So often I have people reach out to me for training and they are simply looking for “Basic obedience.” And over the years my definition of what that entails has grown, changed and evolved with my own skill and understanding. And over the last couple of years I have come to conclusion I no longer care about having an obedient dog, and I do not strive to teach clients to have obedient dogs either. I seek to achieve a well behaved dog. And those two things are different.
To understand what I mean when I say I don’t want an obedient dog, I think we must first look at the definition of obedience.
[ oh-bee-dee-uhnt ] adjective
obeying or willing to obey; complying with or submissive to authority:an obedient son.
From this definition I think the key components to it as it applies to teaching is the phrase “submissive to authority.” And most importantly out of that the word “submissive.” Submissive is a loaded term in dogs, and in dog training. Mostly it is used by people who don’t understand how dogs think as a means of establishing “authority.” If your dog is not submissive to you, he is trying to undermine or over take you. Both of which are patently untrue.
So when we discuss obedience in dogs we are essentially still leaning back on that old school of thought, that unless the dog is obedient, he is some how challenging your authority.
When we think about obedience in children what comes to mind are images of tough authority figures disciplining kids to ensure they do as they are told. Obey or be punished. We have come a long way in how we interact with one another, especially in regards to education and learning in children, and one of the primary take-aways from our modern understanding is that punishment is not terribly useful in teaching. Unfortunately for many dogs, we have not as a culture realized this applies to our canine companions as well. That punishment is not useful for learning, it hinders and slows learning. While you might be able to punish a dog into compliance, you will never be able to punish a dog into being well behaved.
“But,” you ask. “Isn’t well behaved obedient?” The answer to that is a resounding; not really. An obedient child is one who does exactly as they are told, and does not question authority. We know this sets children up to have conflicts with authority figures, and even places them in danger of complying to dangerous, immoral or unthinkable things because they have been forced into obedience instead of being taught how to be well behaved. A dog who has been taught to be obedient, that is to always comply with authority is a dog who has never been taught to think through a situation, or to be well behaved. Their compliance is reliant on the act of what happens if you don’t comply. Their compliance is reliant on punishment to be maintained. Yes, they absolutely do as they are told, but at what cost? And what happens the moment you remove the threat of punishment for their lack of obedience? How many dogs trained on prong and ecollars (shock collars) and other forms of compulsion are ever able to be with out those items? Very few.
So what does a well behaved dog look like? You’ve seen this dog already. You’ve seen the dog patiently waiting at their guardian’s feet, with eyes on their person, watching them. You’ve seen the dog who is excited, bouncing down the trail but whips around and recalls the moment his person says their name. This is the dog who sits quietly at the vets office and who follows along on a loose leash through the pet friendly store. You perhaps even know a few dogs like this, who are calm, relaxed and content to simply walk along with minimal supervision from their human. Their human holds conversations with friends, or browses the pet toys contemplating which one to buy. Their human checks their phone while their dog just waits patiently. Their human enjoys long walks on and off leash. These are well behaved dogs, and this is achieved through reinforcement. What we expect of our dogs needs to be reinforced.
So when a client contacts me asking for basic obedience classes, I ask them what they are looking to achieve. And invariably they want the dog whom they can trust off leash, whom they can walk down the street with out incident, they want the dog who doesn’t knock things off the walls, or jump all over company. They aren’t looking for an obedient dog, they are looking for a well behaved dog. A dog who looks at new situations and makes the choice to behave in a socially appropriate manner. They don’t want to have to punish their dog to get them to behave a certain way, they want a dog who just understands what behaviors are expected and how to translate those behaviors to new situations.
Your dog will never learn to make good choices if you do not give them any choices to make. When the consequence for making the “wrong” choice is punishment, what happens is a dog learns to be obedient. So long as the desired behavior is spelled out for them they appear to function. But when faced with novelty they shut down, or worse become reactive to it. This is because at no point during the use of punishment (particularly positive punishment that causes pain) were they taught how to make appropriate choices. They might become very obedient, doing exactly as they are told , but they are not well behaved. They are not relaxed. They are not comfortable in new situations, especially since dogs are not very good at generalizing, because they have no idea what is expected of them in any given novel environment. Are the rules the same? Are the rules different? What am I supposed to do now that we are in this entirely new place? It is not with out irony that often times novel environments require escalations in punishment to achieve obedience again in our dogs. Dogs are not very good at handling prolonged exposure to distress, it often leads to escalations in their reactive or otherwise undesirable behaviors. Dogs who are trained with punishment become distressed about meeting new people, and this often escalates their jumping up behaviors, or resort to displays of aggression to handle their emotional overload. This is because these dogs have been trained to be obedient, but not to be well behaved and make well behaved decisions. With out the express permission of a cue from a handler, these dogs often show immature, or overly cautious behaviors. They are not capable of making the appropriate choice to avoid jumping on someone, or to disengage from someone who makes them uncomfortable because these dogs have never been taught to make a choice.
At the end of the day I am not concerned if a dog I work with, particularly a pet dog, is obedient. I want to achieve a dog who’s default is well behaved. I want to teach a dog to make appropriate choices when faced with certain stimuli, and to be capable of thinking through new situations to make even better choices. I don’t care if that dog has a flashy heel, I care that that dog and guardian can walk together peacefully in all kinds of situations. I am not interested in a dog who submits because a lack of obedience will mean punishment. I am interested in a dog who makes good choices, who behaves because he has been conditioned and reinforced so well for those choices they are the default. A dog that understands even under duress we can still think through our choices, and we can seek reassurance, guidance and support from our humans, no strings attached.
I have no interest in a dog who submits to human authority. I am interested in training dogs who follow human guidance because they want to, not because they have to. A dog who is well behaved goes a lot of places, sees and does a lot of things. A dog who is well behaved and works with their humans has a full, rich and fantastic life. One they can appreciate fully instead of just waiting to be punished for the wrong move.