If your dog is ever going to be a star, they’ll need to learn how to hit their mark, and perform! Your dog may know a few cool tricks, but can they get up on stage, or stand up in front of a camera, without you by their side?
One of the most difficult skills your dog will ever learn is how to work at a distance. Dogs generally respond well when they are within a few feet of their handler, but the rate of response declines substantially as the distance between dog and handler increases.
Because we are so fond of letting our dogs off-leash and then barking commands at them from 100 yards away, we ought to teach them to understand our cues from a distance.
Teach Cues at a Distance
We will begin by teaching your dog to respond to cues on a pedestal, so that they can easily learn to stay put, then we will challenge them by having them perform at a ‘mark.’
Step 1) Pedestal Training
Have your dog jump on a picnic table, stump, or bed. You may choose to purchase or make a low table or pedestal for your dog. Alternatively, set them up at the edge of a landing, staircase, curb, or mat, so long as the edge is obvious to your dog. Your dog will have an easier time performing from a distance if they are taught to remain in a well defined area.
You’ll notice that pedestal training is awesome for teaching dogs to hold positions for long periods without trying to move or creep forward. I recommend you try this same method if your dog is struggling to learn how to stay put while you back away. It also helps to tie them to a tree or something and work at the end of it, so that they are restrained from moving toward you.
Ask your dog to ‘wait,’ and step just a foot or two away. Now give your ‘sit’ cue. If they look puzzled or try to move forward, go to them and help by reminding them with your more familiar, nearby ‘sit’ cue. They will learn to anticipate your ‘sit’ cue, which always seems to come right after this strange new ‘sit’ cue that you give at a distance.
Use pedestal training when teaching dogs to ‘stand.’ Dogs tend to take steps forward as they stand, unless you begin teaching them in a spot where they can’t, at least not without falling off the edge of something and noticing their mistake! Keep working at a defined edge until the pattern of movement is set in your dog’s muscle memory.
Teach your dog to ‘stand’ on command: Draw your lure straight out from their nose while they are seated. As they stand up to follow the treat, say ‘yes!’ and quickly push your lure back into their mouth to keep them from taking a step forward. Release your dog to the side so your dog never takes steps forward after the ‘stand’ cue. Continue training on a pedestal for weeks, perhaps months, so that your dog can commit the pattern of movement to their muscle memory.
‘Stand’ at a distance is the toughest. If your dog stands without taking steps forward, mark with ‘yes!’ and reward them. Always deliver treats to the spot where your dog performs the cue so that they are motivated to stay put. If they take steps forward, ask them to back up if they know that cue, it seems to clue them in to their mistake. Alternatively, you can try returning them to the correct spot, and repeating the exercise. Give the cue from just a foot away, swiftly pushing food into their mouth as they get up to prevent forward movement.
My ‘stand’ hand signal is a palm facing the dog with my elbow at 90 degrees. My ‘back’ hand signal is that same signal–but with sight movement motioning them back. It is helpful to have your stand/back hand signals appear similar and to use them together. Your dog should only ever expect to step backward or sideways from a ‘stand’ cue. If you want to release by having the dog move forward or jump from the pedestal, I suggest doing one more cue first, like a sit or a down, before releasing forward.
If ‘sit’ to ‘stand’ is going well, try ‘down’ from a distance. If your dog has always sat before lying down, you may need to remind them to go down elbows first, so go over and give them help if needed. They may also try to creep forward, so be sure to return them to the correct spot before repeating an easier version of the exercise.
If ‘stand’ to ‘down’ is going well, try ‘sit’ from a ‘down’ at a distance. Your dog may want to creep forward to ‘sit’ from a ‘stand’ and may struggle to ‘sit’ from a ‘down.’ In both cases, move closer to them and offer help. When you add a new cue, and any time your dog struggles to follow a cue, such as when given in a new context, remember to always follow proper command structure.
Give the cue
Wait 2 seconds
Offer your dog help to succeed if needed
Say ‘Yes!’ and reward
Step #2) Responding to Cues at a ‘Mark’
Pre-requisite training: ‘Mark’ + any cues you’d like to teach from a distance such as: ‘sit, down, stand, spin, speak, wave, bang, roll-over,’ etc.
Begin after a quick session of working on a pedestal, so that the muscles are primed to perform without creeping forward. I like to teach dogs to target post-it notes. I place them anywhere I’d like the dog to go, making them the ideal mark. If you’d ever like to go to the next level with your obedience, and especially if you’d like to have your dog act in movies or on TV, then this advanced training tip is for you.
Cue your dog to ‘sit’ the next time they touch their ‘mark.’ If they try to come toward you, remind them to go to their mark, and toss a treat when they do. Repeat, and try to encourage your dog if you see them thinking about the mark and the cue to ‘sit.’ Your dog may look back and forth between your ‘sit’ hand signal and the mark. They are figuring it out. You can see my dog Doug trying to understand the concept of responding to cues at a mark in the video.
Once your dog is happily performing his favourite cues at his mark, you can increase your distance from it. Begin by standing within 2 feet of the mark, and increase the distance gradually. Always return to the mark to place treat on it, or deliver it directly to your dog so that they are motivated to stay there. You’ll need to treat cues at a mark like any other new trick, and give them more reinforcement at first.
Now your dog is almost ready to begin a career as a canine actor! But don’t get wrapped up in the possibilities of fame and fortune, you’ve already won the big prize: a stronger bond with your best friend. I hope you have fun taking your dog’s obedience to the next level with these advanced exercises, I know your dog will enjoy it!