I was walking with Castor the other day when he saw a couple of people, and he immediately turned away from them to run over and hop up on a raised manhole cover and watch them go by. I have been teaching Castor a few skills that we can use when we see new people and dogs on our walks. One of those skills is stationing on any nearby elevated service, and so when he put himself on the manhole cover with no prompting from me, I was pleased with his choice and with his ability to navigate the situation independently. Given that I work as a trainer (although I lean more toward terms like coach, teacher or guide) , I was more flattered than I should have been when one of the walkers asked in a surprised voice if I had trained him myself, but the next thing she said made me cringe. She said “He’s so obedient!”. I knew she meant for this to be a compliment, and so I politely smiled and kept my mouth shut, but truth be told, obedience is never my goal with the dogs in my life, and I wish we would forget about obedience as an approach to living with companion animals.
Wait a minute…I’m a trainer and obedience is never my goal? Don’t worry, I am not suggesting that we let our dogs run amuck. My goals when helping people and dogs live better together are always safety and welfare for both ends of the leash. Sometimes we can achieve those goals by simply controlling the environment (think fences, baby gates, where we choose to walk, etc), while other times, it will be worth the effort to teach more specific skills, and in some cases, skills we have labeled as “obedience” skills can be even useful. It is not the skills themselves I reject, but rather the mindset many of us have inherited which says dogs must be obedient to us, as well as the idea that a certain set of obedience skills are what all dogs need in order to thrive and to be successful in our homes. When we decide we need to teach our dogs some specific skills, shifting our focus from demanding obedience to building competence can be one piece of a kind, ethical, and effective way to set us and the dogs we live with up for success. Moreover, as we work to build competence in a variety of situations, rather than looking to a cookie cutter set of solutions to address behavioral challenges, we will be best served by evaluating each dog and each situation individually.
One online definition of obedience is compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority. The notion that we must bark commands at our dogs like sit, down, heel and others and have them comply with those orders or submit to our authority is misguided. Too often we are sold an idea that establishing power over our dogs by demanding a prescribed set of obedience skills from them is the key to addressing behavioral challenges. One example of this I see regularly is dogs barking, panting, lunging, etc in the presence of other dogs while their humans repeatedly try to force the dogs to sit as other dogs go by, as if sit is some magical skill and if the dogs would just obey and sit it would “fix” this problem. Unfortunately this can result in a back and forth power of wills happening with the dogs trying desperately to communicate something while the humans dutifully follow all their obedience training ignoring what their dogs are trying to tell them as they try to “fix” the problem with obedient dogs and forced sits.
Focusing on competence, not obedience, can be a key to success in such situations. Competence can be defined as the quality or state of having sufficient knowledge, judgment, skill, or strength. It’s not about our dogs obeying our every arbitrary command because we “said so”, but about empowering the dogs in our lives with knowledge and skills, and the ability to know when to use their knowledge and skills, to handle a variety of situations they are likely to encounter.
When possible, rather than prompting my dog to do something, my preference is to teach for the environment to cue or signal a desired behavior (or a couple of potential default behaviors). For example, I can verbally ask Castor to hop up on an elevated surface, but the sight of a person coming when there is an elevated surface nearby is becoming a cue for Castor to jump up and station himself. The latter is generally my goal – let the environment signal to Castor what he can do to obtain reinforcement in any given situation. If there is no elevated surface nearby, and depending on the general situation (maybe we just need to keep moving) we have a few other skills to choose from. If your dog has trouble passing people or other dogs, I am not suggesting that you teach this skill of hopping up on something to work on that challenge. In fact, this would not be my go to skill for most dogs in this situation, but it works nicely for Castor because of his unique L.E.G.S. (see Kim Brophey’s L.E.G.S model). When deciding which skills to teach, the unique dogs and humans involved need to be considered thoughtfully before deciding what will be most useful to successfully maneuver life as a team. Behavior is complex and If you are having challenges with the dog in your life, I suggest seeking the assistance of a skilled professional who can help you develop an individualized plan.
Regardless of the skills we are using in any given situation, if Castor is not behaving as I think he should, it is not because he is being “disobedient” and me demanding that he comply with some arbitrary set of “obedience” behaviors is unfair and likely confusing to him, possibly damaging to our relationship, and probably not helpful to me. If I were to ask Castor to hop up and station himself somewhere, but he did not jump up and decided to to stare at approaching people instead, or worse yet, started pulling on the leash to get closer to them, that would be evidence of a lack of competence needed to handle that situation in a way deemed appropriate by humans rather than evidence of disobedience. This may seem like semantics, but language matters, and this is an important distinction. When I ask a dog to do something and they do not do it, what I do next will differ greatly depending on my perspective. Through a perspective of obedience, compliance with my order is required now and in the future, but through a lens of competence, the burden is on me to do what is needed at that exact moment to get through the situation in the safest way for all, and then to make a mental note so I can decide how to either avoid similar situations in the future or increase competence to better set us up for success. Unfortunately, this can be a difficult shift to make, and even more so when other people might be watching. There is a school of thought that if we tell a dog to do something they should do it and we may feel it is a reflection on us when they do not do it. There may be occasional times when we have to make an executive decision and make our dogs do something for the safety of all, but hopefully when we have moments like these, we can recognize that the problem isn’t something called disobedience that lies inside of our dogs, but the problem is likely that we have not taught our dogs the skill set they need to handle a situation in a way that is generally accepted in this human dominated world, and we need to back up and teach for competence before putting them in that situation again.
I recently had another experience with Castor that illustrated the philosophical and practical contrast of these two mindsets in real time. I took Castor to a store with me and I thought we were prepared with the skills we needed because the store was pretty much empty, and I expected it would stay that way. However, a couple of other people came in with two dogs who they were training and we found ourselves in a situation I had not quite prepared us for. The people were issuing what sounded like commands to the dogs – “sit!”, “leave it!”, and the like. Mostly the dogs obeyed but when they did not, the commands continued to be re-issued in a stern manner until they complied. Initially I had a few thoughts of “crap! How is this going to make me look? I’m a “trainer” and Castor is not going to behave in the way I want in this public situation.” But luckily, when I looked down at Castor who was staring saucer eyed at what was unfolding before us, I was able to adjust my thinking and remember that more important than being a “trainer”, I am Castor’s caregiver and meeting this little dog’s needs should always be the priority regardless of how it might make me look to anyone else. I started talking to Castor, phrasing everything as a question – “can you come with me this way? Yes? That’s amazing little guy, let’s celebrate. Can you look away from them and give me a hand touch? No, no problem, let’s watch a minute, and now come with me this way please.” At the same time, the orders (or at least what sounded like orders to me) continued across the store for the other dogs. While Castor didn’t have the level of skills I would have liked for him to have (that’s on me not him), he was able to navigate the situation fairly well, and we wiggled out of the store quickly where he did a nice shake off and we practiced some fun, relaxed skill building outside before leaving.
Some of Castor’s answers in the store were “yes, I can do that.” And some of his answers were “no, I can’t do that here and now. There are other dogs right there and something’s happening with them and those people. I have to pay attention to this.” If I had been focused on having an “obedient” dog, I would have attempted to force him to obey each “command” that I issued. But is that fair? And while I can only guess as to what Castor was thinking and feeling, if he were scared, anxious, or even just curious about the situation, should I focus on teaching, or is it more appropriate to let him process the environment, help him feel safe, and make a note of where we need to do some skill building for future situations? Castor is dependent on me for everything through no choice of his own. If he is in a situation that is unsafe for him or for someone else, and he does not have the skillset to manage that situation of course I will pull out all the stops and do whatever it takes to try to keep everyone safe, but those situations are about damage control and should not be the norm. Those times when we accidentally wind up in the thick of things aren’t the times when I am focused on teaching, but times to do what needs to be done while making a note about where we need to increase competence.
As we think about living happy and safe lives with dogs in 2022 and beyond, let us all resolve to start thinking first and foremost about making sure we are meeting our dogs’ needs with one piece of that being focusing our teaching on competence and forgetting about obedience.