What are the hardest commands to teach a dog, and why?
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What are the hardest commands to teach a dog, and why?

Dogs
Education & Training

When it comes to training dogs and teaching them new skills, there really is no broad norm in terms of what dogs are capable of. How many commands a dog can learn, how quickly dogs learn new commands, and how reliable dogs are about following commands they know can all vary hugely from dog to dog.

There are also broad breed average norms in terms of canine intelligence, and some dog breeds are simply much more intelligent and easier to train than others.

Coupled with this, the training environment, skills of the handler, ability to adapt to the individual dog’s personality, age of the dog, and prior experiences of training all combine to impact upon how quickly or easily any dog might learn a given command, how many commands a dog can learn, and how complicated a command a dog might be capable of learning too.

That said, regardless of the intelligence of the dog in question or any of the other mentioned variables, some commands in particular are objectively, and logically, harder to teach than others.

For instance, the first command that virtually all dogs learn is the “sit” command, which is widely accepted as the easiest command to teach, and for a dog to learn.

On the flipside of this, there are a few commands that tend to be complex and challenging to teach to the average dog by the average owner; and that even highly intelligent dogs and experienced owners will find take longer than others, and that they are apt to achieve less reliable compliance with.

Knowing what these commands are and why they can be such a challenge can be very useful when it comes to training your own dog, managing your expectations, and knowing, if relevant, when you might need to get some dog training help from a professional.

In this article, we will provide a basic introduction to the four hardest commands to teach to dogs, and explain why they’re so challenging. Read on to learn more.

House training/toilet training

The first challenging command or rather, skill that you are likely to face with your dog is teaching them about not toileting in the house.

House training a puppy takes time, and whilst some dogs learn what you’re asking much faster than others, this is not a skill that dogs pick up in half an hour.

So, why is house training a dog a difficult skill to teach? The reasons for this are numerous. First of all, there’s not a direct command and response involved as there is with “sit,” and other similar skills. Whilst you might wish to teach your dog to toilet on command or give you cues that they need to go outside, you cannot demonstrate what you want in the same way you can by using a gentle hand to put your dog into a sit along with the given command they need to build up their mental associations with command and action.

Building up the association between the urge to toilet and both holding it on and asking to go out takes time, and requires logical deduction on the part of your dog; these skills are more akin to complex chain commands than simple cause and response commands. Also, if you don’t recognise and respond to your dog’s cues immediately, this can delay their learning process.

If you need help with house training your dog, check out the pointers in this article.

Recall or “come back”

The recall command is another command that is right up there as one of the hardest commands to teach a dog, and for rather different reasons than is the case with house training. With the recall command, the issue isn’t so much letting your dog know what you want, but incentivising it, and getting your dog’s attention in the first place.

When you recall a dog, outdoor environments and competing stimulus may make it hard for your dog to see, hear, or register you. Additionally, if your dog knows that recall means the end of their fun, they’ll have no incentive to return to you other than to please you – and so you have to provide this incentive, and make pleasing you a better reward than staying out!

Get more tips on training a dog for recall here.

Leave it/drop it

Leave it, drop it, or as some of us refer to it, “oh my life what on earth is he eating!!” is a really hard command to incentivise for the same reason as recall is, because complying with this command requires your dog to give up something good, or something that they want and value, and already have – and why should they do that?

What do you have to offer them in exchange, and how can you make dropping that delicious rotting roadkill or half-eaten kebab that’s almost certainly going to upset your dog’s stomach seem less appealing? This is what your dog is thinking, ie., that if they follow your command, they’ll be giving up something good that they have already “won,” for something unknown – or non-existent.

This is a really important command to master though, particularly if your dog scavenges or worse, chases wildlife and might catch and harm it.

Condition your dog by teaching the “leave it” command on other items before you expect your dog to comply when it comes to food.

Curtailing a chase

The recall command is essential not only to get your dog to return to you in the park when you want to go home and to avoid standing fruitlessly calling their name for half an hour after dark, but also, to keep your dog – and other people, animals, and property – safe.

However, there are two types of recall and two applications for it – the simple “come on let’s go” type of recall that can be hard to achieve reliably on its own, and the type of recall you need to use in a high-stakes situation to curtail your dog when they’re chasing something, bolting off, or otherwise highly focused on getting away from, or pursuing, something.

A dog pursuing another animal like wildlife, livestock, or a cat will not only potentially harm or kill said animal (which can result in a civil and/or criminal prosecution for you, significant financial loss, and the destruction of your dog) but also, could cause an accident if they run onto or across a road, or into another person. Dogs on a chase will ignore their own safety too, and could run over a cattle grid, through a barbed wire fence, or straight into traffic.

Dogs pursuing things are so one track minded that they are virtually unable to focus on other things unless strongly primed and conditioned to react instinctively to a command from a young age; and so curtailing a pursuit is incredibly hard to teach a dog reliably, even in dogs that display otherwise excellent recall.

In fact, this is not possible with total reliability for all dogs, and particularly hard for those with a strong prey drive like the Greyhound.

However, experienced and responsible sighthound owners – and owners of other dogs – can and often, do manage to achieve recall under chase conditions with a high degree of reliability; but this takes work and time. Be prepared to put this work into your own dog, and take steps to mitigate the potential risk until or unless you have gotten your own dog’s chase curtailment skills fine-tuned and instinctive.

Learn more about recall and chasing, and how to improve your dog’s skills, here.

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