How to Train Your Dog in Basic “Life” Skills – and Why It’s Important

Jacqueline Boyd, Nottingham Trent University

Every year at Crufts, the UK’s largest dog show, dogs and their companions can take part in all sorts of exciting competitions. Whether it’s tailgating to music (essentially dancing with dogs) or obedience, or high-speed flyball relay races, it can be a wonderful fun party for performance dogs.

Of course, the reality is that most companion dogs will never enter the dog show ring – what they need to learn are life skills.

The importance of a “good canine citizen” – a dog that can happily co-exist in human society – cannot be underestimated. A well-trained dog benefits both humans and dogs by strengthening the bond between animal and owner. And well-behaved dogs are also less likely to be abandoned.

So helping our dogs learn to behave is one of the most important things we can do. But what are the “must have” skills and what factors should we consider before starting the training process? Here are some things to think about.

“Must-have” key skills

Having dogs comes with a lot of responsibilities. The Kennel Club’s Canine Code highlights issues such as what identification your dog should wear on his collar and the importance of cleaning up after your dog has defecated in a public place.

But our dogs must also be able to function in society. That means they need to be able to deal with other people, other dogs, and a whole host of situations. Otherwise, dogs may become fearful or begin to display other problematic behaviors that may decrease their quality of life.

We can teach young dogs how to behave appropriately by creating positive associations with everyday situations and rewarding the behaviors we want. Allowing them to repeat and repeat good behavior is essential.

Recall – your dog comes back to you when called – is one of the most crucial skills for all dogs, and it can be dangerous to others if not learned well.

Every time our dogs come back to us, whether called or spontaneous, we must reward them and “pay” them well. This ensures that they will want to come back to us when called, rather than following their urge to chase the runner or squirrels, or go to greet other dogs in the park.

The principle of repetition and reward applies to all the life skills we expect from our dogs, from calm walking on a leash to friendly interaction with people and other animals – or just sitting quietly next to us. while we have coffee. It’s also important to train our dogs to spend time alone to avoid problematic separation behaviors.

Reward-based training also works for older dogs. Dogs that have been rehomed and may have had a less than ideal start to life can begin to regain confidence and learn (or relearn) skills while establishing a close partnership with their new human.

Differences between dogs
It’s important to remember that different breeds and different types of dogs have different “built-in” skill sets. Thousands of years of selective breeding means that dogs are one of the most diverse species on the planet, varying in shape, size, general appearance and behavior.

Different breeds and types of dogs, from hounds to hunting dogs, terriers to toy dogs, all have individual characteristics. Some, like gun dog breeds – which include spaniels and retrievers – will be more likely to carry objects or sniff when on a leash. Others will be more inclined to hunt and be interested in moving objects, such as collies and terriers. Mixed-breed dogs often show mixed characteristics as well.

Knowing everything about your dog’s breed and personality traits is important for effective and rewarding training.

This will allow you to channel instinctive behaviors in a positive way to minimize the chances of developing problematic behaviors. Instead of developing an interest in chasing cats or local wildlife, for example, terriers can be encouraged to engage in controlled pursuit of toys. Dogs who like to sniff everyone and everything can be trained to smell work as a fun way to exercise their noses, brains and bodies in a managed way.

Trainers are available
It is our responsibility to help our dogs learn the key skills for a happy life in a fair and effective way. Dog training has come a long way from the overly regulated, domineering, and sometimes punishment-based training of the past.

Skilled training now involves working in partnership and building a good relationship with your dog. Training in this way also makes the experience enjoyable for our dogs, and they are more likely to engage with us.

If you are looking for a trainer to work with you and your dog, find someone who is knowledgeable, suitably qualified, and can make training fun and fair for you and your dog – after all, a big part of dog training also involves the training of their humans. You can also join a training class, and it’s always a good idea to go watch a session or talk to the trainer before signing up.

To ensure we have a happy canine companion, we need to equip our dogs with the skills that will help them enjoy a fulfilling, stress-free life. And who knows, maybe next year you’ll want to join your canine pal in the “Good Citizen” ring at Crufts, where less savvy dogs can demonstrate their life skills in a fun, less formal atmosphere.


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