4 Words That Can Mean the Difference Between Life and Death

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog obedience commands

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are certain obedience commands that can actually save your dog’s life — do you know what they are?
  • To ensure your pet stays safe (and also well-mannered), be sure he or she can reliably respond to the verbal cues “come,” “sit,” “down/stay” and “drop it”
  • It’s very important, whenever you train your dog, to make it fun for both of you; if you’re not having fun, end the session on a high note and try again later

There are many great reasons to obedience train your dog using positive reinforcement, not the least of which is to keep him safe. A dog’s ability to respond appropriately and reliably to certain verbal commands can mean the difference between life and death. These commands include:

  • Come
  • Sit
  • Down, stay
  • Drop it

Your dog should be trained to consistently and quickly respond to these commands every time you give them — no matter where the two of you are, or what's happening around you. Before we get to the tips and tricks for preparing your pooch to react correctly to these critical verbal cues, it’s important to keep something in mind.

When you're about to teach a new behavior or reinforce a recently learned behavior with your canine companion, repeat this phrase to yourself: “Make it fun!” Training should be an enjoyable experience for both you and your dog. The key is to make your dog want to do the behavior rather than forcing him to do it, so use whatever will draw him into the game, including your voice, playful body language, treats, a toy, etc.

‘Come’

Dog parents typically give the come command, also known as the recall command, when their pet is engaged in some activity she's enjoying. This is what often makes a simple command challenging to teach. Dogtime.com offers three easy-to-follow rules for training your dog to come when you call:1

  1. Only use the command when something good is about to happen to your dog — never when you have something planned for her that she won't enjoy. If it's too late for that, in other words, if your dog has already learned that come can mean a scolding or some other distasteful thing is about to happen, then you'll need to choose another recall command. Many people choose "here" or "now."
  2. Always use an upbeat tone of voice when you call your dog to come. In worst-case scenarios, using your happy voice can be really hard to do. But even if he’s escaping out the front door and into the street, it's very important not to convey panic or anger, as it may discourage him from returning to you.
  3. Know when not to use the recall command. The goal is to give your dog lots of opportunities to succeed at coming when called. While she's still learning, don't give a recall command when she's doing something fun and probably won't respond as you'd like.

In situations where your dog isn't likely to come when called, don't give her a chance to fail. Instead, go to her, and snap her leash to her collar or harness. Also, keep in mind that some breeds and breed mixes tend to block out the rest of the world when they're sniffing around outdoors. Until your dog is reliably responding to recalls, don't assume she'll come when she's off-leash. 

‘Sit’

If you’re a dog parent, you already know how valuable the sit command is. It can prevent an excited dog from reacting inappropriately around other dogs or people, it can keep him safe on walks, hikes and other outings, and it can help you keep your sanity in certain situations as well! A very simple and natural way to begin training the behavior is to catch your dog in the act of sitting (since he does it throughout the day anyway, without prompting). When you see him going from a stand to a sit, say “sit,” and reward him with a tiny treat.

“It’ll take about 10 to 20 repetitions before your dog makes the association between what he’s doing and the word you’re saying,” writes dog trainer Victoria Schade, “but you’ll soon be able to say ‘sit’ and have your dog respond.”2

Schade says you can also train your dog to sit using very small (bite-sized), high-value treats.

“Take a treat and hold it directly in front of your dog’s nose so that he keeps all four paws are on the ground,” Schade instructs. “Slowly move the treat back over your dog’s forehead, between his eyes, so that his nose follows the movement of the treat. As your dog’s nose goes up, his rump will go down, and the moment his rear hits the ground, give him his treat.”

Repeat this move a few times, then stand still and wait for your dog to sit on his own in anticipation of another treat. If/when he does, immediately give him the treat and heap lavish praise on him. Next, wait for him to begin his sit and say, “sit” as he goes down. Much like the catch-him-in-the-act sit, it will probably take several repetitions before your dog makes the connection between the word and the behavior, says Shade.

Make sure to never force your dog into a sit, as this can be threatening to some dogs, and confusing to others who may begin waiting for a physical cue (your hand on their back) instead of a verbal cue to sit.

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‘Down, Stay’

Imagine your dog is a bit of an escape artist who has dashed out your front door and across the street. Telling her to “come” in this situation is potentially disastrous because there could be traffic passing by. This is why "down, stay" is also a critically important verbal cue every dog should learn.

Your dog needs to respond right away to your "down, stay" command so that you can go to her, snap her leash on and bring her safely back across the street. This command is also a must-have for friendly dogs who have a habit of greeting everyone — large and small, young and old — by jumping on them. The AKC offers the following tips for teaching your dog to lie down:3

The down command can be taught very similarly to the sit command by simply waiting for your dog to lie down on his own, catching him in the act and rewarding him with a treat. Follow this with a release cue to stand back up (many people use “okay”), offering a treat if needed and then wait for him to lie down again.

Once he’s quickly lying down after standing up, begin giving him the verbal cue “down” right before he does so, and offer another treat once he’s down.

Another approach is to lure your dog down from a sitting or standing position by holding the treat to his nose and slowly moving your hand toward the floor. To start, give him the treat when his elbows touch the floor. Once he’s following your hand consistently, bring your empty hand to the floor and offer a treat only after he lies down. Once he’s reliably following your hand signal, begin saying “down” as you move your hand toward the floor.

When your dog is consistently lying down on command, once he’s there, say, “stay” and immediately offer a quick series of treats to keep him in the position. Start with a five-second stay followed by your release command. The release should kick off a little celebration of its own, involving a toy reward. The idea is to teach your dog to associate treats and toys with lying down and staying.

Gradually increase the length of the down, stay position in two-second increments and decrease the rewards to every few seconds. The goal is to teach your dog to respond reliably when no treats are offered.

Don't begin increasing the distance between you and your dog until he's consistent in close work. If he breaks the down, stay position as you increase the distance, say "uh-oh" and turn your back while holding the treat. Repeat this as many times as necessary for him to make the cause-and-effect connection before you try again. Gradually reduce both the treats and toys so that he receives them only intermittently when he responds appropriately.

As with the sit command, never use force to put your dog into the down position or hold him there.

‘Drop It’

Dogs explore the world with their muzzles, and the things they sometimes pick up in their mouths can be hazardous to their health. That's why teaching the drop it command is so important. It's also valuable when you play fetch or other games with your dog. For most dogs, the "drop it" command is easy to learn when taught the right way, which is to present your pet with a trade — the object in his mouth for the treat in your hand. The Spruce Pets suggests these "drop it" training steps:4

  1. Hold one of your dog's favorite toys in your hand and tell her to "take it." If she's really enthusiastic about the toy, let her play with it for a couple of minutes before you start training, but make sure not to let her play so long she gets bored with it.
  2. While she has the toy in her mouth, hold a treat up to her nose. As soon as she releases the toy, give her the treat.
  3. Repeat the above actions as many times as it takes until your dog is dropping the toy reliably.
  4. Now add the verbal command "drop it” while holding the treat near her nose.
  5. After several repetitions, hold the treat away from her nose, and gradually increase the distance if she continues to respond to the drop it command.
  6. Now use the command without the treat, and praise your dog if she drops the toy.

If a training session with your dog isn't going well — let's say he isn't grasping a particular behavior you're trying to teach, or one or both of you gets frustrated, stop the lesson early and end on a positive note. It's important to finish with your dog feeling good, which will set him up for success next time.

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