The essential commands every dog needs to know
Whether you’ve got a brand-new baby puppy, a newly adopted rescue dog, or a resident dog who could really use some brush-up training, there are several dog training essential commands that every dog needs to know at any age.
Best of all, contrary to popular belief, you can teach old dogs new tricks! It doesn’t matter what age or breed your dog is – training is all the same.
The basic idea is to focus on what you want your dog to do, and reward approximations of that behavior with something that you like.
Most dog owners make the mistake of focusing on trying to stop behavior that they don’t like – which can be really difficult for an older dog who already has fixed behavior patterns.
Another common misconception is that teaching your dog to sit is the most important thing. The reality is, you can get through an entire lifetime with a well-behaved dog who doesn’t even know how to sit. When I did a podcast episode with two other professional trainers, “sit” wasn’t even on the list of five behaviors we’d teach any dog!
Here are some of the most important commands for your dog to know:
- This basic behavior is pretty simple: your dog is supposed to press his nose to your hand. Unlike “come,” this is a nice and precise behavior – which usually makes it easier to teach. Your dog knows exactly what his job is, eliminating the problem of dogs who stop 10 feet away from you or blow right past you. You can also use hand targets to replace teaching your dog to jump on or off of furniture, backing up, or moving away from a distraction.
- The key to teaching this behavior is rewarding small steps towards the right goal. At first, you might just be rewarding your dog for extending to sniff your hand when your hand is mere centimeters from his face. Eventually, you’ll ask him to run across the room to your hand – but there are a lot of steps between starting and proficiency!
- The simple concept that all dogs need – checking in with their owner. Engagement is simply teaching your dog that it’s worth it for them to check in and pay attention to you. Start out by simply rewarding your dog with a small treat or a smile and praise if he glances up at you. On walks, reward your dog with a treat (you want food rewards once you’re outdoors) for looking at you, even for a brief moment. If you’re struggling to get your dog to look at you unprompted outdoors, try standing still. Don’t pester your dog with noises or tugging on the leash – just wait. Your dog will check in eventually, I promise! Reward that, and then keep practicing. Eventually, you’ll be able to build on this engagement to teach your dog to check in with you when she’s startled, excited, or even off-leash. If your dog doesn’t think paying attention to you is important, all other training is an uphill battle. Denise Fenzi is the queen of engagement training for dogs – check out her four-part blog on engagement here.
- Many dogs are never really taught to chill out around the house, let alone in public. Some dogs learn to just fall asleep and ignore distractions on their own – but this skill is really challenging for many other dogs. I personally use Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. While it looks daunting, this 15-day protocol really takes the guesswork out of teaching your dog this challenging skill. This protocol involves teaching your dog that a mat, towel, or blanket on the ground is your dog’s cue to settle in and relax while stuff happens around them. It’s super easy to take to a BBQ, coffee shop, or the park.
- Dogs who walk nicely on leash tend to get more exercise, it’s that simple. There are many, many ways to teach your dog to walk nicely on leash. You can pick a method that makes sense to you – but keep in mind that any training collars or harnesses that “stop pulling” are just bandaid solutions. At best, they just physically stop your dog from pulling but don’t teach your dog much. At worse, many of these tools are painful or even harmful to your dog. Hannah Brannigan’s podcast has a great episode about loose leash walking here. She basically suggests rewarding your dog from your hip for every step at first, then spacing out the treats based on both your dog’s good behavior and landmarks, like mailboxes. If your dog surges ahead to pull, simply stop and reset, walk in a circle, or walk backwards until your dog is back “in position,” then you reward again. It’s a lot of treats at first (I used my dog’s entire breakfast for weeks when we were starting out), but it’s worth it and it does work!
Leave It/Drop It
- Teaching your dog not to eat something – or to spit something out – can absolutely save your dog’s life. Start by holding a little bit of boring food in your hand. Hold your hand, with the boring food, above your dog’s head. If she noses at it or moves towards it, close your hand, but if she waits or backs away, open your hand. Next, if she continues to stay away for a half second, give her a treat with your other hand. If she dives back in as soon as your hand opens, close your hand again. Repeat, building up duration that your dog has to wait while your hand is open before you give the treat. Slowly lower your hand so that it’s more tempting for your dog. Use tastier treats. Start adding the cue “leave it” right before you open your hand.
Dog training at every age is something you will continue to practice every year with your pet. If you just teach your dog these five basic skills, your dog will likely be a pretty well-behaved companion! Remember to reward behaviors that you like with food or praise, and prevent behaviors that you don’t want using pet gates or crates, and you and your dog will get along just fine in no time.
Learn more training tips for every dog age here.