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Dog Training Basics: 3 Mandatory Commands Your Dog Needs to Know

If you've ever read any of my articles about dog training and dog behavior, one thing that will most likely stick out is that I'm not a very big fan of rules. Rules are stupid and boring. And let's face it, they feel confining.

So I'll never give you a bunch of commandments to follow regarding training your dog (except that one time). However, there are some necessities that are hard to get around: basic commands.

Before you go bananas and try to teach your dog Every Trick In The Book, ask yourself a few questions: Is this command necessary? Is it useful? Is it fun? Unless you can answer "yes" to at least one of these questions, then skip it.

FULL DISCLOSURE: my dogs don't know how to lay down on command. Ellis picked it up somewhere, but I never actually taught it to him. But you'll notice it's on every single puppy kindergarten itinerary, and other dog trainers gasp and pull out their smelling salts when I admit my dogs don't do it. I found it unnecessary, useless, and not much fun.

Dog Training 101

Catching Dog Behaviors

Before we get started, let's briefly go over how to "catch" a dog's behavior so you can recreate it.

If your dog sits, and you give them a treat, you have definitely caught the behavior. But in order to recreate the behavior on command, you have to name the behavior.

So work the word in there as much as possible. You can catch an unprompted behavior. No, it's not cheating if your dog is already sitting and you walk up and start gently praising your dog and give them a positive.

"Good sit, Fido. Sit, sit, sit....*hands treat*... good sit....*ear scratch*

You can give a positive any time your dog is giving the behavior you wish to catch and recreate (read: train your dog to do on command). Catch it when you can.

To start off right, learn more about the best way to give your dog a positive in this link, and read more about how to catch your dog's behavior in this link.

So what are the mandatory commands that your dog needs to know (at least in my opinion)?

Basic Dog Training Commands

Sit Command

Most puppies and some dogs will automatically do this; you just have to link a word to the behavior. It's a natural dog behavior showing respect, or perhaps a better way to phrase it is that they are making it clear that they aren't showing disrespect.

It's how a dog says "please", or "I'm paying attention" in dog language.

The easiest way to go about teaching your dog how to sit on command is to slowly and gently move into their personal space. Make sure you are standing up straight.

If that doesn't work, take a treat (or a favorite toy if your dog isn't food motivated) and gradually move it at an arc above their head while gently pushing down on their butt. The moment they give you the behavior you wanted, be sure to place a positive on the behavior with either the treat or a toss of the ball.

Stay Command

This works best if your dog already sitting.

Remember, the idea is to catch the behavior and name it so you can recreate the behavior. This is especially important with the stay command. The object is to catch them not moving. Don't confuse that with you moving as far from them as you can.

Place your dog into a sit. Facing them directly and using gentle but firm body language, you are going to back up just a little bit, all the while facing your dog head on (your stomach should be pointing directly at your dog). The entire time your dog isn't moving, you are slowly and methodically repeating the word "stay" so as to name the behavior.

Face your dog head on, without bending over

This is the awkward part: as you back away from them, you need to point directly at them. Pretend your finger is a squirt gun full of water and you're trying to spray them between the eyes. Never put your finger directly in your dog's face. As with humans, it is exceptionally aggressive to invade personal space like that, so a distance of about 2 feet from the tip of your finger to where your dog is should be sufficient.

After just a second or two of this, you slowly return back to where your dog is and give them a positive. Remember, the behavior you're trying to catch is that they don't move! Don't give them the treat if they get up. If they try to move towards you, simply put them back where they started, and do it again.

Since you're trying to catch the behavior and name it before you lose it, be sure to set your dog up for success when learning basic commands. You will lose the behavior if you place your dog in a sit position and expect them to stay as you walk all around the house.

Start much smaller. Back away from them just a few steps. Still lost the behavior? A lot of times when starting out with puppies, I literally take only one step back with one foot and shift my body weight backwards. I moved away from them, they stayed, and I caught the behavior "stay'. Gradually add distance until your dog understands that "stay" means "don't move".

TIP: don't confuse the stay command with the come command. Don't call them to you.

Come Command/Dog Recall

Just like with the "stay" command, we are going to make sure we catch the behavior. The time to start working on this isn't when your dog is running up and down the fence line with your neighbor's dog, barking out threats through the fence like a bunch of drunken belligerent kangaroos.

Set yourself up for success. Start in a quiet area when your dog has some modicum of chill, with them just several feet away.

The object of the "stay" commend was to make sure your dog didn't come to you, so you used very strong body language (facing your dog head on). This time you want your dog to come to you, so you will be using softer body language, showing your dog your profile. Your body language should look more like a letter "S"

Dog come command
Body language training your dog to come when called.

Not a letter "T", which can be intimidating regarding of if you're in a standing or sitting position.

This is vaguely threatening.

The biggest mistake I see with the come command is that you are facing your dog too directly. If your dog doesn't come when you call them, soften your body language a bit more. Frequently when teaching this to a dog during our dog training session, I will be balled up in what I call "Tornado Drill" body language with my head on the ground.

And the dog comes bounding over the second I start calling them.

As you get yourself into the correct body language position, start calling their name and/or "come" over and over again an an upbeat, energetic way. You want them to match your energy, as in move towards me. It's okay to pat your leg or the ground as you do this. When they get to you, well...who's a good dog?!!

Give it a few moments for your dog to respond to the come command, but if it's obvious you're being ignored, calmly and slowly stand up. Gently move towards them from your hip not facing them. When you get to your dog, turn your head away from them as you reach out with your hand to gently tug on your dog's collar, cheerfully telling them "come come come, good!" as you make your way back to where you first started.

It doesn't matter how your dog gets to you, as long as they eventually do come when called, so it's okay to get help from another person. Have them help guide your dog or puppy towards you as you call them. Always mark with a positive. Don't punish your dog for not coming when you called them. Just gently enforce the come command so that they understand that yes, they will eventually end up coming to you, but that they will always get a positive when they do, and sometimes that positive is a treat.

TIP: Make sure you if you call your dog, you are ready to follow through. It's okay to not call your dog, and ignore a behavior if you know you won't follow through. Don't hope your dog will come when you call; hope is never a game plan.

Real World Dog Training vs. Contrived Dog Training

Don't bother making empty promises to yourself that you will drill on these commands 30 times per day, 8 days a week. Drilling is no fun.

Make it spontaneous. Make it brief (when either your or your dog's attention span waivers, there is your cue to end it). This isn't a competition to see who's dog can learn the fastest. Don't try to have fund whether you like it or not. It's okay to only do okay; focus on the main goal: communication based on trust.

Dog Training vs. Dog Life

By focusing on dog life, rather than dog training, our goals can become so much more attainable and clear-cut. Most of us don't want an obedient dog, we just don't want a dis-obedient dog. Robot-style dogs who are afraid of stepping out of line are for certain types of people I guess.

But that's not my style. That's why I developed the Piloting method of dog training over 20 years ago, a force-free method of dog training and puppy training that didn't rely on abusive shock collars or cruel prong collars, yet didn't constantly bribe with non-stop click-n-treat style dog training. I want a bond with my dog based on trust and communication.

Learn more about our Piloting method of dog and puppy training here.

Find out more about our private in home 30 Day Best Dog Ever and 30 Day Best Puppy Ever training packages here.

Have questions about our puppy training or dog training?

border collie dog

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training and Puppy Training

Greater Cleveland Area

Northeast Ohio


I really liked the point about spontaneous training versus drills. Who likes drills? A sergeant, I guess. It's so easy to integrate basic training into the flow of the day. Stella likes to watch when I cook, so as soon as her bottom hits the floor, I say, "good sit" and she gets a nibble of something. I don't have to do it much anymore because she comes and sits on her own.

I am training Stella for the next trick dog title, but we don't do drills. We play, so it's fun for both of us. And she is allowed to tell me when she's done.

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack
Apr 28, 2023
Replying to

And that’s why Stella is doing so well for you. You are not training her but rather, are both growing together and communicating together. I truly love watching you guys together. 

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