Relationship Goals: Precision or Good Parenting?

Obedience. Such a loaded word. It makes me cringe when it is used outside of the dog competition world. And quite honestly, I would love to see that word changed to something with a kinder connotation in that world as well.  It’s been the status quo word reserved for dog training for so long that it’s hard for some dog parents to think of it any other way. There are plenty of modern methods trainers who still use that term on their websites to allow the average dog parent to find them via an online search; an indication of how much this term is ingrained into the world of dogs.

Switching to using a kinder term to describe the goal of teaching cued (not 'commanded') manners to dogs causes confusion in so many dog lovers who would never dream of wanting to have a robot in place of a dog, yet the word obedience is so that. Do you want a dog that responds like a robot, never showing their own personality or do you want a sentient being with likes, dislikes, and opinions? I know which one I would choose!

Many dog parents are also human parents.

I fervently hope that most of these parents are not looking for strict obedience from their human children. Most parents who I know well have the goal of teaching their human children to make good choices in every possible situation. This, along with teaching them appropriate boundaries and good manners helps them to grow up to be appropriately behaved adults. Obviously, dogs never grow up to move out on their own, but the goal can and should be the same as with the human children.

One can truly teach environmentally offered manners along  with cued requests, without being a control freak. An article I read recently seemed to imply that dogs should only do a thing if asked to do that thing and never outside of that asking and it should be exactly that thing that they do, not some other thing. I don’t know about you, but that is not the kind of relationship that I want with my dogs. How about you?

I feel that I should include a caveat here about precision. There are an abundance of modern method trainers competing in various dog sports/activities with their dogs who have excellently trained precision cues for their dogs in that world. They have taken the time and effort to teach them incrementally in order to achieve this precision so that they can compete. Both they and their dogs are having fun. Outside of this kind of  venue, precision for certain cues is vastly unnecessary much of the time, especially if you take the time to teach environmental/situational cues, which are far more easily understood by dogs overall.

Context is important.

If you ask your dog to do something (sit/down/etc.) in a situation that they are not emotionally or physically comfortable in, then not getting compliance (another word that makes me cringe!) doesn’t mean that your dog is stubborn or refusing to "respect" you or any of the other vast number of inaccurate statements that I have heard applied to that situation. As I have seen other quality modern method trainers say, your dog is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time. Expecting “obedience” at all times is indicative of not understanding your dog’s emotional needs. It also can mean that there is a physical problem that needs addressed that is not being considered. Don’t assume, examine the context please.

I love teaching dogs word cues/phrases that go with behaviors that I want them to know.

These are not only useful, they are fun for the dog when you make teaching them fun, instead of an anxiety inducing situation. Also as important are some hand signals as well as situational cues, meaning “this scenario is in effect so this is how you handle this”. Instructing your dog in this well rounded manner gives your dog confidence that he knows how to handle most scenarios. Dogs need to be able to express their own personalities without fear of retribution if they opt to not respond to a cue, when it’s too hard on their psyche to do so.  Or more importantly, when they see/know that it’s a bad idea and you don’t. Two-way communications between a dog and their human instills trust instead of fear and anxiety. Isn’t that the kind of relationship you want with your dog? I know it is definitely the kind of relationship that I want with my dogs. I am the parent, not a dictator.

Please consider modifying not only the words that you use to describe training your dog, but also your mindset about it.

Not only will your dog thank you, but you will be a part of the much needed sweeping forward movement to better understand dogs and respecting them for who they truly are rather than using them as a living accessory.


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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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