Pete the Vet: What are the ten essential skills to teach dogs?

A well trained dog is a joy to have in your life: make sure your new best friend has mastered the essentials.
Pete the Vet: What are the ten essential skills to teach dogs?

What are the essential skills that dogs need to learn for them to become relaxed, easy, companions?

With the ending of COVID lockdowns, animal rescue groups are reporting a surge in the number of dogs being surrendered for rehoming: around eight unwanted dogs were brought to Dogs Trust every day during June and July. People who acquired small cuddly puppies when they were working from home have discovered the challenge of having a bouncy adolescent dog, especially when they have to go out to work. Issues like excessive barking, chewing random objects around the home, and jumping up on visitors can make people fall out of love with their new canine companions. What can be done to prevent this? What are the essential skills that dogs need to learn for them to become relaxed, easy, companions?

Traditionally, there are three key canine skills:

Come back when called

So-called “recall” is easy to teach in a quiet back garden, but more challenging to sustain when a dog is in a park with many distractions. However, effective recall is essential: if your dog will not reliably come back when called, you cannot allow them off the leash in a public place.

Sit and stay

There are times when you want your dog to stay in one spot, whether it’s in a busy home or in a public park. This is an easily taught skill, but if not repeated regularly, dogs can easily forget.

The “leave it” command

Whether your dog is about to eat the cat’s dinner or help themselves to a box of chocolates, there are times when it’s useful to be able to say “leave it” with the confident expectation that they will stop what they are doing. This is easy to teach, and should be part of every dog’s repertoire.

In response to the increased numbers of dogs being surrendered for adoption for behavioural reasons, Dogs Trust has created a helpful list of seven more useful life skills that can be taught to dogs.

1. Settling on the magic blanket. This is a blanket, towel or rug that’s big enough for your dog to lie on. The idea is that you teach your dog to lie down and stay on this blanket when you want them to settle down, either at home, or when you are out and about.

2. Loving home alone. Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioural problems seen today, and this has been exacerbated by dogs becoming used to the continual presence of their owners during lockdown. Now that people are heading out to work, some dogs are showing signs of severe anxiety when left on their own, leading to barking, destruction around the home, and general unhappiness. The best answer is to prevent the problem in the first place, by encouraging dogs to learn to be comfortable on their own for short periods, gradually leaving them for longer and longer.

3. Enjoying doggy downtime. Even when dogs don’t feel anxious on their own, they often become bored, and this can also lead to problem behaviour, such as chewing and barking. This can be helped by teaching dogs activities that they can do on their own, such as using safe, long-lasting, food-releasing chew toys like Kongs or K-9 Connectables.

4. Meeting people calmly. Nobody wants to be greeted by an enthusiastic furry monster, jumping up and placing muddy paws on a visitor’s clean clothes. Simple techniques can be used to teach dogs to stay calm, quiet and relaxed with visitors, significantly improving their social acceptance.

5. Chilling at the cafe. More and more cafes and pubs are now “dog friendly” in Ireland, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to stop for a coffee (or a glass of Guinness) while out on a walk. But you do need to teach your dog to be cafe- or pub-friendly, calmly lying at your feet, avoiding confrontations with people or other pets.

6. Giving squirrels space. There are many possible distractions when out and about with your dog, from squirrels and cats to people, bikes and cars. A secure harness and leash are important to keep your dog safe in a surprise encounter, but you can teach your dog distraction techniques to keep unnecessary excitement under control.

7. Ignoring other dogs. When you’re taking your dog for a walk, you’re very likely to meet other dogs, and such encounters don’t always go well. Growling, barking, and straining at the lead causes stress and distress to you and others. For the sake of peaceful walks for all, there are methods that you – and your dog – can easily learn to cultivate calmness.

These ten skills – the three basic commands plus the seven life enhancing behaviours – are simple to teach dogs. My new website, Petfix.com, includes links to the wide range of Dogs Trust videos which take you through the simple steps to working with your pet to help them achieve these goals. Most people underestimate the time needed to train dogs: ideally, you should spend fifteen minutes every day, engaging in training lessons with your pet. This can be done in five minute stretches, as part of the normal daily routines of feeding, walking and general engagement.

Dogs Trust offer online training classes (see https://www.dogstrust.ie/dog-school/) to help you learn how to understand your dog, and to show you the best way to teach them. They’re also offering a free “Life After Lockdown” pack, with wall charts and stickers to make it easier to track your dog’s progress from wild untrained mutt to socially skilled star.

A well trained dog is a joy to have in your life: make sure your new best friend has mastered the essentials.

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