Train Your Dogs What They’ll Never Need To Know

If I was only able to give one piece of advice to someone adopting a new dog or puppy it would be this: always teach your dog the things you know he or she will never need to know.

Here’s why.

Honey the golden retriever teachers her bear to swim on the sailboat.

Okay, Bear. I know you think you’ll never need to know this. But you really have to learn to swim.

 My Dog Doesn’t Need To Know That

One Valentine’s Day my husband surprised me by making an appointment with a professional photographer to take pictures of Honey.

We spent the cloudy afternoon in the studio directing Honey this way and that.

Then the photographer asked me to get Honey to pose with her front paws on an upholstered bench.

No matter how many treats I promised, I couldn’t get Honey to do it. You see, when I was training Honey as a puppy, I couldn’t think of any reason I’d need her to put her front paws up on a bench. So I never taught it on a cue.

When we got home, it was the next thing we worked on with the clicker.

Golden Retriever standing on porch

Oh, is this what you wanted me to do at the photographer’s studio?

Now I’m really glad she finally knows the “paws up” cue. It led to some cute pictures and it’s a helpful skill on the boat.

To get Honey out of the cabin (our living area below the deck) and into the cockpit (the outdoor living area above deck), one of us has to lift her up to the opening.

Once we have her at the height of the opening, we tell Honey, “Paws up.” She then puts her front paws onto the top step and clambers into the cockpit.

Of course, when Honey was six months old, I couldn’t possibly think of a reason she’d need this skill.

And as I talk to other people raising their dogs, I realize I’m not alone.

Honey the golden retriever approaches her boat boarding ramp.

When you first taught me to walk on a ramp, I was sure I’d never do it again.

Are You Sure Your Dog Doesn’t Need To Know That

I’ve heard it from lots of other dog people.

“My dog doesn’t need to learn how to sleep in a crate. He’s never destructive.”

“We never have people over. It doesn’t matter if our pup feels comfortable around visitors.”

“I’m a homebody who hates to travel. Our dog will never have to go anywhere.”

Okay, I get it. But if your dog doesn’t have to tolerate a crate at home, are you sure he’ll never need to stay in a crate at a kennel or vet’s office?

And you never have people over to visit. Until you do.

Those trips you never want to take? You might not have a choice if you take a job in another state and need to move everyone in the house.

Since life is full of surprises, maybe the best course is to spend at least some time training our dogs for some things they’ll never need to use.

Honey the golden retriever smiles on her ramp.

But I actually do it several times a day.
Who knew?

I Thought My Husband Was Weird

I thought my husband was weird for liking to pick Honey up.

I understood it when she was a fuzzy little pup weighing 15 pounds. But as she grew bigger, he never stopped.

My husband liked swinging Honey in his arms. He liked lifting her onto his lap. And most strangely of all, he liked picking Honey up over his head.

Mike lifts Honey the golden retriever.

Really? You couldn’t invest in a set of weights?

I still think he was weird (from the look on her face, Honey agreed).

But now I’m also really, really, really thankful that he was.

You see, life on our boat means that we have to pick Honey up several times a day. And thanks to all the practice she’s gotten with my husband, Honey is perfectly at ease being picked up and carried around.

Honey the golden retriever is lifted out of the cabin of the sailboat.

Here we go again. I sure hope there’s a ball at the end of this flight.

If my husband hadn’t spent so much time “training” Honey to feel comfortable with being carried, she would be much less happy today.

Honey the golden retriever puts her paws up and goes into the cockpit of the sailboat.

Paws up! And into the cockpit.

A Challenge

We’ll be staying put (except for short trips) in the Cambridge Marina until the end of hurricane season when we can head for warmer waters. It’s a great time to work on new training goals with Honey.

I plan to challenge me and Honey by working on skills I can’t expect she’ll ever need to use. Because I have a feeling that if I train them, we’ll use them.

Your Turn: Have you trained your dog to do something that was surprisingly useful? Do tell and maybe I’ll train Honey to do it too.


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  1. I just taught Missy & Buzz the “paws up” skill earlier this year as a strengthening exercise :-) They’ve done it on a ladder, the back of our couches, and the top of their crates (mainly Buzz to get to his ball which “magically” happens to land on top of it…).
    The pups learned the speak command a few years back just because we thought it was cute & cool. Then I realized it would come in handy should our place get broken into and hubby isn’t home. I’d give the “speak” command and the pups’ scary roar would scare the burglars away. That’s my theory 😉

    • Here’s another tip to make the “speak” trick even more useful for safety. I heard about a woman who lived in a neighborhood where she felt unsafe. She taught her dog to bark on the cue “No, Killer, calm down, boy.”

      If she saw someone who made her feel uneasy, she’d use her cue and the dog would start barking.

      Clever, huh?

  2. I’m so glad that Honey is comfortable being picked up and carried around! Nala probably isn’t–we have never done that since she came to live with us. I should probably start thinking about working on that!

    Entirely for fun, I started teaching Nala to clamber up onto benches and tree stumps on our walks. Unexpectedly, she translated this into jumping over big fallen trees that block our path instead of crawling under them–which is very helpful for the human carrying a twenty foot line! I’m also teaching her a clicker retrieve right now, and plan to generalize it to all kinds of objects. I might not need a dog with that particular service dog task right now, but who knows when it might come in handy? I already can rarely find my glasses or keys!

    • Ooh, if we could teach Honey to sniff out and retriever my husband’s glasses, we’d be saved. Good idea.

      I’d definitely work on picking up Nala. Hopefully she won’t need vet treatment any time soon. But you’d definitely want her to be calm if a vet needed her up on the table for an examination.

      When Honey had her little bump removed lately, she was picked up by vet techs over and over. Some where better at it then others. But Honey remained calm no matter what.

  3. Good point. You never know what the future holds and what might need to be done. Good things dogs learn fairly quickly.

  4. As always, you think of the things we don’t, but should. You have such a unique way of looking at the world – so wise, so deep. This is such an important idea, and one I’ll be keeping in mind now with CindyLu. When we moved, there was much I found I should have trained her for, but hadn’t. Enjoy your stay (and training) at the marina!

    • I can never think of enough things to teach Honey even though she’s an avid pupil. That’s why I need to steal ideas from the other dog people I meet online.

      I’m curious to know if there’s anything specific you wished you had trained Cindy Lu before your move.

      • I love learning from all our online friends, too! We’re fortunate to have such a tremendous wealth of quality knowledge and experience with them.
        As for CindyLu, one thing that comes to mind immediately is “crate-training”. She never was, and I was one of those who thought it was unnecessary. Moving to our new place meant containing her (for both her safety and to avoid her causing any issues with our housemates) when I was out. That’s when I learned she not only was hysterically averse to being locked in a crate, but that she suffered separation anxiety and possibly claustrophobia as well.
        I also never worked on her resource aggression, since the big guy and cats she shared a home with learned to back away from her. In our new home, Vedder is just as aggressive, and it’s led to some scary exchanges between the two.
        Just those two issues caused major challenges when we moved. I focused only on what was necessary with our then-current circumstances, and like you point out – that can backfire. And it did!

  5. Great post! I’ll have to start thinking about things to train my dogs to do. So far, the only things they know for certain are “Kiss Mommy” and “Give Mommy a Hug.”

    Although those make me happy, they don’t technically need to know them.

  6. You are so right, life if full of surprises and the unpredictable happens often. I’m not sure how to train my dogs to be flexible except maybe to change their routine every so often.

  7. Sam still gets confused with the ‘feet’ command. It’s supposed to be just the front paws, but too often that pogo-stick bounces totally up and onto whatever surface with all 4 legs. Not usually a problem unless it’s in the middle of a lap of a patient who wasn’t expecting it! That dimwit dog. Clearly Doglish is a very difficult language to master. 😉

    • Honey will also get confused between “paws up” (put your front paws up on a surface) and “up” (jump up on something). Sometimes she just gets over excited and tried a few different things to earn treat.

      So Sam isn’t alone.

      And yes, Doglish is much tougher for us to learn than Human is for our dogs. :)

  8. My hubby does the same thing! We pick up our pups regularly so if they ever get injured on a hike we can carry them with the least amount of struggle, they don’t necessarily enjoy it but they tolerate it pretty well. :-)

    • That is so smart of you both. I’ve seen enough stories of dogs hurt on the trail who needed to be packed out that it seems like a really smart move for anyone who likes adventuring with their dogs.

      Besides that, I think carrying big dogs is one way men show affection while feeling all macho. :)

  9. I think Blueberry probably knows more “useless” commands than ones that are beneficial. I think the only thing they are really good for is distracting her when we are out and something unexpected comes up and I need to get her attention. I can’t take any credit for her learning to put her paws up on things – she totally learned it on her own and now all I have to do is point and she does it. She’s so smart – if a real trainer ever got a hold of her – there’s no telling how much more she could learn!

    • In truth, I think training has a few specific uses: 1) so your dog can cope with the environment we need them to live in; 2) to give us something to do together; and 3) to exercise their brains.

      Which makes Blueberry perfectly trained besides smart as can be.

      I think it’s adorable that you use tricks to keep Blueberry occupied in the face of the unexpected.

  10. I should do the “paws up” cue, I hadn’t really thought about it before. And now I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking my boyfriend is weird for always wanting to pick Laika up :) There might me some method to the madness afterall.

    • As I noted with Aavery above, I think men pick up big dogs because it’s how they show affection while still looking totally macho. Yep, we’re onto them. :)

      But if he wants to think he’s preparing Laika for having to be picked up or carried, that’s good too. You might find it as helpful as we have. :)

  11. Great points! I love the “paws up” cue. I taught Nola to enjoy being up on tables, and it’s surprisingly useful! From trimming nails to going to the vet’s, it’s nice to have her calm.

    • I’ve had several people mention training their dog to be on tables. I wish I had thought of that one years ago. It would certainly be easier than trimming nails while twisted up like a pretzel on the floor.

  12. Zora is trained for things I need her to on a regular basis. For example, she jumps up on my bed and rolls over so I can give her meds. Of course, this also translates into her jumping up on the bed whenever I’m in it – but I’m okay with that.

  13. I would have thought my hubby was crazy if he went around picking up the dogs all the time, so who ever would have guessed that Mike’s trick would come in so handy?
    I can’t think of anything, but you’ve given me something new to work on with Luke, so thanks!
    Oh, I am working on training Luke to “spin” and though I was doing it just for fun, I did read somewhere that it could help clean his paws off when coming in from outside, which had never occurred to me!

  14. So true, training them to do weird things come in handy! I wish I’ve done more.

    The one thing I’m very happy about is training them to “wait”. We used to “wait” at each intersection. Now it comes in handy when I accidentally drop a leash when we’re out. “Wait” makes them stop every single time.

  15. My son has worked with Theo on being picked up. When we adopted him he would growl and/or bark if someone tried to pick him up. Theo has a special bond with my son and lets him pick him up without issue. I ask the vet techs to muzzle him before they try to lift him or clip his nails. I hope to work with a trainer this fall to learn a few tips to help me and my dogs.