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Words to Save Your Dog's Life

Body+Soul, April 2010

My dogs are such good listeners, letting me prattle on about my weight, the deficit, Hugh Laurie. But as important as those topics are, the words I really want them to pay attention to are two life-saving commands.

"DOWN!" Returning from a romp in New York City's Central Park, my friend Alice stopped to reattach her dog Jet's leash when the tennis ball he'd been chasing rolled into a busy street. Jet thought, Don't worry, I've got this one, as he bolted into traffic to rescue it.

Alice bellowed, "Down!" and Jet immediately dropped into position while cars pummeled his ball into oblivion.

"I believe the most important thing we can teach our dog is 'Down,' says Kevin Behan, author of Natural Dog Training. It's one of the first commands he teaches. "Most people yell a dog's name in a crisis, which is often a mistake," Behan says. That just makes him excited but gives no direction. "There's no instinct in a dog to come when called if something thrilling beckons on the horizon," Behan explains. But the "Down" command aligns with a dog's "natural response to lie down as a means of coping with danger," he says.

"LEAVE IT!" This is the other command you need in your lexicon, according to certified trainer Sherry Woodard from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kenab, Utah. It's critical, she says, in case Sparky "picks up something dangerous, starts to drink from a toxic puddle, or even gets in a squabble." Woodard promises teaching the command isn't hard:

  • Prepare a pouch with treats.
  • Place a boring, unfamiliar item (like an unopened can of human food) on the floor.
  • As your dog starts to sniff it, say "Leave it" happily while popping a treat into his mouth.
  • Change the item to something else he won't want, and repeat. Each time have the dog move farther to reach the treat.
  • After using five different items at ever-growing distances, you can start putting down more exciting things. (Don't use ordinary stuff your dog would likely find on a walk, like a tissue. The goal is that eventually your dog will turn to you every single time he hears "Leave it!") You can change the reward to a toy, but always praise lavishly.

Keep the lessons short, and stop if your dog seems overwhelmed. Training will help your dog gain confidence, Woodard says, as well as stay safe and live longer.

Hear that, Lulu and Dr.Waffles? Think of all the fascinating conversations -- and House marathons -- we have ahead of us.