Five basic dog commands to master
Fran Ardley explains her approach to mastering the basics of a dog’s training before moving on to more advanced lessons
I often get asked at what stage of training a dog should be by a certain age. I am not a huge fan of timescales, as each dog is different and will take to its training at a different pace. However, there does come a time when I like to assess a dog and that time is when I think it has learned the basic dog commands.
My five basic dog commands
I have a simple method that I call ‘the five Hs’: here, hup, heel, hunt and hand it over. For the assessment, I like to use ground that dogs have not been trained on, so it is all new for them and is not a case of the dogs thinking, “on this bit of ground I do such and such”. This way, you will be testing the dog and discovering whether your lessons have been embedded.
If your dog performs these five basic dog commands, you can be fairly confident that it is ready to move on to the next stage of its training programme. (Read our guide to the best slip leads.)
This involves ensuring the dog will come to you when either it is called by you or when you are using the recall whistle. (Read more on training a dog to the whistle here.) From the start, when training, I tend to use body language when recalling them – either kneeling to encourage them to come right into me or, as they have progressed, using an ‘open arms’ gesture. The test is straightforward, but it is interesting how some dogs can get a bit confused by it. I start by sitting the dog up and walking away with my back to it. I ensure my hands are in my pockets, as this way I am not tempted to tap the side of my leg or give off any body signals. While walking, I use my whistle to give a rapid series of pips, and if the recall command has been fully learned, the dog should immediately run up to the side of me.
Hup is an old-school command that spaniel trainers use for ‘sit’ and this is obviously one of the most important early lessons that a dog must learn. I like to split this assessment into four parts. The first is to test the dog to ensure it will sit to just the verbal command of ‘sit’ or ‘hup’. The second is to make sure it understands the hand signal without any other command. The third is the combination of the hand signal and the single blast on the whistle, and the fourth just the whistle. This may seem simplistic or even pointless, but when working a dog in the shooting field there may well be times when the dog can’t see you and you need to ensure it stops or sits just to a whistle.
This aspect of a dog’s training is something I work on quite a bit and right from the start; they all have to be conditioned to hunt out rough grass and stick piles, looking for tennis balls. And before I move the spaniels on to hunting areas where they will encounter game, I need to ensure they are totally under control and that they are working a nice tight pattern. The key to this test is to make sure I can stop them hunting (with a whistle command) when they are really fired up. Once I am satisfied that their pattern and drive are what I am looking for, I use the stop whistle while they are hunting. Be careful not to do this too often as it can make the dogs a bit sticky with their hunting, but you need to be able to stop them mid-hunt.
The breed you have may well have a bearing on how strict you are with its heelwork. The heelwork assessment is quite simple in that I walk the dogs both on and off the lead and I change my pace quite quickly, so the dogs must concentrate on me to keep in place. I also like the dogs to sit when I stop. The spaniels are given a little bit of leeway with the sitting, but I do insist they stop. (Read how to teach your dog to walk at heel.)
5.Hand it over
The final part of my assessment is to look at a dog’s retrieval, and especially its delivery, of the dummy. Throughout early training, I condition dogs to be keen on hunting for, finding and retrieving tennis balls and dummies, and they all do this with great enthusiasm. However, in this case, I want a straightforward retrieve, so I use a track or a bare piece of ground. I am looking for a quick out run and a quick return and, ideally, I want the dog to sit up in front of me. Don’t be too quick to take the dummy from the dog, as this can encourage him to spit it out as soon as he gets to you.