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Teaching Your Dog Any Command

September 13, 2016

There is a proven scientific process to teach your dog any desired command. In this article, we’ll explore some of the basics that trainers use to reinforce obedience behaviors. As a dog owner, you can immediately implement these techniques to discover a whole new world with your canine friend. 


First, we want to develop our communication channels. We like to call these "markers or conditioned reinforcers." These are going to be words or sounds that will let our dog know when they are right or wrong. I have a total of 5 markers that I like to teach to the dogs that I work with. Let us start with the two positive types of markers: the first one is called a continuation marker. This is a word or sound that lets the dog know that they are correct and will be delivered a reward. To apply a continuation marker, the dog must maintain the position that they are in. Ex.: you tell the dog to “sit”, and the dog enters a sitting position and maintains it without breaking it. 


The next type is called terminal markers. These release dogs from a previous behavior. Ex.: If a dog was in a sitting position, they are released from that position (indicating the sitting behavior is finished). We have two versions of this marker. The first version lets the dog know that they are correct, and they will come to the trainer for the reward, which also releases them from the prior behavior. The second version of the terminal marker lets the dog know they are correct, and they may go and get their reward. Ex.: If you had a ball out on the training field and your dog was aware that the ball was there, they would be released to get the toy. 


We also have a non-reinforcement marker, and this is for mistakes. For example, if you tell your dog to sit, and the dog downs instead, you would use your non-reinforcement marker and then you would re-command the sit. Once the dog sits, you would then reward the dog. Giving a dog the ability to make mistakes and try again is imperative. If the dog gets corrected for making a mistake, then the dog will become careful and is less likely to try new things, which would make it more difficult to teach new behaviors. 


The last marker is a signal for positive punishment. This sound lets the dog know they will be corrected. We use this for behaviors we would like to remove from the dog’s repertoire. Then, the correction is performed through a remote training collar or leash popping with a pinch collar. It’s important that these markers are pinpointed at the moment of time an undesirable behavior occurs, because if the timing is off, the dog will think the correction is being made for an entirely different behavior.


Once we teach our dog the different markers, we then move to the next step, which is to show the dog what we want them to perform. This is called "shaping." Before we name a command, the dog must first understand, through a physical cue, what we want and expect from them. Let us use "sit" as an example. If I'm using food, I will lift my hand up, and as the dog follows my hand, their butt naturally goes down into a sit. The second the dog sits, I would use one of my markers and then I would reward the dog. Once I know that every time I lift my hand up the dog will sit, it is then time to name the command. This goes for any command we are trying to teach our dog. We must first get the dog to perform the behavior with a physical cue. Once we have our dog performing the action with our physical cue it is then time to name the command.


A common mistake that most people make is when they decide to name the command, they will say the command while they are giving the dog the physical cue. If you pair your physical with your verbal, the physical will override the verbal and become the cue for the behavior. If we want the dog to learn the verbal command, then it is important to make sure that the verbal precedes the physical by a split second. It must be predictable to the dog. So the process becomes: command, motivate, mark, and reward, in that order. So you say sit, then you lift your hand, once the dog's butt hits the ground, you then mark and then reward. You will continue to use the physical cue until the dog beats you to it. Meaning, you say sit and before you lift your hand—the dog is already sitting. If you follow this order, you can teach your dog any desired command that the dog can physically perform.


Author: Nathan Schoemer

Editor: Cyrus Kirkpatrick



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