“I don’t need my dogs to be robots.”
This is something I’ve heard several times as a trainer and I’ve had to explain to prospective clients that what you see on the surface may not be what you think. You can’t judge a book by its cover – so to speak.
As a trainer, I often post video of my dogs and show them doing obedience drills that would make people think the dog is robotic like in their movements. I understand that is not what a typical dog owner strives for. They just want a well behaved dog that they can take places and trust on and off leash.
So why do I integrate obedience so tightly into my programs? Why do I think it is so important when all I’m trying to do is modify a dog’s behaviour for things like aggression, anxiety, reactivity, guarding, fear, insecurity, pulling on leash, barking, jumping, rushing the door, etc.?
The Short Answer
The short answer is that in almost all cases I am faced with a dog that doesn’t listen very well to their owners. I’m not trying to develop a robotic dog, or even a competitive dog, for most of my clients. I’m having a dog rehearse their listening skills and developing a better relationship that is full of engagement with their owners. If I can’t get that outside of the context of their problem behaviours, I will certainly have no chance in getting it when they are.
The Long Answer
Everything I do with a dog I perceive as having a conversation with them. That is why I first condition them to a communication system. In my case I use a marker system that allows me to instantly communicate to the dog that they are doing something right or wrong. They are also instantly aware if they are expected to hold the behaviour or are being released from it.
While conditioning a dog to markers, I make it fun, build drive, and development engagement between the dog and handler. I want the dog to want to work for the handler and perceive it as a fun activity to engage in. While this develops and they learn their makers there is a conversation going on between the handler and the dog. The dog is constantly being asked to do something, the dog is responding, the handler is marking and rewarding or letting them know when they are incorrect and encouraging them to get it right. The dog becomes engaged in the process and understands the conversation completely.
Once we have an engaged dog then we begin to teach the dog obedience that is practical. Yes, some of those coincide with competitive obedience skills but some do not. They are practical in a sense that they allow me to continue have my conversation with the dog. When changing behaviours, I use obedience commands that are incompatible with the problem behaviour. So my conversation is not about the undesired behaviour itself but about the obedience being asked for in the presence of the triggers that cause the undesired behaviour. For instance, if a dog is sitting it can’t be jumping. If a dog is heeling, it can’t be pulling or lunging. So my conversation with the dog could not be any clearer and when done right it allows me to desensitize, or block, or redirect, or build confidence; whatever that particular dog may need while continuing to establishing trust and strengthening a bond between the dog and handler. I’m asking them to do something they’ve learned to enjoy and that they’ve rehearse hundreds of times. I’m asking them to do something they absolutely understand how to do, what the outcome is for doing it and what the consequence is for not. This has all been taught through hundreds of dress rehearsals. They know it to the point that you would believe they are a robot. Just like the golfer who takes thousands of swings to perfect it but when the round is over, they are just normal people – they just happen to be very good at something. The dogs I train are the same in the end. They get to be normal, balanced dogs after they overcome their behaviour issues – they just happen to be very good at obedience. And like the athlete who puts all the work in for the love of the game, so does the dog.
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