5 Basic Commands Every Dog Should Know (And How to Teach Them)

To ensure your dog is a good citizen, there are minimum commands your dog should know. Here are some of the most important ones.

Does your dog know these basic commands? Photo: Pixabay

Have you ever been around a rambunctious, untrained dog?

The dog is barking, ignoring directions, pulling on the leash, jumping on guests, nipping at hands and generally causing chaos. Everyone in the home seems frustrated and on edge around the dog. Guests uneasily move away — or maybe they don’t come to visit at all anymore when the dog is out.

Now, have you ever been around a well-behaved dog?

The dog is friendly, responsive to calm commands, able to settle quietly when it’s not time for play, and generally adored by everyone around.

The 2 dogs described above could be the same dog. What’s the difference? One is trained and well-socialized, and the other is not.

Training makes life with a dog enjoyable and peaceful. It allows them to join in on activities like guests’ visits, vacations and trips to the park.

A well-trained dog is often happier too. Dogs tend to thrive with boundaries, a calm and confident leader, more involvement with the family, less fear of new things, the mental and physical exercise involved in training … and, well, less yelling. (Sadly, yelling is more likely to occur when humans are stressed and uneducated about their pet’s behavior.)

5 Basic Commands Your Dog Should Know

There’s an almost infinite number of things you can teach pup if you are ambitious and have enough time on your hands, but just a few simple commands can make life much easier and more enjoyable.

Most of the commands taught in this article can also be built on later to help your pup really impress. A dog who is reliable off-leash starts with a basic “come.” A master hunter must learn “sit” before they can be brought into the field. A service dog must learn “leave it” and a host of other obedience commands to prepare them for public access.

Maybe you just want a sweet couch potato to pass your time with. Whatever you plan to do with your dog, teaching a few simple commands is a great way to begin.

In this expert training guide from Petful, we’ll give detailed instructions so you, too, can teach the top 5 commands every dog should know:

  1. Sit
  2. Down
  3. Stay
  4. Come
  5. Leave It

Ready? Let’s get started!

Cute brown puppy staring ahead
Why teach “sit”? Because a sitting dog is more likely to pay attention to you, wait politely for something, greet people calmly, appear friendly and be less pushy. Photo: Pixabay

1. Sit

“Sit” is probably the most frequently used command for dogs. A sitting dog cannot jump, bolt out of doors, bother something they should leave alone, pull on the leash, say hi to your guest who is afraid of dogs or chase the neighborhood cat.

A sitting dog is more likely to pay attention to you, wait politely for something, greet people calmly, appear friendly and be less pushy.

“Sit” is an important prerequisite for many tricks, activities and even basic commands, like “down.”

A dog who knows “sit” can more easily learn “down,” leash manners, and tricks like shaking paws and balancing objects. “Sit” is vital for hunting training and almost every other canine sport.

In other words, “sit” is extremely useful in everyday life with your dog!

How to Teach Your Dog to Sit

  1. Grab some of your pup’s favorite treats, dog food or a toy.
  2. In a calm location, get the dog’s attention with the treat.
  3. Hold the treat over their head and slowly move the treat from above their nose to behind the back of their head. Keep the reward moving slow enough that the dog follows it with their eyes.
  4. When the treat begins to get out of sight and the dog starts to sit to keep it in view, say, “Sit.”
  5. As soon as your dog’s bottom touches the floor, praise them and give them the treat.
  6. If your pup tries to back up when the treat goes behind their head, practice this command in a corner with your dog’s back to the wall.
  7. Repeat luring them into the sit position using a treat. Do this until they begin to sit as soon as you say “Sit” or as soon as they see the treat start to move.
  8. When they can sit when they hear the “Sit” command or first see the treat, take the food out of your hand, pretending that you are still holding it. Command them to sit and lure them into the position with your empty hand.
  9. When they sit, praise them and give a treat from your other hand. Practice with your empty hand until they respond quickly to the hand gesture without the reward in sight.
  10. To phase out the hand gesture, command them to sit and wait 7 seconds before luring them into the position using your gesture. If they sit before you show them your hand, praise and give a treat.
  11. Practice with the delay between the verbal command and the hand gesture until they can consistently sit without needing the hand gesture anymore.
  12. Once they know the command and can do it without seeing a treat or hand gesture, practice “sit” in a variety of circumstances to help them improve. Have them sit before going on a walk, before tossing them a toy, before meals and before earning other life rewards. Incorporating “sit” into your dog’s daily routine will help them learn to sit whenever they are asked, regardless of location.
Photo of black smush-faced dog lying down on floor.
Learn how to teach the “down” command. Photo: AnjaPetrol

2. Down

“Down” is another super-useful command.

You can use it to teach an overly excited dog to be polite around your guests. Or you can help a car-sick dog stay more relaxed in the car. It gives your dog something to do in the evenings when you want to read a book but they won’t stop pacing or chewing your shoes. It’s useful in public, allowing you to take your dog to parks, pet stores and outdoor restaurants.

“Down” is one of the best commands to practice for building respect and self-control in your dog. A committed “down” helps a dog feel calmer, more at ease and more compliant. This command is also a vital part of many tricks, canine sports activities and advanced obedience skills.

How to Teach “Down”

  1. Find something your pet loves and will follow when you move it. For most dogs, this means using treats or kibble, but some dogs prefer toys.
  2. Hide the treats in a zippered bag in your pocket or a treat pouch behind your back. Go to a calm location and call your dog over to you. Have them sit.
  3. Once they are sitting, touch a treat to the front of their nose. Slowly move the food toward the floor, then away from your dog — along the floor in front of them. Say, “Down” while you are moving the treat.
  4. If your pup stands up while you are luring them into the down position with the treat, lure them back into the sit position and try luring them into the down position again — but this time, try moving the treat even slower.
  5. As soon as your dog’s chest touches the floor, praise them enthusiastically and give them the treat.
  6. If they are still struggling to lie down after several repetitions of moving the treat, touch the treat to their nose and lower it to the floor slowly — but this time, move the treat toward your pup, between their front paws underneath them. Some dogs do better with the treat moved under them rather than away from them.
  7. If your dog continues to stand up while following the treat, place a hand above their lower back when you move the treat.
  8. Practice “down” with the treat lures until your dog lies down when they see the treat or hear the command “Down” — before you move the treat.
  9. When your pup will lie down on their own while the treat is not moving, remove the food from your hand but pretend you are still holding it. Say, “Down” and gesture your empty hand toward the floor.” When your dog obeys, praise them and feed them a treat from your other hand.
  10. Practice with just the empty hand gesture until the dog can lie down consistently.
  11. When the dog responds to just your hand gesture, command “Down,” but wait 7 seconds before gesturing toward the floor, to give them a chance to respond to just your verbal command.
  12. If they obey the verbal command, praise and reward them.
  13. If your dog seems confused, give them a hint after 7 seconds by luring them into the down position again with your empty hand. Praise them and give a treat from your other hand when they lie down.
  14. Practice “down” with only the verbal command until your dog can respond to just the verbal command without needing hints.
  15. When they respond well, reward only when their down was better than it was before, or every 3–5 repetitions. As they improve, decrease the number of treats over time.
  16. Use life rewards to maintain your pup’s down. Practice telling them to lie down before you feed them, play with them or do something else in their routine that they enjoy. Practice in a variety of locations and around different types of distractions often.

For much more on this command, see my article “How to Teach a Puppy to Lie Down on Command.”

Photo of dog lying down with leash by their side, staying in place
Teaching your dog to stay? If they try to get up, quickly return to them, tell them “Uh-uh,” and have them return to the sit or down position — but do not reward them when they lie back down or sit. Photo: andrescarlofotografia

3. Stay

“Stay” is often taught along with “sit,” “down” and “stand.” Some people teach it as an automatic part of those other commands, without having to say, “Stay” after giving the initial command.

Teaching “stay” as a built-in part of “sit” or “down” is terrific, but it requires everyone who gives commands like “sit” to also enforce the dog not moving from the sitting position until they are given a release word, every time. As a result, many people prefer to teach “stay” as a separate command.

Either way, you can follow the same basic method provided below. If you want “stay” to be automatic and not a distinct command, simply omit saying “Stay” while practicing the method below.

How to Teach Stay

  1. Tell your dog, “Down” or “Sit” and put your hand toward them with your palm facing out, like a stop sign. Say, “Stay” with your hand facing them.
  2. Slowly back away from your dog. If they try to get up, quickly return to them, tell them “Uh-uh,” and have them return to the sit or down position — but do not reward them when they lie back down or sit, because they broke their stay.
  3. Repeat backing away once they are in the correct position. If they stay put, calmly praise them, return to them and hold a treat under their chin to reward them. Do not release them from the position every time you reward because you don’t want them to think that being praised or rewarded means they can get up. If they jump up when you return to them, have them sit or lie back down again unless you release them to get up.
  4. Practice backing up and returning to your dog until you can walk farther away or have them hold the command for longer — gradually increasing the length of the stay as they improve.
  5. When you are ready for them to get up, tell them “OK!” or “Free!” in an excited tone of voice.
  6. Incorporate “stay” into your dog’s daily life to work up to longer sit-stays and down-stays around distractions.
  7. Tell your dog “Down” while you are sitting down reading, watching TV or working on a computer. Slip their leash under your foot. Keep the leash tight enough to prevent them from standing up but loose enough for it to be comfortable and relaxed while they are lying down. Say, “Stay” and periodically reward your pup every couple of minutes for staying down if they do not try to get up. Reward frequently at first and less frequently as they improve. As your dog improves, gradually increase the amount of time they stay for until your pup can lie quietly for 1–2 hours.
  8. Take your dog on a walk using a long leash. Periodically stop in calm locations away from traffic. Tell them to sit and uncoil some of the leash so that you can walk a few feet away. Have them hold their stay for a few seconds at first. As they improve, gradually have them hold the stay for longer before you release them and continue your walk.
Photo of a Golden Retriever running toward the viewer
“Come” might be the most critical command you ever teach your dog. You may not use it as often as some other commands, but it saves many dogs’ lives every year. Photo: Russellbande

4. Come

When I first adopted my dog Mack from a rescue, he knew very few commands. I spent the first few months with him working on obedience looking forward to the day I would be able to go on hikes and outdoor adventures with him.

After a couple years of practice, Mack was reliable on- and off-leash, and was able to go all types of places with me. From hotels to campgrounds, from restaurant patios to afternoon kayaking trips, off-leash obedience and general manners opened up a new world of fun for us.

One day while Mack and I were enjoying being outside in a nearby field at dusk, Mack spotted an armadillo. He was more than 30 feet away from me, and I didn’t see the critter nearby.

Mack happily took off after the armadillo that was nearly his size. When I realized what was happening, I commanded him to come and began clapping — a signal that helped him locate me from farther away.

Mack veered away from the animal and came running to me, happily grinning from his fun and feeling very proud of himself for the chase. Because of his training, this memory is simply a funny story and never turned into a heartbreaking account of losing my dog or a fight with an animal that resulted in a vet visit.

“Come” might be the most critical command you ever teach your dog. You may not use it as often as “sit” or “down,” but it saves many dogs’ lives every year.

How to Teach “Come”

  1. Recruit at least one friend or family member to help you. Give each person some of your dog’s favorite treats, dog food or favorite toys.
  2. Have one person excitedly say your dog’s name and say, “Come!” As soon as your dog looks at them, the person should run away happily, waving their arms to get your dog excited.
  3. When your dog sees them and starts to chase after them, have your assistant praise your dog while they are coming. When the dog catches up with them, your assistant should give them several pieces of food, one piece at a time, while they hold onto their collar. If your dog likes toys better than food, have the person play a short game of tug with a toy after holding onto their collar for a couple of seconds.
  4. After your dog has been rewarded, have the person tell your dog, “OK!” to let your dog know they can leave now.
  5. Then have the next person call your dog and run away excitedly.
  6. Practice this game with your dog until they come even while you are standing still and hiding your reward behind your back.
  7. When your dog is excited about going to calm locations, begin to add distractions and use a long leash to enforce the command.
  8. Put the harness on your dog and attach a 20-foot or 30-foot long leash. At first, let your dog wander about 10 feet away and get slightly distracted by something. Call your dog’s name and say, “Come!” in an excited tone of voice.
  9. If they come willingly, praise your pup and give them a couple of treats, one at a time while holding onto their collar. After they finish the treats, tell them, “OK!” and let them go back to whatever they were doing before.
  10. If your dog does not come the first time you call them, immediately reel them in with the long leash. Calmly praise them for coming when they arrive, have them sit in front of you, hold their collar for a second, then release them by saying, “OK!” Always act pleased that they came, even though you forced them, but don’t give any treats for this come.
  11. After you release your dog, practice the “come” command several times around the same distraction that they ignored you because of before. Do this until your dog comes to you willingly 5 times in a row.
  12. When your dog has mastered coming to the current location, move on to another location with new distractions, and practice there with the long leash. Practice until they consistently come to the new area as well. Gradually work up to more distracting locations until your dog performs correctly in all the situations.

For much more on this critical command, see my article “How to Train a Dog to Come When Called.”

Leave it. Photo: anneheathen

5. Leave It

When my retriever River was around a year old, I remember walking with her down the sidewalk one day. I glanced toward her and realized she was about to pick up a dead bird on the pavement.

“Leave it!” I quickly commanded.

River left the bird there and continued the walk with me. What a useful command this is!

“Leave it” can prevent your dog from picking up something gross, but it can also keep your dog away from dangerous objects, prevent destructive chewing, deal with food theft and even help with puppy mouthing.

This is also a really useful command when it comes to preventing and addressing behavior issues. Communication is so important in dog training. A dog needs to understand what you want them to do in place of bad behaviors in order for training to be effective.

How to Teach “Leave It”

  1. Place a treat inside your hand and close your hand around it. Show your closed hand to your dog and say, “Leave it.”
  2. When your dog stops trying to get the treat, praise them and give them a different treat from your other hand.
  3. Repeat the exercise until your dog will immediately leave your treat-filled hand alone when you tell them, “Leave it.”
  4. Next, make the command harder by opening your hand part of the way, saying “Leave it” and showing the dog your hand with the treat in it. Be ready to quickly close your hand again if they move toward the treat.
  5. Reward with a separate treat when the dog leaves the one in your hand alone.
  6. When your dog can leave the treat in your open hand alone, put the treat on the floor next to your foot. Say, “Leave it” and be ready to cover the treat with your foot if they try to get it.
  7. When your dog can leave treats by your foot alone, gradually add distance to the command. Back away from the treat so that it’s extra-tempting — but again be ready to run to the treat and cover it if your dog decides to disobey.
  8. When your dog can leave treats by your foot alone from a few feet away, add movement to the command. Drop the treat by your foot while saying, “Leave it” while it is in midair.
  9. When your dog can leave the treats alone, practice with household objects, such as socks, shoes and kids’ toys. If your pup tends to steal food, you can practice with plates of real food — just be ready to block their access to the food if they go for the french fries on your plate.

8 More Commands to Teach Your Dog

Our dogs can be such an enjoyable part of our lives. Having a well-trained dog makes life more peaceful, fun and stress-free for both of you.

The 5 basic commands covered above are fantastic ones to start with, but don’t be afraid to continue on to some other commands. You will find that training is great for your relationship with your dog, provides them with an outlet for their energy, makes it easier to take them places and have adventures together, and can help with a host of behavior issues.

Additional commands include:

  1. Heel
  2. Place
  3. Out
  4. Wait
  5. Drop It
  6. Quiet
  7. Back Up
  8. Watch Me

Here are a few more tips from a dog trainer (SKIP to the 1:06 mark) — but try not to get distracted by the ridiculous cuteness of this puppy:

YouTube player

Final Thoughts

Each dog is different, just as each pet parent is different. Your dog might learn at the pace of light or go a bit slower. Remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare — both are OK!

Enjoy the process and enjoy who your dog is. Try not to compare your dog or your experience with others, but learn what works for you and your particular dog. Some dogs are motivated best by food, others by praise and others by toys. Training is very relational and is a lot more fun when you and your dog find what works for you.

If your pup is struggling to learn a command, try slowing things down, rewarding smaller movements in the right direction, trying a different approach, and noticing what your enthusiasm level and timing are like.

Your Border Collie might pick up “sit” in 5 tries, but the average dog takes 40–50 repetitions of something before they really start to understand it, so stay consistent and enjoy the process. Most dogs actually get better at learning new things the more you train with them!