Teaching Dogs ‘The Basics’

Maplewood Dog

The other day during a lesson with a long time client who has a new puppy she asked me, so when do we start teaching The Basics and how long will they take?

I looked at her blankly. The Basics? As she’d said The Basics with capital letters, as if what we were already doing wasn’t The Basics.

“You know, the six basic commands…sit, down, stay, come….”

Oh. (Though I can’t for the life of me figure out what the sixth one might be. Sit, down, come, stay, heel and what? Stand maybe? But how many people outside of the competition world really use a formal stand cue?)

When I think about the education I want my puppy or new to me dog to have I have an entirely different list I’d call The Basics. My Basics revolve around a dog learning to navigate the human world they are in as safely, comfortably and confidently as possible. Sure sometimes obedience cues may be involved, but they aren’t a key component or feature even.

Zora lounging on me on a blanket on the couch

Here are The Basics I strive to teach. As once these Basics are solid teaching those more formal cues is most often a walk in the park as the foundations are now in place. I take The Basics very seriously for the dogs in my life and spend a tremendous amount of energy, time, care and thought into teaching them.

1. Humans will help you. When in doubt, find a human and ask for help. You don’t need to take care of problems alone.

2. Humans are safe. We might be a little slow to understand sometimes, and we make mistakes, but we are safe and can be trusted. If we do something you don’t understand, it’s ok to forgive us and know it wasn’t done maliciously.

3. Humans will keep you safe. No matter where or what’s around. You can go anywhere and be anywhere and know I will do everything I am able to keep you safe.

4. Humans are trustworthy. I will not lie to you. I will not set you up to fail. You can trust me to help you, to be safe, to keep you safe, to be honest, to be accountable, to be who you need me to be. You can trust that if I ask you to do something, you can do it.

5. Body awareness. Know where your body is in space, how to move it in different ways in different places. How to control your body at various speeds and directions, and on different surfaces and objects. Understand your body in relation to other beings, bodies and objects. Learn what your body can and cannot comfortably and safely do. I use this Basic when teaching sit, down, heel, stay, come among other skills.

6. Emotional control. How to go from 0 to 60, and from 60 to 0. Ie the learning and ability to be aware of and understand your arousal levels. With various stimulus and places. How to control yourself emotionally. When you are tired, excited, unsure, Etc. How high is too high. How to recognize that feeling. And coping skills for what to do safely to calm yourself and to handle your excitement or insecurities depending on context. I include in this learning to keep your mouth and paws to yourself when interacting with humans unless otherwise invited. And how to settle. I use this Basic later when teaching stay among other skills.

7. A default automatic leave it response. Assume that everything in an environment is not for you unless otherwise invited to engage with it. This includes: food, objects, other people, other animals. If you want to interact or engage with something either find a trusted human to include in the decision, or pretend what you want isn’t really there. This Basic also ties in heavily to Basic #1. I use this Basic when teaching leash walking, stay and come among other skills.

8. How to hold the need to void, despite needing to go, until taken to an appropriate place. Ie house breaking and toileting. Totally one of my Basics. Don’t pee in the house, don’t pee in my bed, don’t pee because it took me 15 seconds instead of 5 to get my coat on, don’t pee on the tunnel because a dog before you just did.

9. How to be relaxed when confined or restrained. In various ways, environments, contexts. Everything from grooming, to vet procedures, to car rides, to leash walking. From crates, to muzzles, to leashes, to harnesses, to hands.

10. How to be alone. Even if activity is around you.

11. How to play. With people. With safe other animals. By yourself. In different places. With different things. How to feel relaxed and safe enough to be vulnerable, silly, playful. In that how to confidently make mistakes, to confidently try, to take chances and risk.

I think those are my Basics in a nut shell. If my dog has learned those 11 things well, then teaching sit, down, stay, come, heel and the who knows what 6th are a breeze, along with so many other things I may ever wish to teach or do.

What do you consider are The Basics?

0 thoughts on “Teaching Dogs ‘The Basics’

    1. Thanks Anne! I think many of them could probably be applied to many animal human relationships , though hadn’t really thought about it. Good point! Thanks

  1. Same, though I did start teaching “basic obedience” pretty early, just didn’t depend on her to be reliable about it. Heck I still don’t. Not as long as she’s a wishy washy adolescent. But I started teaching tricks early too. Mainly because I just wanted to teach her how to learn. When I was younger I would complain to my mom about having to learn stuff in school I “would never use.” She would say it’s not about filling your head with stuff, it’s about “learning how to learn.” And because she’s a P.A., she would explain to me about pathways in the brain and such. I used to role my eyes, but of course I understand now.

    1. Excellent point. Though none of us need to learn how to learn. We are all learning every moment of the day, every situation, every interaction, etc. what we do learn in school hopefully is how to be taught. How to maximize efficiency in the learning process. How to recognize the factors that improve our own abilities to problem solve, retain, and repeat. How to be conscious of what it takes to learn something, instead of leaving it as an organic environmentally influenced response and process. With dogs the learning how to take instruction, how to trust the instructor and that it’s ok to take risks, and the instructor learning how to maximize the learning process for that individual dog are all pieces of the Basics puzzle as well.

        1. Likely. But language matters. saying you are there to ‘learn how to learn’ isn’t the same as what you are really learning, which is how to be taught and how you as an individual learn. You already know how to learn.

    1. Agreed wait can be very helpful and useful in these. I don’t actually teach a cued sit for a Basic though. I prefer a down as a default if I teach any set positional cued response. Most often I teach as a basic wait means freeze where you are. And most else I use environmental cues to build the behavior response (ex sit and wait at the door, I don’t actually cue sit or wait, I use the door opening and closing to elicit, and prompt the behavior.) I do teach a consistent cued release very early on.

  2. love your dog-point-of-view in the list of basics — it’s very telling and inspiring. I’m a person who does use ‘stand’ because we lost all the grass in our backyard a while back and on rainy days i have to wipe Finn’s paws. I put him in a sit to do the front paws first, then ask for a stand and wipe the rear. I cd use ‘belly up’ but that’s a vulnerable position & he doesn’t like this grooming so much so I figure sit/stand is better.

    Because we have SO MUCH mud this time of year, I just got a contraption for wet cleaning. It looks like a travel mug, except a little wider, open topped, and equipped with soft plastic spines. You put water in it and dunk their paws in. Having ‘stand’ for that drill is very useful (‘belly up’ wouldn’t work for this method)

    1. Awesome use of stand! And neat that those foot dunk products actually work! I’ve seen them before but never known anyone who actually used it. The mud is horrendous this year already. I just de-mudded the crew on the back porch myself. I dunk their feet in a large 5 gal bucket, 2 front feet in, then 2 rear feet in. So much mud!! lol

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