What's Your Favourite Command in Dog Training?

On favourite commands in dog training, and the behaviours you should teach your dog to do.

Which commands should you teach your dog? Coming when called is essential to keep your pup safe (pictured)
Photo: Dora Zett/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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There are certain commands that many people think all dogs are supposed to learn, like "sit" and "heel". If you go to a basic obedience class, these are the ones that will be taught. I like to teach my dogs hand signals as well as the verbal cue, and in some cases they seem to respond more to the hand signal than the spoken word.

Even within these basic cues, it's not like there is a specific set that every dog knows, and one person's exact command will be different  than another ('down' vs 'lie down', for example).

Then there are commands that are more specialist. For example, a sheepdog will learn basic commands like 'come bye' and 'away'. As far as I know, come bye means to go left or circle the flock clockwise, whereas away means to go to the right or circle in an anti-clockwise direction.

A sled dog will learn 'gee' and 'haw' for right and left, 'easy' to slow down, and so on. Show dogs will learn commands and routines specific to their acts, and many people will teach their pets a 'bang bang' command, accompanied by pointing two fingers at the dog, after which the dog will roll over and play dead.

Teaching your dog useful life skills

Another way of thinking about this is to look at the skills that will be useful to your dog throughout their life, and train them to do those. 

Coming when called is obviously going to be high up on this list, and a "sit" with a little bit of duration on it can be very useful too. But there are many skills that dog guardians don't really think about, like being able to be handled at the vet, and being able to meet other dogs. Some dog trainers' classes will include these life skills, but others will not.

When we think about behaviours as life skills, we can also see a change in exactly what's taught. For example, unless you plan on entering obedience or rally competitions, there is probably no need for them to know how to heel. But it's probably a good idea to teach them how to walk nicely on leash (which is not quite the same).

Life skills are especially important for puppies, because a wide range of positive experiences during the sensitive period (from 3 until about 12 or 14 weeks old) will help set them up to be more friendly and confident when they are grown up. A good puppy class is a great way for your pup to learn some of these life skills. 

Along with the change to thinking about life skills is a shift in the terminology used. These days we often say cue instead of command. 

What you teach your dog is a personal choice

People also have idiosyncratic commands that they teach or develop for their pets in response to situations that occur in daily life. I've taught my dogs that "excuse me" means move out of my way. I was thinking about visitors to my house who might not be used to dogs, and what they would say if the dog was in their way. So I trained 'excuse me'. It's one of my favourite commands.

I like it because it makes my dogs seem so polite, and it gets used several times a day because they do have a habit of laying down right in the middle of the room or doorway, where it's awkward to step over them.

Your dog's perspective on training

There's also the question of which are the dogs' favourite cues. It's definitely not "excuse me", because that involves getting up and moving when they are settled down nicely in the doorway. For one of my dogs, it's "pull", because he loves to play tug of war. When we say "pull", he pulls even harder and puts more effort into winning the game. He loves it.

As for our other dog, he looks very proud when asked to "shake a paw". I don't think that's his favourite command though. I think his favourite is whatever cue I happen to say when I have a treat in my hand. He loves his treats!

How about you? What's your favourite cue? And what is your dog's favourite?

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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