Obedience 101

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Obedience 101 consists of the five basic behaviors that most pet owners would consider sufficient to qualify your foster pup as a "well-trained dog": Sit, Stay, Down, Come (recall), and loose-leash walking. If you can add Housebreaking and one or two cute Tricks to the dog's repertoire, congratulations! Your foster pup has graduated from canine finishing school and is well equipped to make her new family proud.

Scooter, a spaniel mix pulled from Liberty County AC by Carpathia Paws in January 2012

In my experience, it takes about four to six weeks for most dogs to learn the Obedience 101 curriculum and proof it to a level that allows them to perform the cues more-or-less reliably in new environments with new handlers. Generally I work through the list by teaching one behavior every few days, then continuing to refine and proof that behavior while teaching the next one.

I usually start with Sit, since it's the easiest behavior on the list to teach and it forms the basis of the Nothing in Life is Free protocol. You can take them in any order, though, depending on which comes most naturally to your foster dog and which seems most urgently needed.

Patience and understanding are essential throughout the process -- remember, most foster dogs know nothing on arrival, so you are asking them to learn a lot in a very short time! And, as trainer Denise Fenzi points out, you can't train effectively while angry. If you find yourself getting frustrated, STOP. Reassess your progress when you're calmer. Maybe you're expecting too much from the dog, or aren't communicating clearly. Perhaps another approach would be more effective.

While basic training is crucial, I'm not an advocate of enrolling foster dogs in obedience classes. There are two reasons for this. First, most classes are organized as six- or seven-week courses, and you won't often have a foster dog for that length of time, particularly as you'll probably need to spend at least a week or two bonding with and socializing the dog before you can have any success with her in class. If you only have your foster dog for three weeks, you're not getting the full benefit of the class. Second, it's very difficult for most dogs to learn new behaviors in a class setting. Obedience classes (good ones, at least) are not so much about teaching the dogs as they are about teaching the human handlers how to communicate with their dogs and proofing behaviors that the dogs have learned at home between sessions. Since the Obedience 101 curriculum is very easy to train at home, and you can proof it pretty much anywhere, I don't see a need to enroll in formal classes for this.

Don't get me wrong: I think good obedience classes are awesome. I strongly suggest taking at least one basic-to-intermediate manners or obedience course with a good trainer, because it will dramatically improve your own training skills and make you a better handler. But bring your own dog to that class, not a foster pup.

Petfinder.com has a great set of short, easy training videos that explains how to teach several of the Obedience 101 behaviors:

Kikopup, a wonderful trainer who has made many free instructional videos available on Youtube, has more helpful tutorials:

While it's probable that the more difficult Stays are too much to ask of a foster dog in the limited time you'll have to work with her, it can't hurt to learn and practice the techniques.