If my dogs could only learn 4 behaviors…

Sit, down, stand, spin, other (other direction spin), bow, relax (lay on hip), here!, shake, touch, pretty, get-that, roll over, scoot, weave, backwards weaves, go to your mark, take off my socks, but said socks in the laundry basket, open your crate, go in your crate, close your crate, go to bed, out, take it, leave it, stay, wait, heel, walk-easy, name recognition, default focus, tug-it, front, over, through, back up, kitchen (get out of), hop in, hop on, off, circle, around, hold it, bring it, blow bubbles, hoop, etc.  These are just some of the cues/behaviors that Shayne knows.  Most people don’t need or want to teach all of these behaviors.  I do it largely to keep Shayne busy and thus me happy!

If Shayne were like an old Commodore 64 computer and had very limited memory capabilities, I’d have to trim down the list of behaviors I teach her.  What this would allow me to do is teach fewer cues but they would be extremely well known and proofed in a variety of circumstances.  So since I’m only focusing on 4 behaviors, each one receives more of my time and attention to make sure the cue is proofed extensively.

If an owner was only capable of teaching (or willing to), say, 4 cues to a dog what would I suggest they teach? I’m going to say that these behaviors/habits are very important but aren’t on my list crate training, housebreaking, and name recognition.  I figure these are like the most basic programming on the motherboard of the C64.  These are day-to-day habits that are very important to have but they are almost more of habits than actual cued behaviors–with the exception of name recognition but I feel like most lay-people don’t see this as a trained behavior so I’m going to cheat and not include it.

I would absolutely teach a hand target as one of the four behaviors.  If your dog can respond nearly 100% of the time to the cue “touch” in almost any situation that allows you to recall your dog, get their attention, turn their head away from something, get off the couch, get on the bed, get out of the car, loose leash walk, any number of behaviors can be achieved by using a hand target.  It’s become one of my favorite behaviors because it is so useful in so many aspects and can be used as a management tool—“Don’t pick up that stick, touch my hand instead,” “Please don’t jump on me (or the visitor) instead touch my hand that is down by my knee.”

Most people are not going to want to walk a dog who is pulling like a tank all the time so loose leash walking is definitely on my list.  If walking the dog isn’t a pleasant experience, it isn’t going to get done.  If it doesn’t get done there will likely be other behavioral problems to follow–chewing, destruction, hyperactivity, reactivity, nipping/mouthing, etc.  Since getting our dogs out for walks is important for socializing, mental stimulation, and physical exercise I cannot not but this on  my list.  The potential repercussions for not getting dogs out for a walk can be huge and ultimately lead to a dog being dumped at a shelter.

Whereas I would normally teach a default impulse control at barriers/doors/gates, etc, for a dog who is only learning a limited number of cues, I think a wait/stay cue is more utilitarian.  Oh please don’t topple me as I walk down the stairs, wait at the top.  I’d really like you to get out of the kitchen… walk out of the kitchen, ask for a  “touch” then cue the “wait.”  Don’t bolt out the door, stay here while I move around, wait for your dinner to be put on the ground, while on an off-leash hike please don’t go any further.  It’s just another tool to be able to control space and control access without having to physically manipulate the dog.

Now most people would put recall on this list and i think that would be an excellent option, however, I would ideally have recall covered with a very solid ‘touch’.  If my “touch” cue wasn’t solid enough, I would absolutely include a recall in this list … without a recall there is little chance of getting a dog back who may slip a collar or sneak out a door.

Lastly would be either a leave-it or an out depending on the dog’s inclinations.  Is this a dog who steals food, lunges after bicyclists, or pesters resident cats?  Then I’d probably work on a very solid leave-it.  If the dog has poor impulse control about mouthing or nipping, leave-it can be a useful tool.  If the dog has a tendency to steal items and not give them back, or a dog who may be a resource guarder, and out will be a crucial cue to preventing problems and preventing an escalation in behavior.

Although I think sit and down can be helpful to get a dog into a specific position, I didn’t include them on the list for a few reasons.  I think sit is a behavior that almost every dog knows to some extent … families almost always take the time to at least teach this behavior (as represented by the number of ‘strays’ that end up in the shelter who know nothing more than how to sit).  Secondly, I think the purpose of sit/down (stationary behavior) can be replaced and replicated using a hand target and wait cue if necessary.

I think the list would change based on the challenges of a specific dog but these are definitely what I would call foundational behaviors. That would be the focus area for dogs and their handlers.


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About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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11 Responses to If my dogs could only learn 4 behaviors…

  1. Jodi says:

    Tena, when you are clicker training, what is the best way to teach the “stay” command? Delilah will normally stay while sitting, but I have trouble getting her to “down” and stay in the down.


    • When i’m teaching stay, I actually don’t use the clicker. I use my verbal marker (precision timing isn’t as important with stay). If the pup has a hard time staying in the down, i’d first work on duration of down. For that i simply withhold the click for a second after the dog goes down. When they are successful withhold the click for a few seconds etc. Working up the time between when the elbows hit the ground and when you give the click and reward (i will use a verbal marker when the elbows hit but no food reward). When you have a dog who is CAPABLE of staying down for a moment or two, then you can start working on stay.

  2. Kirsten says:

    That is an excellent list! I love the versatility of “touch.” Surprisingly this is the one where people most often ask “and what is the utility of this, exactly?” so I explain some of the things you mention.

    I also like it as a way to desensitize shy dogs to new situations, people, and objects….e.g. asking the dog to target the kneecap or the shoe of a big tall guy with a beard and a hat.

    Thanks for the great post–

    • Really good point about using it as a tool for shy dogs! During my orientation class I always tell them that this behavior– demo touch w/ rio– is going to be a mainstay in their training! They look at me with blank faces. Then i demo using touch to get a recall, to teach LLW, to greet a stranger, and to get a dog off a couch…. then they are all wide-eyed amazed. Then they get it.

  3. Tucker's Mom says:

    Great post, and very interesting. Both T&P have a solid touch/target, but I mostly used it when perfecting contacts in agility training, and haven’t used it much outside of those confines. To be honest, I never really thought of the touch command being as something that could be used in lieu of a recall, for example. But when you explain it the way you did, I can absolutely see your point.

    • Hand targets can be used for oh so many things… i’ve used it as a play break for my dogs. If they are getting too intense i cue a “touch!” and both dogs break away from the play to touch my hands. I was hiking at the farm the other day and a neighbor had put hot-wire up all around the corn fields and we normally walk right next to the fields so each time the dogs veered toward the fence i cued a “touch” behavior to keep them from getting themselves ZAPPED to high heaven!

  4. ettel says:

    I like this list – though I think I might add a solid go to and stay on mat, though I guess you could get something similar with a combo hand target and solid wait. But I like the idea of training a sit/down/etc. to mean “sit/down/etc. until I release you” thereby making a wait/stay unnecessary. I haven’t trained my dogs that way, but think I will with future dogs and it’s how I set up client dogs.

  5. Sian Harman says:

    Hey, THANK YOU Tena 😉
    Very interesting, and I like the examples and explanations too.
    My five month old GSD and I are both learning as we go along really, so this has been very helpful.
    I had never seen much point in teaching him to target, but now I get it 😉

  6. Hmm, I think I would replace your Stay with a Down. Down can mean stay until released and I use it all the time with my dogs. I like Touch, and LLW. I think those 3 cues are the only ones I actually use in everyday life besides my boundary cue which could be replaced with Down if I’m consolidating, and down could also replace out/leave it 🙂 So if I get 4 cues in this little game my 4th would actually be Get It.

  7. None of my dogs have ever learned “Touch” and they’re certainly about to! I would definitely be one of those people in your training class with the “???” look on her face until you explained it 🙂 I’ve heard it on here before but tended to wonder what the point was! The answer: there isn’t one … there are like 20!!

    • It’s so true, most people don’t see the value in it but it’s like teaching your dog hundreds of behaviors without actually teaching them. You can use it for almost anything… when Shayne is at the vet i play touch in the waiting room to keep her busy/relaxe and then in the exam i have her continually target while the vets look her over so she’s not curling around or spinning away… she just stands there and touches my hand. it can be used for so many things…

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