Basic skills

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I recently accepted a temporary position training Service Dogs. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time in public places with dogs in training. People have varied reactions when they see us out training, but the comment I get most often is, “I wish my dog would behave like that.”

I smile and nod, but inside I’m screaming.  I’ll share those inner thoughts with you.

Well-trained dogs do not just magically appear. They are the culmination of hours of time and training. Rather than wishing you had an obedient dog, take the time to make it happen.

Service Dogs need to know specific skills to alleviate the handicap of their owner. However, all their skills are based on a strong foundation of obedience. If you want to have a dog whose company you enjoy when you’re out and about, work on the basics.

The first skill your dog needs if you want him to be an enjoyable companion on-the-go is solid heeling. A dog at heel should maintain a position next to the handler’s left side. The area between the dog’s nose and shoulders stays in line with the seam of the handler’s left pants leg, as close as possible to without interfering with the handler’s movement. The dog must maintain this position regardless of pace or turns and must sit when his handler stops, without pulling ahead or lagging behind. The dog’s ability to walk close to you without pulling, stopping or focusing on things in the environment will make your walks with your dog much more pleasant.

Another important obedience skill that service dogs and pet dogs should both have are reliable sit stays. Your dog needs to sit when told, not the second or third or fourth time but the first time you ask for it. Once the dog is sitting, he needs to remain seated no matter what else is going on. A squirrel running past, an unexpected loud noise, a child bouncing a ball, a person dropping a hotdog – none of these are excuses for your dog to break a stay.

With the sit stay mastered, you should begin to work on a down stay.  The down is often more difficult for a dog to master. Some dogs are resistant to doing the down at all, and once there, it is harder for them to maintain the position. However, if you’re going to take your dog to a picnic or a concert, where you’ll need him to be still for a long time, you’ll want him to be comfortable. The down is the best position for this.

Another important skill for both service dogs and companion dogs is the “leave it” command. Dogs are curious and inquisitive and often explore everything with their mouths. It’s no fun to have your dog out among other people if he’s constantly lunging for food on the ground.  “Leave it” tells your dog he is to ignore whatever it is until and unless you allow him to explore it.

Another vital skill is “come.” When you’re among crowds of people, all kinds of things can happen, and some of those things can cause you to drop your leash by accident. If this situation occurs, you don’t want your pleasant outing to turn into a chase.  A recall command will teach your dog to come to you in any situation.

Service dogs perform amazing skills for their handlers. Some dogs pull wheelchairs. Others predict seizures, open doors, retrieve dropped items, turn on lights or guide the blind. Whether you’re teaching your dog a complex behavior sequence or something much simpler, like a sit stay, the tools are the same. You need to know how to break the skill down into smaller components, how to cue him to perform these components, how to put the pieces together, how to tell him he’s doing a great job and when to reward him.

Well-trained dogs don’t just happen. In “The Magicians,” author Lev Grossman writes, “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” The only way your dog will be an obedient friend and partner is if you devote the time and energy needed to train him.

Karlene Turkington is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and lifelong animal lover.

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