4 top behaviours every dog should know

4 top behaviours every dog should know

Training your dog starts with knowing the most important things to teach him. “Stay”, “come”, “leave it”, and “heel” top the list of behaviours every dog should know.

1. Stay

Teaching a dog to stay in position is one of the most important behaviours to teach your dog. That being said, many trainers teach two similar concepts with slightly different meanings. One signal is “stay” and another is “wait”.

The difference between the two often has to do with the degree of rigidity or formality. When “wait” is used, it’s kind of like saying “hold on a minute”. “Stay” really means “freeze in that particular position”.

Some trainers use “wait” in situations involving boundaries, such as in the case of a dog waiting to get out of a car or go through a door. Other trainers use “wait” as a form of “leave it”. For example, if a dog is going for food on a table or running to greet someone at the door, the trainer might use “wait”, followed by a release or another signal to do something else instead.

To add to the confusion, some trainers don’t use “stay” or “wait” at all. They teach that once a dog is asked to sit, lie down or stand still, there’s a strict implication that he is to stay in that position until released. There is no follow-up signal of “stay” or “wait”.

All these are perfectly fine as long as your communication to the dog is clear. It’s just a matter of starting at your dog’s learning baseline and progressing towards reliability, gradually adding the three D’s — Duration, Distance and Distractions. Depending on a number of factors, reliability usually takes two to 12 months, and sometimes longer.

For me, “stay” means to stay in position, whether the dog is standing, sitting or lying down. The critical thing to remember is that whatever you choose to do, there must be a beginning and an end. I tell clients: “If you ever say ‘stay’ you have to say ‘okay’.” In other words, no matter what word you use, you must remember to release your dog. Your release word(s) can be “okay”, “find it”, “come”, “you’re free”, or “that’ll do”. Just remember to always release.

Here’s a classic example of why dogs get confused. People don’t want their dogs following them when they leave the house, and often say “stay” so their dogs don’t run out the door. Once the door is shut, the dog looks around and essentially says to himself: “Well, there’s nobody around, so I’m getting up.” Then people don’t understand why their dogs won’t stay when asked.

2. Recall, aka come-when-called

A reliable recall can be life-saving if your dog gets loose and starts running towards a skunk or the street.  I have found that this “emergency recall” works 90% of the time if done correctly. Before you start, pick any word. I use “here” but you can use any word as long as it’s not something you use frequently: e.g. you might use “babaloo”, “bank”, “treat”, etc. Once you have your word, follow these steps:

  • Use $10,000 treats (chicken, turkey, hamburger, cheese, etc.).
  • Say “here” (or whatever your chosen word is) and immediately stick a treat in your dog’s mouth. It’s important you’re close enough to your dog that the treat is delivered within a half a second. Don’t ask him to come and get it at this point. Be sure to say “here” before moving your hands.
  • Repeat up to 50 times a day, spread throughout the day, in different areas of the house and yard, for three to five times per exercise. You’ll do this every day for the rest of your dog’s life. It’s like putting money in your savings account so it’s there for an emergency withdrawal. Note that I say “up to” 50 times a day. It’s only during the first two to three months that very frequent repetition is important; after that, it doesn’t have to mean giving your dog 50 treats every day forevermore. As time goes by, a few times a day is all that’s necessary.
  • Do not test this method for 60 days. At the 60-day mark, while your dog is in the midst of playing or eating, stand six to 20 feet away and say “here”. He should turn like a zombie and come running to you. If he doesn’t respond, do not repeat the word. It simply means those neural pathways haven’t “grown” enough. Keep training, and try again in another 30 days.

3. “Leave it”

Teaching a rock-solid, bombproof “leave it” is one of the most important safety behaviours you can teach your dog. “Leave it” means “do not approach, touch or eat whatever it is you’re sniffing or looking at.” This includes everything from spilled medication to skunks, snakes, horse poop, and much more. A reliable “leave it” can be life-saving.

There are several step-by-step methods you can use to shape a reliable “leave it”. Just as with other behaviours, you would start in a non-distracting environment and gradually progress, over time, to more and more reliability. Of course all methods are force-free and reward-based. And there is no such thing as 100% reliability with any dog…or human! So the key to keeping everyone safe is always using good old common sense, a watchful eye and maintaining the safest environment possible with prevention and management.

The methodology for teaching “leave it” is the same for all behaviours:

  • Teach the behavior.
  • Label the behavior.
  • Gradually add distractions including other objects and greater distances, and for longer periods of time.

For example, first teach your dog to leave a stationary piece of chicken, then to leave a piece of chicken that you’ve dropped or thrown. Next teach your dog to walk around food without touching it, and then to leave other objects like glasses, the TV remote, a stuffed toy like a skunk, stuffed animals in motion (by tying a string to them and making them move), and so on until the behaviour becomes generalized.

4. Heel (and loose-leash walking)

Loose-leash walking has two components:

  • Formal heeling, which means having your dog in a window of space by your side next to you.
  • Less formal loose-leash walking, where your dog can be in front of or behind you, but without a taut leash.

Heeling is used in situations where more control is necessary and your dog knows to pay strict attention to you. This can include when you’re walking in public, like on city sidewalks, while walking across the street, while walking past a house where dogs are barking behind a fence, or at any time your dog seems nervous.

I use two methods to teach a dog to heel.

Method 1: “There you are!” Sometimes also known as free or spontaneous heeling

  • To start, get a bunch of $10,000 treats like chicken, cheese, etc.
  • Practice in the house and/or a fenced-in yard.
  • Have your dog off leash or use a 20’ leash for added safety.

Simply start meandering around the yard (or your living room if it’s big enough) and pay no attention to your dog. To make it fun, I start singing while I meander. Your dog will eventually come up to you. The moment he is by your side, enthusiastically exclaim “there you are!” and quickly stick a treat in his mouth. If you’re using a clicker, you would click the moment he’s by your side, and treat.

Then meander away and do the same thing. As soon as your dog catches up to you and is again by your side, repeat “there you are!” and treat.

As you continue, you’ll see your dog hanging out by your side for longer periods. When this happens, continue to praise and treat, but gradually increase the intervals between treats. This is a great foundation for the next step, which is teaching and labeling the behaviour.

Method 2: Structured heeling

Before we begin, I strongly recommend walking dogs on a harness rather than connecting the leash to the collar. For dogs who are really strong pullers, I recommend using an anti-pulling, front-ring harness, designed to give you more control and help avoid any unintentional jerks on your dog’s neck.

That being said, it’s a good idea to attach a secondary clip that connects from the collar to the harness. This does two things: it keeps the harness in place on the chest and is an added protection in case the harness gets loose and the dog backs out of it.

Step 1

Have your dog by your side in a non-distracting environment. With your hands on your chest, say “heel”, and using the hand closest to your dog, stick a treat in her mouth. Do not walk forward while you do this. Stay in place and repeat five to ten times.

Step 2

You’ll soon see your dog looking up at you, anticipating a treat. At this point, begin to walk and treat at the same time. As you walk, say “heel” and simultaneously put a treat in your dog’s mouth as before. Bring your hand back to your chest each time. Walk ten to 20 steps.

Step 3

With your dog by your side, keep your hands on your chest, say “heel” once, and begin walking. Take four or five steps, continually praising your dog, then stop and say “sit”. When your dog sits, enthusiastically praise and treat her.

Begin again, and each time gradually add more steps before stopping and asking your dog to sit. Remember, you’re not continuously saying “heel” and treating, you’re only using praise.

If you practice this heeling exercise and add the distance of one house-length each day, you’ll be around the block in a month or two with your dog remaining in position. Then it’s just a matter of gradually adding more and more distractions, turns, changes in speed, and so on.

But here’s the secret: the heeling exercise is just like the stay exercise in that it’s important to have a clear beginning and end to the behaviour. So you might start by saying “ready”, practice the heeling exercise for a few minutes, then release with “okay!” or “you’re free!” Then repeat later in the day.

One of the easiest ways to wean your dog off training treats is to finish the exercise by giving your dog a “life reward”, like the freedom to go sniff a tree or, if you’re in a secure field, throwing a ball or allowing her to say hello to someone or another dog.