I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.
A lot of people are shocked to hear that I only train my dogs to a few mandatory, commands: come, sit, stay, off (or no). I’ve stated many times that dogs are minimalists: they are simple creatures. Yes, they are indeed capable of learning quite a few commands and tricks, but to have a happy, comfortable relationship with your dog, you can easily get away with these few. Let’s break them down.
Start in a very boring, low-key situation. The dog park is not the place to start working on the come command. Your house works best. Start with the dog a few feet from you. Squat down, and while patting your hand against your leg the entire time, simply repeat the word “come” over and over, in your normal voice. Yes, this is a command, but barking “come” at your dog will have the opposite effect desired. Utilize Touch, Talk, Treat (calm petting, gentle praise and a treat) when your dog arrives to you.
If your dog doesn’t come to you, stop calling them, silently stand up and walk towards them, take them gently by the collar and tug, tug, tug them back to where you had initially call them, repeating the word come, come, come the entire time you are tugging them. (NOTE: tugging is essential. Do not drag your dog.) Practice over and over, gradually adding distance between you and the dog.
To work on recall outside, start with an enclosed area: your backyard, if possible. Repeat the steps above, but remember, we’ve not added more stimuli. There are birds, squirrels, noises… you may lose your dog’s focus and they may not come at all. Instead of getting angry, shouting and yelling, calmly stalk your dog. Silently walk directly towards them. They will dart in another direction. Simply change your course and continue to stalk them from location to location. This takes time and patience, but what you are doing is setting up the stage for future confrontations such as these. Your dog’s question is: Can I ignore your request? The answer is “no”. You must follow through with this answer.
Eventually you will be able to catch your dog. Resist the urge to punish: it is the worst thing you can do at this point. Simply tug your dog back to where you first called them, and offer Touch Talk Treat.
An easy way to help with this is to attach a long, cotton rope (like a clothesline) to their collar. At the other end, tie a huge knot. Let your dog wander around, dragging the rope with the knot behind them. When you call them, and they don’t come, you have an easy way to catch them: simply step on the rope (the knot will catch at your foot) and reel them in like a fish, repeating the word “come”. Touch Talk Treat when they arrive.
This is an important command; maybe even a life or death command. Practice, practice, practice.
Sit is simple. Gently push your dog’s rear down, all the while repeating “sit, sit, sit” in a calm, normal voice (if you are having problems getting them to sit, try gently pushing back on their chest while you push down on their rear). Once their derriere hits the ground, Touch Talk, Treat calmly; remember, we don’t want to energize them. We want them to sit. Most dogs will learn this command very quickly.
Most people confuse the “come” command with “stay”. Keep it simple.
Put your dog in a sit. Stand up straight, and nail your dog to the ground with your finger pointed directly at them. Maintain eye contact, and while taking one or two steps backward, calmly repeat the word “stay” over and over. Don’t go too far! One or two steps initially will do it. Then, while still repeating the word “stay”, walk back to your dog (with finger still pointing at them). When you get to them, Touch, Talk, Treat. Do not call your dog to you: remember, you’re working on the “stay” command, not the “come” command.
Dogs are binary: everything is yes or no. There is no in between. Every question they will ever ask you will be a yes or no question. Therefore, you only need to teach them one word for negative behavior. In my house, I use “off”. Use whatever word you want, but remember, you only need one word. It’s not “no jumping, off the couch, stop barking!” One translate one word in English for one word in “dog”. Dogs only have one word for “no”, and so should you.
In order to teach your dog a verbal negative, simply link a word with the body language described in The PAW Method. Again, calmly repeating the word over and over again (in my house, it’s “off”) whenever you’re using the body language will create a link in the dog’s mind.
That’s it! I have never specifically trained Orion a down command. Sparta somehow picked one up somewhere, but 99% of the things you will ever need your dog to do can be done with these simple commands. Build on them if you wish (Sparta’s holding random object in her mouth is an example; Orion running into a heel position on command whenever he’s off-leash and staying right by me is another), but remember, they aren’t mandatory for a happy, healthy relationship with your dog. Tricks are fun, and are a wonderful way to bond with your dog, but don’t stress about what your dog does or doesn’t do: focus on come, sit, stay and no and you’ll have the canine companion you’ve always wanted.
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio
All photos generously provided by Brittany Graham Photography.