Basic Obedience is the bedrock of any and all dog training. It is so vitally important that it is the first thing we work on with dogs with training goals ranging from simple puppy behaviors to dogs with severe aggression towards humans. The reason for this is because no matter how much we love our dogs, we don’t speak the same language, and so clear communication is something that must be learned. Some dog/handler relationships intuitively develop this mutual language, but chances are if you are looking for a trainer then you aren’t one of the lucky few. The vast majority of dog owners have to work hard to develop these language skills and the good news is it can be learned. The way we learn it is through basic obedience training.
When you hire a trainer for behavioral problems like anxiety or aggression, it can be frustrating to have the trainer walk you through basic obedience before anything else. “I am here because my dog bites people!” you may say, but although teaching a dog to put its butt on the ground on cue seems arbitrary and totally beside the point, it is actually the keystone of rehabbing serious behavioral problems. Because this is how we develop a mutual respect and communication, we cannot move onto specific issues until it is established.
Say you have a foreign exchange student living in your home, and this student is having a very difficult time adjusting because of massive cultural differences, and to add to that, lets say this student doesn’t speak English. How on earth can you help them if you cannot communicate with them? You must take language courses in their language and you must also learn about their culture and customs in order to find out what is going wrong. Training basic obedience is exactly like this: we learn how to communicate with dogs in order to teach them the customs of living in a 21st century American home – something they have absolutely no clue how to do before we teach them.
Teaching Basic Obedience
When training a dog, it is important to remember that all behaviors are trained in two parts. But first, to teach a dog a new behavior, we need to have the correct tools. It is not natural for a dog to sit or lay down on cue, and so we need to entice them to do what we ask with something they find very rewarding. For most dogs, that means food! Training a new behavior is easiest with some very stinky and tasty food. Fresh meat and cheese work very well, with turkey hotdogs being my treat of choice. You want to break the treats up into pieces about the size of a pinky nail. This allows you to give many treats without giving so much food it ruins their appetite or upsets their stomach.
The first stage is the learning phase, the dog needs to learn what the heck we are asking of them. When you tell a new puppy to sit, it has absolutely no idea what you are asking of it. “Sit” is just a noise coming out of the big human’s mouth, and it has no more significance than that. Because they don’t know what is going on, it would be unfair to correct them, punish them or otherwise get frustrated or angry at them when they don’t comply. If the behavior has not specifically been trained and then proofed, then we cannot expect the behavior to occur on cue. The behavior must be taught and then proofed over many days (at least) before moving on to the next stage.
The second stage occurs when we know the dog knows what we are asking. During this stage we begin to phase out treats, leaving them to be used periodically as a refresher to the dog. When you get to this stage, congratulations! You have a dog trained in basic obedience! Additionally, this is the stage that we add consequences for when they refuse to perform the behavior we are certain they know. We know when a dog understands what we are asking when they perform the behavior reliably and regularly over several days or weeks.
A note on correction
While food is useful in training new behaviors and reinforcing things we want dogs to do, it is also important to teach dogs what we don’t want them to do. For this we use either “negative punishment”, which is when we remove the treat and turn our backs to the dog removing our attention as a form of punishment, or we can use training collars/harnesses. Both methods are effective in various circumstances, and a good balanced trainer will use a combination of both types depending on the dog, the behavior in question and the human’s preferences.
There are many different training collars on the market, all of which are a matter of choice. Chain collars, prong collars, Gentle Leaders, Easy Walk harnesses, martingale collars or slip leads are all available to use. Again, as a correction tool, these tools should always be used with the aid of a professional trainer to ensure you have proper technique and to have the correct tool for the specific dog. Some dogs walk very nicely on a martingale, while others require a prong collar, some need only a verbal correction while others require pressure. It is especially important to not use an aversive method that is too much for a particular dog. Some dogs are very sensitive to correction and require nothing more than a firm “no!”, so using something like a prong collar on this kind of dog can be very traumatic. Again, always consult a trainer before implementing corrections or correction tools!
It is only fair to correct an animal after the initial learning phase is complete. How to correct a dog is very individual based on the dog, the handler and the specifics of their temperament or training goals. Do not integrate correction until you have consulted a professional trainer who can teach you techniques that are fair and not traumatizing for the dog. Training should always be a fun activity for dogs, even in the correction phase.
What to train?
There are a handful of basic obedience behaviors that are used to develop communication with dogs. Below are the most common:
Sitting is one of the first things that dogs typically learn. To teach this behavior, present a treat to the dog’s nose and move it slowly up and over their head. The dog’s head should turn vertical following the treat and their butt will hit the ground in a sit. When the sit is done, give the treat and lots of praise!
This is most easily taught beginning with the dog in a sitting position. Present the treat to the dog’s nose to get them interested, then move the treat down to the ground and back between their front feet. To keep the dog’s interest, allow them to lick at the treat. The dog will then lay down. This behavior can sometimes take some time to master, so have patience!
Come when called
This is a fun one! Get something super tasty, call your dog’s name, and give them a treat when they get to you, it’s that easy! This is one of the behaviors that you will always want to have food on you when you work them, even when they absolutely know the drill. This is because coming when called can be a life-or-death situation so we always want the dog to run towards us enthusiastically away from any distraction they may be investigating.
These are just three of the most common behaviors we teach our dogs. The list is really endless, so talk to your trainer about what specific behaviors will work best for you and your dog.