The answer may surprise you! It isn't a sit, down, stay, or come (though these are important skills too).
May I introduce you to... the humble CRATE.
In our book, the number one most important skill you can teach your dog is how to relax in a crate. You may ask "why do I need a crate? My dog doesn't have accidents in the house or destroy things!" There are a handful of major reasons why we consider crate training to be a top level, critical skill, and it isn't just for potty training and prevention of bad behaviors! Far beyond just managing behavior, crate training your dog sets your dog up to build a better overall state of mind, ensures your dog's safety, minimizes dog (and owner) stress, and allows you to maximize freedom and minimize frustration and conflict with your dog. Though there are many, many benefits to teaching your dog to love their crate, the following are a few of the most common and crucial!
1. BEHAVIOR MANAGEMENT
Crating allows you to manage your dog's behavior as your training catches up. Crating offers an important management tool during early training (and beyond), by preventing your dog from practicing unwanted behaviors. In early life, this is important for potty training, but it is also critical in addressing/preventing things like separation anxiety, jumping on guests, reactivity out of windows, inter-dog conflict, counter surfing, and much, much more. By preventing the formation of these problem behaviors until you have more tools in your toolbox to prevent or address these potential issues, you can avoid many problem behaviors entirely, and better set your dog up for clarity and success.
2. EMOTIONAL REGULATION
Crate skills teach your dog how to self regulate and exercise calm states of mind on cue. Aside from the management benefits of crating, building strong crate skills will encourage the dog to learn to manage their mindset and self soothe. Though most dogs will eventually relax when left to their own devices, this is not the same thing as teaching a dog to relax when they aren't exhausted or it isn't their idea. By prioritizing crate skills, you teach your dog to create better coping skills for stimulating or stressful situations, because you have enabled them to practice these skills away from triggers and distractions first.
Crates provide an important containment option for your dog that provides you and your dog with flexibility in your day to day life. Crating improves overall safety, opens doors for your dog, and allows you to set you and your dog up for success in ways that prevent frustration and conflict. Got an important work phone call and can't afford to have your dog bark out of the windows or jump in your lap? Pop them in their crate. Visiting a friend's house with your dog and want to prevent conflict with their dogs? Bring a crate and have your dog take breaks to prevent overwhelm and help them settle when they show signs of tiredness, pushiness, or crankiness (your dog will thank you!). Have guests coming over and want them to be able to get in the door chaos free? Crate your dog while guests arrive, and release your dog once the household has settled and everyone is comfortable. Need to board your dog while you travel? Dogs who are regularly crated in their day-to-day lives experience far less stress when boarding or staying with friends and family, as containment is already a part of their normal routine.
Crates are an ESSENTIAL safety skill, and should be practiced regularly. If your dog gets injured, or requires surgery, they will likely need to be kenneled before and after their procedure. By crating regularly before an incident occurs, you minimize the stress your dog will experience in an veterinary emergency, where they will already have enough stress to deal with. In the event of a natural disaster, your dog may need an emergency transport, which will require crating. In a more everyday example, crating your dog in your vehicle is by far the safest method of travel with your dog. In the event of an accident, your dog will not become a projectile and is less likely to be injured during the collision, as they are securely contained.
5. STRESS FREE ACTIVITIES
If you are interested in pursuing dog sports and seminars, crates are the way to go! When travelling for sports, my dogs are always crated. My dogs are conditioned to calmly hang in their crates as we wait for our runs, allowing them to stay rested and focused. I don't have to worry about them eating my car seats or reacting at other dogs out of the windows. If we are travelling for a trial or seminar, I am able to crate them in a hotel room, without worrying that they will bark, practice destructive behaviors, or door dash if a cleaning staff member enters the room unexpectedly while I make a food run or make a stop somewhere that isn't dog friendly.
Crating your dog has SO MANY benefits for you and your dog. If I could ask all owners to do just ONE thing, it would be this! Teach your dog to tolerate and enjoy spending time in a crate. Your dog will thank you, and you'll be surprised at the positive impact it has on your daily life with your dog!