In this article I am going to give you four tips to help you improve your dog’s performance in obedience training. Before I do however, I need to be clear that I believe that the benefits of traditional obedience training are often overstated and over-emphasised. By traditional obedience training I mean the general idea of going to a local park with a group of other people and dogs, and being instructed to perform a series of commands and exercises with your dog.
I am not saying you shouldn’t go to an obedience club. It can be lots of fun and great socializing for both you and your dog. I am suggesting you treat it as a game or an extra activity; some fun you have with your dog on a Sunday morning. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact it can be very rewarding. Just don’t do it in the expectation of creating a generally respectful dog or earning trust or leadership.
The goal of any true obedience training for dogs should be to create a healthy leader/follower relationship and spiritual connection to help calm and stabilize the dogs mind. Sadly, most focus on physical actions without taking into account the dog’s mind and spirit, and with little emphasis on understanding what you are communicating with your energy, thought and body language, and with little or no understanding by the dog of WHY you are asking what you are asking.
I believe this type of dog obedience training has little relevance to your everyday life. In fact many times a week I help clients whose dogs are uncontrollable at home or on a walk, who have spent many hours at puppy and obedience classes believing this would help their dog’s overall behaviour.
A dog is not being obedient when it performs an action for a treat or ball. It is merely doing a trick to get what you have. You are actually the obstacle. Genuine obedience is an attitude – a willingness to co-operate in any situation – and is really achieved only when you ask the dog to do as you request and they do so willingly because they trust YOU and want to please YOU. I prefer to keep my experience with dogs as natural and instinctive as possible, and try not to ask a dog to do any unnatural physical exercises that have no genuine benefit.
Dogs don’t generally ask each other to sit, stay or drop. They focus on each other’s energy and state of mind, and they ask for body language that has immediate relevance. It is more important to connect to a dog’s spirit and energy, and address and reward their state of mind, than to ask them to perform physical actions. This is crucial if our goal is to create respect, trust and connection.
So now I have got that of my chest, here are some tips to make your obedience training more successful and enjoyable. Remember however, that your relationship, behaviour and communication in your everyday life is far more critical to your dogs behaviour than focusing on ‘training’ them. So here are my tips:
Treat it as a fun game.
Make a clear distinction between your obedience classes and real life situation. Wear specific clothes and shoes, use a more exiting tone to let your dog now this is a game and to cue in. “You need a higher energy to play this game.”
Use different commands.
Don’t use the same commands that you would at home or when out walking with your dog. You want your commands at training to indicate high energy and an active state of mind. For example at training the word heel should be a high drive exercise. You want them to be excited and to intently focus on you. Even drive you. But this is not what you want when you are going for a casual walk down the street. Don’t confuse them by using the same command in both situations. Use an alternative word like “walk” to indicate low drive and passive state when walking. It may even be beneficial to use a different language for training to make a clear distinction between the two activities. This is something I have successfully done in the past and is fairly common.
Focus on your behaviour.
Obedience classes usually place a lot of emphasis on looking at your dog and encouraging it to look up at you or pay attention. This can be interpreted as weak behaviour and energy by your dog. Try focusing on your own behaviour and attitude and look forward with certainty and power. The more impressed your dog is the more they will want to look up at you and follow your lead.
Learn to create and block energy.
For a more energized and attractive performance you will need to learn to block and hold your dogs energy. So your command should create energy (treat or toy) and you should make your dog focus and hold this energy, before you reward. This is called training in drive. So your food or toy creates energy, the more the better. You want your dog to learn to focus and hold this high energy, while performing a task ie heel, and then you release the dog and reward with your treat or toy. The sport of Schutzhund has an obedience phase where they have mastered this process well and it is very impressive to watch.