It might be strange for a dog trainer to say this, but I’m just not that impressed by obedience, by trainers barking out “commands”, with compliance and with expectations that their dog should obey.
Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a trainer with slick mechanics work (and I especially LOVE the joy in their learner) or watching some really cool antecedent arrangement (management or setting the learner up for success); that definitely floats my boat.
Relationship and engagement produced through that is awesome, but superficial obedience and blind compliance; nope, not for me.
But, it’s easy to see why many will be enamoured by it.
I get it, pet owners want an easy life; we want dogs to slot into our busy lives and we certainly don’t want our dogs’ behaviour to embarrass us…after all, there are no such things as “bad” dogs, just “bad” owners, right?!
Maybe it’s the shame or dread of shaming.
Maybe we are still stuck in our cultural attitude toward our relationship with dogs; us in control and them being subservient.
Maybe we get our jollies by being in control, or certainly perceiving that we are in control.
Whatever’s behind it, understanding the time and place for obedience is important. Obedience isn’t the be all and end all, and sometimes it’s not what we have and it’s not what is needed.
Is it really obedience? Or is it just suppression?
In general, pet owners want to be able to stop their dog doing unwanted behaviour. When we think of obedience, this is often what we are thinking of…how do I stop my dog jumping, lunging, pulling barking… or whatever.
If that’s how you’re approaching this, you might already be off on the wrong foot. Behaviour doesn’t really go away; learning means that neural pathways are established in the brain and that’s not really undone. Instead, we develop new neural pathways that produce alternative behaviours and we strengthen those, with repetition, so that new, alternative, and hopefully more desirable behaviour, is established.
Punishers suppress behaviours but teaching alternative behaviour is the real key to success. That means that stopping the dog practicing unwanted behaviour (to prevent further establishment) while reinforcing desired behaviour is the solution to training problems.
Despite that, a whole range of products, equipment and ‘miracle cures’ are available designed to suppress behaviour. Indeed, that’s what most training tools do. Suppress rather than teach.
Those tools or techniques that cause the learner stress through fear, discomfort, pain, act to not just stop behaviour but to suppress it, convincing the dog that the world isn’t safe and that they better not step out of line. This looks like an animal who is quiet and tolerant, even calm. They stop offering behaviour. They effectively shut-down the weight of the stress being so great.
This clip, from Eileen And Dogs, shows some examples of dogs who appear biddable, well-behaved and even calm. But, look closely.
These dogs are still and frozen, moving or behaving very little. That’s what’s not right here – these dogs are not behaving as they would normally. Their normal responses are inhibited by the stress they are experiencing.
I can see why this might appeal. Look how little these dogs are doing. Look how quick we got compliance.
But this isn’t real life. This is TV-training. And dogs are not robots. They are responsive, sentient, learning beings for whom it’s normal to react and interact. And when that’s not happening, something not’s right.
Is it really obedience? How do we really get obedience?
What most people think of as training, or at least, as trained behaviours is probably not what they have at all. That’s because achieving a truly trained behaviour is not an easy thing. Simple, yes. Easy, no.
In dog training, we use the term ‘under stimulus control’ to describe a behaviour that is well established in response to a cue in a range of contexts (might be a word, body position or movement and so on).
A behaviour is under stimulus control when the learner responds to the cue quickly and efficiently, every time, the learner doesn’t offer that behaviour when not cued, the behaviour isn’t offering that behaviour when a different cue is presented, and other behaviours are not offered in response to that cue.
It’s also commonly presumed that the dog is responding to the verbal cue you use (“sit” or “down”), and even that’s in doubt with dogs being more likely to learn about contexts and your body movements than the words we use. (D’Aniello et al, 2016) (D’Aniello et al, 2017)
You might like to check out Dr Dunbar’s SIT TEST which asks, “does your dog really know sit?”.
Of course, we probably don’t want or need rigid stimulus control in a lot of pet-dog contexts; we want to be able to say certain words in certain contexts and not have to contest with a responsive dog throwing behaviours at us.
Truth is, it’s vastly underestimated just how much repetition and consistent practice is required for dogs (and humans) to establish behaviour reliably. And then you add distractions into that and we need MORE work. The magic number of 10,000 reps is often used to help illustrate this challenge and while that can vary, to help your dog perform behaviour on cue in a range of circumstances is a big ask.
Sometimes, obedience is just not the answer
Obedience can actually get in the way of what we want to achieve with our dogs, in some situations. And this is especially true if obedience is being held above all else.
Your dog is using his behaviour in an attempt to cope with the goings on and it’s a very honest account. It’s telling you how well your dog is coping, or not. Your dog’s behaviour is information.
If your dog is feeling distressed or worried in a particular context, his behaviour will let you know. When stressed, the brain is generally looking for a way out – how to get the body out of that stressful situation.
That means that behaviour will be related to getting away, escaping or delaying social interaction or to scare something away.
Attempts to distract, redirect or correct the dog’s behaviour will often rely on obedience – the dog is told to sit, the dog is verbally intimidated or is restrained in place.
For the most part, if the dog is trying to get distance, give it to him. Not being able to get away from something scary or overwhelming makes it more scary.
We are concerned with feelings right now – if the dog is stressed, not allowing him escape will increase that stress.
Better feelings bring better behaviour.
But the opposite can happen too – better behaviour will bring about better feelings. In this context, we might get the dog that distance they crave when they are showing only mildly concerned behaviour. Calmer, quieter, more polite social behaviour gets you distance – crazy dog behaviour not required.
The problem with sit
It’s good to review, to critique and we are doing that quite a bit in dog training right now. One question we might ask is, why do we teach dogs to sit?
Sitting isn’t really a favoured position by dogs, in natural situations. They tend to sit mostly when they aren’t sure about something (we often call this information gathering) and they might tuck their bums in a sitting motion should they be uncomfortable with something around their back end, such as another dog sniffing them.
Associating sit with amazing rewards and being careful when we ask for sits will go a long way to keeping it positive and happy. But, when we don’t establish this, sitting, when asked, may not be a pleasant situation for your dog at all.
Obedience classes in the face of fear
A training class will be full of people and other dogs, in a confined space, around lots of high value resources, with everyone on lead and a little tense.
Such is the understanding of the application of obedience, on a pretty regular basis, I will discuss this with a client who wants to bring their dog to an obedience class to help with behaviour related to fear, shyness, aggression, “reactivity”.
Putting those dogs in such an environment means that they will have difficulty moving away, achieving distance and gaining relief. And while their behaviour may be suppressed in this situation, so they appear tolerant, it’s probably not helping them feel better about being in close proximity with triggers.
What’s that dog really learning about triggers? How does that experience make that dog feel?
Obedience is not a priority for puppies
This by far one of my biggest bug bears – we have tons of time to teach puppies to come when called and walk nicely on lead, but such limited time to help them develop comfort and confidence.
Before puppy learns the rules of obedience, they need to learn the workings of their world. Obedience and even food rewards can mask puppy’s experience of their world around them at the most important time for them to experience that world.
Puppies must develop life skills, rather than obedience behaviours. Life skills build on behavioural tendencies partly inherited and affected by their first weeks of life, and by the time they go to their new homes we are rushing to make sure we make much progress as adolescence looms.
I wish puppy owners would spend time bringing their puppies every where, going for car trips, people and dog watching, helping puppy develop comfort with handling, grooming and husbandry, learning to play and engage with their humans, and being able to settle in confinement. If that was the priority, I would see far fewer dogs later on for behaviour work, that’s for sure.
Getting puppies out into the world and guiding their pet owners is the central focus of AniEd puppy programs.
Puppies learn to choose their humans, when they’re ready and they have finished taking in all the information they need to be comfortable; SNIFF, EXPLORE, OBSERVE.
Engaging with their people becomes a cue or signal from puppy that they are comfortable and confident with the situation.
The beauty of this comfort-first-obedience-later approach is that you get really cool engagement and even obedience as a side effect, without much extra effort.
Think comfort first – if the dog is comfortable, their behaviour will follow and we can build obedience behaviours into that, if you like.
Make dog walks more dog
A simple way to reduce the pressure and add a little more dog to your dog’s life is to re-think your dog’s walks.
When it’s safe, let your dog be a dog. Let him sniff (and sniff and sniff and sniff and sniff…), let him wander and roam (safely), let them roll and dig.
Take the pressure off, loosen the lead, prioritise quality over quantity, don’t get hung up on walking in front. Obedience doesn’t need to be front and centre when you take your dog out.
You’re dog’s not broken. You don’t need to fix him.
All behaviour functions for the animal. Generally, dogs are doing behaviour that gets them things they like and allows them to avoid things they don’t like.
Your dog’s behaviour isn’t and can’t be “bad”. It’s just behaviour.
Most of the unwanted behaviours that dogs do, are normal dog behaviours. Behaviours that dogs need to do. That are inbuilt and part of the package.
We have made arbitrary rules about the sorts of dog behaviours we like and don’t like. Dogs don’t know about that until we try to reshape their experience with human-imposed-obedience.
Dogs must get to be dogs. Meeting their needs will provide a better more solid foundation for appropriate behaviour than obedience alone.
Dogs are not robots. Sometimes they can’t obey.
Obedience is a human made construct based on our arbitrary rules for how dogs should behave in the human world. The dog is often the last to find out about it.
When a dog can’t or doesn’t comply, the first thing I look at is the environment. Remember, behaviour is in the environment, not in the dog.
The environment is causing the dog discomfort and for obedience, there first must be comfort.
Maybe the goings on are causing the dog to feel over excited, worried, cold or too hot, maybe they are conflicted or distracted.
Maybe our training isn’t so hot, maybe we just are not close to sufficient stimulus control so your dog doesn’t know how to respond in these new or overwhelming conditions.
None of it is deliberate or willful. Behaviour is information. Listen.
If you want to really train, look at your dog’s environment and change it up so that the behaviour you like is going to happen.
What do we do instead?
I’m not suggesting that there is no place for obedience training, teaching behaviours and improving your dog’s manners. Training is happening all the time, regardless of what you call it or how much you consciously participate. Your dog is learning how to get the good things and avoid the bad things all day, every day.
Training just aims to make sure that the behaviours produced are ones we like.
While it might seem like semantics, I suggest a mind shift might be considered. Instead of aiming for compliance and obedience, think about willing engagement, think about providing your dog with guidance in experiencing their world, think about letting your dog be a dog.
Sure, training is still happening but instead of it being obedience led, we can let it be a little more dog-led.
This doesn’t get you off the hook. I do think that most pet dogs need better guidance from their human partners. They need better and more outlets for their behaviour. They need more help learning to just be with their humans.
Your job is still to set your dog up for success, to arrange their environment so that they are safe, and to make sure they have outlets for their behaviour, constructing that foundation.
We can provide all that, while getting joyful and willing engagement from our dogs, without ever mentioning the O-word.
Moving to this mindset is what’s behind #100daysofenrichment – an entire ‘training’ manual without mentioning or prioritising obedience once.
Check it out here!