It can be difficult to narrow down what your Chihuahua really needs to know, and overwhelming to know where to start. There are dozens of potential skills and tricks you could teach, but how do you know what you should start with, and what is really necessary?
It is a good idea to start training for all new puppies with some general skills that can be used whether they are expected to be house pets, show dogs, therapy or service dogs, or even to excel at competitive dog sports. Recently adopted adult dogs coming into the home will also benefit from a quick review of the basics as a way to help them learn the ropes in the new environment.
Every puppy, and every newly adopted adult Chihuahua, should have some basic skills that will help you direct their behavior and keep them safe. These skills should include conditioned attention, sit, down, stay, controlled leash walking with polite greetings of dogs and people, and a solid recall in any location. These are the foundation skills that will give you a polite, well-rounded dog and that can be easily developed into more advanced skills.
It All Starts With Attention
Most trainers start with the very same foundation skill, namely, conditioned attention. After all, your Chihuahua knows his name, why can’t you just use that to get his attention? Not so fast. While most dogs quickly condition that their name means “look at the human saying my name, something good might happen,”it just as often means “ stop what you’re doing,” “come over here,” “you’re cute,” “we’re going in the car,” “time for dinner”.
You will say your Chihuahua’s name dozens of times a day, and much of the time it will not be followed by anything really relevant to your dog. Often, dogs learn to just ignore humans unless something else is in the picture. When you say your Chihuahua’s name while you are holding food, a leash, or a toy, it suddenly becomes relevant. So, how can you circumvent this phenomenon and condition the dog to pay attention every time you ask for it? You can use something other than his name.
Teaching an attention cue also has a wonderful side effect: It teaches the dog to check in with you more frequently and pay attention to you in all sorts of environments. Your Chihuahua will learn to listen for the next cue, which may be “Sit,” or “Down,” or “Come.” If your Chihuahua is looking at you and then doing one of those behaviors, he can,t be barking at people on the street, pulling on his leash, or chasing cats or cars.
One way to teach attention is to reward eye contact, and then put it on cue. Start by holding a treat or small toy in your closed hand out to the side. Let your Chihuahua sniff, lick, and paw at your hand. He will try all kinds of behavior, even including barking at you. Eventually, he will look at you and maybe back up or sit down. Click when he backs away from your hand and makes eye contact, and then drop the treat on the floor. Repeat several times, moving around the room and assuming different positions, including standing, kneeling, and sitting on the floor. Your only consistent criteria should be that the dog makes eye contact.
If your Chihuahua seems excessively frustrated or confused the first time you practice attention, you can bring the treat hand up to your face a few times and then click as he makes eye contact while you hold the treat next to your cheek. Then, slowly start to hold your hand further and further from your body, until you can hold your arm straight out to the side and the dog immediately looks at your face.
Once your Chihuahua makes instant eye contact when you hold a treat or toy in your outstretched hand, you can add a verbal cue. Say “Fido, Look!” just as the dog makes eye contact, and then click and treat. With each session you practice, start to increase and vary the amount of time your Chihuahua must hold your gaze until you click and treat. For example, you might hold the position three seconds, five seconds, fifteen seconds, ten seconds, eight seconds, twenty seconds. Begin to increase the duration the dog must hold your gaze with every practice session, until when you say “Fido, Look” he will watch you for several minutes at a time while you move around the room.
This behavior will only be useful if you generalize it to other locations and contexts. Start to practice this in every location you can, and begin to request attention at times you are not in a training session. In distracting locations, you can warm up your Chihuahua with a few obvious repetitions, holding out your hand with the treat, then ask again after you put your hands down and he is looking at something or someone else.
Mix in conditioned attention to real life, where the real learning takes place. Go outside for a play session and mix a few “Fido, Look” repetitions into the game, throwing the toy as the reward. Before you feed your dog dinner or present an enrichment toy, ask for “Fido, Look.” When you go to the park for a walk, get out of the car and immediately ask for a “Fido, Look” and use playtime as a reward for paying attention immediately. Now your Chihuahua is applying this skill to the real world, and now conditioned attention is not just a training game.