The Most Important Dog Behaviors
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
If you have trained with me or seen me on social media you may have heard me reference my "12 Basic Behaviors" before. But just what are they and why are they important?
The 12 Basic Behaviors are the most common cues (or "commands" if you must) that I teach and make up a solid foundation for any pet dog. Whether for safety reasons or utility these are the most important and most used behaviors that a dog can learn. I am going to go over them here and explain why each of them is so great.
The dog is taught to touch objects with their nose on cue. This is often referred to as "targeting". This is usually the first behavior I teach to a dog because it is quick to learn, gives the dog an "easy win" to build confidence in my instruction, and can be used as a fun game for them. With my own dogs I build up the behavior into a very reinforcing challenge game: touch my hand low, touch it under my leg, jump up and touch, etc. To top it all off I incorporate Touch into my Recall training which really gives it an edge.
Touch also forms the basic step of any behavior or behavior chain that includes your dog using their nose or snout to contact something. Want your dog to push a buzzer to let you know they need to go outside? We are starting with Touch.
The dog is taught to look at your face on cue. Many people simply use their dogs name as the cue while some prefer cues such as "eyes", "watch me", or "focus". This is always taught very early with me and is a big priority. The ability to draw your dogs attention so that they can be given further direction is invaluable. Many dogs recognize cues much better when they can see you. Turning the simple act of giving you focus into a self-rewarding behavior for the dog has indirect benefits as well. There are very few things that make me feel happier than walking with my dog and looking down to see them looking up at me joyfully.
Need even more reason? Attention becomes an essential building block both for avoiding the development of reactive behaviors and in addressing them positively.
The dog is taught to return to you on cue; quickly and coming close enough that you could attach a lead or otherwise control them as needed. If any behavior will save your dogs life it is likely to be this one. Recall is the king of all safety behaviors. Its mastery is a 100% must for any dog. No exceptions - your dog needs a decent recall. While it might not be the first cue I teach it is my focus right from the start. Remember what I said about using Touch in Recall? Notice my dog speeds over to me and boops my hand with her nose when recalled? That is not a coincidence. Please, I'm begging you, if your dog recalls poorly or not at all do not even finish this article. Stop what you are doing and get to training. Reach out to a professional dog trainer if you need any help.
The dog is taught to remain in place on cue until their handler releases them. This behavior comes in at a hefty #2 spot in terms of important safety behaviors. In addition to safety in emergency situations the ability to have your dog stay in place for a short period of time will be useful in so many aspects of managing your furry baby. I like to teach this one rather early as it is a great opportunity to also introduce the dog to release markers - that is a special type of cue that tells the dog "good job, now you can break that position to get your reward!"
Sit / Down / Stand
The next three behaviors I am going to group together as the basic positional cues. These need no real introduction and I doubt there is anyone who does not already see the utility of these cues which you will almost certainly use daily. The dog is taught so sit on their bum, to lay down on the ground, and to stand back up all on cue. In addition to their basic daily utility you can add a "default Stay" to each of them which positions them as excellent "alternate behaviors" for use to in addressing behavior issues positively.
Heading back into the realm of safety the dog is taught to remove their attention from a stimulus on cue. While it functions nicely as a general "don't do that" cue the real value of this behavior is in keeping your dog from taking things into their mouth that are not appropriate. Once a dog has something very reinforcing (like say something they find yummy) in their mouths it can be difficult and sometimes even dangerous to try to get it away from them. It is always better to prevent them from grabbing it in the first place. That makes this an essential behavior especially for dogs having trouble with eating things they shouldn't.
Teaching a dog to leave things alone on cue is great but sooner or later, even if it's just with a toy during play, you are going to want to get something out of your dog's mouth! This is why it's important to teach your dog to let go of things on cue as well. The safety implications are obvious but if I'm being honest I use this one the most during play. When my dog returns a toy I threw for her we like to play tug a bit before I throw it again. A good Drop It cue can make sure your dog knows exactly when you want the tugging to stop.
While there is some overlap with the Stay behavior let's not get them confused. The Wait cue tells your dog "If you wait patiently right now I will let you do the thing you want to do". Maybe that thing is step outside, begin eating the meal that was set down, or going to say hi to a friend. One of the best things about this behavior is that it is great for building self control in your dog. It takes a lot of will to sit there looking at a yummy supper without just going for it! Asking your dog to demonstrate control by telling them to Wait is a great thing to do before eating, greeting someone, sniffing a fire hydrant, or any other thing they love. Remember the "release marker" that I talked about under Stay? It also has a home here.
Go To Mat
The dog is taught to move to a mat (or bed or platform or specific patch of floor etc) and lay down on it. Many people call this going "to place". Regardless of the surface that we reference this is a very useful behavior. It can be used to direct the dog to settle and rest as well as be used as an "Alternate Behavior" when working on problem behaviors positively. I have known several dog parents who bring a roll up mat when out with their dog so that they always have a surface with them that their baby is used to laying on until released.
Loose Leash Walking
Last but certainly not least we have the #1 driver of calls to dog trainers. The most requested behavior that we deal with by far: everyone wants their dog to walk politely with them on a loose leash. Your dog is taught a cue that means "let's walk close to each other and keep this leash nice and loose". This behavior is like a much more relaxed version of Heeling. Typically the dog is expected to stay on a specific side of us and walk closely enough to our side that the leash never tightens. Sessions of loose leash walking are often at least punctuated by periods of being allowed to sniff and explore. Loose Leash Walking is the style you need if you want to feel like you are walking WITH your dog rather than just walking them.
Well that's it folks. My 12 Basic Behaviors. These cover the majority of the things most dog parents need their baby to be able to do and include the most important safety behaviors. While not every pet dog necessarily needs all 12 I would suggest very enthusiastically that you teach your dog as many of them as you can.
Robin Wong is a certified dog trainer, a graduate of the Victoria Stilwell Academy, and the father of a Boerboel / Ridgeback mix named Nana. He founded Holy Sit to provide premium positive dog training in London Ont.