One of my favorite questions is “what is most important for a dog to know?”. I love it for two reasons…
The first because it the answer is simple. There are really only a few behaviors that your dog needs to know in order to get along pretty dang well in this odd human world. The second is because under each of those simple behaviors are a lot of really wonderful concepts and ideas. Training is not always so simple as just getting a dog to perform a behavior at any means.
The second is because each one of these simple behaviors opens a door to a world of wonderful opportunities for you and your dog.
Leash Walking. It is not a coincidence that I listed this one first as it could easily be the most important (if it was possible to list these in order of importance) and that’s because of all these things, this one is most directly relates to your dog getting out and about and socialized. There is only one way, fair and square, to give you and your dog access to the world and that is by hitching on that leash and hitting the road. Without basic leash skills, your dog (and your world with your dog) shrinks down to just a few limited places and that is a sad sad thought. Here are some areas to tackle right now…
Pulling on leash. Of all the leash challenges you could have, this one is the best because A) it’s completely normal behavior and B) it is the easiest to fix. So if your only problem is that your dog drags you all over the place, give yourself a little pat on the back because you’ve got this. There are a lot of great harnesses and halters on the market that can make your job a whole lot easier, and even without them, it is a pretty straightforward couple of steps training wise to get you where you need to be to have a pleasurable walk with your dog.
Passing distractions calmly (including people and dogs). This one can be a little more challenging as there are likely strong feelings involved for your dog and those feelings will have to change, at least a little, in order to see success. The good news that it is frequently much easier to persuade your dog than it may seem, like as simple as bringing treats along on walks and feeding for passing dogs. The second great piece of news is that your dog does not have to be comfortable with all manner of people, dogs, and squirrels to be able to walk nicely on leash and look presentable in public. For most dogs just some easy tweaks to your walking routine can really improve walking and passing skills.
Socializing on leash. This is where your dog’s personality and socialization experience have a say in things. Some dogs love to mingle on leash, some don’t care so much for it and this can change with age and experience. As a general rule, puppies should meet every single person possible in order to have the best success in life and they should meet as many dogs as they can provided the greeting dogs are healthy and well-s0cialized. Mature dogs naturally become more selective in who they prefer to interact with and that’s okay. Create a mental profile of your dog’s likes and dislikes to work from for best results.
Coming When Called. This, along with an emergency sit-stay, could literally save your dog’s life. It is also fairly easy to train and, if done right, can be trained in much less time than you’d think. There are a couple of important parts to a successful recall…
Really worthwhile rewards. Coming when called has to be an emotional thing, it can’t be something that your dog thinks over before doing. If you’re using sub-par rewards and sub-par enthusiasm, you will get a sub-par recall. However if you us a “hot diggity dog that’s amazing” kind of reward, you will have your dog turning and sprinting to you in just a few sessions.
Tap into emotions. For our dog to reliably come when called no matter the distraction, our chosen word has to be an emotional trigger. Our recall word has to remind our dog of all the wonderful things that come with it. We often demand too much of our dogs too early on in the learning process and don’t create clear and consistent associations. If we blur the lines too much, things start to slip. It is far easier to overdo it in the beginning than to fix an unclear understanding of such an important behavior.
Handling. This encompasses much more than just being able to touch your dog. It includes everything from grooming and medical care to being greeted and petted by strangers in all the strange ways they do… and much of handling does indeed fall under the category of “awkward” for our dogs. Dogs that are comfortable being touched, restrained, and examined by all manner of folk simply live happier healthier lives with access to many more places and experiences. Dogs that are uncomfortable being handled and held lead limited lives punctuated by stressful experiences or worse. Here are a few areas to keep in mind when preparing your dog for handling.
- Awkward petting experiences — this includes hands over your dog’s head and people who hug and kiss unfamiliar dogs (all very rude in doggy language terms).
- Petting from strangers — all sorts of folks: kids, big bearded sun-glass-wearing men, people in hoods, people who smell funny, and so on.
- Collar grabs — the most common bite scenario. Rough collar grabs and being pulled by the collar.
- Restraint — including for grooming and veterinary procedures.
Play. Why is this on the list you ask?… I’m so glad you did. So many of us struggle with dogs that don’t really seem to “get us”. They don’t seem to be able to read our emotions, know when we’re mad or happy or serious or silly. Well the answer is play. There is no single greater way to teach your dog to interact with people in a gentle and appropriate way than this. Play teaches our dogs to manage their excitement and enthusiasm even when emotions are high. It teaches dogs how to politely interact with people even when people are doing things that, in dog language, incite rough or predatory-like behavior. It teaches dogs when it’s okay to express the inner dog (and they need to, they’re dogs after all) and that when you do, how to do it all in good fun. This is great for you and if you have kids, it’s a necessity. Here are some games to start with and why they’re so great…
Tug. Tug got a bad wrap for many years. It does not, in fact, illicit aggression from your dog; quite the contrary. If done right it is a collaborative game that requires two players to do. There is no winner or loser either because if one of you stops tugging the game ends. Tug’s best qualities are that it keeps your dog engaged and close to you for as long as you play which makes it a perfect reward for coming when called and other big ticket behaviors. It also teaches your dog that to have the most fun with toys, people have to play too.
Fetch. Fetch’s greatest strengths are that it burns energy and also, like tug, requires your participation to work. It is also like a drug for some dogs and can be a powerful motivator. It can be a little more challenging to play in a way that keeps your dog physically close to you (in case you want to catch them and attach a leash) and it is kind of a one shot reward (now I throw the ball away). It is however a great tool to help transition to off-leash training as it can keep your dog focused at a distance.
Hide & Seek. If you are not into such physical games (or don’t want to leave the house) hide & seek can be another great option. You can hide treats or toys around the house or hide yourself, which makes a great game for teaching your dog to come when called. Hide and seek burns energy and can incorporate self-control exercises as well. It also works out your dog’s nose, a less frequently implemented sense.
And there you have it, what every good dog needs to know. There are, of course, tons more things we can learn, from amazing tricks to complex obedience, but these few simple behaviors will make all the difference and grant you and your dog access to a whole world of fun and opportunities. Most only request a few very short sessions to see progress. You can do it and you and your dog will both be much happier for it.