Why do we train our dogs?

Everyone knows they should train their dog, but for what purpose?  While there are countless sources from books, videos, classes, and personal trainers that will tell you HOW TO train your dog, I feel we should pause and ask the important question, “Why do we train our dogs?”   Once we understand the WHY, we can set proper expectations and reach those goals with greater efficiency. First let’s break down 3 intrinsic traits of dogs, explain what we have done with those traits over the millennia, and see how our relationship with dogs dramatically changed, relatively overnight.

Photo by John Tuesday


Before obedience training became a concept after World War II,  dogs were simply bred and refined for their natural instincts.  Retrievers with strong retrieving instincts were bred to other strong retrievers.  Herding dogs with the strongest herding instinct were bred with other strong herders.  Hounds with strong instincts to track were bred to others with those qualities. You cannot train instinct into a dog, they either have it or they do not. Over the millennia we selected specific, naturally occurring, qualities in dogs that served us best and worked to enhance them. Some commands were used with certain types of dogs like the herding dog, but the commands were applied to the natural instinctive behavior already within them.


We also preferred a certain amount of independence in a dog that would do a job regardless of the owner being around.  For instance, the terrier of the past should wake up every morning eager to hunt rats regardless of his owner being on the scene. Hounds were released into the woods to corner or run something up a tree, make a ton of noise in the process and continue to make that noise until the hunter later found them and the quarry they tracked. Flock protectors were bred to live with sheep in the mountains for weeks and months on end without human interaction. They even had to find their own food!  None of these qualities were trained into existence.  The raw characteristic had to be there first. 


 Persistence was another natural trait that humans needed in their dogs. A dog was supposed to work like… well…a dog.  No hunter wanted a dog that gave up and went home.  No farmer wanted a dog that got tired of chasing sheep and decided to take a nap under the front porch.  They wanted a dog that was obsessed with the challenge laid before it. Once again this is not a quality that could be trained, a dog either had a superior drive or they did not.

Photo by Jamie Street

So then what are we training for?

Practically everyone I work with wants a personal relationship with their dog and that is fantastic!  They do not want a furry employee. They want a sidekick to go through life with them, not something to dominate.  When I get a call it is usually for either behavioral issues or a puppy that is proving to be a handful. My approach to teaching is to not only focus on HOW to train but also balance that teaching with WHY we need to train and it is usually not for the reasons most people think.  

For quite some time the purpose of basic obedience training has been to blunt instinct, independence and persistence so the dog is able to fit into our modern lifestyles, which is going 180 degrees from the direction most dogs were originally bred for. Many types of dogs were bred for outdoor work and now we want them to be indoor dogs.  People now want relationships and companionship, not hardcore instincts, independence mixed with an insatiable drive.  And with that abrupt change comes a new set of challenges. Dogs are extremely adaptable, but we must keep in mind that the above intrinsic aspects are still very much in their DNA and one could argue we are trying to train dogs to a more sophisticated level of domestication. 

I train for the connection. Whether it be a simple SIT to a more difficult LONG-DOWN-STAY, reinforcing our connection should be the prime objective in our training.  In other words, the objective of training your dog to sit is not the sit itself, but the reinforcement of your bond.  If your objective for SIT is purely for the sit..then you will have no fun in that and neither will your dog.  If your objective is the excitement and novelty of understanding each other then you will feel much more celebratory and want to continue doing more and your dog will be more engaged as well.

Case in point, being trained for a job is not much fun no matter how you slice it. You perform the task and get an unenthusiastic “Good… you got it. Let’s move on…” But playing the game Charades is much more engaging and exciting.  Why is that?  It’s a team effort and the reward is not in getting the answer right but in the excitement of overcoming obstacles in communication. Once you figure that part out, your team is unstoppable.  Another fun point about Charades, the responsibility for the spectator to figure out the answer falls mostly on the person conveying the clues.  The spectator is already very engaged in figuring it out, but it is up to the person providing the clues to figure out the best approach and encourage the spectator, as they are getting it, with proper timing. The same is true with dog training, the dog is fully engaged and it is up to us to encourage the dog as they reach the desired end result. The simple objective of playing Charades is of course to win, but the real objective from the beginning is bonding as a group and having fun, and that is the objective for training our dogs in today’s world.  It is not training dogs for a job, but rather learning to communicate and strengthen your connection. While the act of sitting, staying, waiting, or leaving something is important for a dog to learn, the act itself is secondary to the main objective which is to reinforce your connection with your dog.  Otherwise, what is the point? 

Like any game played successfully, the accomplishment should inspire us to play again or increase the level of difficulty.  The hard part for many dog owners is staying consistent in their training exercises. However, when we put things in the context of strengthening our connection, we begin to see an array of benefits that inspire us to continue the exploration with our dog.  When we start to see things in those terms it becomes a lot less human-commanding-dog and dog-obeys, to human and dog communicating with each other, period.  Which I think is pretty dang neat. 

Photo by Jamie Street

Have you Heard of Sniffspot?

If you have not heard about Sniffspot then let me introduce you to this great concept! Sniffspot is a website and app that gives dog owners an opportunity to rent participating private backyards and acreages who want space to exercise their dogs OFF LEASH!  Unlike public dog parks which can be very unsanitary and uncertain, your dog will have the whole space to themselves or you can invite other dog friends to join for a play date in a neutral setting.  It’s a great opportunity to practice training exercises, play, or just sit and enjoy a new setting.

Belle and Sufi approved!

This is a great alternative for families with reactive dogs who become overstimulated by other dogs, or dogs who have anxiety and become overwhelmed.  Part of my advice to clients has always been to take their dogs to new places for new scents and experiences.  Sniffspot may be a great addition to your regimen!

This location is a farm setting we explored with 2 acres fully fenced in.

Each Sniffspot is a unique private property.  Some are small fenced-in backyards and others are acreages. Some properties are in town and others are rural. Not every Sniffspot is fenced in and you are advised to read the profile to be sure it is suitable for your needs. You can rent spaces for 1-hour blocks and rates are set by the property owner. I have seen some rates as low as $6.00  and as high as $12.00 per dog per hour, but these can change.  There can also be options for 50% off the second dog and so on.  When you rent a time slot no one else can rent that time so you are assured the space is yours!

Depending on your location you may or may not see Sniffspots near you, but keep checking since new spots become available as property owners join.

Here are a few basic recommendations to make your experience safe and fun when visiting a property:

  • Take time to investigate properties for anything which can be harmful to your dog before releasing your dog on the property.  
  • Check the fencing to be sure it is secure and has no holes for your dog to get out.
  • Check for any plants in the landscape that may be harmful to your dog.
  • Bring your own water.  Water is sometimes provided but sudden changes in water can upset a dog’s digestive system.
  • Check for snakes.
  • Pick up the poop!  (Be a good guest!)
  • Make sure all gates are closed, before releasing your dog.  Unlike dog parks that have double gate entries, private properties do not have this feature.
  • You can also read Sniffspots Trust Page for more guidance.

The benefit of experiencing new places with your dog(s) are immense and Sniffspot is giving people and their dogs new opportunities for enrichment and getting that energy out!

And finally…this is simply my review of Sniffpot, I am not associated with Sniffspot and not receiving any compensation from Sniffspot for writing this post. I am just sharing my thoughts on what appears to be a cool idea.

Have a great day!

Incorporate Training Into Your Everyday Life

There’s an assumption floating around that we have to be formal and rigid with training and that there needs to be a certain set and setting for it to occur. While that may be the case for the actual learning of a specific command, the real training occurs outside of your home and back yard, in the real world. The real world is random, chaotic, and likes to throw wing dings into your plans. It is where we “proof” our training to help us and our dogs filter all the distractions which are more novel and potent at the moment than our influence. In these videos we see examples of using the “PLACE” command.

Belle and I often hike in the woods, and it is easy for me to become absorbed in the hike while she gets lost in the wild scent of nature. However, it is precisely in these instances that we have a great opportunity to develop our connection, in that setting, through training.

In the first video, Belle and I are practicing “Place” on some cut logs from a fallen tree, which lays across an abandoned road. After making sure the logs were secure and could not roll, we practiced in the location. Belle is pretty athletic and loves to jump on logs all the time without being asked, however, on this occasion we did it with intention and timing. By doing this we are associating fun and excitement with a command. Also notice that no purchase of special equipment is needed to perform this activity.

As with all training, we want our dogs to “WANT” to perform what is asked. Training should be an engaging, bonding, and a character-building exercise for you both as a team!

You don’t have to make special hikes to the woods in order to perform this command, you can use manhole covers, picnic tables in a park,(as seen in the videos below), or an old tree stump. In your home, you can use a cushion or even the living room couch if you allow your dog on the furniture. And, in case you are wondering, YES, I let Belle sit where ever she wants. That’s how we roll in our home!

Being non-reactive to wildlife

Clouds are rolling in the distance and a whispering breeze smells of rain. A young male deer is relaxing downwind from Belle, but I doubt we would stir him if he caught our scent. These deer live in an urban paradise of slow traffic and well-manicured gardens, full of food, tended by gardeners who mumble about them under their breath. Belle definitely smells him though and if she were to chase after him he would most certainly leap away with his tail in the air. I told Belle to down and wait. Allowing a moment of calm to happen then called her towards me so we could walk on. At first, I was speaking a bit too quiet for Belle to hear me clearly, but once she did, she calmly gets up and walks away then gives me a look for confirmation. I give her a pat on the side for a job well done. Hounds were bred for endless chases and it takes work to blunt this drive, but it can be done. I am not a hunter by any means. If I shoot anything, it’s with a camera. But if I were to hunt, I would not aim for this result. Hounds were developed for massive energy to exhaust their quarry, run it up a tree, and tell the hunter where they are with endless loud bays that can be heard for miles.. However, more hounds are finding their way to suburban neighborhoods and cities and will never be on a hunt, So we must help condition them to be less reactive to this innate drive, for their safety and the owner’s sanity.

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