There are many, many things that you can teach your dog, but there are a handful that are particularly important. Millicent Hayes, dog trainer and owner of Unleashed Potential Dog Training, has put together this fantastic resource for you all!
5 commands to not only to make life easier but keep your dog safe from harm.
A solid recall – returning when called. This can save your dog's life. Imagine you are at the park, by a busy road and your dog gets spooked and slips his collar. Without a solid recall this scenario can be a recipe for disaster.
Sit to say please – A dog that has been taught that sit means please, knows that they will only get attention, food, toys, once they are sitting nicely. It is a basic command that makes life with your dog much more pleasant.
Walking on a loose lead – Walking a dog that pulls is a pretty unpleasant experience for everyone involved. It can result in the dog getting walked less often which often means it pulls even more when it does go out. Walking on a loose lead is a basic skill that can greatly improve a dog's life.
Settle – Teaching your dog to lie down and relax on cue, is helpful for yourself and your dog. There are times when you need your dog to settle down. One good example is if you have very old or young people around that could be hurt by a boisterous dog. However, it is a useful cue in a multitude of situations.
Leave it – This is another command that is not only useful but can potentially save your dog’s life. Dogs, as much as we love them, can be pretty gross. They love smelly things. Sometimes those smelly things can be dangerous. Say like a puffer fish at the beach, or a cane toad. Having a solid leave it is invaluable in these situations and many others.
1. A Solid Recall
Start by practising this in a low distraction environment, like your back yard.
Wait until your dog wanders away from you, then call his name followed by the command “come” (or whichever word you would like to use).
Pair the command with a hand signal - I hold both of my arms out to the side so I look like I am on a cross because it is very easily seen from a distance which works well at the park!
Once your dog comes to you give them a treat (their favourite tasty treat as we really want to motivate them) and give them lots of praise.
If you find your dog does not come, call them again and use a really excited, silly voice. You can also dance around or run in the opposite direction, whatever it takes to get their attention. In a low distraction environment you will generally find just calling them is sufficient.
Once they have it down pat in the back yard it is time to start proofing the behaviour. This just means you are going to try more distracting environments until they have it down pat in all those places too. I suggest trying the front yard or verge next, then down the street a bit, and finally at the local park. In places without secure fencing, make sure you use a long line to keep your dog safe until it has a solid recall in that place. A long line is just a very long lead, often 5-10 metres long, they can be bought from your local pet store or online and are a very useful tool when training any dog.
The most important thing to remember is to never scold or punish your dog when they get back to you, no matter how long it took for them to return - dogs should always see recalling to their owner as the most fun thing ever. I often advise to keep their absolute favourite treat (my dog loves tuna) exclusively for using on recalls. Feel free also to use toys as some dogs prefer them over treats, a squeaky toy that they can also play tug with when they get to you is a good choice.
Even once your dog has a solid recall, you should practise it regularly during outings to keep it solid. If the only time you recall them is when you leave the park, you will find their enthusiasm starts to wane. I always have at least a few treats tucked in my back pocket for precisely this reason.
2. Sit To Say Please
Training your dog to 'sit to say please' is the foundation for teaching calm, focused behaviours. Teaching this behaviour is very simple, you start by teaching the sit command:
Have a treat ready and call your dog to you,
Once they reach you lure them by bringing the treat up directly above their head, don't bring the treat up too high as this will usually cause them to jump up for the treat!
Hold it directly over their head, as they bring their head up to investigate the treat their bottom will automatically touch the ground.
As their bum touches the ground, say yes and give the treat.
Practise this and once the dog can do it reliably (4-5 times in a row), add in the command sit and a hand signal - I hold my hand out in front of me and bring it back towards my body with my palm facing in.
Once your dog has mastered this you can start rewarding every 2nd sit, then every 3rd, then 4th. If your dog stops offering a sit when asked, go back to a treat for every sit, it just means you moved to the next step too quickly!
Once you can get 5+ sits in a row without a treat, then you can start rewarding intermittently. So, after 7 sits, and then after 2 for example - keep them guessing!
Do not completely remove all rewards, as dogs are like us and like to get paid for their work, make sure to always praise them with your voice after every sit.
Now your dog has mastered the sit, ask them for a sit every time you pay them any attention; if they want a pat they must be sitting, if they want a treat, or before their dinner they must sit, if they want you to throw the ball they must sit, when you have guests and they want attention they must sit, they must sit to have their lead put on before a walk. This is very important! The more consistent everyone is the quicker your dog will learn. Any undesirable behaviour, like jumping up, ignore (I turn my back), soon you will find your dog offering the correct behaviour before you even ask. This is what we are looking for! Remember to praise them for the sit when they do it, before patting, or playing etc.
3. Loose Lead Walking
Many dogs pull on the lead while they are on a walk, often people think their dog is being naughty or even dominant but this is far from the case and the reason is simple... walks are fun and exciting, and your dog just wants to get where it is going as quickly as possible! We call this a self-rewarding behaviour because they pull, and therefore, get where they want quicker which is why it can be a hard behaviour to change. The solution is extremely simple, there are 2 main techniques; stay still and reverse direction.
Stay Still To use the stay still technique you must stop walking as soon as there is any tension on the lead. Usually, your dog will quite quickly turn around to see why you aren't moving. When they do turn around, the tension is released from the lead. Praise the dog and start moving forward again. Repeat again if there is any tension on the lead.
To use this technique, when there is tension on the lead you call your dog, say “Let's go” and turn to walk in the opposite direction without jerking or yanking the lead. Once they catch up to you, praise them, turn around again and walk back in your original direction. Do this every time there is tension.
The key to both of these is consistency! Every single time they pull, stop or reverse direction. You can also use a combination of both. Yes, it does make for a boring walk the first few times! But remember that this will be making their minds work hard and that tires them out far quicker than physical exercise. Plus, the more they practise the behaviour the quicker they learn how it works: pull means stop or reverse direction, and loose lead means go! They want to be moving, not standing still or turning around, so it usually doesn't take too long to figure it out.
You can do a few things that will help like avoiding using their collar and getting a harness, and not using a choke or check chain that put pressure on the delicate throat structures, increasing the risk of injuries. Plus, some harnesses, like front attaching harnesses, actually help prevent pulling. Just make sure you get the harness properly fitted and check your dog to see if it is rubbing or uncomfortable in any areas.
Teaching your dog to settle down or turn “off” can be the most important thing you ever teach them, it can definitely save your sanity if nothing else! To start with you need a distraction free environment, their bed or a mat to lie on, and some treats or a toy.
Start by standing close by the mat (or bed) with your dog.
Point to the mat and lure them towards it with the treat or toy.
Once they have all 4 feet on the mat, say yes and reward them by giving them the treat or toy.
Repeat this until they are reliably going to the mat every time you ask.
At this point add in the cue “settle” as you lure them to the mat.
Once you have them doing this reliably you can ask them to lie down when they get to the mat. Repeat until they lay automatically every time they get to the mat.
Don't forget to reward them every single time!
What we want to do next is build both duration and distance:
Start by waiting a couple of seconds before giving them their reward.
Build up the time little by little, rewarding them as they stay.
Then you can start building distance, once they have laid down ask them to stay and move away one step.
Return to your dog and reward them for staying.
Then take 2 steps and repeat the process returning to reward them for staying.
Slowly build up the distance you move away until you can try going out of sight, but making sure you return quickly at first to reward them and then build up the duration you are gone.
If your dog gets up it means you need to go back a step and build up again. Do not try and rush the process, it takes time to get it right! With time and practise you will find they pick it up relatively easily. Once they have it down pat do not forget to regularly praise them for being on their mat, giving them a durable chew toy will help keep them occupied. Also do not expect them to spend large amounts of time on their mat, let them get up and move around when you don't need them on their mat.
5. Leave It
Teaching your dog to “leave it” is an important tool in teaching general impulse control. It can literally save your dog’s life. There are a number of stages in teaching this command. It starts fairly simply:
Get a treat in your palm and make a fist around it, place your fist in front of you dog.
They will usually start sniffing your fist, then licking or pawing at your fist. Ignore them and wait.
After a while they will stop, some dogs take longer than others, but persevere.
Once they do stop, open up your fist so they can see the treat. If they try to grab it say “leave it” and close your fist again.
Repeat the exercise, eventually they will stop trying to take the treat and look at you when you open your fist.
As soon as that happens say yes and give them a treat (not the one in your hand) and praise.
For phase two of teaching leave it:
Start by placing the treat on the floor and asking the dog to “leave it”.
If your dog tries to get the treat put your hand over it so he can't.
Once he stops trying to get the treat and looks at you say yes and give him a treat (not the one on the floor).
Repeat until he has it down pat, usually 5-10 repetitions.
Once your dog can do this reliably you can move to the next step, trying it with different foods, toys and other items your dog finds interesting.
Try practising on lead by walking your dog past the item and saying leave it as you approach.
Once you pass the item say yes and reward your dog with a treat.
Up the ante by taking the exercise outside.
Start in your yard and try it down the street and at the park.
Like with recall always praise and reward heavily every time they leave something alone. You want them to view the leave it command as the best thing ever.
You can use the leave it command for people, animals and other dogs as well as food, toys or items on the ground. The command has a huge variety of uses and you will find invaluable for the life of your dog.