Training Specific Exercises


This page is a compilation of specific training exercises. I start with this list as soon as puppy arrives at my house (generally when the pup is between 7 and 12 weeks old). It is not an exhaustive list, but contains most of the approaches I have used and had success with. I'm assuming that you are familiar with clicker training. A demonstration of how to use the clicker with a real live person and dog is invaluable before getting started. I teach all my "new" behaviors with a clicker. I find it very effective during learning. As with everything, there are many ways to teach each exercise, depending on your patience and your dog's motivation and temperament.

As a first time handler, it is generally easier to start with luring and other reward based training methods, where you use a favorite toy or food to help your dog into the position you are looking for. The caveat to this, is that the dog will be thinking about the food or toy, and not what he is doing to learn the command.

Molding is where you use your hands or a leash to help the dog to perform the action or get in to position. This method is also easy for beginners, it is technically compulsion, but it can be done by gently stroking or blocking the dog from going forward which many people might not consider compulsion. Compulsion is currently a dirty word which is being used synonymously with force to describe unacceptably harsh methods of training.

Shaping is where you use a clicker to mark a behavior your dog may perform naturally like a sit or a down, and once the dog is offering that behavior consistently, you can add the command (this is often referred to as free-shaping). A step further than this, you can try shaping a more complex behavior bit by bit with a clicker. In order to shape a complicated behavior, you have to be able to break down the behavior you are looking for into very small pieces and gradually approximate towards the actions you are looking for. The power of this shaping is that the dog "learns to learn" and to think about what they are doing.

Shaping can be quite frustrating in the beginning, but I have found it to be the best way to learn how the timing of the reward affects the dog's behavior. Timing of reward (and correction) is an important training skill to master no matter what training tools you use. Starting with a clicker allows you to experiment, and any mistakes should not, ultimately, affect the relationship between you and your dog or your dogs general confidence. This is important for Schutzhund; young dogs should not be subjected to corrections such as prong collar corrections until they are confident enough to take them. Otherwise, you may find that, for all of your training, you fail to achieve the results you desire because your dog does not show the desired attitude in his work.

The following list of exercises are in the order I like to teach a new dog/puppy.

First things first. The most important concept for your dog to master is good focus and attention on you, the handler. If your dog is small or a puppy, you may want to start sitting in a chair or on the ground. I use the dogs meals to teach this exercise. If the dog is hungry, this first exercise will be easier for you to teach. Place the food out of reach usually the dog will attempt to get at it, but eventually will give up because it cannot get the food. At some point in this process, the dog will look to you (for help, guidance, or out of frustration - it doesn't matter). As soon as the dog takes a step or looks towards you, press the clicker and immediately give the reward. At this point, they don't necessarily need to be staring into your eyes as long as they are acknowledging you are there. Gradually start to click only when they look at your face. Then vary the length of the look that gets the reward. The length of time needs to be variable, relatively short to begin with (1-3 seconds), then working out to a whole minute occasionally.

Gana, 14 weeks, learning to watch me even when I take pictures!

Note: Your goal is for a calm and intense stare, the dog needs to learn self-control, which combined with focus, will help you in your future training.

To test the dog's understanding of the exercise, hold a piece of food in your hand and show the dog, then hold it away from your body. If they understand the exercise, they know that looking at you releases the food while looking at the food does not. Do this exercise in a quiet place at first, then gradually take it outside the house, to a park, working up to a pet store which should provide plenty of distraction to make sure the dog has a good understanding of what is required.

Ariel, 20 weeks, being rewarded for focus in the heel position

It is important to remember that dogs are very specific in their understanding of situations, a command for sit in your living room with a biscuit in your hand is different to a command to sit at a busy pet store. This is why we need to take the dog to lots of different places, so that he can learn to generalize his reaction to a command. Also remember to do focus work with the dog beside you as well as in front. This will help with beginning the heel position. Once you are getting consistent eye-contact, you might want to add a command like "look" or "watch me".

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Sit, Down and Stand
Once you have good focus, you can start to work on more complicated commands. The sit, down and stand can be taught by waiting until your dog takes the position naturally (generally, in a quiet setting), and marking and rewarding that behavior. Once the dog offers that behavior consistently, you can add the command. Say the command as the dog begins to take up the position at first, then try it before the dog is in position. In order to do this style of training, each position must be taught separately, you cannot begin a new exercise until you have the previous one on command.

Note: When you use a clicker, it is easiest to begin with if the clicker marks the correct behavior and the end of the behavior, so the dog is released before you feed. When you lure, you tend to feed the dog in position, so you need to release the dog explicitly with a release command such as "free" or "ok" to let the dog know that it is ok to break position. It is important to keep the dog's understanding clear as to when it is working and when work is completed.

You can also teach these exercises by luring. The problem with luring, is that you have to eventually fade the hand movement, and since dogs are more in tune to movement than sound, this can take a while. To teach the sit, a piece of food held over the head lifts the nose up, and the rear naturally drops down - say the command, as the dog takes up the position. To teach the down, close your hand around the food and drop your hand to the floor, to encourage the dog to take up the down position. Open your hand and feed the dog once in the correct position.

Gana, 5 months, learning the platz by luring to the ground with food in my hand

The stand can be taught by holding the food at nose level in front of the dog. If you hold the food with your palm facing upwards, begin with your hand close to the dog's nose and move your hand away from the dog, he will take a step forward and stand in order to get the food.

Elessar, 12 weeks, standing with a food lure at nose level

You can also teach these exercises by gently maneuvering the dog in to position with your hands, but again this "help" will need to be faded. Once you have a good sit in lots of different places, you could insist on the sit, by placing your hand under the dogs chin, and lifting so the dog has to sit. This is a mild form of compulsion and you may or may not want to do this. If you do not want to "back up" commands, you must spend a lot longer proofing them in different environments. This requires a good deal of patience. Very sensitive dogs will need the patience part of this, a willful puppy with a low desire for food may need more hands on training, and probably will not suffer for that. In gauging what you need to use, err on the side of less. More patience and more shaping lead to confident happy pups that like to work (until they get to that lovely teenage stage!).

Note: You may notice that I do not include "stay" as a separate training exercise. Since I always release, either by clicking to end or by saying "free", I don't actually teach stay as a specific command. When I teach a stationary exercise like sit, down or stand, I gradually extend the length of time I expect the dog to remain in position. I also vary the time (e.g. 30 seconds, 1 second, 5 seconds, 45 seconds, 10 seconds, and eventually out to several minutes in preparation for competition). Once I have built the time to around a minute, I begin to move around the dog. At first I take just half a step before releasing, and then begin to walk around the dog, staying close. I also like to move to the left side of the dog before I release. As a further clarification for the dog, if I expect the dog to remain in position, I will move my right leg first (e.g., "sit" and then walk off starting with my right leg). When I teach heeling later where I expect the dog to move with me, I will move my left leg first.

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Front and Hier
Once you have taught the focus and the sit, you may find that the dog is close to being in the front position. This position is easily taught with luring; you place both hands in front of your legs at the dog's mouth height and walk backwards a couple of steps and stop, once the dog is close to you and straight, you can reward with the food. Once they are doing this easily, lift the food so that they end up in a sit. Then you can add the command "Hier". Keep in mind that, in teaching the front, the competition points are in focus and a straight, close position. You should be able to easily reach down and touch your dog without having the dog flinch or shy away from your hands. If your dog is sensitive to your touch at this stage, take the time to teach him that it is ok for you to touch him while he is in position. To do this, start very slowly with your hands around his face (not actually touching him) and then move forward slowly over time and many repetitions rewarding the dog for maintaining attention and not shying away. This is important to teach because you will face a problem later with the retrieve if the dog is sensitive to touch in the front position.

Arawen, 12 weeks, learning the front position.

It is relatively easy to fade the hand signals with this exercise since you can move them apart gradually until they are at your sides in competition position. As far as a longer distance recall, you can keep the dog on a long line, say its name, and back up quickly, creating much attraction by clapping your hands, and having food available.

You can also get a friend to hold your dog, attract it to a toy and run away making excited noises, call the dog, and have your friend let it go, continue running and present the toy as they get close. This also helps to speed up the recall.

Gana, 5 months, learning the front position.

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Article Indication
This exercise is easy to do entirely by shaping. Put a well scented article on the ground and click and reward when the dog looks at it. After about 10 repetitions, the dog will probably start moving towards the article, reward for moving to the article, and then reward for putting his nose on the article. However, don't reward for picking the article up in their mouths (ignore them until they drop it, and reward at that point.) Then, begin to reward for any paw movement towards the article. Often a dog will start with one paw, then offer a play bow, and then a down. If they stop interacting with the article, you are not rewarding often enough, or are asking too much. Step back in your training and reward for a look towards the article again.

Bodeus demonstrating his clicker shaped article indication off the track.

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For targeting, I use a 5/8 piece of dowel with a small tennis ball glued on the end. I reward for touching the tennis ball with the nose (just like the article, this training begins with a look, then moving towards the target, then actually touching it). I use the command "Touch".

Ariel, 5 months, learning to target

This target stick can be used for send outs, heeling and all kinds of exercises which require the nose to be in a certain position. Obviously if you use it for one of those exercises, you will need to fade it, but it can be very useful to get started.

Bodeus (with his usual intensity!) demonstrating a
distance touch with the target stick
stuck in the ground

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Heel Position or Finish
This is another one which is easy to do with luring, using food, or a target stick to move the dog around. You can also help to guide them with a leash. Start with the food in your right hand, and switch it to your left hand behind your back, with the dog following the food. Once in the correct position, lift the hand to get a sit. At first, the dog will probably not be entirely straight, but this is ok as long as you are getting good focus. Gradually expect the sit to be straighter and straighter before rewarding. This is one exercise where I use a non-reward marker. If the dog has just performed a pretty straight heel, and the next time, he goes to far in front, I will shake my head, and say "uh-uh, heel". The dog then tries again. Make sure the dog is able to get a reward in 8 out of 10 tries, ensure that your definition of how close to ideal he needs to be to get a reward is achievable by the dog If your criteria is too high, your dog will get frustrated and may give up trying.

To give the dog the right idea of the heel position prior to teaching the around-the-back part, you can ask for a sit, move yourself into position, and ask for focus before releasing and rewarding. This teaches him that sitting straight and close to your left side is a good place to be.

Elessar, 11 months, in fuss position

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Once the basic position is taught, we need to start moving. You can do this in several ways. One way is to build drive for a toy and move so the toy is by your left shoulder and the dog is approximately in heeling position, rewarding the dog when he is in the correct position. You can use the leash to help the dog to stay in the right place. The dog will focus on the toy (this cue will have to be faded by concealing it under your armpit or maybe using one of the new training vests that have recently become available).

Ariel, 7 months, beginning to get into the correct position, maintaining good eye contact

You can also start heeling from the static heel position, ask for a look, and begin to move forward, encouraging the dog to come with you. To begin with, reward after half a step of continuous focus. Then gradually move the length of time and distance out. If the dog looks away, start over from the sit or go back to building drive and don't let the dog get the toy, otherwise you end up rewarding both the good focus and the looking away as part of the exercise. You may find it easier to use a release word as a marker, then reward with the toy, rather than using a clicker and food. It gets hard to keep track of everything in your hands. If you are using a clicker, a set of cotton pockets to tie round your waist may be extremely useful. These are available from most hardware stores. These pockets tend to be easier to access than the bait bags you can buy - and a fraction of the price!

Elessar, 11 months, focusing on the toy under my arm

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Motion Exercises
Teaching the motion exercises can be clarified by using a physical cue. This prepares the dog for which motion exercise is going to follow (sit, down or stand). For instance, you could rub the dog's ear for a sit, pat his chest for a down, and stroke his back or side for a stand.

All of the motion exercises begin from the basic position. Thus, this is where the training of the motion exercises also begins.

To train the sit in motion, the first thing to do is condition the dog to the physical cue. With the dog in the basic position, give him the physical cue for the sit in motion (i.e., rub one of his ears) and give him the sit command. If he sits (or rather, continues to sit), release him and reward. In teaching the motion exercises, it is not important what the reward is (i.e., either food or toy); however, it is important to release the dog first because later on you will want him to maintain his position until released. If you are training these exercises with a clicker, the click will also be the release (alternatively, you can pair the click with a release command such as "free"). If you are training the motion exercises with a toy, it will be important that you first use the release command (i.e., "free") before rewarding with the toy. It is generally easy to see when the dog does not understand to maintain his position (i.e., the release command is unclear) because the dog will temporarily maintain his position but eventually break toward the reward.

Bodeus and I demonstrating his "sit" cue, a rub of his ear

Once the dog understands the physical cue and to maintain his position until released, the next stage of training the sit in motion is to give the dog the physical cue, ask for heeling, take a few strides in heeling, and give the dog the command to sit (still verbal at this point). At this stage, do not leave the dog - rather, give the command to sit as you stop. Similar to above, if the dog sits and maintains his position, give him the release command and reward. At the beginning of each new step, do not ask the dog to hold his position for very long. As you increase the number of repetitions, you can ask the dog to hold the position for longer periods.

Once the dog understands the physical cue, sits when the command is given without you moving onward, and can maintain his position at your side, you can move on. The next stage involves giving the dog the physical cue, asking for heeling, moving forward for several strides, giving the command for sit, and taking one step forward and turning in front of the dog (other trainers will refer to this as blocking the dog). At the end of this series, you should be standing in front of your dog (who is, hopefully, sitting and looking up at you expectantly). If he is, give him the release command and reward him (what a good boy!). Similar to the steps above, perform this series of actions until the dog's behavior is consistent, stable, and can be maintained.

Note: Keep in mind that if your dog is sensitive to your actions, do not look him directly in the eyes (this, in dog terms, is considered quite dominant and will encourage him to shift, lay down or move away - in other words, your body language will be undermining what you are attempting to train which is a stable sit). In this situation, teach yourself to either look over your dogs head or to look at his nose.

Once the dog is stable and consistent at this stage, you should teach the dog to maintain his position as you move around him (i.e., simulate a return to the basic position). This is done by going through the steps above, asking the dog to maintain his position with you in front, and (once he can do this for a nice period of time) your stepping back into the basic position. In general, the handler's return in Schutzhund involves a step directly into the basic position (i.e., from the front of the dog to the position with the dog on the handler's left side). However, if you are cross-training for other types of returns such as AKC, it is good to teach the dog to maintain his position as you walk around behind him to the basic position (i.e., the handler circumnavigates the dog to return to position). It is important to take this process slowly so that the dog is comfortable with you moving around - initially, only move a little bit and then return to the front of the dog for the release and reward.

Note: Similar to the note above, be careful if your dog is sensitive to your movements (most, to a greater or lesser extent, will be). In this case, you will need to make the degree of movement, especially behind the dog, very gradual. You will be able to tell if you are pressing too hard if the dog becomes unstable or shifty in his sit. If this occurs, take a few steps back and, after several repetitions, start again.

The final stage of training these exercises consists of adding two things: distance and a recall (each one at a time). First, add distance to the exercise by taking two, then three, and onward strides before turning to face the dog. In competition, the handler is required to take 30 steps from the place the dog sits and this, plus some for comfort, should be your goal. As you extend outward, keep returning to your dog prior to release. Keep in mind that in competition, the sit in motion is completed after your return to your dog (in other words, there is not a recall in this exercise). As a result, most trainers will advise you not to teach the sit in motion with a recall at all. Again, as I tend to cross-train for AKC as well (where there is a recall from the sit position similar to that of a sit in motion), I train a recall from all of the motion exercises including the sit in motion. Similar to the above, start with short recalls and move them out. In order to prevent the dog from anticipating the sit in motion, I tend to recall him only about 1 in every 4 or 5 repetitions of the exercise.

The down in motion and the stand in motion are taught in the identical fashion beginning with teaching the physical cue and progressing through the various stages discussed above. When teaching the dog the physical cues for down and stand, you will be able to see that the dog understands the cue because he will begin to offer the behavior when you give the cue (without the need for a verbal command). At this time, this is ok - just ask for sit again. Next time, when you give the cue, ask for sit immediately afterward, then after a moments pause, ask for the position (i.e., down or stand).

Bodeus and I demonstrating the down cue, a pat on the chest

Note: It is important that the dog have a solid understanding of each position before you start teaching the related motion exercise.

Because you will have your back to the dog for long periods of time, it is critical that you get someone to help you - they can let you know when your dog is moving when your back is turned. The clever animals can quickly discover that they can sneak a couple of steps or a quick shuffle forward when your back is turned and you may never know. If no one is available to help, use a physical item (clump of grass, leash on the ground, line in a parking lot) to make the spot you give the command and compare this to where the dog is at when you turn around. It is not uncommon to see dogs take several steps while the handlers back is turned and be perfectly still after the handler turns around - this is evidence of a training problem.

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voraus (Go Out)
Teaching a voraus begins with a target point, you can use a food bowl, target stick, ball hung from a tree.... Start with a short distance (5 or 6 feet), begin by putting the dog on a sit or down stay and putting the target out while they watch. Gradually increase the distance, and then begin putting the target out without the dog seeing. It is also helpful to teach the dog a physical cue for the behavior. You can put your hand near the dog's head pointed in the direction of the target before you send.

Bodeus and I demonstrating the voraus cue, my hand next to his head pointing in the direction I want him to go

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