Teaching dogs to do things when I ask them to is more fun than it ever has been. More fun for me, and more fun for the dogs, but I don’t think of it as obedience, anymore – they aren’t obeying my commands so much as following my cues in an improvisational performance that we call life. Philosophically, I think of the dogs that live with me as part of my family. And because I am a modern, progressive, thoughtful, and peaceful person, I don’t expect my family to obey me. Listen to me when I need them to, consider me, be courteous around me, sure, but obey? No one in my family obeys me, and I don’t expect them to. I don’t command my wife, my parents, or my siblings, and they don’t command me. There is no “obey” in our relationships. I am more interested in teaching dogs and people than ever– it is the idea that our dogs must obey us in order for us to enjoy them that I am over.
Since dog training is my sole source of income, and most of what I do is called “general obedience training”, or something like that, this could be a serious concern. The good news is, thinking about it differently is causing the dogs and me to all be happier. We practice, we have fun, and instead of thinking in terms of “are they obeying my command, first time, every time? If not, why not?” I think in terms of “what can I do to ensure that my partner has every opportunity and reason to be happy, healthy, and to perform well in our life together.” Instead of “obedience”, maybe we should call it “life skills”. The change is in my mind, but also in how my own dogs behave, and in what people notice about them. It has been a long time since someone mentioned “they always do what you say,” but I often hear a more generalized, “they are so well-behaved.”
Consider what our approach to dogs would sound like if we substituted another family member in our description of our goals. Imagine walking into a family counseling meeting. The therapist asks, “so Michael, what is your goal for your relationship with your wife for the next year?” and then I say “Well, most important to me is that she does what I say, first time, every time, no exceptions. Also, it would be great if she would never leave my side, and when out in public, I want her eyes on me the whole time.” That doesn’t sound like familial behavior to me; that sounds like narcissistic psychopathic behavior. I don’t want that for my wife, and I don’t want it for my dogs.
Of course we have to call our dogs away from danger, and teach them other behaviors to redirect away from behaviors we don’t like. We have to teach our dogs many things (hundreds, if we and they are lucky!), but must teachers be commanders? Must parents? Lately I have been taking long walks with my dog, Rudy. My approach is no longer to tell him what to do necessarily, but to mark and reward the things I like, while telling him what to do as little as possible. Most of the behaviors he offers that I mark and reward are behaviors I have taught him in a general or specific way: walk near me off leash, stay close enough that the leash is loose if we are using one, sit at corners, check in regularly, etc. But instead of telling him to do them, I reward him when he chooses to, and accept it when he doesn’t (unless it isn’t safe, obviously). The benefit to our relationship has been profound.
That word “relationship” isn’t discussed enough in dog-training. I consider my dogs part of my family, and this is why I am losing interest in the whole idea of “obedience training”. I work in a relatively progressive facility, with thoughtful people who also consider their dogs to be family. And we teach classes in the “Obedience Room”. We mostly talk about helping our clients teach their dogs “cues” instead of “commands” but we also strive to get a quick and reliable response to our cued behaviors. I think this is good, and understanding the definition of terms like “fluency” and “generalization” will always be important to me. I will always want my dogs to come when called, first time, every time, and I will always want my clients’ dogs to respond to their handler’s cues first time, every time. What I want, though, is an emotional and cultural change in how we see what is happening, what we do to get it, and what is the most important outcome.
While I was far from a perfect child, I rarely, if ever, didn’t come to my mother’s call, or declined to set the table when asked. Was this because my mother commanded me? Was I obeying? One could argue that these are questions of semantics, but there is more to it than that. It is the nature of the relationship being built and improved. Recent books like Plenty in Life is Free, by Kathy Sdao; and these articles from Psychology Today, The Ideal Dog and Teaching Your Dog to Say Yes or No: The Art of Non-Training, suggest I am not alone in rethinking our approaches to teaching our dogs. In fact, I am rethinking even what I want them to learn, and what I want to teach them. Fearful Dogs, by Debbie Jacobs is an important part of this puzzle. She lays out clearly, and convincingly, the importance of addressing the emotional state of dogs who are struggling, instead of focusing on the behavior that is only a reaction to the emotion. Far too often, we try to get our dogs to obey when they are struggling just to not panic. So much of what we call behavioral problems, or lack of obedience, are actually reactions to emotional triggers. It is much simpler, and much healthier, to change the dog’s mind about the location and/or the triggers, than it is to ask them to obey a command in the face of what they consider mortal danger. Change how the dog feels about, say, motorcycles, and their behavior around them will change for the better.
Teaching dogs to do tricks is fun, and when done well, is rewarding for all involved. Educating dogs about how to get along in the world is an essential part of our life with them, and I still recommend habituating behaviors by practicing and rewarding them. It is time to rethink, however, the nature of our relationship. Dogs need not be commanded any more than we do, and polite, predictable behavior need not come from obedience. It can, and should, come from thoughtful, informed, and skillful practice combined with a loving relationship.