When “Obedience Training” Is Not Enough

It is one task to teach a dog to sit or to lie down when asked, and it is another task altogether to alter the behavior of your dog.  When dealing with dog issues, it is quite common to hear dog owners seeking help.  How to train their dog to stop growling at the mail carrier, or to train their dog to not be fearful when in the car, or even to train their dog to not whine when left alone, are common areas of concern.

Let’s take a look at semantics.  Training is listed in the dictionary as “to teach a specific skill by practice or improve abilities as a result of instruction”.  Looking up the word behavior will show us it means “the way one conducts oneself…manners, an observable pattern of actions especially in response to stimuli”.  Quite different from each other when laid out clearly.

Sit, lie down, come when called are all examples of a specific skill set. They are training words and are clear-cut.  You can look for an action and reward that action repeatedly.  By doing this you are likely to teach your dog, or train your dog, the desired word.  It may also have some bearing on behavior, depending on how the words are used.

Some dog parents also use the words they have taught in a training session to help sort out perceived behavioral issues.  If you have a dog that growls at other dogs that approach, some feel that teaching that dog to lie down will rectify the situation.  I have not found this to be the case.  This might help the dog owner in that moment, but will not necessarily help in the long run, and it is the long run that we should be concerned about.

You may even find yourself exasperating the issue by covering up behavioural problems  with obedience training.  This is like layers of an onion, being placed wrapped around the problem.  Unless the core problem is dealt with, at some point the layers of training will be removed and you will still have a dog with issues that have to be dealt with.

This is where things can get a bit confusing.  There is lots of discussion lately on the use of food in training.  For training (or teaching) a word or behavior, it is a great choice.  It clearly defines exactly the word you are looking for.  You ask a dog to sit, you lure it into the sit, and treat it for the sit.  You can even wait for your dog to sit, and click and treat him when the action occurs.  Fairly simple so far.  Over time, as your dog becomes more proficient with the word sit, you start to wean the food.  You can then use food mainly for new and improved words.  You don’t use it for every sit, but can use it for a nice tidy sit beside you.  You can also use food to up the criteria.  By asking your dog to sit at a distance, you can reward them for this newer behavior.  This is training.

Where using using food can get slightly confusing for some, is with certain types of behavioral issues.  Dogs who are truly aggressive (not simply reactive) or dogs that suffer from issues such as separation anxiety, are just a couple of examples of dogs that might be best served re-establishing a relationship with their owner with help from a trainer/behaviorist.  In some of these cases, establishing clear rules and boundaries, along with some obedience work, helps the dog and family get back on track.

Using food for behavioural modification in situation such as dogs reacting to other dogs is not always clear cut.  We are now using the food to change the dogs mind about what it perceives as a problem. In these cases, well versed behaviorists will often opt to use food as a tool to help the dog cope with its perception of the issue.  Often dogs will be fed while a distance away from the stimuli that creates their stress.  Over time, it is the goal to get the dog acclimatized and the use of food, although more vague in this circumstance than for a visible action, is a great way to achieve this goal.  The food is not used as a reward for the dogs actions, but as a way to show the dog that when he sees another dog, something great happens for him.  This type of work helps the dogs to then see the situation differently.  A much better alternative to physical discipline.

Another prime example of confusion between behavior and training comes when dog owners bring their dogs into a training class.  Classes are a great way to start with your dog, to get you both off on the right foot (paw?) and brings a lot of fun to the whole family.  The exception to this is if you have a dog with a behavioral issue, which is not addressed in the class curriculum.  Most group training classes for dogs address words your dog needs to increase communication between the two of you.  Again, these words can be “sit”, “down” and “come” or can be more complex such as “roll-over”, “spin” or “take a bow” in a Tricks class .  In dog sports, the words often taught are “out”, “go” and “side”, again to increase communication.  

If you have a dog who lacks social skills, who reacts in a negative fashion towards other dogs, or who is overwhelmed by a group of dogs, then attending a training class might not be your first option. This can be disappointing to some dog owners, who had a vision of their pup joining in all the fun but at this stage of the game, it is far better to discuss with your trainer what your best option is to help your dog.  

Lastly, once again going to the dictionary, relationship is defined at a kinship, an emotional connection or association.  This is what we strive for with our dogs.  We want a relationship that is solid, based on trust on both sides.  Sometimes the readjustment of your dog’s behavior will be necessary for you to reach this goal.  Sometimes it is not only a matter of teaching Sparky to come when called, sometimes it is a matter of truly understanding your dog.

With all this in mind, please bear with your trainers, who are always keeping your dogs best interest in mind. Our intentions are always for the betterment of your relationship with your dog.  If your trainer offers behavior advice, or recommends behavioral work along with your training, take it to heart.  While we are not psychic, we can often predict future behavior by our experience with past behavior.