These commands reduce stress in public settings and give your dog the basic obedience skills needed to thrive
Training your dog at any level can be a very rewarding undertaking. Knowing that you have a reliably obedient dog can eliminate a lot of anxiety, whether at the dog park, on a hike, or just around town. And, with a well-trained dog, you can relax and enjoy the moment rather than worry if your dog might run off or lunge at the end of their leash at an unfamiliar person.
Not every dog owner needs to train to the highest levels of obedience or working utility, either. Yes, these canine athletes and working dogs are phenomenal animals with impressive skills and an undeniable desire to work. But training a dog to that level is an enormous commitment, whether measured in time, money, resources, or all of the above.
It’s not for everyone, nor does it need to be. The average dog owner can have a wonderful companion and a rewarding relationship with their dog by using just a few, simple commands that are guaranteed to make life with a dog a little bit easier. Here are three of them.
“Come” – Why the recall is the most important command of all
If you teach your dog nothing else, be sure to teach her to come when called.
A reliable recall is the single most important command a dog must know in order to stay safe and out of trouble. This is especially important if you ever intend to have your dog off-leash, but leashed dogs aren’t exempt. Collars can come undone, leashes can be dropped, and the gate can be left open. Own a dog long enough and you’ll eventually find yourself in a situation where your dog is loose – knowing that your dog will reliably come when called means that you won’t have to worry about how you’ll get it back.
To teach this command, begin with the dog on a leash. Encourage it to walk toward you as you get its attention. Don’t use the command word until it understands what you’re asking it to do. Graduate to longer leashes or a check cord to increase the distance, but don’t omit the leash yet. You need to be able to reel your dog in to enforce the command if it doesn’t immediately come towards you. There’s a dog training mantra that goes, “Never give a command you cannot enforce,” and this is especially true with the recall. You do not want a recall training session to turn into a game of chase. Use a leash or rope until you are confident the dog will come when called.
Once you have the basics down, introduce distractions. Have other people in the yard with you, or work on it in a more public location. Your dog will need to be able to ignore tempting things (a rabbit, another dog, children playing, etc.) and come to you when called, no matter what else is happening. Someday this skill could save your dog’s life.
One important point to remember: never punish or reprimand your dog when they eventually do come to you. You may have been chasing a loose dog who eluded you for hours and your frustration level may be off the charts. But when that dog finally does come to you, resist the urge to yell or express your anger for the preceding events. Focus on the present and don’t associate the act of coming to you with any kind of punishment, or else your dog will rethink doing that in the future.
“Heel” — Staying sane while out for a walk
Many people get companion dogs with the intent of being active and going for regular walks together. Some of these same people never teach their dog to walk properly on a leash, which results in a scene where it’s unclear who is taking who for a walk. Not only is that an exhausting way to get some fresh air, it also creates an unhelpful power dynamic between dog and owner.
The most straightforward way to teach your dog to walk with a loose leash is to introduce the “heel” command, which means that the dog must walk next to you, not out in front of you. This creates a situation where you and the dog are traveling somewhere together, rather than the dog dragging you wherever it feels like going.
There are many ways to train heel, but the key is to start by helping the dog understand what you’re expecting it to do. You’ll need to be consistent with your approach, such as which side of you the dog should walk on. You can hold a treat in your hand where you want the dog’s nose to be, then allow it to take the treat when it’s walking in the correct position. If your dog is too small for this to work without stooping over, you can use a wooden spoon with a bit of peanut butter smeared on the end to show it where to walk.
Use walls and other barriers to your advantage to help your dog stay in the correct position by your side. For example, walk laps around your garage with the dog between you and the wall in order to naturally guide it in the correct position. Once your dog is demonstrating an understanding of what you want, begin introducing variations in direction and speed. The goal is to have it stick by your side wherever you go and to remain there whenever you stop.
Again, begin to introduce distractions as the dog masters the concept of heel. The intent is to have a dog that calmly walks by your side regardless of what else is happening in the world around it.
“Down” — Remain in this place until told otherwise
“Come” and “heel” are both moving commands — the dog is moving towards you when called or moving with you as you travel somewhere. But it’s also necessary for the dog to understand a stationary command, too.
This can be “down” (belly on the ground), “sit” (rear on the ground), or “whoa” (stand still). It really doesn’t matter which of these you choose to use, as long as you have one or more ways to park your dog.
Down is a useful command because it puts the dog into a position where it can be easily moved or inspected, such as at the vet’s office or for a nail trim. It also requires a bit more effort for it to get up and break the command by moving, so it’s slightly easier to enforce the idea of staying there until told otherwise. By contrast, teaching a dog to remain standing in a “whoa” position takes a little more finesse to ensure it doesn’t move its feet.
To teach down, it’s easiest to lead a puppy into the behavior with a treat. Starting with the treat in your hand by her nose, draw her nose toward the ground and then out and away from her. This will naturally cause the dog to follow the treat, which results in laying its belly on the ground. Praise the dog for the good work and introduce the command word, “down.”
This method of leading the dog into the behavior lends itself well to introducing a hand signal for down, too. The dog will have become accustomed to following your hand (with a treat) toward the ground and into the down position. You can continue motioning toward the ground even once you no longer use treats to signal what you are telling the dog to do.
But what about “stay”?
“Stay” is a command that is often used in conjunction with one of the stationary commands. However, if a dog is truly complying with the command to sit or lie down, there should be no need to tell it to remain there. The concept of “stay” should be built into “down,” “sit,” or “whoa” without the need for an additional word.
It follows, then, that the dog should know when they are being released from the command to go about their business. The release from the down, sit, or whoa position should be done at the handler’s discretion, not the dog’s. It’s important to start with short intervals before building to longer periods of remaining stationary in the commanded position. Eventually, you’ll build toward being able to leave the dog’s sight for an extended period, returning to find it still on a “down” or “sit” as directed. However, don’t try that until you are absolutely certain that the dog will be successful, or else you will inadvertently teach it that remaining in position is optional when you aren’t there to enforce it.
When you bring a dog into your life, there should be a mutual expectation of appropriate behaviors and rules to live by. The dog will be better for it, and so will you. These simple commands will make life with a dog far easier and more enjoyable for both you and the dog.