Puppy Behavior and Training - Sit, Down, Stand and Stay

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What is a cue?

A cue is a name or label for a behavior. Cues tell your puppy which behavior will gain them access to a reward. The term “cue” has largely replaced the word “command” in dog training, because “command” suggests coercion while “cue” better reflects the principles of reward-based training.

Once a behavior is put “on cue”, the puppy can predict that, by doing the behavior when asked, she will earn a reward. For example, after the puppy has been taught the cue “sit”, she knows exactly what behavior is expected; she will sit immediately when she hears the cue and will be rewarded.

What can I use to reward my puppy during training?

In positive reinforcement training, the reward can be anything the puppy likes. Primary reinforcers are rewards that are innately valuable (e.g., food treats). For most puppies, their own kibble serves as a nutritious reward that can be used for much of basic training. Other primary reinforcers include toys or access to a preferred activity.

Secondary reinforcers are not innately valuable and only become rewards through association or learning. For example, since verbal praise and pets are always provided in pleasant contexts, puppies quickly develop a positive emotional response when they are praised or petted. Once this association has been made, you may use praise and pets to reward your puppy during some of the training.

"Monitor your puppy’s enthusiasm and body language to ensure 
that the rewards you provide in training are fun and desirable for them."

If your puppy shies away when you reach to pet them, then they do not view being petted as a reward, and petting during training can interfere with their ability to learn new cues. Monitor your puppy’s enthusiasm and body language to ensure that the rewards you provide in training are fun and desirable for them.

Primary reinforcers are the strongest rewards and should be continued long term, at least intermittently. Verbal praise may not be enough to sustain a strong behavioral response to trained cues.

How do I introduce important cues to my puppy?

The first step in training is to reward your puppy for simply engaging in the behavior you would like to teach. Cues are not used until a behavior is well established. If you introduce the cue before the puppy clearly understands the desired behavior, then the cue will lose some of its freshness. Introduce the cue when you can predict with great certainty that your puppy is about to do the behavior.

There are three main ways to establish behavioral skills on cue: luring, capturing, and shaping.

How is luring used in training?

Treats or toys can be used to lure a puppy into position. To begin, hold a treat in your hand. Your puppy’s nose will follow the treat as if it were a magnet. Simply lure or steer your puppy into the desired position and immediately reward. Luring can be used to train basic behaviors such as sit, as well as complex behaviors such as twirl or go to bed.

Here is an example of using luring to teach your puppy to sit on cue:

  1. Hold several tiny, delicious treats in your hand.
  2. Place your hand, with the treats, right at the puppy’s nose as a magnet.
  3. Slowly move the treat up over your dog’s nose and then slightly further back toward their rear. As your puppy’s nose and muzzle begin to go up, she will almost certainly sit to keep her balance. Reward her at once with one of the treats.
  4. Soon the puppy will sit as soon as she sees the treat in your hand. Now, you are ready to introduce the verbal cue. Say “sit” just as her rear is heading toward the ground.

How is capturing used in training?

Sometimes, your puppy will naturally engage in a behavior that you would like to put on cue. For instance, your puppy may spontaneously lie down whenever you sit to watch TV. Be ready with a treat, and as soon as your puppy lies down, hand her the treat. Keep the treat low or put it on the ground so she can stay in the down position while enjoying the reward.

After a few sessions, introduce the verbal cue “down”. As you notice your puppy beginning to shift her posture in preparation for lying down, say “down’, let her lie down (as she had planned to do), and treat.

How is shaping used in training?

Shaping uses successive approximation to teach a skill. You reward baby steps toward the ultimate behavioral goal until your dog demonstrates the complete, desired behavior.

During shaping, remain in a neutral position: you will not lure your puppy but wait patiently for them to offer the first step toward the behavior. For example, you can use shaping to teach your puppy to go to her bed on cue. Sit in a chair near the bed. If your puppy looks toward the bed, toss them a treat. It is helpful if the treat lands on or near the bed. Next, toss the treat away to “reset” your puppy. Now, only reward your puppy if she looks at the bed and takes a step toward the bed.

Continue the baby steps until, every time she is reset (treat toss away from the bed), your puppy takes the treat and quickly trots all the way back to bed. By returning to the bed each time, she is communicating that she knows that going “to bed” is a valuable behavior.

Now you will add the verbal cue “to bed”. You know that your puppy will trot to her bed if you sit in your chair with a treat. So just as she is about to trot to the bed for her expected treat, you say “go to bed”. She will follow along and get the treat. Now she knows the behavior has a name.

What if I give the cue and my puppy does not respond?

It can take many months for a puppy to reliably follow a verbal cue. Be sure to reward with a primary reinforcer (treat or toy) every time until the response to the cue is reliable in different environments, including different rooms in the house.

Add some distractions during training as well. Remember to use a leash and harness to keep the puppy safely supervised when working in new areas. If a distraction is too close, move further away. If it’s not possible to reduce the level of distraction to the puppy’s current skill level, pause the training session and try again with a setup closer to the puppy’s skill level in the future.

"Monitor your puppy’s enthusiasm and body language to make sure 
that the rewards you provide in training are in fact both fun and desirable for them."

If your puppy is sluggish about responding, return to some of the foundation steps you used to teach the behavior in the first place. It is important that you don’t simply repeat the cue over and over - that will cause your puppy to become frustrated or even frightened and can undo some of your training. Instead, use a lure to get your puppy to do the behavior and then reward.

If you recognize that your puppy is distressed, distracted, or excited, don’t try to use a cue. Eventually, your puppy will learn to respond regardless of the level of distractions. Professional working dogs often train for years before they are ready for competition-level performance. Always set your puppy up for success.

When can I stop using treats?

Plan to use treats intermittently to maintain the skill in the long term. Once your puppy can sit on cue for a treat every time, begin using treats every other repetition, then every third or fourth repetition. Remember to use verbal praise, a smile, or a gentle pat to communicate your puppy has made a good choice even when you don’t provide a treat. Puppies rely on positive feedback to keep their good habits going.

How do I teach my puppy to lie down using a lure?

The key to luring is to visualize where the magnet treat will need to move to help the puppy find the goal position.

To lure a puppy from sit to lie down:

  1. Hold several tiny, delicious treats in your hand.
  2. Place your hand, with the treats, right at the sitting puppy’s nose as a magnet.
  3. Slowly move the treat down between the front paws and slightly back under their chest. As the nose goes down and back, the puppy will usually lie down.
  4. Feed the puppy one of the treats as they reach the down position.
  5. If you like, you may pair a marker such as a click or the word “Yes” or “Nice” just before you deliver the treat.

To lure a puppy from stand to lie down:

  1. Hold several tiny, delicious treats in your hand.
  2. Place your hand, with the treats, right at the standing puppy’s nose as a magnet.
  3. Slowly move the treat down between the puppy’s elbows under their chest. As the nose goes down and back, the puppy will usually move into a play bow-type position.
  4. Feed a small treat in the bow position, several times.
  5. Once the bow is easy to achieve, move the treat the rest of the way to the ground and wait a few seconds. Most puppies will fold their rear legs into the full lie down position.
  6. Feed the puppy one of the treats as they reach the down position.

How can I teach my dog to stand on cue?

To lure your puppy into the stand position:

  1. Hold several tiny, delicious treats in your hand.
  2. Begin with your puppy in a sit or lie down position.
  3. Place your hand, with the treats, right at the puppy’s nose as a magnet.
  4. Slowly move the treat forward at nose level (sitting puppy), or up and forward to nose level when standing (if your puppy is lying down).
  5. As soon as the puppy stands up, and before she takes a step forward, deliver the treat while she is in the stationary stand position. You may use a marker such as a click or the word “Yes” or “Nice” to mark the moment she assumes the sit position.

What else can I teach my dog?

The only limit to a dog’s ability to learn a new skill or behavior is their own physical limitations. Any tricks or behaviors you teach should be safe for your dog. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian.

Remember to set your puppy up for success by working in an environment where he can succeed, and by using a leash and harness to keep him safe. Be ready with a range of rewards: challenging environments demand higher value rewards. Learn to recognize your puppy’s signs of distress or confusion and keep training sessions comfortable and fun.

Always train quietly - there is no rush to naming cues. Be sure to strengthen behaviors by training in different environments. There are many organized dog sports and lessons available in person and online (e.g., dog agility, nosework, and Rally Obedience).

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