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The importance of training a dog to be obedient in behaviour consultations

Something that has cropped up for me a lot recently is the importance of training a dog to be obedient in behaviour consultations. As a behaviourist, when I arrive at a consultation one of the first things I need to do, is observe the dog and make interpretations of these observations, to deduce what the underlying emotions behind the problem behaviours might be. Then a plan can be put in place to help the dog deal with these emotions. Typically, this takes the form of counter conditioning, which means using things that the dog likes such as food to change the dogs emotion from negative to positive. I won't get bogged down too much further with this in this blog. Other than to say, sometimes we can get so involved with looking to reverse the emotion or fixing the problem that looking at the dog and owners training skills can take second place.

What has cropped up for me a lot recently and quite strongly is the notion of obedience and general training as part of a behaviour modification plan. When I get asked to help train recall, usually I present the owner with the following logic. Can you recall your dog away from its favourite toy at home? Can you recall your dog from the garden into the house? Can you do both of these things reliably, the majority of the time? I then apply the statement, if you cannot reliably recall your dog the majority of the time at home in the garden or under distraction at home, how can you expect to recall your dog in the park which is like Las Vegas to your dog?

As harsh as it may sound, the same can hold true in behaviour cases. The logic can follow something like this. If you cannot get your dog to turn on a sixpence at home, why would you expect to be able to get your dog's attention when it is screaming like a banshee at another dog on the street or in the park.

So how did this crop up for me? Let's look at a couple of quick case studies of mine. Firstly, Otto and Penny. Penny called me because her Stafford Cross had got into quite a few altercations with other dogs and she has lost confidence in his dog skills. Inadvertently, Penny had applied over time, a super-efficient behaviour modification plan. Effectively, she had avoided other dogs for at least a year and she had simultaneously done lots of training with Otto. On session one when I arrived this is the level of training I was greeted with. It is not competition level and it doesn’t need to be. It is however a dog that is desperate to do things for its owner and one of the quickest response times I’ve seen in a pet dog. Naturally I was in awe and excited to work with them. Watch Otto below.

This transferred similarly outside. When we left the house, Otto did not take his eyes off me and would do anything for me (at this point I jokingly offered Penny a refund). This obviously made the behaviour plan very easy and we were able to make good progress not only keeping Otto’s attention on us with dogs around but also mixing Otto with other dogs, as he was so easy to call away when he got himself into awkward situations.

Similarly, the second case study was Logan and Tara. Logan a Rottweiler Labrador cross I had bumped into whilst observing a fellow trainer’s 1-2-1 agility classes. Unbeknown to me I also had a live enquiry from Tara for dog issues on my WhatsApp. Some weeks later I had a behaviour consultation with Tara and again I was greeted with a similar level of responsiveness to Otto. Logan was super focussed on the walker and again I was amazed. Tara had inadvertently employed the same behaviour modification plan as Penny. Namely, avoiding other dogs long-term and embarking on consistent amounts of agility and training. Here is a video of the level of responsiveness I was greeted with when I arrived on session 1 with Logan. Watch Logan below.

Obviously, inadvertently, Penny and Tara had done a large amount of the foundation work already over a long period.

At around the same time, I was working with a gorgeous border terrier called Buddy. Buddy became a dog that I learnt a lot from because myself and my colleagues were unable to mix him with other dogs. I embarked on a mini fact-finding mission talking to 2 dog trainers in my area and several clinical behaviourists including David Ryan dog aggression expert. All of them gave the same advice. Take your foot off the gas trying to introduce him to other dogs and embark on building up a training history between the dog and owners through general obedience training and setting boundaries through learn to earn and nothing in life is free style training.

This advice triggered some memories of reading some other clinical behaviour reports that had included elements of learn to earn and nothing in life is free. Learn to earn and nothing in life is free is the notion of asking a dog to effectively say please for something through a general training tasks such as sitting or lying down. For example, if the dog wants the lead put on to go for a walk, you would gently wait for the dog to sit first, as this is an appropriate way to behave in a high excitement situation and is a good opportunity to strengthen the dog’s self-control muscle in their brain. Remember, the lead and garden are a huge reward for the dog. Life rewards such as this can be worked for just like treats can. Please note at this point, neither of these programs are about dominance or doing things first before your dog to maintain rank over them. They are about teaching the dog some self-control and building up a training history / level of compliance between the owner and the dog in everyday life. Again, if your dog cannot even sit to have a lead put on or to get the back door opened to the garden, how are they going to apply some self-control when faced with another dog.

It was at this point in my career that everything was screaming at me just how important general training and boundaries are even in behaviour consultations. Like with all dog training sometimes the answer is not the direct answer. In fact, sometimes the answer is asking a completely different question.

For example, if a puppy client asks me how do I get the dog off the sofa? My answer is how do you keep the dog on the floor? If somebody asks me how do I recall my dog at the park? My answer is, can you recall your dog at home reliably in a range of situations? Resoundingly now in some behaviour cases, when greeted with the question, how do I stop my dog screaming like a banshee at other dogs? My question is, can you get your dog's attention in all other situations reliably. If the answer is no then why would you expect to get your dog's attention when it's at level 10 wired.

As humans, we want to deal directly with the problem. It is difficult for us to make our peace with the fact that sometimes with dog behaviour modifications plans, we need to avoid the problem completely and work on other things such as general training, enrichment, confidence building and self-control exercises and go back to the problem much later. But that is exactly what a behaviour modification plan can be a lot of the time. It is very encouraging to see examples of where this has worked well such as Otto and Logan. Hopefully, this is inspiring for you too, it certainly is for me as a behaviourist to have all of my peers concurring from so many different angles and so independently of each other. So, if you have had a behaviour modification plan, trust the advice and make your peace with the fact that it is a long-term project and you can expect to see solid results within six months to a year, if you are consistently doing the training. Further to this, if you have a puppy, it is a very good reason to do some consistent training, as it can be beneficial in avoiding behaviour problems further down the line.