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What should I teach my reactive dog? Here are 11 key training cues to get you started

There are so many things you can teach your reactive dog that help grow their confidence and improve responsiveness. What you should teach your dog depends on a few factors including your lifestyle, hobbies and needs.

In this article, I share 11 basic manners I like all my dog clients so they have a vocabulary of behaviors they can respond to and you are better able to communicate with them as a result. I consider the following behaviors foundational manners for city dogs.


Foundational Dog Manners


The following 10 behavior cues (sometimes called "commands" but I prefer "cues") create a foundational vocabulary with which you can communicate with your reactive dog. Once your dog knows these, you can more easily address problem behaviors and move on to teaching tricks, sports and other hobbies. Teaching your dog helps build confidence which is important for dogs who have fear-based behavior issues.


Which cues does your dog already know? What one will be the next cue you add to your dog's repertoire?


Sit

Sit nice because it’s easy to teach and gives your dog a behavior to offer when they aren't what to do (or to offer when they just want to a treat out of you).


Stay/wait

Stay and wait are technically two different behaviors. As a Canine Reactivity Specialist, most of my clients come to me when they are already pretty frazzled by their dog's behavior. That's why I usually merge stay & wait into one cue clients can use universally. The technical difference between the two is that in “stay” your dog remains where they are until you return to them and in “wait” your dog remains where they are until you call them to you. I will teach it this way if clients want, however, if they can only deal with one cue for having their dog stay put, that's what they get.


Recall (aka "coming when called")

Dogs love to run so you can easily see the need for this cue! Teaching your dog to reliably come back to you when requested, even when they are surrounded by distractions - like rabbits and other dogs - is understandably challenging. The secret is to always be the better option for your dog! You want your dog to be filled with joy when they hear you call them back rather than look around and give you a doggy eyeroll.


Attention, Look or Watch Me

Most dogs learn their name, but it can be hard to use their name to get their attention. Most dogs have a thousand nicknames and probably hear their actual name and wonder who that is! They also may hear their name so often when nothing is being asked of them, they’ve stopped listening to it. Using another word like "attention," "look" or "watch me" will help your dog learn that every time they hear that cue they need to make eye contact with you. This is a great cue because dogs are easily distracted by sights, sounds and smells and, when you have a reactive dog, these distractions can trigger unwanted behaviors.


Down

Down is when your dog lays down on their belly and waits to be released. Like sit, dogs often offer down when they want a treat or when not sure what’s expected. Some people use the word “down” to mean take your paws off the counter or get off the couch. I recommend using "off" in those instances and save "down" for laying down. If your dog already knows "down" as get off the furniture, you can choose another cue word here so as not to confuse your dog. Down is also helpful when teaching “place/go to mat” and the trick of crawling. Notice that many cues build on others so your dog develops a robust vocabulary over time.


Drop it

Drop it means just what it sounds like; it's asking your dog to drop something they have in their mouth. It's vital for dogs who can't resist picking up trash during walks and saves you from having to stick your hand in their mouth to fish out that dead mouse or chicken bone they snatched up. Drop it comes in handy for those times your dog sprints through the living room with your child’s favorite stuffed toy clutched in their mouth! Combine drop it with "take it" to teach your dog how fun it can be to give you things so they don’t develop a resource guarding habit.


Leave it

Like “drop it,” leave it is applicable to many situations. I often start with leave it, especially with reactive dogs, because it can be used for anything you want your dog to ignore. Use leave it on walks when you spot that dead mouse or chicken bone before your dog has a chance to grab it. Where drop it is for things already in your dog's mouth, leave it prevents your dog from picking it up in the first place. This is one of my favorite cues as you can use it in so many different situations.


Place (aka Got to Mat)

Whatever you call it, place teaches your dog to go to a particular place (like their bed) and hang out until you “release” or tell them they can leave. Use place when cooking and you don't want your dog underfoot or as guests enter the house. Place is great whenever you don't want your dog roaming around. Also use place when you want your dog to chill out as you sip coffee at an outdoor cafe


Emergency stop

I live in the city as do most of my in person clients. City streets are potentially deadly to a dog who has dashed out an open door, gleefully running free without a care in the world. You can certainly use recall in this situation, but I find that dog parents panic in these situations and stop thinking clearly! Shouting "STOP" is a knee-jerk response and teaching your dog to respond to it makes great sense. Once your dog stops, take a breath, get your dog’s attention and go from their.


Loose-Leash Walking

Having a dog that walks nicely on leash is a dog parent's dream. For reactive dogs who don't just pull, but also lunge at other dogs on walks, strong leash handling skills are a life-saver. For your dog, leash pulling isn't a problem. It's fun and they naturally walk faster than humans (they do have twice as many legs after all). Pulling gets them to the awesome smells that much faster. The secret to to success with leash walking is to partner with your dog. Walking with your dog deepens your relationship and provides your daily dose of vitamin D. Walking is a great enrichment activity for your dog as well.


These 11 key dog training cues are an important part of your dog's life and help them stay safe, happy and well-behaved. Start with the cue you think you'll use the most or pick one at random and have fun teaching your dog new behaviors. If you enjoy outdoor dining with your dog, teach place; if you see off-leash hikes in your future, go with recall and emergency stop. Foundational behaviors enable communication between you and your dog and make it easier to take your dog out and about. Remember, too, the experience of learning new things improves your dog's confidence and reduces anxiety related issues.


Ready to enhance your dog's communication skills and build confidence? Start by incorporating these foundational manners into your training routine! Whether you're aiming for peaceful city walks or outdoor adventures, these cues are essential for a well-behaved and happy pup. Which one will you teach your dog next? Share your progress and success stories with me in the comments!


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