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.
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!