she actually hears the command. Increase by one foot per week, until you are giving the command at the 30- to 40-foot mark.

After the dog is consistently responding for an extra week at grade B, advance to grade A using the same treat schedule. Try different dis- tractions, and if the dog’s grade slips, work it back up. When you have a grade A response from distances of 40 feet, regardless of distractions, in house and yard, you have foundation level control off leash on the “come” command.

You can also continue to reward better and better responses with food, until the dog is at a level you’re satisfied with. At that point, slowly wean the dog from the treats by reducing them 10 percent each week, until you reach the 20 percent mark. This means the dog gets food at grade A level only 20 percent of the time.

I deliberately devoted the most space and detail to the “come” command because I believe it to be the most important, and because the concepts of giving rewards and consistency remain the same for the other commands as well. Although “come” is most important, other commands are critical for your dog to learn.

SIT

The first rule in teaching an off-leash sit is to become aware of how many times you tell your dog to sit without follow-through. Just like the “come” command, owners need to become conscious of just how often they tell their dogs to “sit, sit, sit.” Many of you may be surprised when you realize you’re telling your dog to do just that, dozens of times each day. After a few days of really becoming aware of it, the first order of business is for everyone to stop giving the “sit” command under any circumstances other than the ones described in this chapter. Before teaching sit, or any obedience command, you will need to teach your dog the meaning of a conditioned reinforcer such as the word “good.” If you are unclear about how to do this (hint, it’s easy), please go back and read the section in Chapter 3 that covers condi- tioned reinforcers and how to teach them. Briefly, your dog wasn’t born knowing what “good” means. She needs to be conditioned—that is, trained—to understand that “good” is positive for her. This is sim- ple to do.

Once the dog has learned “good,” you can start teaching her to sit. The best way to do this is to lure the dog with your baited hand. This means you put a small piece of food in your hand and make a fist. Hold your fist directly in front of the dog’s nose. Let her sniff it, and then slowly bring your hand over the top of the dog’s muzzle and head, and moving on down the center of the dog’s back. Keep your hand no more than three to four inches from the dog, especially when it’s by her muz- zle and head. Most dogs will lift their head in an attempt to follow your hand. As your hand moves out of sight they will continue to look back- ward, and as they shift their body in the direction your hand is moving, they will sit.

The moment the dog is in the sit position, pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. If treats are not actually a huge motivator, you can show the dog a toy, hide it in your fist, bring your hand back as I’ve just described, and when the dog sits, pet, praise (say “good”) and reward with five to 10 seconds of play with the previously hidden toy. Do not say “sit” at any time during this exercise. Try 20 to 30 repetitions per day, with no more than five repetitions at any one time. After one or two weeks, your dog should be sitting the instant you start to bring your hand over the top of her head.

When you consistently get this level of response, add the com- mand. To do this, wait until the dog has actually sat, and the instant she does, say “sit,” pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. Do this for another two weeks at the rate of 20 to 30 repetitions per day.

By the second month, you can start to say “sit” a second before you bring your hand over the top of the dog’s head. Don’t say “sit” and then fail to use your hand. If you’ve done your homework, the dog will sit every single time, since you’ve already gotten 100 percent (or close) compliance using just your hand. Do this for another two weeks, and then you can start adding distractions.

When you add distractions, go back a step and only say “sit” after the dog has sat. Basically, use a distracter the same way I described earlier in this chapter for teaching “come.” The only difference is the distracter doesn’t need to be 10 or 15 feet away. They can be closer, but otherwise should act in the same way as described for “come.” If the dog fails to respond, don’t worry. Simply get the dog to refocus on your hand and repeat the exercise. The distracter should stop the instant you see that they have been successful in distracting the dog. This will enable you to get a better response.

Start off with easy distractions and build up. After a couple of weeks, your dog should sit regardless of what the distracter is doing. At this point, you can start to grade “sit” the same way you graded “come.”

  • Grade A: The dog sits within one second of the command with- out using your hands, regardless of distractions in the house and yard.
  • Grade B: The dog sits within one to three seconds of the com- mand without using your hands, regardless of distractions in the house and yard.
  • Grade C: The dog sits within one second of the command as you bring your hand over the top of the dog’s head, regardless of distractions in the house and yard.
  • Grade D: The dog sits within one to three seconds of the com- mand as you bring your hand over the top of the dog’s head. When the delay occurs, it is because the dog briefly focuses on the distraction.

If your dog is not performing at least at grade D level, you need to continue to work on the sit using food 100 percent of the time, until you get at least a D level response.

To move from grade D to grade C, simply treat the dog only for grade C responses. Since most grade D dogs will perform the sit at grade C at least some of the time, treating grade C responses will result in the dog very quickly understanding what she needs to do to receive the treat. This is an extremely important concept.

Once the dog advances to a point where she is consistently (90 per- cent of the time) working at a grade C level, start to treat only when the dog works at a grade B level.

To move up to grade B, a professional tip is in order. At grade C the dog is responding to your hand gesture. At grade B no hand gesture is given. This can be a big jump for some dogs. Additionally, you have to deliberately avoid making the gesture, so the dog can learn to respond without it, which is something you haven’t yet done. To move to grade B, give the “sit” command and wait one long second without making any gesture at all. If you’ve done your homework, your dog will likely sit in anticipation of the gesture. The instant the dog sits, pet, praise (say “good”) and reward. If the dog fails to sit after one sec- ond, start the gesture, but then stop the instant the dog sits. You will probably only need to move your hand a couple of inches to get a response. Note how much you need to move your hand and gradually move it less, only treating when the dog sits at the smallest gestures. Eventually you won’t need to use your hand at all.

Once the dog is working consistently at grade B, advance to grade A using the same treat schedule. Try different distractions, and if the dog’s grade slips, work it back up. When you have a grade A response while you’re standing in front of the dog, you can start to move away from the dog. If you’ve done this properly, most dogs will respond even if you give the command when you’re standing off to one side. It is best to start teaching sit from different positions by working with no distractions, until the dog responds perfectly for a few days. Then add distractions while you give the “sit” command from these positions.

When the dog sits perfectly under all types of distractions, regard- less of your position, try making it a little tougher. You can call this grade A+. Give the sit command when you’re standing behind the dog. Many dogs will find this tougher, since all your previous work was done with you in sight. You can also continue to reward better and better responses with food, until the dog is at a level you’re satisfied with. At that point, slowly wean the dog from the treats by reducing them 10 per- cent per week, until you reach the 20 percent mark. This means the dog gets food for a grade A level performance only 20 percent of the time. If your dog doesn’t respond at any point, try two or three more rep- etitions to get the response. Reward the proper response. If, after two to three repetitions, she remains unresponsive, end the session and try again later. When you stop, avoid any interaction with the dog for at least 15 minutes. This is not to punish the dog, but you also don’t want to reward her for not working. The best thing to do is simply walk

away and do something unrelated to her.

SIT-STAY

The sit-stay command is also a very critical behavior for your dog to learn. Like all the other off-leash commands you’re teaching, it’s impor- tant to recognize that you may already be giving the sit-stay command without backing it up. Spend a few days being conscious of this and you may be very surprised to realize there has been some inconsistency here. Not to worry! The key is to move forward from this point.

By the way, here’s an excellent example of inconsistency with the sit-stay. I have known at least a hundred owners whose dogs wanted to follow them into the garage or out the front door when the owners were leaving for work. A typical response for people is to shove the dog back and tell her “no, stay.” Then they close the door and go on with their day. Hours later when they come home, do they seriously expect their dog to still be in the stay position? Of course not! They didn’t mean “stay” as in “don’t move.” They meant something like “don’t fol- low me out the door.” Unfortunately, this sets back your training, since the dog will not be able to differentiate these subtle shades of gray. Bottom line: “Stay” means “don’t move until I tell you to.” Don’t use it for anything else.

I would not teach “stay” until the dog has had at least a month’s worth of training on “sit.” The two easiest situations to start teaching the sit-stay are when you are feeding the dog and when she wants to go through a doorway.

When you are ready to give her a meal, hold the bowl up three or four feet over her head and tell her “sit.” Remember to praise (say “good”) for the sit, but you don’t have to treat and pet with a food bowl in your hand. As she’s sitting, slowly start to bring the bowl down toward her and the floor. If she gets up, say “no” or “eh eh” and imme- diately raise the bowl back over her head. Do not let her get the food. Then have her sit again and repeat the process. You may need to repeat this five to 10 times before you can successfully bring the bowl down to the floor without her getting up from the sit position and moving toward the bowl.

Be ready to block the bowl if she dives for it and put it far enough away that you have a real chance of successfully keeping it away from her. The objective here is not to tease the dog. However, if she is rewarded for grabbing the food when you really want to teach her to stay, you won’t succeed. After one second of her staying in the sit posi- tion with the bowl on the ground, tell her “OK” and stand aside so she can get her meal. Most dogs will instantly get the idea of “OK” as a word that releases them from a command.

Do not give the “stay” command until your dog can successfully perform this exercise for seven consecutive days. This means your dog remains seated when you place the bowl on the ground. It also means she waits a long second before you release her with “OK.” After seven consecutive successful days, you can say “stay” before you start to bring the food bowl down, since you now know the dog will not move. The door exercise is very similar to the food bowl exercise.

Approach a door you know the dog wants to go through. (Please don’t start teaching this concept at a front door leading to a busy street. Use a door that you can afford to make a few mistakes with and not put the dog’s safety in jeopardy.) Start to open the door, then quickly shut it the instant the dog starts to put her nose through it. Be careful! The objective here is not to slam the door on the dog’s nose. Carefully open and shut the door until the dog sits down away from it. If the dog just stands back away from the door without sitting, you may give the “sit” command. Remember to pet, praise (say “good”) and treat for this response.

After a week or two of this, your dog should sit when you open the door. If the dog gets up as you open the door, say “no” or “eh eh,” quickly close the door and have the dog sit again. Once the dog is sit- ting and has been petted, praised and rewarded for this behavior, open the door again. Most dogs will grasp the idea that they need to remain seated. After one long second, close the door and release the dog with an “OK.” If the dog continues to sit there, you can playfully push the dog out of the sit.

Please note you don’t need to do this near every door in the house. I would practice it with a few doors 10 to 15 times per day. Remember, don’t say “stay” until the dog is consistently performing this exercise (90 percent of the time) for at least a week. You can then add the “stay” command during the one second the dog should stay.

After the second week, you can start to slowly increase the amount of time the dog stays. To do this, wait five seconds instead of one before releasing the dog with “OK.” Does the dog do this with no prob- lem? If yes, add another five seconds the next day. If no, keep working on it.

After the second week, you can start to slowly increase the amount of time the dog stays. To do this, wait five seconds instead of one before releasing the dog with “OK.” Does the dog do this with no prob- lem? If yes, add another five seconds the next day. If no, keep working on it.

After a couple of weeks, you can make the door exercise a little bit more difficult. Have the dog sit, then place yourself between the dog and the door. Since most people stand next to their dog when they’re first working on the door exercise, moving in front of the dog may ini- tially cause the dog to stand up. If she does, tell her “no” or “eh eh,” have her sit, pet, praise and reward the sit response, then repeat the process. Face the dog, carefully open the door and start to back through it. If the dog moves at this time, say “no” or “eh eh,” block her with your legs, close the door, have her sit and repeat the process. Start with a one-second stay. After a week, you can start to add time.

Only give the “stay” command when the dog is consistently per- forming this exercise properly for at least a week. Only release her with an “OK” to go through the door when she is sitting and not trying to bolt. After a month of working on these exercises, your dog should have an off-leash understanding of the “stay” concept. If you have doubts, work the above exercises for another week, or as long as it takes for the dog to perform them properly.

During the second month, you can add a third sit-stay exercise. This involves a food treat. Have the dog sit. Remember to pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. Then place another treat in your hand and show it to the dog by holding it two or three feet from her face. If  she moves toward it, say “no” or “eh eh” and quickly close your hand. Have her sit again, remembering to pet, praise and treat, then start over. Most dogs will stop moving toward the treat after a few repetitions. When you can present the treat and she doesn’t move toward it for at least one long second, say “good” and bring the treat to her. Pet her and let her eat the snack. Then release her with an “OK.” Try to work this exercise at least 15 or 20 times a day for at least a week.

Remember, don’t say “stay” for the first week. Then, assuming your dog is performing this exercise without mistakes at least 90 per- cent of the time, you can say “stay” while the dog is sitting and watch- ing the food. If you do it correctly,  your dog will remain seated for    a long second with food two feet from her face. By the third week, you can start to increase the amount of time the dog stays. Jump to five seconds and add five seconds every day until you reach a couple of minutes. Make it pleasant and make sure the dog is consistently rewarded with food treats for the correct response.

Teaching your dog to stay in this fashion is, in my opinion, much better than the way it used to be taught. What we are doing is training the dog to stay in order to get something. This could include a food treat, dinner or going through a door. This is the opposite of teaching her to stay to avoid being punished. It’s much more positive and will elicit a far more willing response from the dog.

After a few months of simple sit-stays at doors, for dinner and when food is presented in front of her face, you should have a dog who under- stands the concept of “stay.” As you continue to add more time to your dog’s stay, you can also start to use a grading system and add distractions.

  • Grade A: The dog stays for at least two minutes, regardless of distractions, in the house or yard.
  • Grade B: The dog stays for at least a minute with all but the most difficult distractions.
  • Grade C: The dog stays for a minute and a half without distrac- tions (other than the food bowl, doors or food in front of her face).
  • Grade D: The dog stays for a minute without distractions (other than the food bowl, doors or food in front of her face).

If your dog is not performing at least at grade D level, you need to continue to work on the sit-stay using food rewards 100 percent of the time, until you get at least a D level response.

To move from grade D to grade C, simply treat only grade C responses. Since most grade D dogs can perform the stay at grade C at least some of the time, increase the time by 30-second increments and treat only grade C responses. The dog will very quickly understand what she needs to do to receive the treat. This is an extremely impor- tant concept.

Once the dog advances to a point where she is consistently (90 per- cent of the time) working at a grade C level, start to only treat when the dog works at a grade B level. To move to grade B, start off with relatively easy distractions and expect a stay for maybe 20 seconds with these types of distractions. If you can get this, pet, praise, but don’t treat. Then try 40 seconds, rewarding the dog the same way. Give the dog a break, then about five minutes later, try again and aim for a minute. When the dog stays for a minute with mild distractions, pet, praise and treat. If you’ve done your homework, your dog will respond at this level.

Once the dog is working consistently at grade B, advance to grade A using the same treat schedule. Try different distractions, and if the dog’s grade slips, work it back up.

Your position in relation to the dog is as relevant for “stay” as it was for “sit.” As such, the same rules apply. When you have a grade A response standing in front of the dog, you can start to move away from the dog. If you’ve done this correctly, most dogs will respond even if you give the stay command when standing off to one side. It is best to start teaching stay from different positions by working on it with no distractions until the dog responds perfectly for a few days. Then add distractions while you give the stay command from these positions as well. When the dog stays perfectly under all types of distractions regardless of your position, try making it a little tougher. You can call this grade A+. Give the stay command when you’re standing behind the dog. Many dogs will find this more difficult since all your previous stay work was done with you in sight. You can also continue to reward better and better responses with food until the dog is at a level you’re satisfied with. At that point, slowly wean the dog from the treats by reducing them 10 percent per week until you reach the 20 percent mark. This means the dog gets food for grade A level compliance only 20 percent of the time.

If your dog doesn’t respond at any point, try two or three more rep-

etitions to get the response. Reward the proper response. If, after two to three repetitions, she remains unresponsive, end the session and try again later. When you stop, avoid any interaction with the dog for at least 15 minutes. This is not to punish the dog, but you also don’t want to reward her for not working. The best thing to do is simply walk away and do something unrelated to her.

When your dog attains foundation level obedience for the “stay,” you will still need to work on this command with a leash and possibly a long line in a group class environment. However, since the founda- tion has been firmly established, you will most likely find “stay” is a very easy concept for your dog to grasp under any circumstances. “Stay” can be a lifesaver and is certainly one of the most important commands you can teach your dog.

DOWN

The final command we will focus on for off-leash foundation level control is “down.” I probably sound like a broken record at this point— oh no, I’m giving my age away, but I know I’m repeating myself. Guess what? The “down” command has the same rules about consis- tency as all the others.

So what’s the first step? If you guessed “you need to be conscious of how often you say ‘down’ without backing it up,” you’re absolutely right! A common example of inconsistency in using this command is when the owner tries to teach the dog to stay off furniture or not to jump on people. How many of you tell your dog “no, no, down, down, down” when the dog leaps all over you? Do you say the same thing when your adorable dog is lying on that leather chair you absolutely don’t want her on? All use of the command “down” should stop now, except as recommended in this chapter.

“Down” should not be taught until the dog has mastered the “sit” command. This means the dog sits at least at grade B.

The traditional way to teach “down” involved forcing the dog into that position. Methods involving stepping on the leash and/or sharply yanking the leash downward were common. Forcing some dogs, espe- cially dogs older than a year, into the down position can stimulate aggression, distrust and an unwillingness to obey the “down” command, especially when you don’t have the leash. Fortunately, you can teach this concept with little or no force off the leash. This is a much better way.

The challenge with “down” is that it represents a vulnerable and subservient position for a dog. Men should consider how they would feel being shaved by a total stranger. Yes, you know the barber is a pro- fessional, but when that straight-edged razor is lightly scraping across your neck, you can’t help feeling vulnerable. To be honest, when I wrote this book, I tried for 20 minutes to think of a similar example for a woman. While I have no doubt my women readers will come up with a number of them instantly, I drew a blank. However, I think and hope all readers get the idea. “Down” makes some dogs just a wee bit uncomfortable. Because of this, it can sometimes be challenging to get them into the down position without resorting to force.

Here are several ways:

  1. From the “sit” position, lure the dog down with a baited hand. Stand directly in front of the dog. Just as with “sit,” put a piece of food in your fist and hold your fist in front of the dog’s nose. Then slowly bring your hand down close to her chest until your hand touches the ground. At that point, slowly move your hand along the ground toward you. Most dogs will follow your hand with their nose. When their nose touches or comes close to the ground, they will continue to follow your hand as you move it away from them and toward yourself. This will cause the dog to lean forward. At that point, most dogs will lie down. The instant the dog lies down, pet, praise (say “good”) and treat.

This method can be a little trickier than it sounds, and you should be aware of a few common mistakes. First, move your hand slowly. If you go too quickly, the dog won’t follow it. Second, bring your hand straight down and touch the ground before you start to move it toward you. Often owners bring their hand toward themselves before it touches the ground. This will cause the dog to stand up and follow your hand. Third, don’t stand too far away from the dog when you try this. I would stand no more than a foot or two away, directly in front of the dog.

2. Even if you use your hand perfectly, some dogs are inclined to get up if you’re standing directly in front of them. If you find your dog repeatedly standing up and moving toward you, consider positioning yourself immediately at the dog’s side. The exercise is done the same way, except when your hand touches the ground, you’re not moving it toward yourself. Instead, you simply move it slowly in a straight line away from the dog. Remember to pet, praise (say “good”) and treat the instant the dog lies down.

3. Another way to teach “down” from the sit position is to use a food lure to guide the dog under a very low object, such as a coffee table or, for smaller dogs, your outstretched leg while you’re sit- ting on the floor. Some dogs like to stand up even when you do the exercise correctly, and using the coffee table or your leg pre- vents this. Remember to pet, praise (say “good”) and treat the instant the dog lies down.

Again, regardless of which variation you try, the moment the dog’s elbows touch the ground, pet, praise (say “good”) and place the food treat on the ground between her paws. Once you’ve determined which variation works best for you and your dog, use that variation 15 to 20 times per day for approximately two weeks. Remember not to say “down” at any time during this exercise. And please remember to not teach down every time you give the sit command. If you do, your dog will start to lie down after you’ve told her to sit.

Professional tip: Be mindful of the surface on which you attempt to teach the down. Pavement is hard, and it’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Uncomfortable surfaces make this command more difficult to teach. I recommend grass or carpeting to start. It’s soft and com- fortable, and who wouldn’t want to lie down on it?

Don’t give the “down” command until your dog consistently goes into the down position when you move your hand to the ground for at least two weeks. At that point, you can say “down” the instant the dog’s elbows touch the ground, and immediately follow the command with petting, praise (“good”) and a treat. Stay at this level for another two weeks.

After a month of teaching the down command, you should be ready to expand how you use it. This includes teaching the dog to respond to the command without the hand gesture, teaching her to work with distractions and keeping the dog in the down position (down-stay).

By the second month, you can start to say “down” a second before you bring your hand to the ground. Don’t say “down” without using your hand. If you’ve done your homework, the dog will lie down just about every single time, since you’ve already gotten 100 percent com- pliance (or close) with just your hand. After a week of practicing using both the command and the hand signal, try giving the “down” com- mand and not moving your hand. If your dog consistently lies down, congratulations! This command can be tough to teach.

If the dog still seems a bit confused when you don’t use your hand, don’t be discouraged. Instead, work on giving the down command and waiting one long second before using your hand signal. Also notice about how far your hand motion has to go before the dog lies down. Are you bringing your hand all the way to the ground? Are you still moving it away from the dog? Many people find that all they have to do is move their hand a couple of inches toward the ground to get the desired response. If your dog still needs a hand signal of any kind, use it after the command has been given for another two or three weeks before trying the “down” command again without the gesture. Do this for another two weeks, and then you can start to add distractions. When you add distractions, go back a step and only say “down” after the dog has attained that position. In other words, resume having the dog lie down by using your hand gesture. Basically, use a designated distracter the same way I described in the section on teaching “come.” The only difference is this person need not be 10 or 15 feet away. They can be closer, but otherwise should act in the same way as I described for “come.”

If the dog fails to respond in the presence of distractions, don’t worry. Get the dog to refocus on your hand and simply repeat the exercise. The distracter should stop the instant you see that they have been successful in distracting the dog. This will enable you to get a better response.

Start off with easy distractions and build up. After a couple of weeks, your dog should lie down regardless of what the distracter is doing. At this point, reintroduce the verbal command before the hand gesture. You can also start to grade the “down” the way you graded other commands.

  • Grade A: The dog lies down within one second of your command without using your hands, regardless of distractions in the house and yard.
  • Grade B: The dog lies down within one to three seconds of your command without using your hands, regardless of distractions in the house and yard.
  • Grade C: The dog lies down within one second of your com- mand as you bring your hand toward the ground, regardless of distractions in the house and yard.
  • Grade D: The dog lies down within one to three seconds of your command as you bring your hand toward the ground. Sometimes she fails to respond to the first gesture when there are distractions.

If your dog is not performing at least at grade D level, you need to continue to work on the down using food rewards 100 percent of the time until you get at least a D level response.

To move from grade D to grade C, simply treat only grade C responses. Since most grade D dogs will perform the down at grade C at least some of the time, treating grade C responses will result in the dog very quickly understanding what she needs to do to receive the treat.

Once the dog advances to a point where she is consistently (90 per- cent of the time) working at a grade C level, start to treat only when the dog works at a grade B level. The same professional tip that I gave you to assist in advancing from grade C to B on the sit command will also work for down.

At grade C the dog is responding to your hand gesture. At grade B no hand gesture is given. This can be a big jump for some dogs. Additionally, you have to deliberately avoid making the gesture so the dog can learn to respond without it, which is something you haven’t done before. To move to grade B, give the down command and wait one long second without making any gesture at all. If you’ve done your homework, your dog will likely lie down in anticipation of the gesture. The instant the dog lies down, pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. If the dog fails to lie down after one second, start to make the gesture, but then stop the instant the dog lies down. You will probably only need to move your hand a couple of inches to get a response. Note how much you need to move your hand and gradually move it less, only treating when the dog lies down at the smallest gesture. Eventually you won’t need to use your hand at all.

Once the dog is working consistently at grade B, advance to grade A using the same treat schedule. Try different distractions, and if the dog’s grade slips, work it back up. When you consistently have a grade A response while you’re standing in front of or at the dog’s side, you can start to move away from the dog. If you’ve done this properly, most dogs will respond even if you give the command while you’re standing in a different place.

It is best to start teaching “down” from different positions by work- ing on it with no distractions, until the dog responds perfectly for a few days. It’s also a good idea to start out close to the dog as you begin shift- ing your position. For example, if you taught the dog “down” from directly in front of her, your first new position should be directly at her side. If you taught her down from the side, the second position might be directly in front. Once the dog responds consistently to positions close to you, it is easier to teach her to lie down when you are farther away.

Next, add distractions while you give the down command from these alternate positions. When the dog lies down perfectly in the presence of all types of distractions, regardless of your position, use the A+ grade for the down command. This means have her lie down from a position where the dog can’t see you—perhaps from behind her. Many dogs will find this tougher, since all the previous work on this command was done with you in sight. You can also continue to reward better and better responses with food, until the dog is at a level you’re satisfied with. At that point, slowly wean the dog from the treats by reducing them 10 per- cent per week until you reach the 20 percent mark. This means the dog gets food for responses at grade A level only 20 percent of the time.

If your dog doesn’t respond at any point, try two or three more rep- etitions to get the response. Reward the proper response. If, after two to three repetitions, she remains unresponsive, end the session and try again later. When you stop, avoid any interaction with the dog for at least 15 minutes. This is not to punish the dog, but you also don’t want to reward her for not working. The best thing to do is simply walk away and do something unrelated to her.

Down-Stay

You can attach a “stay” command to the “down” once the “stay” and “down” have both been mastered. To do this, be conscious of your tim- ing and what you praise and reward the dog for doing.

Tell the dog to lie down, pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. Then tell the dog to stay. Wait 10 seconds, then pet, praise (say “good”) and treat. Wait another two seconds and give the dog the “OK” release command. If the dog breaks the stay before you release her, immedi- ately say “no” or “eh eh,” have the dog lie back down and then give proper praise and petting. Then repeat the process. Practice this for a couple of days, then start to add time until you get to a minute or so. Then add distractions.

When your dog lies down on the first command and stays there for as long as you’d like, regardless of distractions, you have an extremely functional command. Try teaching the dog to do a down-stay on a three- or four-foot piece of carpeting. I did this with one of my dogs many years ago. It was great, because the carpeting (her spot) was completely portable. I could take her spot anywhere I wanted, place it on the ground and know that if I asked, she’d go to her spot and lie there. I could take her to people’s homes, to a variety of public places, and know that she was safe and out of trouble on her spot.

I actually used this “trick” in front of various supermarkets when I first started my business. I would take my dog, a beautiful white Samoyed named Samantha, and place her spot three or four feet from the front door. I would then have her lie on it while I posted training flyers. When I went to the other side of the market (some had two bul- letin boards), I would bring her spot with me and put her there. People were very amused when they saw this, and many wanted to know how I had done it. When they realized I was a dog trainer, they wanted me to show them how to do it, which was great for business. (Of course, this trick isn’t as good as my Basset Hound jumping through an extremely low hoop. Actually, he doesn’t really jump, he just sort of ambles through it. However, that’s a story for another time.)

As you can see by reading this chapter, teaching and getting foun- dation level control should start as early as possible and can take many months to master. I can assure all of you that it is absolutely worth doing, so start today! If you’ve done it all correctly, you should have a dog who sits, stays, comes and lies down off leash in your house and yard on the first command, regardless of distractions. If you honestly have that level of response, congratulations! You have built a founda- tion that will last as long as your dog lives.

At this point, you are about 40 percent through the training process. What’s next? Finding a professional trainer to help you teach loose leash walking and/or heel, and to help you train your dog to respond to all the foundation level commands around distractions in public. Remember, practice, patience, loving kindness and consistency are what good training is all about.


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