Toby, observing the world and collecting his thoughts

Who’s a “Good Dog”? – Foundation Skills

Leo and Pyro, two golden retrievers lying down next to each other, fit the definition of “good dogs.” They have learned the foundation skills of friendly, relaxed behavior and self-control in a variety of situations.

What is a “good dog”?

People tend to categorize dogs as “good dogs” when they are confident, friendly, and relaxed. Working dogs and performance dogs need these qualities so fear and anxiety don’t distract them from their jobs. People tend to expect family pets to be safe and reliable around children, which requires a relaxed, confident demeanor and the ability to make good choices. Picture a dog who’s OK on his own when you leave, who doesn’t need constant input to make good choices; a dog who is a pleasure to be around. Dogs don’t have to be born with these qualities – they can learn. Is it realistic to think that every owner can reach these goals with every dog? No way. But it’s a goal to pursue, and every step gives dogs a chance to live a better life.

Predictability leads to confidence

Dogs thrive on being able to predict what’s coming next. Letting them know which of their behaviors can get them what they want builds confidence. Teaching tricks and basic behaviors with positive reinforcement teaches dogs how to choose behaviors to get what they want. If sitting at the back door causes you to open it, your dog will do it every time. When things happen in the same way every time, dogs can predict what’s next and they’ll make the right behavior choices as a result. Teaching is a process. Train your dog in simple behaviors like targeting your hand with his nose or a simple “sit”. When he easily succeeds, you can help him expand his new skills to more challenging versions of the same behaviors. Build confidence at every step through consistency. When you’re predictable, you’ll find your dog to be predictable – dogs are very consistent.

Safety leads to confidence

You do a lot to keep your dog physically safe. Make sure you know how to tell whether your dog feels safe. Prevent your dog from being scared or startled and watch his confidence grow when he feels secure within normal, daily activities.

Prevent small children or ignorant adults from grabbing your dog inappropriately or yanking on their leash. Educate people about how to pet your dog so he feels safe; not every human has good dog manners! Physical safety is important, but behavioral safety is, too. Don’t let bad habits start. Prevent other dog owners from letting their nervous dogs bark and lunge at your dog. This may be as simple as ducking behind a parked car or other obstacle when you see someone walking an out-of-control dog. Teach your dog that he can look to you for protection. Read our posts on Teaching Reactive Dogs a New Habit: Part 1 and Part 2 for further help with reactivity issues.


Friendliness is a dog’s ability to tolerate all people and seek interaction with some people. A dog doesn’t have to love all people, but he needs to tolerate the presence of all people. He doesn’t have to tolerate being abused by people, but he needs to tolerate some of the clumsy attempts at interaction and the poking and prodding done in the name of grooming and medical care. Choose which people interact with him and how they do so. Condition him to being touched in somewhat invasive, sometimes clumsy ways. Check out our article Teach Your Dog to Beg for a Nail Trim to learn to condition dogs for grooming and vet care as well as being touched by strangers.

Never leave any dog unattended with children. If dogs are to interact with children, do your job of making sure they are relaxed, comfortable, and friendly toward them so your dog can be a “good dog”. Al, a brown and white dog, is showing off a “play bow” about 4 feet from a child kneeling on the floor. A “play bow” is a happy, friendly behavior indicating a dog is comfortable and ready to play. It might be better for a dog to lie down and relax while children are playing, but it’s nice to know he’s feeling friendly toward this child, and he’s maintaining a nice, safe distance, too.

Dogs should sometimes approach some people and seek interaction in an appropriate way. Maybe your dog only wants affection from his own family and just wants to look at other people; that means you have to plan to protect him from well-intentioned people who want to pet him. You may be able to help educate these folks so that when they meet another dog, they can read him themselves and know whether he wants to interact. At the same time, you can be training your dog to tolerate interactions better. He can even learn to enjoy them through conditioning.

Ability to relax in almost any situation

Right or wrong, humans tend to expect dogs to go where we want them to go and tolerate whatever we expose them to. Dogs deserve a chance to develop the skills they need before being put into situations where they need to use those skills. Relaxation does not mean “asleep.” Confidence allows a dog to relax his brain in a situation, knowing just what behaviors will be reinforced, not having to be conflicted about what to do. Relaxation means a soft body and face and a lack of stress signals. Even when excited, a dog can be soft-bodied and wiggly as opposed to stiff and jerky in his movements. These are two extremes along a continuum from “relaxed” to “stressed”. Look for the signs in the various situations your dog is in. Use them to set up training sessions to teach him how to relax in a given situation.

Al is being a “good dog” in New Orleans, relaxing under the table while his folks are getting ready to order a meal. Teach your dog at home, then practice over a quick drink at a dog-friendly patio restaurant before you plan to enjoy a meal. Being relaxed and comfortable in this situation takes practice.

Teach your dog how to manage himself

Give your dog the tools he needs to be able to relax and control himself in any situation. Teach him that self-control behaviors get him what he wants. A simple “sit” can help your dog let you know he’s using self-control when he wants something. Have your dog sit before giving him his meals, before letting him outside, before letting him get in the car, before putting his leash on, and more. By doing so, you’ll teach him that his behavior can get him what he wants. It may be harder to get him to sit when he’s meeting a dog friend to play, but after working through it a few times he’ll understand that sitting is what gets him his play date! Watch for your dog to start “offering” sits in different situations to get what he wants. When he does, consistently give him his desired item or opportunity.

Al’s ability to be a “good dog” while hanging out at an outdoor drum class required conditioning to the sounds of the drums, the ability to use self-control around a group of people and to manage himself in an outdoor area where there are not only drums, but squirrels jumping around in the trees.

Enjoy your “good dog”!

Use your observation skills to understand which situations your dog can be friendly and relaxed in. Pay attention to the times when he shows he’s using self-control. Have regular training sessions to help him learn the skills he needs to accomplish these tasks. Do your part to choose situations for him where he can be confident and have a good time; start with short periods, positioning yourself at the far edge of the activities. You’ll be able to expand the opportunities you and your dog can take part in when you take the approach of helping your dog succeed in each one.

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