For most people, the beginning of their dogs training is a Basic Obedience class. You spend six weeks
working with your pup on mastering things like sit, down, stay, walking on a loose leash and coming when called. You get to meet other dog owners, have some fun with your pup, and introduce them to the skills they need to live a good life with you. This is also where most people end their training journey with their dog. Surely that’s all they need to know!
Those who do continue their journey then tend to focus on advanced obedience, or they start exploring dog sports. Most will focus on working towards things like their Canine Good Citizen title. Because this is what it takes to help dogs be successful in our society. Right?
But here’s the thing. In the ten years I have been working with dogs, I have not found these skills to be so crucial. My dog who behaves the best in public (and in general) has failed her Canine Good Citizen test twice! Sure, the skills are helpful, but when it really comes down to our dogs being able to function in society it doesn’t really matter if they have bulletproof obedience. There also isn’t an exact blueprint for what your dog should know or act like. Every household will have different skills that are more useful to them than they are in other households.
For example, one of the dogs in my house really doesn’t have any obedience skills at all. She kind of knows sit under very specific circumstances and is about 60/40 on knowing down and that’s about it. This has never been a problem for us with her though. We have worked on building different skills that are more useful for her life with us. She has amazing off leash skills, and has gained an amazing amount of confidence through her time with us. She also knows quite a few tricks!
A well behaved dog is so much more than an obedient dog. It’s beyond impressive if your dog can do a 10 minute down stay while you are out of sight, but do you really need it? To my mind there are much more important skills that help our dogs function in society, and they definitely aren’t obedience.
Willingness to try
A lot of obedience training focuses on creating a dog that does what is asked when it is asked. It doesn’t typically focus on rewarding the dog for good choices though. My experience has been that this creates a dog who doesn’t really know how to make choices that we want to see, instead they only know how to make us happy when we ask them to. Why is this a problem? Dog’s are natural problem solvers and are predisposed to occupying themselves when bored. They will choose to occupy themselves by doing something that they find rewarding and fun. If they have never been taught the nice things we like without being asked, then their initial choice is going to be behaviors that are self-rewarding. Things like chewing, barking, digging, and other generally undesirable behaviors. However if you have spent time building good choices into your dogs routine, then they will be much more likely to do choose a desirable behavior.
Un-cued focus in public
One of the main reasons I prefer not to focus solely on cued obedience is that I hate to nag. Especially when out in public with dogs. Whether you’re out on a walk in the neighborhood or on South Congress, your time with your dog will be much better if they have learned to focus on you. It will be even more pleasant if they can focus on you without you saying “watch me, watch me, fido watch me” over and over again. Building default or un-cued focus out in the world helps create more of the behaviors you want, because if your dog is able to focus on you, then they are much more able to listen to you.
The ability to settle and relax
This is the most important one to me. The ability to relax and settle is something that most dogs don’t have. Generally it is thought that the best way to help our dogs relax is to exercise them and exhaust them. Don’t get me wrong, physical exercise is great and mental exercise is better. But you can also teach relaxation as a skill that your dog gains. It is incredibly helpful for the days where you need a dog who can settle but you don’t have time to go for a decompression walk or to do a few training sessions. It can be helpful around the house, out in public, or even on a walk.
The ability to ignore other dogs
This is a big ticket item that gets missed by most dog owners. We really enjoy watching dogs play with each other, but we tend to get very fixated on making sure our dogs are “socialized” with other dogs and get plenty of social time. Especially when they are young and energetic. It is a really good way of tiring our dogs out and getting the stimulation they need. However if we depend too much on other dogs to entertain our dogs, it can create a dog who expects to greet every other dog they see. And this can be a problem. Not only does it sometimes manifest as a form of frustration reactivity, but not every other dog wants to greet your dog. Some dogs aren’t friendly, don’t like being greeted on leash, are older, or might just not be in the mood to greet and play. And that is okay and normal. Teaching your dog to be able to function around other dogs without greeting them is a paramount skill for being a polite canine member of society.
If you want to build these skills in your dog, by all means reach out to us and we can help you. Honestly though, most of these skills are started with one simple addition to your routine: reward behavior you like. It’s that simple. The more you reward behaviors you like (even when you didn’t ask for them) the more they will happen. Before you know it you’ll have a dog who is laying quietly in the corner and grinning at you, waiting for the yummy cookie, instead of chewing on your nice shoes. If this makes you worried about overfeeding your dog, use their kibble! Instead of feeding them breakfast keep it set aside to use as treats throughout the day, then give any remainders before bed.
If you are trying to figure out exactly what skills your dog needs to know to be successful in your home, write down your goals! Write down the undesirable things your dog does, and then brainstorm some things you want them to do instead. Remember, you are the one living with your dog. It doesn’t matter how other people feel about their behavior. It matters how you feel about it. One last example. My dogs beg. Like crazy. It really doesn’t bother me, so I’ve never bothered to do anything about it. Begging dogs isn’t prohibitive to the way I live. If anything I find it amusing. Other people may feel differently in their home, and that’s okay! Not all dogs must behave the same way.
Instead of working your way through the Basic Obedience Checklist, focus on creating a dog who you enjoy sharing your life with. Whatever that means.