Obedience…such a commonly used word when we talk about the way we train our dogs. We have been brainwashed to think that obedience is the only thing we need to worry about. The end all be all to training. They must obey, they must sit, they must lay down, they must do what we say. They must do so willingly and with positive reinforcement only, but also without an expectation of reward. However, dogs are sentient beings with emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Why as humans do we think we are superior and need to control our dogs? Because that is what obedience is all about, control. If I say sit you must do as I say and sit because I feel the need to control you and make decisions for you despite how you are feeling about the situation.
Lets unpack why an obedience based training mentality is not ideal and actually not needed.
1. Obedience does not change the way the dog feels about the situation. Take for example if your dog is reactive on leash and it stems from fear, so you ask for eye contact from your dog and you enforce the rule that when we pass a dog you must give me eye contact on demand, in no way does this change the way the dog feels about passing dogs while on a walk. All it does it put blinders on your dog. Your dog is still afraid of and would still react if it was allowed to look at that other dog. In the training world this is called teaching an “incompatible” behaviour. So that means you teach the dog to do something else so that it can’t do the behaviour you don’t like. This does not change the emotional state of the dog and rather only suppresses the behaviour. As trainers and owners, we should be looking for ways to help support our dogs, lift them up, help them feel better in their own skin. Instead of focusing on obedience alone to solve all our problems.
2. The second reason being that we should not feel the need to control another living being. I am not saying you can’t teach your dog to sit when you ask them to. It is more about the mindset behind the WHY you need your dog to sit. When someone wants to focus on obedience, I often as why? Why does your dog NEED to sit before crossing the street? Why does your dog NEED to sit before you give him a treat? Most people cannot answer this without a “because I said so” type answer. Of course there are a couple of life saving commands that all dogs should know and respond to like “come” and a solid “wait” for safety around doorways that lead to the outdoors. However, this need to command our dogs “because we said so” is pointless and unnecessary. What it comes down to is that we are using control and commands based on our desire to be in charge and need to have our dogs listen to what we say.
3. The third being that when a dog is performing obedience commands they are not in free behaviour. What does that mean? If I have to tell my dog to go to “place’ because that is the only way he can handle certain situations then my dog is not making the choice on their own but rather only behaving because I have told them what to do. I don’t see the need to micromanage our dogs. Not only is it exhausting for the human, can create conflict for the dog, but also we have to think about what our dogs would choose to do if we didn’t tell them what to do. Meaning if the human isn’t there to tell the dog to go to place, what would the dog do? What if someone else is watching your dog and they don’t know how to enforce the command? We want to teach the dog how to be well behaved and make good choices so they can live in our human world without having to be micromanaged all the time. Not only will you enjoy your dog more, but we will remove unnecessary conflict from your relationship.
When it comes to training, we should focus on relationship, teaching our dogs how to make good choices without being told what to do, work on how to be calm when they don’t necessarily want to be, and how to feel better about situations that make them uncomfortable. Let’s worry less about being in control and more about the animal in front of us that we consider family!