Traditionally speaking the pillars of “basic obedience” are: Sit, sit/stay, down, down/stay, walk in heel position and come when called.
Very often the first and sometimes the only thing a dog is taught is “sit”. More often than not this is not crowned with much success. It requires multiple prompts from the human, lasts about a split second and is in effect more of a curtsey than a solid sit.
Then there are the countless stories of puppies who “flunked” puppy class and ended up with behavior issues just because they are what I call “an-alphabets”.
Many puppies are really wiggly and cannot focus easily.
Why teach something like a sit/stay first when it is clear that it would be almost impossible for that puppy to sit still for even a split second. That seems like a recipe for disaster and frustration for both the human and the puppy.
What I think is most important in the teaching/learning process is the ability to communicate to the dog that a certain action has pleased you and that it would be even more pleasing to you if you could somehow communicate to the puppy to perform that exact same action again. Right?
If you are able to do that with one behavior, any behavior at all that the dog offers naturally, no matter how “useless”, you can demonstrate to the puppy that you were thrilled with that repetition by marking and highly rewarding this action. The puppy can then start offering the behavior again or experiment offering different behaviors until he recognizes which behaviors “work” in his favor.
“Oh, it was THAT THING that made her give me a click and a treat!!”
That is, simply put, the process by which you can establish communication with your learning puppy.
Put into human terms: When you learn a foreign language you don’t really care what you can blurt out in that new language, simply the fact that you can blurt out anything at all and be understood makes it a most pleasing experience for both you, the blurter, and the person trying to understand you.
It is a productive starting point. And then communication can continue by using hand signals, body language, drawing pictures on a piece of paper…anything that can open the channels of communication. It is judgement free and the minds of both parties are totally open. On top of everything it usually is a lot of fun.
This is how I experience a good puppy lesson and how I think puppies and dogs learn to focus while having so much fun and experiencing unquestioning approval.
So, in terms of teaching your dog the basics: don’t worry about the formal things and the order in which they should be learned. What is important is that you reinforce the desire to work with you and make the process as successful as possible. Who cares what it was that the puppy first understood if in the end you have a dog who will come when called or settle down when you would like to read a book.
Down the road you will really not care if he learned sit/stay first or “twirl” because he was such a twirly kinda guy!
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