3 Must Have Skills For Your Dog
Having a well behaved, engaging and happy dog is the goal of many a dog parent. Given this it is still surprising that if you Google “main things to train your dog” we revert to sit, stay, heel. These are all good skills and they all have their place but outside of an obedience ring there are other more valuable skills to prioritise.
Having a happy dog will often come down to how you teach them rather than what you teach. You could teach a sit or a spin. A happy dog will do this enthusiastically either way, with loose body language and a relaxed face. Positive reinforcement is not only highly effective but builds a strong bond between you and your dog. Through this your dog will be keen to try and problem solve without fear and celebrate their successes. A happy learner.
A well behaved and engaging dog is one who makes good choices and interacts with you freely and eagerly. This is more about building a relationship with your dog and celebrating their choices in life then training a bunch of skills. Again, training skills is important and pretty darn fun but we can move past sit, stay, heel as our must haves. Think about a dog who calmly allows people into the home, interacts with you even when out and about, greets people and dogs appropriately and responsive when you need them to be. Sounds great right? Let’s look at these skills to get your dog started…
Teach your Dog to Check In
The check in is an established habit of offering eye contact with their person. It is not a cued behaviour, I do not ask my dog to look at me. Instead it is a behaviour I capture and reinforce until my dog does this without thinking about it.
You might be asking, why is my dog looking at me such an important skill? Each time your dog looks at you, you have their complete attention. This engagement makes communicating that much easier. You can offer your dog direction or reassurance. This will help when your dog is unsure, teach loose leash walking and aid in your recall training.
A key factor of the check in, is that it is an offered behaviour. I do not nag or cue my dog to look at me every few minutes. To teach the behaviour is simple. Take a few really yummy treats, find a quiet place and each time your dog looks at you, mark and reinforce. When your dog is calm and able to focus on you for longer periods of time, move to more distracting environments.
If you find your dog is not checking in, consider moving to a quieter space or just stop and wait. The mistake I see is people starting to nag their dogs. Just be patient. Mark and reinforce when they offer that check in. Continue to mark and reinforce until your dog is frequently checking in with you at home, on walks and adventures. At this point you can taper out the treats but initially you want this behaviour to be as reinforcing as you can make it.
This skill is about teaching your puppy to relax in different environments and social settings. It teaches them to regulate their own emotional states. It gives you a communication tool for saying, “just relax”. Not be still and don’t move, which is the stay. This one says, nothing to worry about here, just relax and get comfortable.
To start teaching this behaviour I get out some yummy treats and retreat to a small and quiet space. I don’t want my dog or puppy to have a lot of other things to do, I want them to be able to relax. I then use my treat to lure a down and reinforce with a few treats between their front paws. When they finish these treats, if they hold position for just a second I place a couple of treats between their paws. I will wait again, tapering the number of treats I give to just one every few seconds. After a minute of training I get up and we play a game. Then I sit, relax and repeat the process with my dog. What I’d like to see is that when I sit and relax, they come over and lay down with me.
Burning off some physical energy before training with a walk is a great way to set the stage for this training session. Your dog will be more inclined to lay down and rest.
Capture the Calm Behaviour
Once my dog is coming and laying down, I then look to reward calm behaviour rather than simply duration. I look for a deep breathe, shifting to a more comfortable position and even looking away from me to scan the space. Around distractions, I’ll also reward watching distractions and calmly disengaging. The placement of my yummy treat is always between their front paws.
The big difference between this and a down stay, is in a down my dog is still focused on me waiting for the release or next cue. For a settle my dog I’m looking for them to just relax. They can scan the environment, lay on their side and even fall asleep. For young dogs this a great part of their socialisation, let us calmly observe this scene together and take it all in.
The Attention Noise
It is great if your dog has been working on their check in but there will be times you need their attention. Teaching them to turn and make eye contact when you ask is also very important. For this skill you can use their name or a sound like ‘Pup Pup’. You can use a whistle, but keep in mind not all people can whistle and everyone in the family needs to make the same noise.
This skill is a great first step for recall training, many people use it as the recall and that’s ok too. For me, this means pay attention over here I’ve got something important to say. I may follow that up with a recall, or ask you to wait so I can catch up or even hey don’t eat that disgusting thing. If I feel my dog is about to make a poor choice or get himself in to trouble, I use the noise to get his attention and guide him through the situation.
You are going to need a quiet space and those yummy treats.
- Step 1: Say your dogs name clearly in a happy tone of voice and follow up with the yummy treat. Repeat this, 4 to 6 times.
- Step 2: Say your dogs name clearly in a happy tone of voice and pause. As your dog turns their head toward you mark and reinforce. Repeat this still until they are easily turning toward you.
- Step 3: Say your dogs name clearly in a happy tone of voice and pause. When your dog turns their head and makes eye contact with you, mark and reinforce.
At this stage increase the difficultly. Change up the environment. Add some distance. Add distractions. If at any point you feel your dog is stuck or not responding, go back to the last place you were both winning. Even if that is step 1.
So there it is, my 3 must have skills for your dog. Does your dog already know these skills? Did you teach your different skills that were really helpful for them and you? Jump on over to my Facebook page and let me know your thoughts. If you’d like to know more about these skills, feel free to reach out through my contact page.