Do dogs know they have 4 legs?

Do you ever wish your dog would back out of the way as you come through the door? Do you worry about your dog’s spine and hip health due to breed, size or age? Strangely enough, most dogs are barely aware that they have hind legs, which makes for some funny videos of awkward or clumsy maneuvers, but also points to a training opportunity many times ignored by dog owners: teaching hind end awareness.

Dogs that learn how to actively engage their back legs will develop strength, stability and better balance. If they are going to compete in agility, they will need this skill to perform jumps and weaves. A fun and easy way to teach your dog about his back half is to train him to back up on cue.

Grab a handful of treats, and with your dog standing in front of you (lure him up into a stand if he’s sitting waiting for treats), take a step or two directly toward him. Be on the lookout for any kind of movement of either back leg—even a half step or a lift should get a “Good!” from you and a treat.  Keep going, marking and rewarding any type of movement of the back legs, no matter how small. Continue to walk into your dog as long as he is not scooting to the side or sitting down.  Once he can take 5 or so steps straight backwards, it’s time to stop walking into your dog: instead, you should just take one step, then lean into your front foot, marking and rewarding even if your dog goes back to barely moving his back paw. This can be a tricky part, but be patient. As the dog gets it, he must offer more steps backwards without you moving forwards in order to earn his treat.  When this is accomplished, add a verbal cue like “Back” or my favorite, “Beep Beep!”

If your dog is continually shifting to the side, try teaching him to back up onto a different surface, such as a non-skid mat or through a doorway onto different flooring type. Don’t worry too much about his steering in the beginning, just concentrate on backwards movement and eventually it will turn into a straight line.  If he’s sitting every time you move toward him, try to be faster with the mark and treat, rewarding him even if he’s about to sit, as long as he has moved backwards and isn’t sitting quite yet.

Eventually you can work to backing onto raised surfaces such as stairs or even a handstand against the wall. Keep training sessions short and positive, and remember to practice in different settings so your dog understands that his hind legs go with him wherever he goes!