In today’s post, I want to talk about a very important subject in dog training: core behaviors.
I’ve found over the years that there are three of these “core” behaviors. If a dog does these behaviors, and does them well, then we can manage or solve 95% of the things that bother the owners about that dog’s behavior. Those three behaviors are: coming when called, staying when told, and walking properly. We might achieve these behaviors through various commands, but those three concepts are absolutely critical. With mastery of them, your dog can manage almost anything.
I want to dedicate my next few posts to these core behaviors, because nearly every dog I meet has a merely rudimentary understanding of these behaviors. Perhaps he will come, but not very well. Perhaps he will sit, but not stay. That’s not very useful. When the time comes to apply that obedience to aggression or manners, then the dog won’t behave in the presence of distraction. In this post, I want to discuss things you can do to get your core behaviors down better.
If your dog comes when called reliably, a lot of problems go away. You can call your dog away from the door when someone rings the bell, prevent your dog from barking at the window, and get rid of aggression. This concept is huge! I like to teach two different types of recall: casual and formal. I use two simply because most people tell their dogs to “come” fifty times a day. We say it all the time. That’s fine, but anything we say that often is going to lose some of its meaning. We won’t be reinforcing it all the time, so because it’s used all the time it will become lax. I allow that with my casual recall. Teaching this recall is vey easy: I call the dog, then give him lots of rewards of food and praise. I do this over and over—simple.
But here’s the problem: the casual recall probably won’t be good enough to overcome real problems. Your dog will probably really enjoy coming when called, but when the chips are down you can’t count on that behavior. When the dog has to choose between obeying commands for a treat or chasing the cat, then the dog will usually go after the cat. That situation calls for what I call a “formal recall.”
The formal recall is used less, so it stays more fresh. I often use the word “Here,” but you can use any word that you know you won’t overuse. You also want to train this recall a bit differently. Rather than just throwing some praise at the dog, I usually try to create a reflex out of the command. Most commands don’t need to be reflexive: if I say “sit” or “heel,” the dog can think about that command for a second. But my formal recall might be used when the ball your dog is chasing bounces into the road and a car is driving toward it. It might be used when you’re out hiking and a group of five dogs is coming toward you. These situations call for immediacy, and for the use of a more formal recall. When I say “Here,” I don’t want my dog to think. I just want her to come.
Reflexes are built on timing. So to train this behavior, I take a long leash—around 20 to 30 feet—and let my dog wander and sniff the bushes. I’ll say “Here” and immediately give a pop on the leash. It’s not a correction or punishment; think of flicking a friend to get them to pay attention. You’re just grabbing the dog’s attention. I do this hundreds of times. Then, when the time finally comes when I don’t have the leash, the dog comes without thinking when he hears that command. If you can train a solid recall, you’re already on your way to having everything you need from your dog.