I spend much of my “spare time” thinking about dog training and the dogs with whom I work. The time I invest in the dogs with whom I work is not limited to the actual time spent with them.  So it’s no surprise that as I was driving to class the other day, I was thinking about dogs and dog training. What, I wondered, is the most important thing we can teach our dogs?

I decided to ask my class that evening (July 2011) what they thought. I already knew what the majority of people would say. I’d heard it many times before. “Come” is the most often given response to that question. In addition, other people suggested “sit”, “greetings, especially with other dogs” and “focus around other dogs”.

Before Romeo, I would have said “come” as well. It is pretty important that your dog come to you when called, especially if an emergency situation arises. But when I am working with clients, I find they often are not putting a lot of effort into teaching a reliable “come”. So, is it really the most important thing to teach if people are not putting much effort into it? There often seems to be a disconnect between what people say is most important and what they spend the most time and effort working on.

The two things I use most often with Romeo are focus/”watch me” and “wait” so I wondered, are those more important than “come”? I would have to say yes, they are. Why? Because by having a strong focus on me and a strong response to “wait” I have far less need to use “come” with him. Don’t get me wrong, I still consider a reliable “come” to be very important to teach our dogs. However, by building a very strong focus on me, and a very reliable “wait”, I have had many many situations in which I never had to use “come” because I was able to prevent Romeo from running off in the first place.

We were out on our usual walk on our property. There was a bunny not five feet away from Romeo. The bunny took off as fast as he could go. I normally would use  “leave it”or “wait” to try to stop Romeo. Instead, I didn’t say a word. I decided to see what choice he would make. He waited. Let me say that again. With a bunny taking off less than five feet away from Romeo, he chose to stop and wait rather than pursue the bunny. That would have been unthinkable even a few months ago. (And I am not saying that he might make a different choice tomorrow.) If he had pursued the bunny (and if he had been off leash) I know that his “come” is not yet strong enough to have been able to draw him back to me immediately. But his practice with “waits” and keeping focused on me paid off. He controlled his impulse to chase.

I’m changing my answer on what is most important to teach a dog. My first choice is no longer “come”, it’s “focus on me”. Next, is “wait” and third is “come”. I’m curious to hear what you think.