These skills are what I consider Bare Minimum Education for all dog-owner teams. Think of it like your dog’s GED. If he learns nothing else, he must know these six things:
Volunteered Eye Contact. A well-behaved dog starts with this essential skill—especially if you want good behavior around distractions. When your dog chooses to look at you, he’s saying nothing else in the environment matters as much as you. Ideally, he looks at you without being verbally or physically asked to do so!
Even tiny puppy Fizzgig learns to offer eye contact!
Down (as in “lie down”). I choose to teach this instead Sit because it’s more relaxed. I am all about dogs who chill! Down is my default behavior for dogs. If he doesn’t know what to do, I want him to lie down.
Puppy Willow working on Down for the first time.
Self-Control. This skill is more about the concept of self-control, rather than a specific skill. The dog learns the fastest way to get what he wants is to disengage from the distraction and pay attention to his handler. The beginning stage of this game is wonderful for recapturing a distracted dog’s attention, and the end stage is my version of a Leave It.
See Eclair practicing the Leave It level at Home Depot
Recall/Come. All about safety! I start teaching Recall via classical conditioning: the dog hears his cue and then food appears over and over and over and over and over again. With enough repetitions, the excitement he feels about the food will transfer to the cue and cause him to come.
Here’s a wonderful example of a trained recall with lions!
Walking without Pulling. Not all dogs need to learn to heel, but all dogs should learn how to walk without pulling on the leash. It’s much more comfortable for them and you!
Some dogs learn quickly just by adding a bit of reinforcement for the right behavior. Other dogs need more skills on board, and dedicated practice to get it right. The most important thing is to start where your dog can get it right!
Watch 10 week old puppy Leon learn to walk nice!
Distraction-Reaction. A lot of dogs are well behaved until something distracting comes along. That’s why I consider Distraction-Reaction a core skill. It’s important for families to understand the basics of maintaining their dog’s behavior around distractions—whether it’s a guest coming to visit, kids playing in the backyard, or a squirrel running across the street.
Here’s Franny learning to pay attention around other dogs.
BONUS: Place. I’ve almost decided to add this to my Bare Minimum list! Place means, “go to your rug and stay there until I tell you to get up.” It’s a very helpful skill for many families because it provides a solution for a lot of problems: table manners, guest manners, darting out the front door, counter-surfing, etc. I want the dog to LOVE being on his rug and relax when he’s there.
Leighann’s foster puppy, Eclair, practices Place (and some other skills, too!) during dinner prep.