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Dog Training Basics: The Five Stages Of A Dog Learning A Command, And How To Recognise Them

Training one’s own pet dog or puppy can be hugely rewarding, and means that you will build and strengthen the bonds between you too. It also ensures that you will know inside out exactly what your dog does and doesn’t know, what they find challenging, and their personal skills, preferences and limitations. Get things right and you can also help to avoid the development of bad habits along the way, which is much easier than trying to sort them out further down the line!

However, whilst there are endless dog training manuals, advice guides, step-by-step instruction lists and troubleshooting documents written for first-time trainers, it always seems to be the way that if you’ve hit a brick wall or are running into problems, the exact issue you’re facing rarely seems to be mentioned.

Additionally, many such guides assume a certain level of familiarity with training and understanding dogs in the first place, in terms of knowing how you’d actually go about expressing to the dog what you want and recognising it when they begin to understand or are heading in the right direction, but aren’t quite there yet.

However, this is not always obvious to first-time dog owners or those that have never trained a dog before, and the lack of clear, accessible advice on these basic building blocks of dog training can serve as a great barrier to getting things right.

We’ll cover how to teach a dog a command from scratch in another article, providing direction on every single step you need to take to let the dog know what it is you want through to rewarding compliance; and in this article, we’ll outline the basics of how to tell if your dog is heading in the right direction or not.

After all, few dogs other than lightening-smart breeds like the Border collie go immediately from being told a command to complying with it in full right away within a couple of attempts – and even then, that will probably only happen with a very experience handler.

Why it is important to recognise if your dog is progressing when learning a command

Dog training and teaching a dog a command isn’t always a linear process. Some dogs may seem to revert to prior stages of understanding, or on the flipside, may miss steps and jump ahead if they’re smart.

However, there tends to be a number of set stages involved in the learning process between a dog hearing a new command and not knowing what it means, and the dog understanding it properly and being able to execute it.

Recognising each of these stages when they happen is important when training your dog, for many reasons. Different dogs learn at different rates, and recognising progress lets you know that your dog is getting there and to proceed with patience and consistency.

A failure to demonstrate the development of understanding, on the other hand, means that your dog might not be picking up the command and it could be outside of their frame of reference or abilities – or you may not be being consistent or making it clear what you want.

Training a dog to follow a command takes time, patience, and consistency too

Teaching any dog any given command can take time; sometimes across multiple training sessions. Ensuring that your dog is progressing, and that you’re not going wrong or wasting your time, can be achieved by recognising the five basic stages of learning that your dog will usually go through when learning a new command.

The five stages of learning a command your dog might pass through

Remember that not all dogs will pass through all five stages of demonstrating understanding in a linear fashion – some may skip one or more steps. If you leave too long between training sessions and/or your dog is distracted or you are inconsistent, they might revert a step or two along the way as well.

However, by knowing the five stages of learning and how your dog might demonstrate them for new commands you’re trying to teach, you can keep going along the right path and maintain your momentum.

So, what do you need to look for? We’ll use the “sit” command as our example, as this is a simple, basic command that most dogs pick up quickly, and which usually comes with clear feedback from your dog at each stage of the learning process.

Stage 1: Lack of understanding. 

You try to show and tell your dog the “sit” action, and instead of sitting, they resist your pressure on their rump, or bypass the sit entirely and lie down or start rolling around.

Bear in mind that this is not the same thing as a lack of paying attention; you need to have your dog’s attention before stage 1!

Stage 2: Accepting direction.

Your pup will accept you using your hand to push them into a sit without continuing from there to lying down or rolling around, but without having made the connection between the word “sit” and the desired action.

Stage 3: Cooperation.

When you place your hand on your dog’s rump and potentially before you even apply pressure but are physically in contact with them, they will begin to move into the “sit” position. However, at this stage their understanding only goes as far as the correlation between your hand and the sit, not the command and the sit.

Stage 4: The mental connections are made.

At stage four, your pup is apt to start displaying very clear signs that they understand what you want, albeit this is still tied to the physical action as much as, if not more than, the spoken command.

At this point they are apt to begin moving into the “sit” when you speak the command and begin moving your hand towards their rump (but if they begin to sit before you move your hand, they’re already at stage 5) and/or making the early movements of going into a sit (like hovering) when you say the word, but without getting all the way down. 

At this point you need to be really positive with your praise and rewards as your pup is almost there.

Stage 5: Understanding.

At stage five, your pup will execute their very first full sit at the spoken command cue only. This warrants a big celebration and reward, and several immediate repetitions of the command and praise to reinforce that this was the goal all along.

Remember in the future that understanding an obedience are not the same thing too; just because your dog knows what you want doesn’t mean they will always do it, so unless you’ve had a big gap between training sessions, don’t assume your dog has forgotten the command if they don’t comply!

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