Thinking Beyond Obedience... Dog's have lived with us for 1000's of years without the need for Sit, Down, Stay, Come & Heel.

Dec 15, 2023

The bond between humans and dogs has evolved over the past 30,000 years. It’s rooted in companionship, co-evolution and in the process mutual understanding by simply living together.

Modern “Obedience training” has only been in existence for a little over a century. The 1930’s saw the rise of Obedience Trials and that continued to grow expanding to the hundreds of different sports, events and competitions we see today.

Until the late 20th century dog training was mostly a hobby, not an industry and not the common occurrence we see today.

In many obedience training programs, whether classes or lessons, dogs are taught to obey a series of commands with the idea that it ensures their safety and helps them integrate into society. The traditional dog training approaches I was taught revolved around obedience as the foundation and often only path to solving problems and were pretty harsh sometimes.

I’ve attended these classes as a student, I’ve graduated from live in schools that taught these approaches and for a short time I subscribed and taught this as my primary approach.

This is NOT an attack on “old school” or "obedience" training. In my opinion the monopoly of behaviorism in training dogs has potentially gone a little too far and bears blame. We can get our dogs to do an incredible amount of things and build intense motivation for them to do it… to the point where we are creating little dopamine junkies in order to get them to do random crazy things like balance on a fire hydrant or walk within a foot of us ignoring the world around them for an entire walk.

Just because we "can" do it doesn’t it mean we "should" do it.

Basically we learned more effective ways to hack the dog's brain to do a lot more... but at what cost?

The rise of Applied Ethology, Neuroscience, Psychology, Neuro-ethology, Epigenetics and so many more disciplines along with the ability to understand the brain in more detail has posed both a number questions and provided a multitude of answers on the canines we share our lives with.

This evolution in our understanding of dogs, their behavior, etc is paving the way for a paradigm shift in dog training. Moving beyond obedience or behaviorism to solve problems to newer approaches that emphasize a deeper connection, communication, and understanding between humans and dogs.

Dogs, like humans, have complex emotions, thoughts, and instincts. Constantly working to understand the canine brain is the cornerstone of a paradigm shift to a approach that focuses on the whole dog. 

Canines are social animals, similar to us they thrive on safe interactions and a sense of belonging. Traditional obedience-focused training might teach a dog to sit, stay, or come, but often it can neglect the emotional aspect of the training process. Many trainers are now recognizing that a dog's emotional well-being plays a huge role in their ability to follow commands and take that into account.

A "Whole Dog Approach" focuses on understanding the dog as a far more complex species and using that to foster a connection between the dog and the human.

As mentioned before, dogs, like humans and the majority of social beings on the planet thrive in environments where they feel safe, valued, and understood. Building trust is essential in any relationship, including the one between a dog and their owner. Often in traditional obedience training, the focus is solely on submission and control. Sometimes that submission and control is via a collar and sometimes it’s via the dopamine jackpot.

I want to allow dogs to make appropriate choices, encouraging them to think and problem-solve when possible and safe. Through interactive games and puzzles, dogs learn to use their intelligence and creativity. This mental stimulation not only enriches their lives but also enhances their problem-solving skills and confidence.

The behaviors we instill and the control we seek should be solely based on their safety and should be measured and appropriate. In one generation the dogs we share our lives with have gone from the run of the neighborhood to the confines of a plastic prison or postage stamp backyard.

Moderation is key and we have to ask ourselves if the over focus on obedience has gone too far?

Another concern is the one way communication seen with some obedience approaches. Communication is a two-way street. While we often teach dogs commands, it is equally crucial for humans to understand their canine companions. By truly understanding our dogs trainers and owners can respond appropriately, strengthening the bond of understanding between them and their dogs.

I want to focus on the whole dog and help clients learn to communicate effectively with their dogs. This communication extends beyond verbal commands to include subtle gestures, eye contact, and more. Understanding your dog and listening can establish a profound connection, fostering a sense of unity and cooperation.

Moving beyond a "cookie cutter" obedience approach in dog training requires patience and empathy. Each dog is unique, with individual personalities, strengths, and challenges. Some dogs might grasp new concepts quickly, while others may require more time and encouragement. A patient and empathetic approach allows us to meet dogs where they are, tailoring their training to suit the specific needs of each canine companion.

Empathy also involves understanding the world from the dog's perspective. Consideration of their emotions, fears, and triggers is essential in creating a safe environment to work in. Trainers who empathize with their dogs can address behavioral issues at the root, helping the dog overcome challenges and thrive emotionally.

I want to be clear, moving beyond just obedience doesn’t mean abandoning any sense of a standard or expectation of behavior but rather being mindful of WHAT we are asking of the dog, WHEN we are asking it, WHERE we are asking it as well as WHY we are asking it to determine IF we should be asking it and if so, the best choice in HOW to go about getting it.

Moving beyond just obedience in dog training is not an attack on Obedience. I’ve seen some dogs thrive under that approach when its measured and the dog's welfare in general is a focus. I’ve also seen dogs broken and relationships fractured as a result of the primary goal of getting compliance to a laundry list of commands.

Moving beyond just obedience is simply a challenge to step back and consider do we need to and do we want to do things a little different.

Can we look at the whole dog… physically, mentally and emotionally when training as opposed to simply creating a set of yes or no physical behaviors and attaching words to them?

I think the perspective and journey that follows not only enhances the training process but also enriches the lives of both the human and every dog they encounter. It fosters a different relationship, where both parties learn from each other and grow together.  I've moved to it with the more holistic approach I teach and am truly happy with the dogs and their human handlers I'm building.

As always thanks for hanging out and digging into the world of dog training with me!

My goal with the Top Dog Blog is to bring a mix of science, old-school wisdom, a craftsmanship focus, and the pure joy that comes from working with dogs and helping clients. This almost 30 year journey from problem dogs to hobby trainer to the past decade as a career has been and continues to be a blast, and I'm really honored you've taken the time to read this.

So take what you've learned, try it out with your own pup, and find the joy in working with dogs. I've got more ideas coming your way in the next blog, so keep your eyes peeled.

Until then, enjoy the adventures with our dogs and the simple joy that comes from truly understanding them.


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