I am reading an intake questionnaire from a new client and my internal alarm goes off. Reading a potential client’s intake form is very helpful in learning about what the present situation is like, as well as learning what the client’s goals and expectations of training are, and what their future life with their dog might look like. In this particular form, I noticed that for this client his dog being “obedient” is of the upmost importance.
I get that we all want and need our dogs to be “obedient,” but we must ask ourselves too: are we expecting too much from our dog? I think it merits defining what an “obedient” dog looks like. The definition of “obedience” implies “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.” As defined it appears that most of us have had to comply with an order or request from someone else many times during our lives, so it makes sense that our dogs should also be taught to comply with our requests. The problem for me lies in the idea (I would go so far as to call it “a perverse illusion”) that our dog must ALWAYS be ready to respond to our request. But let’s stop and think for a minute: Is this fair? Realistic? Needed?
From my perspective, there should be a realistic and fair balance between compliance and our dogs having their very doggie needs met. Once this balance tips to the being compliant side, I am afraid for the quality of this dog’s life.
It is important that pet parents not only be realistic about what they want from their dogs, but that they also understand that the loftier the goals, the more training they need to do. And the more consistent they need to be in making sure they are following up with consequences for behavior they like and don’t want. This is never an easy task for most of us! Sigh.
Here is an example that beautifully illustrates the point:
I am reading about a very prominent Ph.D. in nutrition and his school of thought when it comes what it takes to have a ripped set of abs. As he explains, one of his clients had reached success in losing the weight he set out to lose. His client mentions that he really wants to get a “six pack.” He wants to look like those gorgeous models. The nutritionist explains to his client that while he is now reaping the success of his many efforts in changing his most pressing and not-so-good eating habits, reaching this new goal of “ripped abs” will require SO much work that most folks are really not in for the effort. It is not, as he explains, that his client would need to just stop having the weekly dessert or cutting on his alcohol consumption here and there to reach this new plateau. Instead, it will require so many more additional changes and sacrifices. Way more sacrifices than what his client was able to take on.
As I read this I was left pondering about our human nature. We want fast and copious returns for little or small amount of effort or sacrifice. It is difficult, of course, to work against our very human nature; yet it is necessary for us to re-calibrate our thinking when we set lofty goals. Are we truly aware of what it will take to get there? Are we willing to make those sacrifices?
Having a compliant dog is no different! Now, there are other issues that concern me when the expectations from the pet parent towards the behavior of their dog are frankly not very realistic. Are we asking dogs to just be objects? To forfeit their animal ways for a chunk of meat and a comfy bed to lie on? This is when we need to spend some time learning about dogs. So how then can we reach a nice balance so that life with our pup is as stress free as possible fun and fair to everyone involved?
I have categorized some areas and behaviors that I feel all (pet) dogs should learn and the reasons why. Here it is:
Safety related behaviors:
Our dogs should learn to wait to go out the front door or any other dog that leads to a potential harm such as going into a veterinarian’s office where another dog might be coming out from the same door. We want to avoid a head to head encounter. Dogs need to learn to not jump off our cars unless invited to do so.
- Dogs should be taught to come when called. To check in regularly, and for me, to be in view when walking off-leash. If a dog cannot do that, the dog should not be walked off-leash.
- In my perfect world, dogs are never put into situations where they feel threatened with the possibility of aggression to ensue. But this will sadly never be so. However, in my view, our societal and personal goals should be for having pet dogs that are friendly to humans and other animals. This in itself is a paramount task and while of the upmost importance, I will not address it here. It goes without saying that we need to start with making sure our dog is capable of safely interacting with people and other animals.
- Teaching the dog to surrender a valuable resource. Especially salient when what the dog wants to consume might be dangerous for consumption.
- Moving away from danger. This could be a snake or any other type of wildlife.
Necessary behaviors for a joyful existence:
- Our dog has learned to lie down and can do so when asked to. One of the strongest behaviors in my dogs is that I can send them to go lie down on their beds (or else) when I need to get to the front door, or I am cooking and I don’t want them in the kitchen – not a safe place for a dog. I do not want my dogs begging when we are eating so they have learned that their beds in our kitchen have some kind of magic power that produces bits or the chance of licking a plate once we have concluded our meal. Walking on a loose leash for most of the walk and, if doable, for the entirety of the walk. I personally hate being dragged by a dog that is pulling on leash. Not only is this behavior obnoxious, but I have had many clients literally being dragged to the ground by their strong, boisterous dogs.
- Teaching our dogs to alert us when someone is at the front door but being able to stop the barking when we re-direct them to do something else, such as to find a favorite toy or fetching a ball.
- In multiple dog-households it is imperative that we teach our dogs to get along. This is a huge topic which I have addressed just recently in a previous post so I will just add it to the list. I get so much pleasure by witnessing how much my dogs enjoy each other. They are truly good friends and partners in “doggie crimes.”
Behaviors to teach for fun & mental stimulation:
- This is where my list can grow and grow… I LOVE teaching stuff just to have fun with my dogs and to ensure that they are getting to do stuff that it is important to them.
- How to play tug. VERY high on my list. All my dogs have been avid tug players. I also use the tug playing when I need my dogs to come to me -especially Deuce which then doubles as a safety behavior.
- How to SAFELY go after a Frisbee or a ball.
- Some simple tricks that make dogs look hyper cute and adds to the repertoire of behaviors that I can put together on a behavior chain – where the previous behavior serves as a reinforcer for the next behavior. I have a couple of these chains and I just get a kick out of seeing how excited my dogs get when I ask them for behaviors they know well and love to perform in fast succession. We both end with smiles on our faces.
- Play with toys. All sorts of games and interactions with toys, or quasi- toys like newspapers, boxes, etc.
- Eating out of food-dispensing toys. There are so many options and I like to teach my pups to eat out of different ones – in efforts of doubling the fun and keeping their brains sharp.
- Riding safely without excessive pulling, but not dragging behind next to a bike. We have attachments on our bikes that allow us to take our dogs on bike runs safely.
- I truly enjoy fitness and athletics so pretty much any activity that entails this with my dogs I am game for. A note of caution: It is so easy to overdo some of the fast games or fitness activities with our dogs, so once again, we must analyze what we are asking the dog to do and to pay close attention as to how we are setting things up. Dogs, just like us, can get hurt from exertion; a too high a jump etc. They do need us to be mindful for them and to observe carefully as we plan to teach them flashy stuff such as leaping in the air for a Frisbee, go after a ball, shepherding or run an agility course.
- Of course, your list of “must” and “just for fun” behaviors might be very different from mine, and that is okay. Then again, it behooves us to think hard as to why are we wanting our dog to do a behavior. Once we are more versed in the ethology of dogs, we can take a step back and contemplate if what we asking is fair to the dog – will this add to his quality of life, and how much work will it take. Again, we must assess with honesty if WE are up to the task.