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Karen B. London
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Teaching Dogs to “Back Up”
It’s more than just a cute trick
A dog with a big stick may be told to "back up" to prevent trouble.

Years ago I taught my dog Bugsy to “back up” with the intention of adding it to his trick repertoire. It means just what it sounds like—to move away by taking steps backwards. My dog already knew how to crawl, wave, high-five, spin, shake, rollover, bow, and sit pretty, but I was searching for something new to teach him. I remembered seeing horses do this on cue and finding it adorable. I decided it would be Bugsy’s next trick, but I never imagined how useful it would be.

It began as a trick, which are behaviors I ask dogs to do on cue just for fun, but I began to use it functionally in an ever-increasing number of contexts. Bugsy already had a solid “stay” and knew how to “wait” (pause and refrain from going forward until given permission) when asked. Still, there were many situations in which telling him to “back up” was more helpful.

Dogs can sometimes get in the way, and asking them to “back up” solves the problem. I’m thinking of situations such as when I’m trying to open the front door, the pantry or the fridge and there are many pounds of lovable canine filing the space I need.

Being able to tell a dog to back away from a trash can, the dishwasher, another dog’s food bowl, a toy, or anything found on a walk that looks gross or even dangerous is so useful. It’s true that the cue “leave it” will also work in those contexts. However, having a dogs create physical distance between themselves and the forbidden object sometimes helps them resist temptation. “Leave it” only tells most dogs that they may not grab something, but it gives them no help deciding what to do instead. The cue to “back up” instructs them with a specific incompatible behavior to perform. (A dog cannot simultaneously approach the dishes in the dishwasher and back away from them.)

There’s really no end to the situations in which asking your dog to “back up” is useful. I’ve used it when I need a dog to move away from a child or a person who does not love dogs, out of a crowded kitchen, out of my way as I carry a large pile of blankets that prevents me from seeing where I am stepping, away from a freshly painted fence, away from a swinging door, a swing or a car door, and away from an intersection with skateboarders flying by too close for comfort. I’ve asked dogs who were carrying large sticks to back away from people just for safety’s sake, and I’ve used this cue to tell a dog to increase the distance between himself and another dog if I see trouble brewing. It is endlessly practical, and I soon found myself using it way more often than wait or stay.

In addition to its great practicality, “back up” has the appeal of being relatively easy to teach. Start with your dog standing in front of you and attending to you. Move toward your dog calmly. When he takes a step backward, reinforce immediately with a click/treat or a treat. For some dogs, a couple of steps in their direction work best but for other dogs, a slight lean is most effective.

Continue to reinforce your dog for taking a step backward until he is doing it reliably. Then, continue moving toward your dog until he has taken more than one step backwards. Reinforce him for multiple steps. Once he understands that backing up is a way to earn treats, say the cue “back up” before moving toward him, and reinforce him for responding appropriately. With practice you can phase out the motion towards him so that he is backing up in response to the cue alone. You can use a visual cue such as extending your arm towards him instead of the verbal cue or in addition to it.

I use the verbal cue “back up” for this behavior, but other trainers use different ones. A few common cues for this same behavior are “back out”,  “get back” and “beep beep.” Any of these cues will work equally well, so choose the one that you like best, keeping in mind that it’s best to avoid using a cue that sounds similar to any cues that your dog already knows for any other behaviors.

Some dogs will respond to your motion towards them by sitting down or by turning around. If your dog is a sitter during this training, try holding a treat a few inches over his head and moving it towards his back end slowly. This causes most dogs to step back rather than sit, and you can then reinforce the behavior. If your dog’s tendency is to turn, try to train him in a narrow hallway or between two large pieces of furniture so that there’s not enough room for him to turn around. Presented with such an obstacle, most dogs will try to back up as an alternative, providing you with an opportunity to reinforce the behavior you are looking for.

Does your dog have a cue that means to back up, and if so, when do you use it?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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