All righty, time for the magic!

I assume if you are reading this that you have done your prep work outlined in the previous post — dump your stories; open your mind; watch, listen and learn from your dog; accept this is about CHOICE not FORCE.

If you haven’t: What are you doing here? Stop being impatient! Get back to Part Two and DO THE PREP WORK. Now!

Are they gone? Okay! Welcome to the rest of you. Congrats on doing the prep work that will set you up for success as we move into this first SIMPLE Sequence: How to Teach a Physical Skill.

In the old, outdated, creaky days of yore, these things would be called “obedience.” But since we are no longer desirous of bending our dogs to our will, but rather seeking partnership through proper communication, the more accurate label is Skill.

Physical Skills are all the standard actions most of us want to teach our dogs: Sit, Down, Come, Walk, Stay, Leave it, Drop it, etc. They are also the Tricks we like to teach them like Shake, Roll over, etc. There is NO DIFFERENCE in your dog’s mind between Skills and Tricks. Hence, there is no need to teach them differently. (We do though, which is why Tricks are usually more reliable than Skills. More on that here** if interested.)

Now, important clarification coming: Skills are not at all the same as Behavior (ie how your dog thinks about/feels about/reacts to a particular situation).

If your dog is not Behaving acceptably, you might be able to control Behavior in the moment through requesting a Skill, but you will never permanently change Behavior with a Skill. (This is why, for example, a jumpy dog will “get down” but will never stay down. For more, see “WORDS MATTER: Knowing the difference between ‘behavior’ and ‘Behavior’ can mean the difference between frustration and success” (available as a blog post and as Appendix D: behavior vs. Behavior in my book I’ve Never Had a Dog Like This!)

Think of Skill as learning how to hit a tennis ball, and Behavior as how you play the game.

This post is about teaching basic Skills. The next post will address Behavior.

Basic Physical Skills: Four Simple Steps

Think you know this one already? Bet you don’t!

Review Figure 3.1. See that second step there, “Mark”? That is usually not included in standard teaching. It should be, because it is the gold in that sequence! 

Also, notice that initially there is no word attached to the Skill (eg Sit). Waaah? Why?

Because it’s the fastest way to teach it, that’s why!

Let’s break it down: 

You Create the Skill, without a word attached to it, using any of the methods listed. Most can be achieved through luring (see treat, follow treat). Note there is nothing approaching force described here! 

The Mark tells the dog what he just did that you loved — and that he will get a Reward for — so he doesn’t have to guess! It is applied at the precise moment the dog does that thing — butt or belly touches floor, takes one step toward you, walks beside you one step, etc. When the Skill happens, the Mark happens!

(I highly highly highly recommend using a one-syllable verbal Mark you can say quickly and happily. Examples: Yes, Yay, Bam, Nice, Wow. Smile when you say it! It’s the start of the party, after all!)

The Reward(s) come after the Skill is Marked. Reward in at least two ways at first: Food and Praise/Toy/Pet. Always Food at first — it seals the deal at the highest level! Imagine getting $100 every time you sat down. How eager would you be to sit? 

Finally, once you’ve told your dog to do that, you have to tell him when to stop doing that. So Release him from the Skill. Then do it again — another chance for a party!

Once you both are on auto-pilot with the sequence, then you can label the Skill with a word, phrase, hand signal etc.

Remember: This will go much faster if you think of every Skill you teach as a Trick. In other words, have fun with it! The more fun you both have, the more reliable the Skills will become — for both of you.


**Tricks are usually taught with lots of fun. We laugh; lots of food is generally shared, if mistakes are made, oh well, try again, all part of the fun — Tricks and Parties go hand in hand! Is it any surprise that Tricks end up on auto-pilot, happily offered by your dog without being asked, because she is expecting something good might happen every time she does it? 

On the other hand, Skills are usually taught like orders — You will comply or else! No! Wrong! Bad dog! When Skills are given as orders, your dog is often unsure what will happen — will it be good or bad for her? When they don’t know what to expect, dogs are likely to hesitate or otherwise not respond properly. Then we get mad/stern, cementing in the dogs’ brains that hearing that word from us means bad things for them. That makes them even less willing to respond.

Teach everything as if it were a Trick. You will have a crazily responsive, happy dog!

Next/Final: Part Four — Teaching How to Behave