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Keep Your Dog Safe – 6 Important Behavior Skills to Train

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: August 14, 2016

Updated: August 15, 2023

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Black Lab puppy on blue leash looking up at their owner during trainingWhat should you teach your dog? Regardless of age, breed, background, and ability — EVERY dog is able to learn new tricks! Positive training provides essential mental enrichment, helps build your relationship with your dog, and most importantly, allows you to keep your dog safe while allowing them more freedom.

Even just five minutes a day of training will make a difference. Plus, it's just fun to train with your dog! Below are dog training tips for what I consider to be the top six dog training cues when it comes to safety and creating a solid foundation of behavior that you can build on.

The 6 Most Important Things To Teach Your Dog

As with most types of education, there are many methods of dog training to choose from. For training to be most successful and humane, make sure to choose a collaborative, positive, and force-free methodology. Avoid "dominance theory" methods (i.e., "alpha roll," etc.), aversives (e.g., shock, prong, and pinch collars), and punishments. Instead, work with treats, praise, a clicker, and lots of patience. This way it'll be a lot more successful and enjoyable for you and your dog.

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Six Behaviors to Help Your Dog Stay Safe

Teach Your Dog to Sit

  • SIT: Teaching your dog to sit gives them a polite way to greet new people and gives you more control in a variety of situations. Your dog can't be jumping on someone when they're sitting nicely for attention instead. It's usually the first thing people will ask your dog to do when they first approach, and it's easy to teach!

    Check out our article "2 Easy Ways to Teach Your Dog How to Sit" for how to get started. It's all about setting up your dog for success. Start by teaching your dog how to sit with no distractions, and then make it harder by practicing outside on walks or when greeting new people. This quick video shows the two methods of teaching sit, luring and capturing:

Teach Your Dog to Stay

  • STAY: This is a very important longer-term command for when you want your dog to stay in place, not follow you, or move forward. Especially for city dogs, this command is useful whenever waiting to cross the street. A strong stay behavior assures your dog doesn’t dart off the curb into traffic. Stay is a great cue for dogs who get easily distracted or like to chase wildlife. Knowing your dog won't move until you tell them it's okay by using your chosen release cue (such as "Okay!" or "Free!") gives you peace of mind and keeps them safe. Stay should become part of your daily routine.

    For step-by-step instructions, go to "How to Teach Your Dog to Stay." Check out the video below for quick tips for building a solid stay cue with your dog.

Teach Your Dog to Lie Down

  • DOWN: Being able to ask your dog to lay down gives you the freedom to enjoy everyday activities without having to constantly manage your dog. You can go to the coffee shop with friends and your dog can settle next to you if you've taught them the down cue. During mealtime, you can prevent your pup from begging at the table if they know how to"DOWN" on their bed.
    It's easier and more comfortable for dogs to stay in the down position longer than a sit position and helps them calm down if they've gotten over-excited about something. Down can be a more difficult cue for some dogs to learn, so play around with different training techniques to find the one that works best with your dog. Learn more in our article "How to Teach Your Dog to Lie Down."

    This video goes over 5 different ways to teach your dog to lie down:

Teach Your Dog to Come When Called

  • COME WHEN CALLED (Recall):This is the most important command in keeping your dog safe and out of danger. Whenever you are physically separated from your dog, and you see any sign of approaching trouble, you’ll want your dog to head straight to you as fast as they can — and NOT run towards the trouble. Come should always be completed with a reward —if not a treat, then a game of tug, or lots of praise and petting. You want your dog to associate that coming to you is always worth it, even if it means not running after that squirrel. Click here to read more about how to train a reliable recall.

    You can also explore teaching what's called an "emergency recall." Learn how and the differences between a regular recall in "How to Teach Your Dog the Emergency Recall."

    Learn how to build a reliable recall around distractions by watching this short video:

Teach Your Dog to Leave It

  • LEAVE IT: Dogs are likely to find anything and everything during their day. Garbage, dead animals, poop, antifreeze, chocolate, whatever. If it’s something they should stay clear of — they always seem to find it. Work closely with your dog so when they hear “leave it,” they know to turn their head up towards you, and away from whatever is on the ground. Start easy when teaching your dog this cue. By building a strong foundation, you'll have better success when you increase the difficulty and ask your puppy to leave a very enticing piece of garbage alone while on a walk. Here's a video showing you how to teach leave it at the same time as take it (what we call a "paired cue"):

Teach Your Dog to Drop It

  • DROP IT: OK … so your dog didn’t leave it, and now something is in their mouth! Instead of you reaching in and grabbing whatever horrible thing they’ve got, a well-practiced “drop it” can come in very handy. Opening your dog’s mouth to reach in and take what they have can often result in your dog swallowing the item or you getting bitten. This can also lead to either choking, poisoning, or ingesting something that may have to be taken out at your nearest Animal ER. Drop it is best practiced with your dog’s favorite ball or toy and lots of treat rewards for a job well done. Playing tug is a great training game to build this behavior and teaches your dog that if they willingly drop an item on cue, they're rewarded with more fun.

Hand Signals in Dog Training: Not Just for Deaf Dogs

Another great idea is to add hand signals to each of these commands. Hand signals are great for several reasons.

  • Dogs are non-verbal, so they rely primarily on body language to communicate. Hand signals are body language cues that tell your dog what is expected of them. Dogs learn hand signals easier and sooner than verbal commands.
  • Hand signals train your dog to keep their eyes on you — not what’s going on all around them.

  • Sometimes, in situations with lots of noise and commotion, your dog may not be able to hear you correctly. Knowing the proper hand signal for each command helps you communicate through all the audio clutter.

  • Many dogs lose their hearing at certain parts of their life. Knowing hand signals will give them a leg up on your communication if their hearing ever deteriorates.

Here are a couple of excellent resources (all short videos) to help get you started on teaching hand signals to your dog.

Hand Signals Are Easy To Teach

Common Pet Training Hand Signals

Train For Lifehappy brown dog with white muzzle looking at the camera

Don’t listen to that old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s just not true. Your dog can keep learning new things throughout their entire life. They WANT to keep learning, so keep challenging your dog. Keep rewarding and celebrating their success. It’s proven to be beneficial for BOTH you and your pup.

In addition to all the mental and physical benefits to keeping your dog in training throughout their life, training can also keep your dog safe, and less likely to get into trouble.

Here are some great training sites and additional resources:

What About Your Cat?

If you have a cat there's some basic training for them too, so check it out! Cats can learn basic training behaviors like the ones discussed above, but also can learn cooperative care exercises that make trips to the vet less stressful for all. And there's always trick training! And who knows, maybe your furballs will make honor roll just like Nana (the dog) and Kaiser (the cat) do in this video:


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About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Beyond her one-on-one consultations through Pupstanding Academy, she also teaches group dog training classes at Seattle Humane. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is a certified Family Dog Mediator, and certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America. She has also completed the Aggression in Dogs Master Course.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.