Dog Training - Adding Cues, Proofing Behaviors, and Fading Out Treats

Adding Cues, Proofing Behaviors, and Fading Out Treats

Black and white dog sits as owner provides hand cue.

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Now that your dog is able to sit, shake, lie down, or whatever else you’re working on, it’s time to take it to the next level. That means adding in a verbal cue so that you can control when your dog does the behavior. Then it’s time to increase distractions so your pup learns to do the behavior in every situation.

Finally, you can start to fade treats away so that you don’t have to carry treats with you everywhere.

How to Add a Verbal Cue

In each of our dog training articles, we did not tell you how to use a verbal cue with your dog. That’s on purpose! Adding the verbal cue too early can be confusing for your dog. Dogs are much better at watching our bodies move than listening to our spoken language.

We will use sit as an example in this article, but this three-step training process is the same for every behavior you can teach your dog!

It’s easy to tell if your dog is ready for the verbal cue. Set up your training space with treats and either lure your dog or wait in the “capture” method. As soon as your dog sits, praise and give her a treat. Toss the treat away so that your dog has to stand up to go eat it.

When she returns, if she sits right away, she’s ready for the cue. She already “gets it” that sit is what works. If she wastes time sniffing, jumping on you, or doing anything else except for sniffing, she still doesn’t “get it.” Spend more time practicing using luring or capturing.

If she does sit right away, congrats! You’re ready to add in a verbal cue. Toss another treat to get your dog to stand, then wait.

When she returns to you after eating the treat, say the word “Sit” in a quiet, not overly firm voice. You don’t want to scare your dog with a stern voice, but a squeaky voice might get her excited. 

Your dog will sit, because she’s already “got it” with this whole sitting game. Repeat this several times, then start to only reward your dog for sitting if she sits after you’ve given the cue – not before.

Perfect Your Dog’s Sit in Every Situation

So far, your dog can only sit while you’re in a specific training situation. This is probably a quiet area with few distractions, and you are holding treats. That’s not a very realistic setup for most everyday situations where you need your dog to site politely.

It’s important not to move too quickly when adding distractions to your dog’s training. Right now, your dog is like a kindergartener who just learned the alphabet. She can sing her ABC’s while in the classroom or at the kitchen table, but isn’t ready to sing her ABC’s at Easter brunch for her doting grandparents. It’s just too much pressure for a new skill!

Systematically Add Distractions

This is the dog trainer’s secret. This approach helps you and your dog perfect your training in all sorts of situations and creates a dog who can behave politely even in the midst of Mardi Gras or the Superbowl celebration!

Here’s a sample series of training sessions to build up to a perfect, rock-solid sit. Just do one minute training sessions and progress slowly, but you don’t have to follow this progression perfectly.

For example, you can practice sit:

  •  In a different room in your home.
  •  While another dog or person is nearby.
  •  While multiple dogs or people are nearby.
  •  In the backyard while it’s quiet.
  •  In the front yard while cars or people go by.
  •  At a cafe or brewery while it’s quiet.
  •  During a backyard barbeque.
  •  At the dog park.

Make sure that your dog is on leash and safe during each practice scenario.

Black and white Boston Terrier Sits On Command

How To Fade Out Treats

Many owners – myself included – don’t want to carry treats around whenever we’re hanging out with our dog. Since we used treats to “pay” our dog for good behavior, it’s important to smoothly transition away from treats. If you just stop “paying” your dog cold turkey, your dog might stop sitting altogether. 

If you want your dog to sit without treats, you have two options:

  •  Punish your dog for not sitting, or force your dog to sit.
  •  Transition to fewer rewards and using alternative rewards. This is the method we’ll use.

Let’s keep your relationship with your dog as awesome as possible by focusing on reward-based dog training. The good news is, you don’t have to use treats as your only form of reward for your dog. 

Every dog is different, but here’s a list of alternative “life rewards” for dogs:

  •   Playing fetch.
  •  Playing tug-of-war.
  •  Play wrestling.
  •  Head or butt scratches.
  •  Belly rubs.
  •  Being allowed to go through a door.
  •  Being taken for a walk.
  •  Being fed dinner.
  •  Being invited onto the couch or bed.
  •  Being released from their crate.
  •  Running.
  •  Being praised.
  •  Being allowed to chase a squirrel.
  •  Being allowed to play with another dog.

Good dog trainers have a good idea of what things are rewarding for their dogs. This allows them to use daily events, like going for a walk, as rewards for good behavior.

As an example, my dog Barley loves fetch but hates being rubbed on the belly. Many of my client’s dogs love belly rubs but don’t like fetch at all. As a good trainer, you will change your “life reward” selection based off of the dog you are working with. 

He gets daily micro-training sessions because I ask him to sit before playing fetch, going for a walk, or exiting his crate. We don’t use treats for most of his “known” behaviors very often. Instead, he gets small rewards as we move through life.

To wean your dog off of treats, try following this sample schedule:

  •  Two out of three sits earn a treat
  •  Every other sit earns a treat
  •  One out of every three sits earns a treat
  •  One out of five sits earns a treat
  •  One out of ten sits earns a treat
  •  Every other sit earns a “life reward”
  •  One out of every three sits earns a “life reward”
  •  One out of five sits earns a “life reward”

It’s smart to never attempt to fully wean your dog off of life rewards. If you never reward your dog for sitting, your dog is likely to stop sitting when you ask. Instead, find small rewards in your daily life that you can use as micro training sessions.

One more thing before you go – keep in mind that sitting in some situations is harder than sitting in others.

For a human analogy, think about giving a small talk about one of your favorite subjects. You might be willing to do this for free in front of a small group of friends, family, or students. However, most people will need extra motivation (often in the form of payment) to give the same talk in front of a huge, imposing crowd.

Your dog is the same way. She might be willing to sit in your home when it’s easy in exchange for a light head scratch. The difficulty of sitting in this situation is worth the small reward. However, sitting at the dog park is probably not worth the same “payment.” Use bigger rewards in more challenging training situations. 

Kayla Fratt
Kayla Fratt

Head trainer and owner of Journey Dog Training.

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