Beginning Obedience Training - Part 1  
Cynthia Nogar  

This article focuses on beginning obedience training. All dogs should be trained in the basics of come, down, sit, stay, and walking on a lead (preferably heel). Of course one of the benefits is a better behaved dog, but obedience training also clarifies a dog's position in the family pack, and when done well, increases bonding between the trainer and the dog.

I am not a professional dog trainer and am writing from my personal research, experience and beliefs. I have trained both large and small dogs and tried my hand competing in Obedience Trials. There are many methods of obedience training and I encourage you to research and find a method that is comfortable for you and suits your breed's temperament.

Our dogs become masters at reading us. If you are using a method you are not comfortable with, your dog's learning will be hampered, as s/he will likely be distracted by your own distress and confusion. I hope this article can be a springboard for further learning through the resources and web sites offered at the end.

  1. Consider what you want to accomplish with obedience training.
  2. We're training our dogs all the time.
  3. Would our cairns find it funny the method that seems to work best was  discovered in experiments with rats?
  4. Give some thought to the cairn temperament.
  5. Choosing an Obedience Instructor.
  6. Basic principles of obedience training
  7. The basics:

   8. Resource



This is one of those questions you should always ask yourself, regardless if this is your first dog or if you've trained several. Some people want to train so their dog can accompany them as companions and will be welcome back.

For years, this was my only goal in training and is still my main goal. Some people want to train with the intention of competing in AKC Obedience Trials.

Others want to train mainly in the hopes of avoiding behavior problems.

Knowing your primary motivation for training will guide you through the process of finding a trainer, what exercises you choose to train your dog, and can assist you in handling the inevitable problems that crop up during the training process.


It seems obedience training has been misunderstood by many to be the cruel shaping of a dog into a machine to do one's bidding. Perhaps this is the result of early obedience training techniques that taught forcing the dog to obey (compulsion) as integral to the training; or perhaps it's that most spectators at obedience trials can't imagine their own dogs ever doing the exercises, or that many dogs don't seem to be enjoying what they're doing.

Whatever the reason, many approach obedience training with anxiety, and a certainty they and their dog will fail.

What if we recognize that our every interaction with our dog is training?

Dogs and humans speak a much different language but, interestingly, we both communicate through body language and sounds. Just as you are attempting to de-code and interpret the body language and sounds of person's with whom you interact; your pup is attempting the same thing every time the two of you interact. You made associations when you were young that taught you human verbal and body language. Your pup needs to make the same associations to learn what you are trying to communicate. (Hopefully, you are observing your pup so you can make associations and learn what your pup is trying to communicate with you as well.) This is one of the primary reasons consistency in any training endeavor is an absolute pre-requisite for success, and why house training and teaching a dog to come when called so often fail.

In training our dogs, we must ask ourselves if our messages (i.e. verbal and physical behavior) are consistent. How, exactly, are we showing our dogs we approve of what they're doing? How, exactly, are we communicating disapproval to our dogs? Some of the ways I show approval include smiling, clapping my hands, higher and excited voice tones, the phrase "Good girl", food rewards, and petting. Some of the ways I show disapproval include lower and somewhat sad voice tones, somewhat sharper speech, glaring facial expression, and stiffer body posture. I avoid yelling, avoid using the phrase, "Bad dog", and almost never use physical punishment such as striking or jerking on a lead.

We also need to periodically re-evaluate if we're communicating in a way our dog understands. This should be the first question we ask ourselves if our dog isn't behaving as we'd like. It is not our dog's fault if s/he fails to learn what we want. We must accept the challenge of finding ways to effectively communicate with our dogs as part of the responsibility of ownership. The rewards are magnificent. It's a challenge I personally enjoy.



There has been a revolution occurring in obedience training in the 90's. The traditional and widely accepted method of training has been slowly getting replaced by an entirely different method of training, based not on forcing the dog to do what you want and then praising them, but on shaping the dogs behavior with rewards and praise without the use of force. This newer approach is based on the applied operand conditioning methods pioneered by B.F. Skinner in his experiments with rats and some of the basic tenants are directly opposite to the more traditional methods. They are quite similar to the methods used to train those amazing performing dolphins most of us have seen in zoos. Hadn't you ever wondered how in the world they got the dolphins to do those amazing tricks, and so happily?

Skinner took rats and placed them one to a cage, with a lever in the cage that resulted in a pellet of food whenever pressed. Essentially, what Skinner discovered is:

  1. An animal will not learn if it's response is not rewarded (reinforced).
  2. A behavior will be learned more rapidly if it is reinforced.
  3. Once a behavior is learned, it will be more likely to be repeated if it is rewarded occasionally, rather than every time.

Skinner's method was named Operand Conditioning, and is now being used as the basis for several methods of obedience training, all generally falling under the heading of Motivational Training but also can be called clicker training, treat training, or inducement training. Skinners three simple concepts are revolutionizing obedience training, and from my experience and observation, seem to be a most effective way to train cairns. For one thing, the traditional compulsion methods of training were developed for large breeds.

The jerking into position on the heel and swooping down to position the sit are just not effective with small dogs. Also, the popping leash corrections are often too rough for small dogs whose necks don't have the thick musculature of the larger breeds, and can cause slipped vertebrate or damage to the trachea.


Cairn Terriers were bred to be equals and leaders, not followers. They were bred to think independently without having to depend on constant direction from their trainer. Cairns do not tolerate efforts to intimidate them (How could they and face off with wild rats?) and will usually resist and resent training methods that rely on force. They seem to need a reason to do something, and just pleasing their trainer may not often be reason enough.

Also, Cairns tend to consider themselves and their time valuable so do not like to waste it repeating the same exercise over and over. You may find your Cairn becoming bored when exercises are repeated many times in class.

Observe how many repetitions it takes for your cairn to start losing attention and begin stopping before this occurs, rejoining the class when they move on to the next exercise.

There are also differing temperaments among cairns. For instance, all my Cairns have been true scrappy terriers but my first and third had an interest in pleasing me. My second was so independent that at 10 weeks of age, when most puppies are wanting to stay close, she headed down the sidewalk pursuing a smell, totally oblivious to my efforts to get her attention. She was strong willed throughout life and definitely not interested in doing something just because it would please me. She resisted obedience training, running a full 6 months behind any dog I'd ever trained. Motivational methods would have been a wonderful way to get and keep her interest as well as reward her for obeying, if it had been a method of training available to me at the time.



It is helpful to observe an actual class in session and join a class with other small dogs in attendance. Several instructors in my area train in the traditional compulsive methods but say they are familiar with motivational training. However, people serious about obedience training for trials tend to know where the good instructors are so calling around and observing different classes is a great way to narrow things down. It is not a good idea to switch back and forth between philosophies during training, but that is not the same thing as trying different methods within the same philosophy. A good instructor is willing to adjust training methods to suit the dog. That is the ideal type of instructor to look for, no matter what training philosophy is used.

Some questions to consider:

  1. Has the trainer had experience training small dogs? Experience in motivational methods of training?
  2. Is the space where the class is being held large enough for the number of dogs being trained?
  3. What suggestions is the instructor making to those having problems?
  4. If the suggestion doesn't seem to be effective, is another suggestion offered?
  5. Are problems being ignored?
  6. How are other members of the class treating their dogs (rough trainers tend to end up with rougher students)?
  7. Is force being recommended by the trainer or tolerated by the trainer when a student uses force with his or her dog?
  8. Are the dogs acting interested and willing or sullen and resistant? 



  1. Make sure your dog is looking at you before giving a command. I often say the dog's name before the command. (This is not allowed in all exercises during an obedience trial so if you're interested in competing, check into which exercises allow using the dog's name before the command and limit using your dog's name to those exercises.)
  2. Say the command once only. You are teaching your dog to ignore you when you repeat commands.
  3. Use a tone of voice that is light and just loud enough to be heard over other distractions.
  4. Praise lavishly for good behavior. You should be spending more time praising than correcting, in all areas of your dog's life.
  5. Use a light lead and collar. You do not have to use a choker collar with most of the motivational methods of training but if you choose a choker collar, it should be as long as the circumference of the neck plus 2 inches (3 inches for a larger breed). The choker collar should be placed on the dog so the ring you're attaching the lead to is connected to the half of the collar that passes through the other ring and over the top of the dog's neck. I use a 1/4" six foot leather lead and a nylon choker.
  6. Avoid repeating the same exercise more than a few times during home training sessions and vary the order of exercises.
  7. Try to end each exercise when the dog is doing well, even if it is only a small success. Then go on to the next exercise. Keep the sessions light and lively.
  8. Home training sessions should be kept short, about 10 minutes, and held 3-4 times a week.
  9. Many trainers make the mistake of overworking their dogs. I've found an occasional week off from class and an occasional week with only one or two practice sessions increases exuberance and interest.
  10. .When you encounter a problem with your dog making mistakes. Assume the dog does not understand what you want, not that the dog is rebellious or stupid. Stop, get feedback from your obedience instructor and analyze what is happening.
  1. Have you tried to teach the dog too fast? Go back and start teaching the exercise from the beginning.
  2. Have you been absolutely consistent?
  3. Are you giving conflicting signals, such as stepping out to the left with your left foot as you start a right turn which drives your dog away from you when you want him to stay in close, or bellowing commands on the recall but expecting your dog to come to you exuberantly?
  4. Are you particularly tired or stressed today? Try to avoid training when you're feeling stressed or tired. You will be less able to handle frustrations and will subtly give different cues which would confuse even a well trained dog, much less a dog in training.
  5. Is your dog stressed, tired, or not feeling well? Make a habit of assessing for this before a session. Either postpone the session till the dog has had a chance to rest or cancel it, even if it means going late to, missing or leaving a class.
  1. If the method you are using to teach a particular exercise isn't working after a reasonable period, about 3 sessions, and you have analyzed what you are doing, you need to try a different method. (This is where a good obedience instructor is your greatest resource.) Remember that successful training is communicating to your dog what your want him or her to do in a way your dog can understand. Don't make the mistake of doing more of the same thing and expecting different results. Failure is just as demoralizing for your dog as it is for you. I've found it helpful to take a week off between switching methods and concentrating on other exercises in the interim.
  2. Choose a treat your dog really likes, doesn't get at any other time than during training sessions, and is small enough to be eaten in a few moments. I prefer to use healthy treats when possible but many people use bits of hot dogs. I've used Bil Jac Liver Treats, bits of broccoli or carrot, and Charlie Bear Treats with good success. Most motivational methods recommend training when your dog is hungry, even skipping dinner before an evening class. When I've tried training before dinner or skipping dinner, my cairn has been too focused on wanting the food, has had difficulty settling down and has become disgusted with me supplying only small amounts at a time. I've had good success with feeding a light dinner or training 3-5 hours after breakfast. Experiment to find what works best for you and your dog.
  3. Begin skipping a few times of rewarding the dog with the treat when you are fairly certain the dog has learned the command, often around the third or fourth training session. You can skip one time of giving a treat out of five times initially, then slowly decrease the number of times you give the treat to giving it only once at the close of some training sessions, more in others.

This is done slowly over a period of months. Be sure to use other forms of praise in place of the treat reward.



Following are instructions for one way to basically teach sit, heel, stay, the recall, and down. They are presented in progression and build on one another. You can use them to introduce your dog to the exercises before starting an obedience class.

There are many ways to teach these exercises within the philosophy of motivational training. If you know you are interested in competing in obedience trials, I suggest you get an obedience training book written with competing in mind, a copy of the AKC Obedience Regulations, and attend a good training class (see the Resources in Print section).

Attend and observe all three levels of obedience and let your obedience instructor know you are interested in competing in trials when you sign up for class. It is essential you know what the exercises should look like when done correctly before you start training and you will need to be more precise (not more demanding) with your dog from the start. It is much more difficult to repair sloppy obedience habits than to train properly from the beginning.


Continued >>>>>>>>

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This page was last March 30, 2002

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