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It’s Back to (Obedience) School Time

September 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Dog Activities and Training, Featured Articles

Back to Dog Obedience SchoolIt’s September!  You’ve picked the last of your vegetables and are now waiting on your pumpkins to ripen.  You’ve started packing up your summer stuff and getting out the fall lawn equipment, clothes, and decorations.  You’ve sent your kids back to school. (Yeah!)  But what about your dog?  Does your four-legged best friend need a refresher on obedience training?

Why is it important to refresh obedience skills?

Your dog is a creature of habit.  Unless you are actively involved in a sport or job that involves your dog instantly obeying your every command, chances are you have let your dog’s obedience skills slide a bit.  It might not seem so bad when the dog runs from you in the yard, and you might actually enjoy it when your dog jumps up to greet you at the door, but what happens if the dog runs when you are near traffic or jumps up on your elderly Aunt Mabel when she comes into your home?

What will be acceptable in your own home is up to you, but spend a moment considering what happens when other people come into your house or when you take the dog to other people’s homes.  I don’t think Uncle Earl is going to get a big kick out of your dog counter surfing for leftovers of the Christmas ham, even though you don’t care if the dog licks up what you spill on your own counters.

Dogs who are lucky enough to have jobs such as assisting police officers or herding sheep get to practice their obedience skills every single day, and they are usually the best behaved dogs you’d ever want to meet.  For them, obedience to commands is every bit as important as it is for those in the armed forces.  But for the rest of us, our dogs tend to get comfortable with whatever we permit in our homes, and it can be confusing to them if they are held to a high standard only when company comes or when you go visiting.

Isn’t it expensive?

Going back to a formal obedience school may seem like a big expense, particularly when you’ve just bought school supplies and clothes, but there are some things you can do at home – for FREE – to reinforce the lessons you and your dog learned the first time you attended.  The key to successful obedience training at home is to be consistent.  When you went through your original obedience class, you knew you would have to get your dog to obey your commands in front of people, which may have given you a little extra incentive to practice everyday.  When you are training at home, however, you will have to find your own incentive.  Perhaps you can eat a cookie every time you give your dog a treat, or maybe you will be taking your dog to Grandma’s at Thanksgiving and you can show off his or her new skills to the family.  If nothing else, you can enjoy the time you and your best buddy are spending together each day.

Make it fun

Training your dog at home is hard work, but it can also be fun, if you apply just a little creativity to the lessons.  Remember that “fun” for your dog is defined as spending time with you, so it’s not too hard to get the animal excited for your lessons.  Use toys and treats, as well as lavish praise and affection to keep your dog striving to improve.

Make your training sessions short.  A typical dog has the attention span of two year old, so you will want to break up your training into several short sessions each day.  You might spend five minutes working on the “sit – stay” commands in the morning, then another five minutes working on the “heel” command after work.  At the end of each short session, reward your dog with some play time with his or her favorite toy.  Maybe chasing a Frisbee is the ultimate reward for your dog.  Some dogs may enjoy a swim in your pond, while others might think tug-o-war is the best thing since sliced bread.

The best way to make training fun is to simply praise your dog for each and every command he or she follows.  No matter if the dog obeys the first time you say a command or if you have to beg, cajole, remind, and tease your dog to get compliance, you will want to reward the dog mightily when he or she obeys.  You want to build a bridge in the dog’s mind between doing what you ask and receiving something good, whether that be a hug, a treat, or a kiss on the nose.

The Basic Commands

At a minimum, you need your dog to understand seven basic commands:

  • Come
  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Down
  • Leave it
  • Heel
  • Off

All of these commands should be taught with your dog on a short lead, which will enable you to control your dog and encourage compliance with your commands.

Come is a very important safety skill for your dog, and is usually one of the easiest to teach, as long as you stay positive.  Your dog wants to be near you (well, maybe not when you’re snoring, but mostly).  It’s real easy to make teaching this skill into a game because you can call the dog to you, then play tug for awhile, then throw a ball, then call the dog back.

A dog who won’t come when you call is a danger to himself and to others.  For example, if the dog chases a squirrel across the street, he or she may cause a car wreck or be hit.  This should be one of the first skills you teach your dog and the skill you practice and reinforce the most.

Sit, obviously, involves the dog planting his or her tuckus on the ground.  It can be used when the dog is out walking with you and you have stopped to talk to a neighbor.  It can also be used to stop the dog when he or she starts to run off at a park or when the dog gets a little too rambunctious at play.  It is a good all-purpose command to make your dog stop whatever he or she is doing and focus on what you want him or her to do instead.

If your dog “forgets” (or claims to forget) how to sit, you may have to apply slight pressure to the dog’s hindquarters as you sternly say “[name] SIT!”  Other than that light reminder, you should not touch your dog until he or she has obeyed your command.

You might also put your thumb against your first two fingers as if you are holding a treat and raise your hand slowly from in front of the dog’s eyes to a spot over his or her head.  As the dog raises his or her head, you may find that the back end just naturally lowers itself.

The next command, which is usually taught in conjunction with “sit” is the stay command, which tells your dog not to move.  Of course, you want to be reasonable with this.  It’s probably okay if the dog swishes his or her tail to chase away a fly, but probably not okay if the dog chases after a squirrel.  It may be fine with you if you put the dog in a sit-stay, and he or she elects to lie down instead.  However, if you will be entering the dog in an obedience trial, these things are not okay, so you need to decide what your expectations are and communicate these clearly to the animal.

Down is a very hard command for your dog to accept.  Lying down implies that the dog is not the lord and master of the domain.  Although we know that the person is the master of the dog, your dog may have trouble with this concept.  Be patient.  Again, you may use slight pressure over the dog’s shoulders to remind him or her what “down” means, but you should not in any other way interact with your dog until he or she obeys the command.  Alternatively, you may pat the ground in front of the dog to encourage him or her to hug the ground.

Once your dog is lying down, you should also practice the stay command.  Put your hand in front of the dog’s face, palm facing the dog.  (Pretend you are one of the Supremes singing Stop!  In the Name of Love.) Sternly give the command, using the dog’s name, then back away from the dog until you reach the end of the leash.  Once your dog has mastered staying still when you are facing him or her, try turning and walking away, or dropping the leash and walking a little further away.  You may need to reinforce the lesson by repeating the command or the hand gesture as you are moving away from the dog.  Your goal is to get to the point where you only have to say the command one time, and the dog will stay until released.

The leave it command is one that is often left out of formal obedience training, but it is one of the most important commands for assuring your dog’s safety.  This command is used when your dog sticks his or her nose where it doesn’t belong.  Whether the dog is investigating a porcupine or eating something found during a walk, the leave it command can keep your dog from getting an unpleasant surprise.

Heel is a command used to keep your dog in line while you are walking.  This is an advanced skill that takes a fair amount of work to master.  A properly positioned dog will keep his or her nose glued to your right knee.  The leash should be slack and the dog should match your pace, rather than setting his or her own pace for the walk.  Yes, well-trained dogs can do this even when there are squirrels near the walking path.  It just takes a little patience and a lot of praise.  There is an excellent description of the training that is required to teach your dog to heel on the Dog Obedience Training Review web site.

Off is the command that tells your dog that all four of his or her feet belong on the floor.  You can use this to stop counter-surfing or to stop your dog from giving you that exuberant greeting at the front door.  As you’re teaching the command, you may have to push your dog off the counter or take a step back when he or she jumps up on you.  The dog should soon get the idea that God didn’t create a two-legged creature named dog, and that all four feet are supposed to be used at all times.

For more information, check out the Dog Training Classroom’s Simple Tips on Dog Training.

Now that your children are bugging someone else for at least a few hours a day, why not take just a few minutes to work with your dog on obedience skills.  I bet you’ll be glad you did.

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