It’s Spring and now that the snow has melted (for most of us), many would-be dog owners are turning their attention to rescue lists, shelters and breeders. As I look at my own dog, a 10 year old Labrador Retriever named Lincoln curled up on the couch next to me, I cannot help but think about the time when she will no longer be around. Who will come after her? I find myself vacillating back and forth between pup or older dog, pure bred or mixed breed. Though I may be unclear about which direction I would go in choosing a dog, I know for certain which skills that I would like to teach my new dog-any dog for that matter, be she young or old.
Before I go into what I would consider my top five skills for dogs, I think it’s important to understand some of the things that may influence how you teach a particular skill. Factors such as age, confidence, physical limitations, and motivation will each play a part in how you train. Let’s address each one of these factors individually.
- Age: Puppies are blank slates and have had less time to rehearse and commit to unwanted behaviors. You can have real influence on a puppy by insuring that he or she has the continued opportunity to interact with other puppies and dogs after they leave their litter and by purposefully introducing them to as many sights, sounds and smells as you can (in a non threatening way) to help to create a confident, social animal. By managing their environment, you can keep unwanted behaviors from happening in the first place. But a puppy can be tough. They have limited concentration, they chew and eliminate indiscriminately and they require lots and lots of attention.
If you choose to adopt an older dog, you may have to spend some time resolving and managing problem behaviors first. Your ability to socialize a dog beyond its “critical period” (to 12 weeks) is limited, so while you may be able to influence somewhat your dog’s confidence, pretty much what you see is what you get. But unlike puppies an older dog may already have progressed through their super destructive chew period and with proper supervision should have the capacity to be easily housetrained.
Training an adolescent dog comes with its own set of challenges. Dogs hit adolescence around 5 months and adolescence can last until the dog is two or three depending on the breed and individual animal. Adolescence is characterized by more independent thinking; dogs will become less interested in you and more interested in the environment. Dogs go through their final phase of teething during this time. There is also a fear period associated with this phase – confident dogs may suddenly turn shy and fearful. Acquiring an adolescent dog will require that you be consistent in your management and training. Doing so will insure that you both make it through this time happy and whole.
- Confidence or the lack thereof: Learning is stressful. Keep an eye on your dog while training and watch for signs of stress – yawning, bows, scratching in the middle of a training session, shake-offs (like the dog is trying to shake off water). These behaviors don’t necessarily indicate that your dog is unduly traumatized by learning, in fact, there is a good type of stress (called eustress) that actually enhances learning. Distress, the bad kind of stress, is what you are trying to avoid. You can do that by keeping your training sessions short (three to five minutes for newbies). Raise your criteria gradually, for example, if you are working on a down-stay with the dog alone in the kitchen and you are asking for a 30 second stay, if you bring the dog outdoors to work on a stay understand this context will be much more difficult for the dog to perform in. Perhaps you work on a 5 second stay to begin with. Don’t make things so difficult for your dog that he gives up. Set your dog up to be successful. The mores successes your dog has under his doggy belt, the more confident he will become. You will see an animal that loves learning and will therefore be more inclined to work for you even in the most difficult kind of situations. Avoiding stress will keep your dog engaged in the training process.
- Physical limitations: A dog’s capacity to perform certain tasks can be limited by physical impairments. Limitations such as deafness and blindness would be obvious impediments (but not insurmountable, by the way) but something like advanced age or lameness or injury may also inhibit certain behaviors or the capacity to process information. With an older dog you may need to modify your expectations. Does advanced age prohibit your elderly dog from being able to sit? Perhaps you teach her a solid down stay instead. Take your time, allow the old girl enough time to process information. Contrary to popular belief, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.
- Motivation: To teach a new skill, your dog needs to be motivated to learn. It’s up to you to figure out what will motivate your dog to want to work with you in any given situation. If it’s hot dogs, fantastic – use them. If it’s butt scratches – great, use them. If it’s a game of tug – use that. Whatever it is that you use to reward behavior, the dog gets to determine whether your “stuff” is worth working for. A simple rule to remember – if you reward behavior, you should see more of it. So, if you are using biscuits to reward “come” and the dog comes to you once and never again that’s a problem. Try something else. Adjust to each training situation.
Now that we’ve covered some of the things that may influence how you train, let’s talk about what to train. When I began my dog training career in 1997, I started out by training service dogs. A service dog is an animal that has been trained to assist his disabled partner with such specialized tasks such as picking up dropped items, finding lost keys or even reminding their partner to take their medications. It takes many months and hundreds of hour’s worth of training to teach the skills that a dog will need to become a service dog.
While most pet dog owners don’t require that level of training for their dog, I do believe that the average dog owner would like their dog to have the same kind of self-restraint that any person with a disability expects from his or her working dog.
Here is my list of the five most critical skills I would want any dog to learn.
- Default sit: The very first thing I would teach any new canine charge is a default sit. I’ll be honest here-I’m not crazy about dogs that jump all over me. Not many people are-even the most enthusiastic dog lover. Bearing that in mind, I would start right away to teach my dog that it is more beneficial to sit rather than to jump. Sitting is incompatible with jumping. A dog simply cannot sit and jump at the same time.
To do this, I would first want to set the dog up so that he or she can’t make many (or preferably any) paws on people mistakes. I would make sure my dog was either on a leash or on a tether whenever new people were around. This takes the anxiety out of any human/dog interaction. It means that you no longer have to worry about whether your dog will jump on someone because she/he can’t.
Next, I would begin the task of teaching the sit. I would want to make sure that I always had some very high value rewards on hand to help ensure that my dog will want to work with me even if there are exciting things happening all around him or her. Since my goal is to teach the dog to automatically sit whenever new people appear, I would refrain from telling or asking my dog to sit (he/she might not choose to respond anyway and I wouldn’t want to inadvertently teach my dog to ignore my commands) but rather allow the dog to explore his or her options. Each time the dog chose to sit, I would follow that sit with a tasty treat because I understand that any behavior that is rewarded should happen more often. You need to be patient during this process. It can take a bit of time before the dog figures out that it is the sitting that is getting him the tasty treats. Once my dog became more reliable about responding to each new person that came along with a sit, I would begin to work on teaching my dog or pup to maintain his or her sit for longer and longer periods of time.
- Chill on a mat: This is one of my favorite skills to teach. The idea is that you will be able to send your dog over to a portable mat (like a bath mat or towel) where he or she will lie down and remain until released. The little Goldendoodle pup (picture on the right? Picture on the left?) is 16 weeks old and he is lying on his mat in the middle of a soccer field with a team playing in the distance. What the photo doesn’t show are the four other soccer teams on either side of him. He shows all of this skill at such a young age. What a good dog and what good parents he has to spend so much time teaching him how to behave in public places!
- Come: We all want our dogs to come when called but a lot of dogs that I work with just don’t. They are completely unreliable. You need to teach your dog that it is totally worth giving up whatever he or she is engaged with to come running to you. It is important to reinforce this behavior every time with a super tasty treat (if your dog is food motivated) or a game of tug (if your dog is play motivated).
If your dog isn’t reliable, work on this skill with your dog on a long leash and then inside an enclosed area before ever trusting him off leash. If your dog does NOT come when he or she is called, whatever you do, don’t nag him. Repeating commands is the quickest way to teach your dog to ignore you. Go and get her/him and go back to working with the dog on a line until he or she is more reliable.
- Eye contact: Eye contact is a great way to teach your dog to keep his or her focus on you. I start this skill by rewarding my dog every time he or she chooses to look at me-on walks, at the dog park, when kids are around, in the house etc. I call these “check-ins”. Check-ins are a great way to start to teach your dog or pup that it pays to look.
- Leave it: Leave that alone! Don’t mess with it. The purpose of this skill is to teach your dog to back away and not to touch anything that you’ve asked him or her not to. The “it” in question could be a cat, a hamburger bun, a sock. Imagine how handy that would be!
In closing, remember to dedicate some time to training your dog or pup. It’s not fair to get angry with your dog for misbehaving if you haven’t taken the time to teach your dog what is expected of him or her. No matter which skills you find important for your dog to learn, understand that behaviors need to be rewarded often and well and you will need to limit your dogs opportunity to make the wrong choices by using better management-head halters or no pull harnesses for a dog who pulls, leashes and tethers for jumpers and long lines for a dog who won’t come when he or she is called. If you feel like you some additional help, you can search for a professional trainer in your area at http://www.apdt.com. Good luck!
Elsa Larsen is a dog training & behavior contributor for TripsWithPets.com. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Founder of My Wonderful Dog. Elsa started her dog training career as a volunteer for an organization in Santa Rosa, California that trained dogs for people with disabilities. In June 2000, Elsa moved to the east coast and created My Wonderful Dog, a non profit that that engaged at risk youth in the care and training of service dogs. Sadly, the non profit had to close its doors in 2008 due to lack of funding, but under the original banner of My Wonderful Dog, Elsa continues to bring her expertise and knowledge to bear in her quest to create harmony between pet dogs and their owners in and around Portland, Maine and the greater Boston area. With over 15 years experience, Elsa has had the pleasure of working with hundreds of dogs on issues as diverse as dog aggression to puppy management and care.