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Train What You Need, Not What Others Want

A quick search will come up with hundreds of lists of a dozen or so cues that Every Dog Needs to Know. The lists vary, but commonly seen cues are: sit, down, stand, stay, heel, place, watch, off, wait, come (which I would argue truly is necessary for all dogs!), drop it, and leave it. If you've ever gotten a new puppy, you will have heard variations of this from nearly every person you came in contact with before your puppy's first birthday.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with having a long list of goals. If you and your dog enjoy learning together, or have a need for certain skills, by all means train them! It’s a great way to have fun together, and different cues are necessary for different lifestyles.

However, I have a lot of clients who see these lists, or hear about these necessary cues from friends, neighbors, and well meaning strangers, and are put under the impression they are failing their dog. Sometimes they are worried to tell me what their dog doesn't know; I hear a lot of "I know I should have trained XYZ, but..." and "I know I'm terrible..."

"I just read here that I'm supposed to know at least 20 cues by 6 months. Better go grab my snacks."

When my clients list their training goals, I often ask what the end goal for each behavior is. If you want to teach a stay, where do you want to use it? Are you looking for a dog that can lie down during a family dinner at home, or at a busy restaurant patio? Is there a current problem you are having that can be solved by a stay cue? Often, the answer is “I’m not sure. I just know he's supposed to”.

But why is he supposed to? Sometimes there genuinely isn’t a good reason for a certain dog to know a certain cue. Even when the internet says they should! (For example, how many times has your dog needed a formal “stand” cue?) Training a new behavior can take a whole lot of time and effort, and while I’m always happy to walk people through the process, I try not to waste this precious time and effort on unneeded skills. After all, is there anyone who has extra of either these days?

I like to push back on, well, a lot of old ideas about dog training. And the idea that every dog needs to know a set of prescribed cues is one of them. Think about your life with your dog. Have you ever truly needed your dog to heel, rather than simply walk on a loose leash? To stand on cue? Does it matter if your dog sits on a verbal cue or for a hand signal? The answer, for many pet dogs, is no.

What your dog needs to know depends solely on your life together. For some dogs that does mean a long list of cues; for others, they live perfectly happy and safe lives with only a few. Don’t let anyone (or any internet list) make you feel inadequate for what you do or don’t teach your dog. You are the one that gets to decide what you need for you and your dog to be safe and happy. If you aren't sure what that looks like for your situation, reach out to a credentialed, force free trainer who will ask about your dog, your needs, and your lifestyle, rather than simply prescribing a standard set of cues.

P.S. There’s also no rule stating that dogs must know all basic cues before learning nonsense. If you’ve caught the training bug but aren’t interested in traditional obedience cues, train some fun tricks instead! I promise, your dog will be fine.

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