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Ian Dunbar's 4 Steps to Training

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

Stage 1 of learning is ACQUISITION. These steps are how to achieve ACQUISITION. 

Click here for a review of the stages of learning.

  1. say the verbal cue ONE TIME

  2. give the hand signal 

  3. wait for the response

  4. tell your dog they did a good job, then give a treat (or several)

step one

Verbal Cue

Say the verbal cue ONE TIME. Don't nag your dog by repeatedly saying "Sit!Sit!Sit!Sit!"

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.

'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

Dogs learn hand signals faster than they learn words. It's also helpful later in life if they lose their hearing.

Say the verbal cue and THEN give the hand signal. Don't do both at the same time because your dog won't learn the verbal cue. They will only pay attention to the hand signal.

* The first four 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

Wait at least 15 seconds to give your dog a chance to respond. If they don't, repeat Step 2. If they still don't respond, troubleshoot with the following.

* 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 your dog responds correctly, tell your dog they did a good job! "Good", "Yes", "Awesome", "Way to Go!" Do not skip this step or you will never be able to fade out treats!

AFTER you tell them they rock, 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.

The acquisition stage of learning is successful when:

  • you have something you know your dog wants

  • you say the verbal cue ONE TIME and give the hand signal ONE TIME and your dog responds correctly 4 times in a row

Getting requested behaviors from your dog anywhere, anytime takes time to achieve. 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. Remember that there are 3 more stages of learning after acquisition.

But, she does it at home!

Dawn always says that if the Competition Obedience judges came to her house, she'd have a garage full of blue ribbons. But, they don't. To earn a blue ribbon, dogs have to perform just as well in the ring as they do at home. It generally takes about a year of training to get dogs to that level. It takes 2 years or more to train a dog to Service Dog standards, where they can go into any public place and relax calmly at their person's feet. Most dogs can't reach that level. Service dogs are purpose-bred, and even then many of them wash out of the program.


The next stage of learning after acquisition is fluency. Fluency means the dog can do the behavior confidently, smoothly, and correctly every time. The behavior has become "muscle memory", and they don't even really have to think about it. 

It's like learning to drive a car. At first, you have to think about every step of the process. It takes a lot of concentration and focus. If you've been driving for a while, you probably don't think about it at all. You might even arrive somewhere and realize you don't even remember how you got there because your mind was on something else. THAT is fluency.


Stage 3 of learning is generalization. This is when your dog can do the behavior anywhere, regardless of what is going on around them. It's what we ultimately want as dog guardians, to be able to get our dog to Sit in the vet clinic waiting room where other dogs, cats, people, and sometimes other animals are milling around. Your dog will NOT likely be able to do that after only the acquisition stage!


Generalization takes time, maturity, and lots of practice under different circumstances. Suzanne Clothier calls it 'Green Eggs and Ham dog training'. Can you do it in a house? Can you do it with a mouse? Can you do it here or there? Can you do it everywhere?  


Use it or lose it. Integrate your dog's skills into everyday life. Even after treats have been faded, give them one every now and then to keep the behaviors strong. Behaviors that aren't rewarded will eventually extinguish. The less intrinsically rewarding the behavior is for the dog, the more you will need to give extrinsic rewards like food to keep the behavior strong.

Fluency comes with practice. Once acquisition is reached, stop giving a treat for every response. Only give a treat for the BEST ones. 

Generalization also comes with practice. Set up 'real-life' situations and practice. Don't wait until the real thing happens. For example, if you want your dog to go to their bed when someone comes to the door, invite some friends over for beer and pizza and have them come to the door over and over and over while you and your dog practice what to do. If you wait for someone to really come to the door, you won't get the behavior you want.

The next level course, CGC Prep, helps you with achieving Fluency and Generalization. 

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