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.
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.
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.