7 Lifesaving Tricks to Teach Your Dog

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Dog owners love to teach their companions new tricks. While some are simply frivolous and fun, like "play dead," others can prove vital in keeping the dog safe. A simple "come" or "stay" command may someday prevent your pet from being hit by a car or getting into a fight with another dog. Not every trick will be necessary for your particular pooch, and you might have your own customized commands based on threats unique to your area, but these seven will provide a good foundation of safety and obedience.

Sit

Dog sitting next to a parked train
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"Sit" is one of the most basic commands a dog can be taught, and it's also one of the most important. This trick is useful for strapping your pup into a harness, or curbing excitement in the presence of company; however, the trick becomes lifesaving when a dog is headed for danger. According to 2001 data from the Centers for Disease Control — the most recent published data available — more than four and a half million people are bitten by dogs in the U.S. each year. This command can be used to prevent a dog from acting aggressively towards people or other animals.

Sitting is a rather simple command to teach a dog, too. According to the American Kennel Club, you should start by giving the verbal cue "sit," and demonstrating the action with a hand signal (dogs aren't always able to differentiate between words). You can "lure" the dog to sit with a small treat or bite of food. When the dog sits on its own — never force it — it receives the reward. This process should be repeated until the command is learned.

Lie Down

The lying position is one of increased vulnerability, so if your dog is on the verge of snapping at another dog or a kid, this command should help calm it down and remember who is in control (that's you). Teaching your dog to lie down — especially if you're able to influence the action from a distance — can go a long way in keeping it out of trouble.

Like "sit," "lie down" is an active command, meaning your dog isn't just lounging but rather staying put with purpose. The focus should be on you, the commander. Again, you can use a treat to lure the dog into the desired position, then reward it with the treat when it follows the command. Eventually, you should be able to lure the dog with just a hand motion.

Come

Knowing your dog will return to your side in any situation is a big part of ensuring it's safe, especially in situations where it might be lost or running away; the "come" command, or saying the dog's name, is a good way to reestablish control. This trick is sometimes referred to as "reliable recall" (reliable in the sense that you know your animal will obey) and "rocket recall" (enthusiastic recall, basically). There are different ways to approach it, depending on your pooch's personality, but one of the most effective is, of course, with treats.

When a dog is distracted, calling it back can be a challenge. The American Kennel Club says games like "hot potato" (in which different members of the family call the dog and reward its recall with treats) and "find me" (similar to hide-and-seek, you call the dog from different rooms in the house) could help make the training process more fun.

Sit Before Crossing the Street

Dog sitting on a street curb
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A busy street may not be inherently scary to a pup, even though traffic collisions are one of the leading causes of accidental dog deaths worldwide. For canines that live in busy cities, the sit-before-crossing-the-road trick can be lifesaving. The ideal outcome of curb training is a pup that automatically stops — no verbal cue needed — before walking into the street. The curb itself can become a cue for a dog to sit, even if only to be rewarded with a treat in the end.

Keep in mind, though, that this is one of the tougher tricks for a dog to learn. Before mastering this automatic sit, your dog should be able to follow hand gestures. When training, guide your dog into a sitting position (without using words) every time you stop before crossing the street, and reward the behavior with a treat.

Drop and Leave

Considering more than 200,000 pets are reportedly poisoned each year, it's important you know how to get your dog to drop something it shouldn't be eating, and to leave something that could be dangerous alone. Your dog may be an explorer, eager to discover unknown objects using its mouth; perhaps it is even apt to swallow those things, a behavior that can wind up being life-threatening. When you teach your dog the "drop" command, it should let go of whatever is in its mouth. When you teach the "leave" command, it should be able to ignore the item, whether it be food or something it's deemed a toy.

For some dog personalities, this trick might be challenging to learn, so make sure you build a foundation of providing treats every time it obeys the "drop" and "leave" commands. Your dog will soon discover the biggest reward isn't what's in his mouth, but what it gets when it drops it or leaves it behind.

"Drop" and "leave" are also good for reminding your dog that possessiveness is not a positive trait. For example, "drop it" can be used for diffusing tug-o-war games that are getting out of hand and may escalate into a fight.

Heel

Dog focusing on male owner while walking in city
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When your dog is not on a leash and you need it to move along with you somewhere, the "heel" command is a must to keep it safely by your side. It's also a good command for moving through crowds or dangerous environments (like construction areas) even when the dog is on a leash. You can be as strict as you'd like, from maintaining a casual but safe distance to commanding your dog to walk basically right up against you (obedience classes tend to teach the latter).

Similar commands include "glue" — the dog sticks its nose in your palm, which is helpful when walking or jogging — and "focus," a command to establish eye contact. All three are useful in busy environments that can overload your dog's senses and send it into potentially dangerous situations. To teach the "heel" command, the American Kennel Club says to call the dog's name and point to the side on which you want it to walk. Reward correct actions with a vocal "yes" and a treat, then repeat until the behavior is learned.

When you've mastered "heel," you can progress to the eye contact commands ("look," "watch me," or "focus") and the glue trick.

Food Refusal

You can't always rely on the good intentions of a stranger who wants to give your dog a treat. Besides, dogs can have underlying food allergies, so it's best they only receive food from their own families. Teaching your dog food refusal is a major challenge — because, well, dogs love food — but this little mannerism can not only save a dog's life, it can also prevent it from begging.

In order to prevent protection dogs from being poisoned by criminals, they are trained to refuse food provided by anyone other than their handlers or "safe" individuals. And while your family dog likely doesn't need to be "poison proofed" to this extent, it's still a good idea to teach your dog "no beg," or to use the "leave it" command when it tries to take food from a stranger.