I’ve been training dogs for over a decade, and it took me years to figure out that the average dog owner doesn’t want perfect obedience from their dog. In the early part of my career, I spent so much of my time trying to make dogs look flashy, trying to give them that competition look, but I found out again and again that the flashy obedience was impractical for average people who just wanted a better dog.
I know better now that when someone calls and says they want obedience to help their dog stop jumping, stop growling, stop chasing, stop pottying in the house, or to stop pulling on leash, they aren’t talking about obedience at all. They are talking about mindset.
So many of the behaviors that drive dog owners crazy are simply a response the dog has to the environment around it. We can teach flashy obedience to try to control that response, but that response is still there. The urge to jump, the urge to bite, the urge panic, the urge to be rambunctious. The mindset hasn’t changed, and I think dog owners feel cheated when they have a flashy dog that still has a terrible mindset.
Mindset has nothing to do with obedience. Mindset is not about having our dogs repeat commands 200 times in a session. Mindset is not teaching our dogs fancy tricks. It needs to be so much more than that, because once we get tired of bouncing our dog from one command to the next or one trick to the next, we are going to find we never taught them the most important part of life—how to fit in.
We must consistently show them how to be here, how to live in a human society, and that can’t happen through commands. We need to give them opportunities to interact with the world around them, and if we have done our homework right in the training department, we will be able to coach them toward making good decisions WITHOUT constant commands.
Dogs are complex, emotional, and incredible animals that are capable of understanding much more than we give them credit for, but when we rely on obedience (sit, down, come, heel, stay), we are only speaking one small fraction of a language. I can’t imagine trying to raise my child in a world where she can only understand 1 out of every 10 words I speak.
When training dogs, there is so much more to it than the words we use. Every movement of our body sends a message to our dogs. Every pass of the leash. Every emotional interchange.
We have to look at the big picture and avoid isolating pieces of it. We need to stop, evaluate our dogs, and ask questions. What drives my dog? What scares it? What calms it? What confuses it? Once we start answering questions like these, we can develop a true language with the dog, a language where obedience is simply a part of speech in a lifetime of dialogue.
Obedience is easy. Mindset takes a lot of consistency, effort, and coaching.
Stephanie Vichinsky is the owner/head trainer of Method K9 in Post Falls.