What do we mean by “Obedience”

When we ask a dog owner what they hope to achieve with their dog, it is extremely common to get the response “I just want him to be obedient!” Of course what they mean is they want their dog to respond correctly to a range of verbal cues, which is a fantastic training goal for any owner to have.

Note that this post is about “obedience” as a concept for a pet dog that behaves how the owner wants, not “obedience” the dog sport!

What a lot of people don’t realise, or at least don’t think about, is that to achieve “obedience” they have to train all the individual behaviours they are hoping their dog will be able to respond to. It isn’t fair to expect a dog to sit on cue in the vet clinic or at the park if the only place they’ve ever practiced in the past is around the home with few distractions. Likewise it’s not fair to ask a dog to “settle down” or “RELAX!” when they’ve never been taught what that cue means – they don’t speak English.

dog trainer

Each new behaviour has to be taught in successive approximations (baby steps) so that the dog learns what we are asking for, and using positive reinforcement so they understand that by working with us they will gain access to things they value (treats, games, affection). Once our dog can perform a new behaviour at home, we have to then take the behaviour on road and possibly break it back down in a range of new and increasingly distracting environments. If we don’t take the time to train our dogs out and about, we can never realistically expect them to respond “obediently” when we ask for a behaviour – anywhere, anytime.

Think about the behaviours that are actually important to you, your dog, and your family. Does your perfect dog sit at door ways, come when called, and go to his bed on cue? Perhaps he walks on a loose-lead, shakes paws, and plays fetch? For each person the criteria for “obedience” is different, so it is important to set yourself and your dog training goals that you can work towards as a team.

If a behaviour breaks down, or your dog doesn’t respond to your cue the way you were hoping, instead of getting upset at your dog’s “disobedience” try looking at what could be distracting your dog, whether you’ve trained the behaviour you asked for well enough, and whether you are providing suitable motivation for the level of distraction you are working with. A scratch behind the ears might cut it at home, but cheese might get the job done at the park. Look at it as a training problem, a puzzle to solve, rather than as a naughty dog problem. Some causes of disobedience that we’ve run into have included a dog needing to go toilet, not wanting to sit or drop on wet grass or hot concrete, or being distracted by a person or dog in the distance. Be considerate of your dogs needs and limits.

“Obedience” is achievable, but it’s easier to work towards if you define it in terms of individual behaviours you want to teach. Set goals and priorities, and enjoy the process of working towards a co-operative dog. Train smart, not tough!

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It’s All Tricks

Ask someone to teach their dog to “Heel” and we’re talking serious obedience training. Stern voice, repetition, and sometimes even frustration when we can’t get it right. Ask someone to teach their dog to “Shake Hands” and the mood lightens. It’s hard to be serious when you’re teaching your dog a trick.

Guess what? It’s ALL tricks!

You read that right! Even an obedience “Heel” is a trick as far as your dog is concerned. Whether the behaviour is important to you or just for fun, your pet is relying on you to give him clear information to help him succeed. He is using that information to figure out what behaviours will lead to fun things happening for him, and when he figures that out he will try it more often! That’s how learning works.

So why do we like to get our panties in a twist over our basic “obedience” behaviours?

We don’t have to, and indeed we are likely to see better results if we lighten up. By relaxing, being clear, and having fun, we are likely to be more thoughtful when training our pets. A training failure is a puzzle to solve, not a serious offence, and we can work towards a training goal in partnership with our dog rather than trying to drill a behaviour into his muscle memory.

In the training classes I instruct or assist with, I like to give owners a trick to teach their dog. The dogs always learn the trick faster than any of the “serious” stuff. Why? I think it is because the owners have no preconceived idea as to how to teach a trick, while they probably have taught sit, drop, or stay a certain way in the past. Without the baggage people are free to try teaching without force, and they see the results quickly. If the owner is having a great time, their dog is usually loving training too.

shake hands dog

The important “tricks” vary from owner to owner as well. When Wilbur joined the Treat. Play. Love. family one of the first things i taught him was “Shake Hands”. Why? Because i had never owned a dog who could shake hands, and i’d always wanted one! That mattered to me. For someone else sitting at doors or retrieving may be more important, or perhaps that awesome down-stay. It’s not a matter of whether a behaviour is a “trick” or “obedience”, what really matters is if it is important to you, and that you and your dog enjoy the learning process together.

Train smart, not tough!