12 lifesaving tricks to teach your dog
Does your pooch come when you call? Having an obedient pooch isn't about tricks; it's about knowing how he'll respond in an emergency situation or when he's near a busy street.
Mon, Feb 18 2013 at 5:09 PM
Photos: Jaymi Heimbuch
We all love to teach our dogs tricks. Some are frivolous like "play dead" and some are important, like going potty only when outdoors. But there are other tricks to teach our furry friends that could save their lives. Whether it's to keep Fido from being hit by a car or getting into a fight, these 12 tricks are intended as building blocks, steps toward an obedient and therefore safe dog. Not every trick will be necessary for your particular pooch and you might have your own customized tricks created to keep your dog safe — after all our dogs are individuals and our relationships with them are multi-layered. But these top 12 tricks are a great place to start picking and choosing what is needed to create a safety net of good behavior for you and your dog.
"Sit" is one of the most basic tricks we can teach our dogs. When a dog is in a "sit" position, he knows he is meant to stay sitting until you say otherwise. If you need your dog to just chill out while you take care of something, you can put him in a sit position, knowing he won't run off and get into trouble while you're distracted. It's a perfect command for situations like standing in a crowded place or if you're loading the car for a trip and need Fido to hang out before getting in. Or on the flip side, telling your dog to "sit" before opening the door of the car to let him out gives you time to open the door, leash him up, and make sure no other cars are coming in the street or parking lot before allowing him to exit the vehicle.
The "lie down" trick is another way to have your dog stay in one place and out of trouble. Teaching your dog to lie down — especially if you teach him to drop to a down position when you signal from far away — can go a long way in keeping him out of trouble. A down position is one of increased vulnerability, so if your dog is getting too rambunctious around other dogs or is too wound up in a certain situation and simply needs to mellow out, a "lie down" command gives him an opportunity to calm down and remember his human is the one who is in control. Like the "sit" command, this is an active command, meaning your dog isn't just lounging — he should be purposefully staying in one spot, keeping focus on you and waiting for his next command. Both the sit and lie down commands are excellent for bringing a boisterous dog back down to earth before a situation escalates out of control — such as when other dogs are around that might spark a fight, small children might get hurt, or other attention-grabbers pull your dog's focus away from you.
This one is a bit redundant. After all, if you put a dog in a sit or down position, then he shouldn't need a "stay" command since he should remain in a sit or down until released. But the "stay" command works kind of like a security blanket for both owner and dog — this way everyone knows that the expectation is that the dog isn't going to move for a while, no matter where you are located, even if that means you are out of sight. And this can be a truly lifesaving command if you need a dog to stay put when there is car traffic or anything happening where a dog moving around could mean he gets injured. For the photo above, I'd never have just said "sit" and crossed an intersection. I want my dog to know he isn't to move until I say so and it may be awhile. "Stay" ensures that.
This trick is rather obvious. After all, knowing that your dog will return to your side without fail in any situation is a big part of ensuring he will be safe. But getting that "rocket recall" can be tough. When a dog is distracted, or knows that you are much more boring than whatever trouble he is getting into, then getting him to come when called is a challenge. There are different ways to approach it, depending on a dog's personality, but the best way to make sure your dog beelines back to you when you call is to give him the most amazing treat he can possibly imagine every time he comes back to your side. Whether it is rotisserie chicken, or liver baby food, or tripe, make sure he only gets that treat when he hears, and obeys, the recall command. Then he knows that when he hears the word "come" he'll get a jackpot of a reward. Here's a great video about getting a rocket recall with an example of exactly why it is so important for your dog to come back to you no matter what else is happening.
Your name is the most exciting word in the world
To humans, names are really important. It is embedded in us to use someone's name to get their attention. Why bother fighting against that compulsion to say a name when needing your dog's attention? But if it works for us to say the name, we need to make sure it works for the dog to hear his name. Teaching a dog to love his name sets the foundation for everything else in your relationship as it creates a level of trust as well as willingness to learn more tricks. And it can also be a lifesaver when out and about. For instance, if a dog is reactive to other dogs while on leash and his attention begins to zero in on a dog walking toward you on the street, you can say your dog's name to bring his attention back to you. You can give him other commands or treats until the other dog has passed. You avoid conflict, and you etch away at that reactivity since your dog will realize that keeping his attention on you is much more rewarding than getting freaked out by that strange dog ahead. You now have an invaluable tool that can be used in situations from busy streets to chaotic dog parks to finding a dog that has wandered off out of sight.
Sit at street corners
Some dogs just don't get that streets are dangerous places. Why would they? Streets and the traffic on them are human inventions, and probably seem arbitrary to a dog. But even if your dog doesn't know that streets are dangerous, he can learn that the spot where a street and sidewalk meet is a place where treats are earned. The curb can become a "cue" for a dog to sit. By teaching a dog to automatically sit when he reaches a curb, you'll lower the chances that he will trot into the street when a car is coming. Keep in mind, though, that this is a tough trick for a dog to learn, and one you may have to work at for a long time. But if your dog has the personality to master this trick, it can be a real lifesaver.
If you don't want your dog getting into something that could kill him, "leave it" is a must-know trick. Many dogs have trouble with the notion of ignoring something that may be just so very tempting. And let's face it: We really do know what's better for a dog to leave alone than a dog does. A solid "leave it" command works for keeping your dog from exploring dangerous objects — even other wildlife you come across on walks or hikes — or getting too close to an object or situation that could harm him. Bonus: This is a great foundational command for teaching your dog other fun tricks like balancing treats on his nose or even as part of the process to train him not to jump on people. After all, food isn't the only thing the "leave it" command can apply to!
If you've ever had a dog that eats anything and everything he finds, the "drop it" command can be a lifesaver if you find he has scooped up something unsavory or flat-out dangerous. To avoid stomachaches or worse, you'll want to teach your dog to want to drop something from his mouth the moment you tell him to. For some dog personalities, this might be a big challenge, so make sure that you build a foundation of providing incredible treats every time he obeys the "drop it" command. Your dog will then know that the biggest reward is not what's in his mouth but what he'll get if he casts it aside. This command is also excellent for reminding your dog that possessiveness is not a positive personality trait. For example, "drop it" can be used for diffusing tug-o-war games that are getting out of hand and may escalate into a fight.
This is a great trick for making a dog stop in midstride (click on the photo above to see a video). It is slightly redundant if you already have the "Your Name Is The Most Exciting Word In The World" trick down because with both tricks the intention is to get the dog to stop what he is doing and focus attention back on you. But I've found that the "wait" trick is a nice middle ground, used when I just want him to stop and pause for a moment before we move on. Sometimes he sits, sometimes he just stands there, sometimes he circles back around toward me for a few steps — it doesn't matter to me how he waits as long as he stops moving forward and focuses his attention on me when he hears it. It's a perfect trick for off-leash walking when you want your dog to pause before you turn a blind corner and aren't sure what's headed your way, if a car is pulling into a driveway, if he's jogging straight toward a patch of poison oak on the hiking trail, or any number of reasons to keep your pooch safe off-leash.
When your dog is off leash or without a collar and you need him to move along with you somewhere, the "heel" command is a must to keep him safely by your side. It's also a good command even while on leash when you're moving through large crowds or in areas with construction or similar danger zones. You can be strict about it, making the heel command one where your dog must walk right up next to you with his head even with your leg, as is the rule in obedience classes. Or you can make it a little less stringent, with the dog knowing he just has to walk by your side until told otherwise. While a solid "heel" command should be enough to keep a dog next to you, I've also taught my dog the command "glue." When he hears "glue!" he sticks his nose on the palm of my hand and keeps it there even if we're walking or jogging. It comes in handy as our equivalent of holding hands across the street when he is off-leash and there are too many cars around. It's more for my sense of security than my dog's, because then I can feel where he is even when I'm looking elsewhere. Check out the video I made of him demonstrating "glue."
If you have a dog that is prone to making independent (and stupid) decisions unless you're really paying attention, then a "focus" command is a good trick to have at the ready. This is simply a trick that tells the dog, "Ignore everything in the world except me right now." It is ideal for situations that could get a nervous dog too amped up — such as when walking past other dogs that are giving him the stink eye. "Focus" helps your dog know that he can zone out everything else going on around him (even that mean dog) because you're the only thing important right now and you'll handle the rest. I often use this with my dog when we're walking past a flock of pigeons on the city street. It can be all too much temptation for him and, if left to stare at the birds too long, will bolt out even into the street to chase them up. A "Focus!" brings his attention back on me so we can walk past the flock without danger of him taking off. (Bonus: It also works great for taking pet photos — I say "focus" and my dog looks at the camera for as long as I need him to!)
Don't take candy from strangers
It's sad to say, but you can't always trust that someone has good intentions when giving your dog a treat. There are horror stories of people handing out poisoned "treats" to dogs. But we don't have to be as extreme as that in understanding why passing up food from strangers is a smart trick for your dog to learn. This also works for dogs that have food allergies and you don't want some random person at the dog park feeding them something that'll cause a reaction. And it also works well to prevent unwanted begging, because let's face it: A dog that begs is simply being rude, not cute. However, this might be one of the hardest things to teach your dog. And I can't claim to have taught mine this trick — and I probably never will. Since my dog is fearful of strangers, I have encouraged the idea that humans (even strangers) are walking treat dispensers. However, it can be done! For instance, protection dogs are trained to refuse food provided by anyone other than their handler or individuals that the dog has been trained to regard as "safe." This reduces the potential of a protection dog being poisoned by a criminal. While your dog likely doesn't need to be "poison proofed" to this extent, it's still a reasonable idea to teach your dog a command like "No beg!" or even use the "leave it" command when you notice him wanting to accept a treat from a stranger.
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