Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our February/March issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
As a professional dog trainer, I’m often asked to teach the same crucial skills to dogs and their owners every week. I don’t mind teaching these skills because all dogs need training — they don’t show up in our lives inherently understanding the rules of human-run homes.
I want to share with you the top 10 training cues that clients tell me they want their dogs to understand — and why they are such critical skills.
As with all quality training, please start teaching these skills at home in a quiet, controlled environment before you expect your dog to master them with outside distractions. Think of yourself learning something like algebra when you were first grasping it — it was easier to learn in a quiet classroom with a good teacher assisting you than it was in, say, a loud pep rally with no assistance.
The first business of training is focus, focus, focus. When dogs visually check in with me with their eyes, I reinforce the heck out of it with a click and treat or a “Yes!”
Does your dog turn his head in a whiplash fashion when you call his name? Or does he think his name is “No!” or “Stop it!”? When a dog hears his name called, he should be able to tune out the environment and look at us so we can ask for what we want from him.
Like many other trainers, I consider off-leash training to be a graduate-level skill set. Teach your dog to come when called first on-leash, and make sure he understands that coming to you is always a happy-happy-joy-joy occasion — even when you’ve been chasing him around the neighborhood for 10 minutes and you are already late for work.
Sit seems easy enough to teach a dog, at least in a quiet setting, right? There’s nothing wrong with luring the dog at first with a treat held over his nose and then lifted over his head in the direction of his tail. I love for “sit” to become a “please” or “what do you need me to do?” question from the dog. A dog can’t jump on people, lunge, or run away while sitting.
This important cue can top your dog from eating something really stinky (like another animal’s poop). It can be a true lifesaver if your dog is heading for something poisonous, such as an ibuprofen capsule accidentally dropped on the ground.
This is not the same cue as “leave it.” I teach “drop it” using a wide variety of exchanges where I present something the dog wants, but he must give up what’s already in his mouth to obtain it. I often use the same objects, such as two tennis balls or two quality chew toys.
This is a tough one for many dog owners. Your dog should be in a good harness, so there will be no tightness or damage done to his neck. When your dog visually checks in with you, mark it with a click or a “Yes!” and reinforce that check in, because he can’t be pulling your arm out of the socket with his head turned toward you giving you eye contact.
This skill also seems to prove difficult to teach for many people. Start off actually timing the length of the stay (many modern cellphones have a stopwatch app). As with all training, start in quiet, controlled setting. Start with a 10-second “stay” and work up slowly to a full minute and beyond. I encourage “commercial training,” where you work on one skill for each set of commercials during your favorite TV show. Work on duration before you work on distance.
I use a mat for this. The mat becomes associated with relaxation time. Did you know you can teach a dog to take a breath? Watch your dog’s mouth and nostrils after you have reinforced him for getting on the mat. Click and treat or mark with a “Yes!” when his mouth shuts and/or you see the sides on his nose flare. Relax the body, and the mind will follow.
This is probably the most taxing challenge to dog owners. Proper puppy socialization that is positive and all-inclusive (meaning not just to other dogs) is crucial.
Take your puppy to new, safe places well before she hits the age of 16 weeks. Continue attending classes as she matures, as we often can see changes through adolescence and when the dog hits social maturity.
Also, never force your dog to greet other dogs. Expose your puppy or dog to safe dogs who enjoy meeting other dogs. If you have worked hard on cue No. 1 (eye contact), it goes a long way toward keeping the focus on you and not on other dogs. It’s so worth the time to create a good foundation for your dog! It can save misery for you both down the road. Work hard to guide your dog, and prove to him daily that it’s a blast learning with his favorite human.
Read more by Annie Phenix:
About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.