One of the best quotes in dog training, in my opinion, is the following from the fabulous Ken Ramirez: “Advanced training is just the basics done really, really, really well.”
It is so easy to want to jump right into the difficult skills like advanced stays where you can leave the room or walk a football field away. After all, those are the impressive skills, right?
I will never forget the day when I had friends visiting my apartment when my dog, Renegade, was only at most, six months old. One of my friends, who is not really a dog person at all, was sitting on the couch and Renegade approached him. My friend, probably assuming the worst (i.e. my dog was likely to jump on him) told Renegade to “sit.” Renegade quickly did exactly as he was told right at my friend’s feet, smiling up at him the whole time. The look of shock, which was followed closely by total delight, that went across my friend’s face is burned into my memory forever. He exclaimed, “He sat! I didn’t expect him to do that!” I just laughed. But I couldn’t have been prouder of my dog in that moment.
You see, most people who don’t love dogs feel that way because they have met A LOT of unruly dogs. Dogs that jump, bark, lunge, or even bite (whether aggressively or playfully rarely matters to the non-dog-lover) are seemingly the norm. If you want to impress, the fastest way is to build the basic skills.
No skyscraper can stand without a solid foundation, and in the same way, if your dog’s basic skills aren’t firmly in place, you will never be able to conquer the tough stuff in any reliable way. My husband and I were discussing an old proverb the other day. In the story, a boy asks his instructor how long it will take him to be a master at his chosen martial art and the instructor tells him, “10 years”. The boy thinks about that and then asks, “What if I work twice as hard and fast as all the other students?” The instructor ponders this a moment before replying, “20 years.” The instructor’s reasoning is simple: You cannot be so goal focused that you aren’t working in the here and now. You can’t rush it, or you’ll end up suffering for it in the end and it will take much longer to reach your ultimate goals.
We hear about this all the time with human relationships. A brand-new couple, so interested and determined to meet certain goals may rush in to getting married and starting a family only to have it fall apart a year later. Why? They didn’t do the work! They were so goal focused, in this case on the idea of marriage, they forgot to build a relationship of shared values, experiences, and trust. Sadly, before long, that lack of foundation causes the whole thing to crumble to bits.
The same holds true with dog training! When you are working with a brand-new puppy or newly adopted dog, you have a lot of foundation to build in your relationship before you can start testing it! Your dog needs to know you will reinforce good behavior and trust that when you mark a behavior (using “yes” or a clicker) that you will reliably pay them (with food or a beloved game). They need to trust that when you leave them, you’ll come back, before you can ever practice telling them to stay while you duck out of the room. They need to know you will never ask them to do something that will be harmful, dangerous, or scary before they trust you to lure them onto new surfaces, into an agility tunnel, or up into your dark, scary, tall SUV tailgate.
From there, you need to build basic behaviors you will need in order to build bigger ones. The ones that come to mind first and foremost are as follows: attention, following a lure, following your body movement (the building block of polite walking), sitting and laying down on cue, taking food nicely in a variety of ways (from your hand while stationary, from your hand while you are moving, from the floor when tossed, from the floor when placed, waiting patiently while food is being pulled out of a treat bag or from a nearby bowl, etc) and coming when called. My point here is simple: there is NO SHAME in working on the basics. Even the most solid buildings occasionally get water damage to their basement foundations over time and will need a little maintenance and repair. Remember that the without the foundation, you have nothing. Build it carefully and check on it regularly.
Nicole Lorenzetti Yuhas CPDT-KA
This blog is intended to be informative as well as entertaining. It contains my opinion which may not reflect the opinions of any organization I may be affiliated with. My opinions should not be interpreted as those of my coworkers, family, friends, casual acquaintances, and certainly not the opinion of my cat, although my dog probably agrees with everything I say, if for no other reason, than because I provide the treats and meals (cats are less inclined to agree with anyone but themselves). Information provided here is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge but, as information and opinions change, neither the facts nor the opinions expressed here may be true or accurate at any future date. As I don’t currently own a time machine, I cannot be responsible for things that prove to be untrue, or opinions I change my mind about, should those changes become apparent in the future. It should also be noted that, as I am human, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes in the information provided here. Frankly, even if I were a computer, it is likely there would be errors, as computers, in my experience, can be a royal pain in the butt. This blog may contain affiliate links which you are under no obligation to click. If you click them, they will hopefully take you the place I intended. But they may not. As I’ve said, computers can be a pain. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t think I intended, click your ruby slippers three times together and say, “there is no place like home.” If you do that, and click the “back” button, you should be safely returned. Computers can, at times, have a mind of their own. Any training suggestions or opinions expressed here should be taken as information only and should not be seen as advice particular to you or your dog’s unique situation. Please consult with a training professional before taking any action.