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Training Needs a Solid Foundation

When I sat down to write an article about training goals, I thought about all the obvious training goals that dog owners should have—well, obvious goals to a trainer anyway. But as I started to think about this list of goals, I stepped back and realized that none of them matter without a solid foundation with your dog.

Think of the foundation with your dog like the foundation to a house. Without it, everything else will fall apart eventually. And, just like a house, all parts of the foundation need to be equal so that everything you build on top of it stays strong for a long, long time.

So, what exactly is this foundation work? When a lot of people hear the word foundation, they just think of obedience. But obedience is only one piece of the puzzle. You need many pieces to complete it.

First, think about your relationship with your dog. If you are reading this, I know you love your dog. I know that your dog loves you. But your relationship needs to be so much more than love. It needs to be based on mutual trust, respect, and motivation. Does your dog trust you to be his or her advocate in the world? To protect him? We see a lot of behavior issues stem from owners who don’t understand how to read their dog’s warning signs and who have a mental image in their mind of the dog they want vs. the dog they have.

Second, consider structure and rules. When I was a kid, there were house rules. I did the dishes when dinner was done. I had a curfew, and, if I was going to be late, I had to call. My parents provided the guidelines for what was expected and when so that I didn’t need to figure it out myself and make bad decisions. They were there to help guide me — and you should be there to help guide your dog. Is your dog jumping and acting obnoxious at feeding time? Are you yelling at your dog for this behavior? Have you ever shown your dog how it should behave? These are the types of rules that you need to have in place for your home. They need to be fair, and the dogs need to be guided to understand what those rules are.

Third, address obedience and manners. At a minimum, your dog needs basic obedience and recall. There is no excuse if your dog does not know how to sit or lay down when you ask him or her to. Not only that, but getting your dog to use its brain is so important. Many of you have rescue dogs that are also working-breed mixes. We see so many working breeds or breed mixes that have behavior issues as a result of not having their basic mental needs met (or at least that is a part of the reason why). Does your dog walk well on leash? Or do your dogs rush out of the house sniffing every bush, tree, or light post? When I see how a dog walks for its owner, it is very telling of the foundation and relationship that owner and dog have. Also, if you want to take your dog off leash, she should be behaving on leash. How can you expect your dog to listen off leash if she won’t listen when she is on leash? Recall, or coming when you call your dog, is hugely important. This is more than just your dog listening to you; this is a safety issue. If your dog does not recall every single time you call him — no matter the environment or distraction level — then you have some homework to do.

Fourth, get educated on engagement. We know you and your dog love each other. But when you are outside, what’s more enticing—you or the environment? Is your dog more interested in other dogs or people than you? Looks like you have some work to do on teaching your dog to engage with you. You should be the best thing in the world to your dog. Teaching your dog that you are the best thing since marrow bones helps to make all that outside noise “disappear.”

As you go through and read each of those points, can you see how they all mesh and build upon each other? Your dog needs to trust you, needs to understand that you are the best thing in the whole world, needs to understand exactly what you expect and when, and how to do the things you expect. Work on all those things, and I guarantee the rest of your training will improve.

Bridget Murphy co-owns Koru K9 Dog Training and Rehabilitation and The Balanced School for Dog Trainer with her husband, Ray. She spends most of her time running the operational side of things, but when she does train, she uses a motivational training style with a focus on building the relationship between the dog and its owner.

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact

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Main article photo by: Pakornkrit Khantaprab