It has long been the standard in the training world that we should teach our dogs “obedience.” But what does that really mean and why do we do it? Is “obedience” just an antiquated system with no practical value, or does an obedient dog make for a happier home?
In my experience, I believe the foundation of training should be centered around impulse control. However, without obedience behaviors, we have no groundwork to help our dogs make decisions on how to exercise that impulse control. For example, a toddler’s immediate reaction, or impulse, may be to cry or demand something they want. What do most parents do? I imagine many of them calmly interject, explaining that in order to get it, they must politely ask for it and then wait patiently to earn it.
“You can then think of obedience as a toolkit – an arsenal full of different commands and behaviors that you can mix and match to apply them into instances of your dog’s life when they may be doing something incorrectly.”
Similarly with our dogs, if they’re jumping excitedly or barking loudly for food, attention, etc., we cannot correct the behavior alone without follow up. We must be prepared with the correct responses to reroute them into, which allows them to suppress urges that lead to problematic behavior. A “sit,” “down,” or “stay” may be a nice party trick for your friends and family, but without the calmness associated with these behaviors, they remain just that. It is then equally important that we don’t just shape obedience commands alone, but that we also require the corresponding emotional state, which involves patience and comfort.
You can then think of obedience as a toolkit – an arsenal full of different commands and behaviors that you can mix and match to apply them into instances of your dog’s life when they may be doing something incorrectly. With constant repetition and reinforcement, you modify the former behavior and establish new routines for your dog where they’re more likely to give you the appropriate response. Even better, is to start training a new puppy to perform these behaviors in response to stimuli that could become potential triggers later on (such as a doorbell ringing or you sitting down to eat your dinner).
So how do you practically apply this? Let’s say your dog has a habit (remember even “bad behaviors” often become ritualized when left uncurbed and repeated) of sitting in front of you and barking when you sit down to work in front of your laptop. To alter that response we must first get ahead of it. Before even going to sit down to do your work, bring your dog calmly over to his or her “place,” crate or “pen.” If your dog is already in a triggered state, you may need to use a disruptor, such as a sound deterrent, to first create inhibition and avoidance of the “wrong” behavior before guiding them to place. Practice this routine consistently with a “down/stay” at the end. Slowly build up the duration of this until your command to go to this place, involves them entering that space, but also learning to be calm there. Use plenty of reinforcements along the way (your dog needs to see it is worth it for them to be there). You should finally leave them with something high value that they can also busy themselves with, such as a bully stick or Kong stuffed with peanut butter so that their time spent there is also fulfilling.
Remember, we’re not trying to punish our dogs or ignore the fact that they have a need in that moment. We’re trying to teach them through obedience what they should be doing as an alternative when they have the urge to act in an undesirable way. With time, your dog will predict (because our dog’s are excellent at picking up patterns) that when it’s time for you to work, it’s time for them to enter into a calmer state or busy themselves in another way. You may need to make use of physical barriers in the beginning, such as closing the crate or pen, but you do eventually want to leave the space more open once you notice a shift in their initial response. Again, it’s important that we empower our dogs to make correct decisions and reward them for this. This is a truly trained dog that has established impulse control. Us forcing them into the behavior doesn’t teach them, or create a desire for them to do the right thing. We want our dogs to want to be well behaved.
Lastly, never neglect the psychological aspects of the original behavior. What is going on in your dog’s mind? What are they really communicating to you? Is it simply a demand for attention or is it an actual discomfort? Remember, excess energy needs to be depleted and if it isn’t, it simply becomes anxiety. Even more importantly, what are you saying to your dog? We as humans have a habit of sending mixed signals, saying one thing with our voices, but something very different with our body language and energy. If you want calmness from your animal, always remember that the calmness begins with you. At the end of it all, even though you can teach your dog to ignore that impulse and do what you deem correct in that moment, we can’t forget that they still need enriching experiences at some point in the day to help relieve that internal tension. A dog needs to expend their energy and act upon some of their primal drives. That’s why it’s crucial for you to provide them opportunities for play, discovery, socialization, mental stimulation, etc. Another reason why obedience can be such a wonderful enhancement is that by practicing it, and making it more challenging with distractions, new environments, etc., you help to wear down some of that energy. Utilizing mental energy can be just as strenuous as burning the physical.
As you work with your animal, realize that “obedience” and its derivatives are not just words used to describe the type of animal we want and the actions we desire. Rather it is a system we use to help our dogs make good decisions, keeping them calm, confident and secure in the environment we’ve set up for them.