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Four Steps to Teach a Behavior

There are four simple steps to teaching your dog a new behavior. Learn these steps, and you can teach your dog everything they need to know to be a well-behaved member of your family.

Ian Dunbar's 4 Steps

1. Say the Verbal Cue

2. Give the Hand Signal

3. Dog Does the Behavior

4. Praise and Reward

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step one

Verbal Cue

It doesn't matter what you name the behavior. Dogs can learn in any language. You can even invent your own! What matters is that a cue can only mean one thing.

Words aren't natural to dogs. It's amazing that they can learn what they mean at all! A Border Collie named Chaser knew more than 1000 words! But, the meaning must be clear.

'Down' either means lay on the ground OR get off the couch/counter/person/etc. It can't mean both. 'Come' either means run to me OR walk with me. It can't mean both.


Note: For deaf dogs, say a verbal cue anyway. We are a verbal species and trying to NOT say it makes us act a little weird which can be confusing for our dog.

step two

Give the Hand Signal

It's easy for dogs to figure out body language and hand signals, harder for them to learn verbal cues. Saying the word first followed by a hand signal helps them learn the word faster. Then, you can stop using hand signals if you want to. We recommend keeping them in case your dog loses their hearing later.

* The first few times we do a new behavior, we will use a treat to lure the dog into position.

* Then, we use a FAKE lure to get them into position but still give them a real treat.

* Then, the lure action turns into our hand signal and we stop luring.


Note: For blind dogs, touch is used in place of hand signals. They can still be lured into position for many behaviors by following the smell of the treat.

step three

Dog Responds

Give at least 15 seconds for your dog to do the behavior. If they don't, repeat step 2. If they're not doing it, troubleshoot.

* Do they feel safe? Not too anxious, not too stressed.

*Do they care enough about the treat to follow it with everything else going on around them? 

* Was it easy enough for them to follow the treat? Treat held just touching their lips or nose, moved slowly so they can track it, and moved so they would be successful by following it?

* Are you pulling on their leash?

step four

Praise and Reward

As soon as you get the behavior you wanted, tell your dog they did a good job! "Good", "Yes", "Awesome", "Way to Go!"

Then, give them a treat. If they did a really super job (fast, straight, etc.) then give them 3 or 4 treats in a row (not at the same time because that only counts as one to the dog).

Treats will be faded out later, but praise or at least a thank you is forever. The MORE generous you are with treats in the teaching stage, the FASTER you can stop using them.

There are also four simple steps to getting requested behaviors from your dog anywhere, anytime. This part takes time. It takes us 12 years to complete our basic education and many more for mastery. Dogs also need time, practice, and experience to achieve mastery in obedience skills.

4 Steps to Mastery

1. Teach the Behavior

2. Fade the Treats

3. Add Distractions

4. Maintenance

step one

Teach the Behavior

Follow the 4-step process to teach the new behavior. Proof the behavior ("prove" they know it) before moving to step two. An easy way to proof a behavior is to show them something you know for sure they will do anything to have. Ask for the behavior. If they don't do it, they need more practice.

Proof both the verbal cue and the hand signal. Your dog may know the hand signal well but not the verbal cue. That's helpful information because if they don't know the verbal cue, you may not be able to get the behavior if your body language changes. For example, you have your hands full when asking them to Sit, or you are sitting on a curb instead of standing, etc.

Try it in many different places. Dogs can sometimes depend on the context a cue was taught and only do it in that context. For example, only walking on a loose leash in class.

step two

Fade the Treats

Have treats where they can see them, but don't give them one every time. Give one only for the fastest or straightest responses.
This teaches your dog they don't always get a treat, and it also makes them work harder because they are more likely to get a treat with better responses

Don't have treats anywhere your dog can see them. Ask for the behavior. When they do it, PRAISE and then go get a hidden treat to give them. 

This one works great because your dog learns that there is always the possibility of getting a treat, even if they don't see any on you.

Use "Life Rewards" instead of treats. Life Rewards are things your dog loves other than food. Examples: open the door, attach their leash, take them for a walk, go for a car ride, throw a toy, play tug, and get fed dinner.

They learn impulse control at the same time because it makes them slow down and think instead of rushing ahead.

step three

Slowly Add Distractions

Even the most accomplished Broadway star rehearses before performing live. Do rehearsals of real-life situations before expecting your dog to perform live. That way, you're not trying to train your dog and do something else at the same time.


Before bringing your dog with you to the pet store for shopping, take them for a training session. Have no other plans but training.

Before having a dinner party, invite a friend over for training your dog on what to do when visitors show up. Have no other plans but training.

step four


When a behavior stops being beneficial, it extinguishes. That's a good thing when it's a behavior we want to stop. Otherwise, we'd never be able to change bad habits. For example, if your dog stops getting attention from jumping on you, they'll eventually stop doing it because it's not fun anymore.

It's not a good thing when it's a behavior we want to keep. There has to be some motivation to do it. Luckily, you only need to throw in an occasional special treat to keep a behavior strong.


Unfortunately, the same thing is true for those unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog only finds something to eat on the counter every 5th try, they will keep trying. To stop a behavior, the rewards have to stop long enough for the behavior to go away. To keep a behavior, the rewards can't be withheld for so long that the behavior goes away.