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Obedience Training

One of the things that used to annoy me just a little – was when people would say – “oh you have a Mastiff – no obedience for you then – they just can’t do it”. Well guess what – they can, and when they do – they are a wonder to behold.

Firstly, let me point out one very important thing.  You do not have a border collie, a golden, or a sheltie.  So don’t train your dog like their owners train them.  These breeds are bred to work and often cannot think of ANYTHING else.  They are CONSTANTLY looking to their owners for a command to do SOMETHING……… anything.  The tennis ball can be thrown fifty times and they still want it to be thrown one more time.  Think of what your dog was bred to do.  GUARD.  It was bred to make decision ON IT’S OWN – so it is tougher for it to have to take commands from us.  The breeds I mentioned earlier, ALL were bred to take commands – whether retrieving in the field or rounding up sheep.

When you begin your training with your Mastiff, you have to make it FUN.  Find out what motivates him to smile and wag his tail.  Is it a favorite ball, toy, pulling his tail, or simply your voice telling him ‘YOU ARE WONDERFUL”.  Make sure YOU have a good vocabulary of praise words.   GOOD, YES, EXCELLENT, TERRIFIC, FANTASTIC………. yes, I use them all.  And of course, I use treats.  Just imagine if your spouse came home every day and you had fixed a gourmet dinner and all that was ever said was “thanks” – after a while, you would probably start fixing frozen dinners………. it’s the same with your dog – don’t ever be boring……….. make him KNOW that he has done goooooooooood. Now let’s gooooooo.

Everyone wants to have a dog that heels perfectly, sits automatically in the perfect heel position, comes immediately at a gallop when called, sits in front, dashes to the heel position, and of course, looks up at you the whole time.  Then on the sit/down/stay, holds the position perfectly without a muscle moving.  Can a Mastiff do this?  YOU BET THEY CAN!  Firstly, let me tell you that you are ONLY going to train your dog for SEVEN minutes maybe twice a day – can you spare that much time???  Sure you can.  The first thing to do is get “attention”.  Without this – nothing else will happen.  So many people start this exercise in a formal setting.  You will not.  When you have your dog in the house – just say his name – when he turns to look – say GOOD and have that treat ready.  After a couple of these the dog will not leave but will pay attention to you.   Now on to the next stage.

Have the dog sitting in front of you.   Aaaaah you say, my dog has a terrible sit – on one cheek with his butt stuck out sideways – that’s how all Mastiffs sit – right? WRONG ………. let’s fix this first.   Take a piece of food between your finger and thumb, put the food on your dogs nose, move it over the head backwards and say sit, when the dog is sitting perfectly balanced on both hips – say GOOD SIT and give the treat.  Repeat this both in front of you and at the side.  At the side, take the piece of food (in your left hand) over the dogs head and say sit – when it is perfectly balanced – say good sit and give the treat.  Now back to the attention. Take a piece of food in your fingers – move it from the dogs nose to your eyes and say “ready” when he makes eye contact – say good and treat.   Continue doing this exercise with the dog in both sitting in front of you and the heel position.  Once he has learned the word “ready” keep the food in your hand but no longer move it from him to you.  Just say “ready” and when he again makes eye contact – praise and treat.  Enough for now.  Give him a big OKAAAAY!! and play with him .  Next session – same as the first …………. do this for at least two or three days.

As the dog gets better and better, move the food behind your back, hold your arms out with the food in one or both hands and don’t give the treat, until the eye contact is made.  At first, the dog may jump up to get the food – ignore it, he will sit back down if you are patient and when he looks – praise and treat.  Then, when he is looking at you every time – you are going to UP the ante – you are going to add “proofing”.  Have someone else come into the room and if he looks away – say his name and look – praise and treat.  If he does NOT look back at you – just gently touch him on the head with your index finger and say “ready”.  When he does – praise and treat.  These exercises should be done every day for at least a week, and don’t complicate them by doing anything else in that session.  If you do – you will not progress as fast.  Once this is done – it is on to heeling.

Now you have the dog who pays attention in the sit. We want them to move forward with their head held up – very difficult as they will want to look down at where they are going.  This is where the trust comes in – they will learn to TRUST you and watch YOU instead of looking around.  Again, have your dog in a sit position at heel.  Have a piece of food right in front of his nose – your elbow should be touching your waist and your arm and hand straight out from there) now step forward on your left foot (half a step) then right then left and let him get the food – tell him goooood.  Make it a brisk move forward, but only a few steps.   Continue to do this several times a day, until your dog is really moving forward well with his head held high.  Next step is teaching the heel position.  This is done as a stationary exercise.  Have the dog in a sitting at heel position.   Again food in your left hand.  Make a quarter turn to your right and say your dogs name and heel – when he is in position – say sit – praise and treat.  Do this several times – if your dog does not sit straight – don’t correct, just go again and when he does it RIGHT that’s when you say “good heel, good sit” and treats are given.   I HATE to see people correct their dog into a sit – now the dog thinks the exercise is sit, correct, sit straight……….  Nope………it’s not.  Please note that I am telling you to say GOOD sit, GOOD heel………..please also note that I am not telling you to say sit, sit, sit.  If you repeat the command, your dog will take longer to hear it.  Say the command, ONCE and WAIT.  This is the hardest part – but when he does the exercise – that’s when you reinforce with GOOD sit.  Watch your dog – see how well they react to the word GOOD.  After all, you have probably been telling him what a good boy he is since he first came into your home – so he knows from your tone of voice that it is something positive.

When you feel that your dog is really paying attention even with distractions – you are ready for the next step. You can go outside ……………. oh! did I forget to tell you that I always do these first exercises IN THE HOUSE, or if you want you CAN do them in the backyard – but without other dogs around.  And now you have to have them on leash. You can work on any collar you want – buckle, chain or prong.  I have no preference – as long as you don’t correct – any correction should be done “by the dog”.  After all, if you are moving in one direction and he in the other and he reaches the end of his leash and you keep walking – his correction is given by HIM – if he was paying attention to you – he would be moving WITH you not AGAINST you.  They learn MUCH quicker if they give the correction to themselves.  How many of you have seen people pulling and pulling and pulling on their dogs with absolutely no success ……….. that’s because the dog has learned that the correction is PART of the exercise and without it – they can’t do it.


Heeling. With your dog on your left side, give your heel command and move turning in a circle to the left. Again, have your food in your left hand and when your dog is right there with you tell him YES and get it – and let him get the piece of food.  When you have done this for a few times, you can add the halt and the sit, but remember to continue to intermittently give a reward for the heeling.  If you ONLY reward the sit, the dog will think that is ALL it is getting right.  Once he is heeling nicely on this exercise, you can do a circle to the right – much harder for a big guy as he has to go faster to keep up – again, don’t add the halt and sit, until he is at heel consistently.  Now you can add straight lines (no more than six steps) about turns, left and right turns…………ALWAYS MAKE IT SHORT AND SWEET.  Remember – if your dog loses interest – it is because it is not fun.  If he stops responding to the food, use his favourite toy.  If he turns his back on you, pull his tail (gently) and tell him to pay attention in an up happy voice.  Training and play should be all lumped in together.

I teach a recall by throwing a piece of food on the ground and telling my dog to “get it” then when he has eaten it – I say “front” and he comes back for another piece of food ………… but only if he gives me a nice straight sit in front.  This GAME can go on for several minutes and you have now developed a very strong recall.  Again, if he doesn’t like the food – throw a toy and have another toy in your hands for the front.

When teaching the down, – I teach, down, sit, stand and down.  When the dog is young, I like to teach to two different downs.   One on the hip and one on the haunches.  This is an exercise that you can do as one session.  With your food once again between your finger and thumb move the hand over the head and say “sit” praise and treat. Then take your hand above the dogs head and move it to the floor, between their front legs, at the same time saying the words lie down, and when you get to the floor move the food slowly forward, keeping your left hand gently on the dogs shoulders to prevent it from getting up.  When he is lying down, push him gently onto one hip and say “good lie down”.

Next thing is the stand. With you standing sideways on to your dog, give the stand command.  Move your right hand from the dogs nose to your right about a foot and say “stand” your dog will move forward and stand – you put your index finger of your left hand in the groin – let him nibble the food in your fingers and say “good stand” – then on to the folding down.  With your food again in your finger and thumb, take the hand from over the dogs head to the ground between his front legs saying “down” but this time instead of moving it forward – you are going to hold it still between the legs (again left hand on shoulders) and keep it there.  Your dog will “fold” back in a down.   Do this exercise several times a day also – and never just do sit, down, stand, down ………… mix it up so that your dog will learn all exercises from all positions.   I use the lie down for a relaxed down, in the house, in the show ring for down/stays, when I am outside and my dogs are told to lie down …………. any time I want them to be totally relaxed.  The down is used for a drop on recall, when I am going to down them and then call them to me.  The stand for the breed ring, stand for exam and standing for the Vet. And of course the sit is used for many different things.   Sit and wait at the door, sit stay in the ring, sit in the car, etc.


You have also taught your dog the hand signals, the signal for sit is palm upwards and moving up, signal for down is palm down and hand to the ground, and stand is palm facing the dogs nose and drawn forward – so your dog is learning verbal and signal at the same time.

As you can see, all of the things I teach my dogs are used in everyday living as well as in the Show ring.  As the time spent in the Obedience ring is only about ten minutes – at each show – it is far more important for me to have well behaved dogs at all times.  When I am working with my Students who are going to be showing in the Obedience ring – I do VERY FEW formal exercises.   If a dog is taught to sit/stay ANYWHERE, it will be easy for him to do it in a lineup in a ring where it is relatively quiet.  You can again do this on a daily basis – when you open the door – sit/wait when you open the car door – sit/wait, when you are bringing in the groceries sit/stay ………….. so EASY to teach this exercise ………….. and so many who do it all wrong.  I do not let anyone correct their dogs for breaking a sit/stay.  They are just taken back to the place they came from.   When they are back in position they are told “good stay” and are left again.  The dog must learn that the place in which they are left is a place of haven and relaxation.  I see so many people who have dogs that yawn, fidget, move from one cheek to the other and I can guarantee that this is a dog that has been corrected in a formal lineup.  Make it a GOOD place to be and they will be relaxed.  With our big guys, they sometimes do not want to sit – so much more comfortable for them to lie down.  Don’t practice downs after sits – this way your dog will never think “okay, I know the next exercise, so I will just do it” and YES I do think they have the capability of thinking this way.

Remember that each exercise is made up of lots of little exercises. The recall for example.  You take your dog to a spot.   It has to come to the heel position and sit then you give it the command to wait.   It must stay there while you walk to the other end of the ring, then come quickly when called, sit in front of you nice and square, finish on command and sit again in a heel position – at least TEN parts to this exercise.  Remember to praise EVERY part.   Good sit, good wait (said from the other end of the ring or room) good come, good front, good around, good sit.  How many times I hear people say that their dog did a poor recall when in actual fact the only poor thing may have been the sit in front ……….. shame on them! I wonder how many mistakes THEY made in the exercise????   When teaching this exercise be certain your dog knows what sit/wait is.  Have the dog sit in the heel position.  Tell him good sit.  Give the hand signal (palm flat coming towards the dogs nose but not touching it) and say wait.  Step in front of your dog – as close as you can be – and say good wait.  Step back to the heel position – say good wait and treat.  Continue to do this until the dog really understands what sit/wait means.  Next step.  Sit/wait – step in front – “good wait”- then walk around the dog to the heel position saying “good wait” as you go.  If he breaks – just put him back and try again. I say “oops did you forget” in an up voice ……… try again.  The next thing is to say sit/wait and step off with your right foot and go about two feet – turn and face your dog and say “good wait” – return around him and again “good”.   Release and treat.  Continue to do this gradually increasing your distance from your dog.  If he breaks, don’t go so far away ……….. and continue until you can go twenty feet.  Whenever you reach the distance you are going – always turn and say “good wait” you are reinforcing that you want them to stay in that place.   Now you can add the recall – dogs name and “come” or “front” have a piece of food in your hands in front of you and when he comes “good come” and then say sit (in a soft voice) – when he sits – “good sit” and treat.   Do not teach the finish at the same time as the rest of this exercise – in fact I rarely let my students finish their dogs when doing this exercise unless they are just about to go in the ring to compete.  To teach the finish, have the dog in a sit in front of you.  Take a piece of food in your right hand – show it to the dog and give the command (I use go around but you can use heel or place) take the food back with your right hand – transfer it to your left (behind your back) and bring the dog into the heel position – praise and treat.  If you want to finish a dog to the left, take the food in your left hand – put it to the dogs nose and say “heel” move your left hand back and out and as the dog follows move your hand back in and then up for the sit – praise and treat.  I think most big guys do better going around, but I have seen some LOVELY flips from Mastiffs and Newfies………….nothing looks better!!!!!!

Stand for exam. Taught in much the same way as the recall. Have your dog sitting in heel position. Give the command to stand with the hand signal (you HAVE taught your dog that remember).  When he is standing give the signal to stay and step in front of his nose – tell him “good stand”.   If you have not taught him the stand well – he will sit at this time.  So go back and make sure he knows what stand is.  Again return to the heel position.   Next – stand, stay and this time walk around the dog telling him “good stand – good stay” and return to heel.  You can build up the distance and remember you do NOT have to go further than six feet in the Novice ring (in Utility it is about 20)   Again, in my class, my students stand their dogs and then go and exam the other dogs in class, walk around, get a drink etc., so that the dog learns that he is perfectly okay in that position.  Great for the breed ring as well.  If he breaks – no correction other than putting him back – saying “good stand” and leaving again.   When you return to the heel position – count to ten or twenty or somesuch before you release your dog – that way, he will stand there even when you return.

I hope this helps you to want to get out there and train your Mastiff for obedience. They are wonderful, bright, working dogs……..have fun.  Enjoy the time you spend together and remember that they want to please – sometimes they are not sure what it is they have to do.  You have to teach them, and also remember – Judges in the Obedience ring have said over the years that EIGHTY PERCENT of all mistakes in the ring are made by the HANDLER.  Our dogs forgive us our mistakes – so shouldn’t we at least do the same!  Happy Training……….

Commands I use.

Sit/Wait – wait until I call you to me

Sit/Stay – stay until I come back to you

front – sit in front

come – come to me – as in recall

lie down – relaxed on one hip

down – on haunches

go around – finish behind the handler

place – flip finish

heel – when heeling – shoulder of dog at hip of handler

ready – paying attention


Treats – hot dogs (cut in slices – two hot dogs zapped in microwave – 3 minutes) they store for weeks in fridge.


Ground beef or turkey – add garlic powder and Worcestershire sauce – make into small balls – bake 325 – 10 minutes


Do not use HARD treats – too long to chew…..