Rethinking Obedience

IMG_1725“The walls and grids that restrain your animals restrain also your own knowledge.”
— Vicki Hearne
What I call “old-school” dog trainers — those who operate from the assumption that the human has “to be the alpha” in his or her relationship with a dog — don’t, in my opinion, credit dogs with much in the way of cognitive ability.
Some, like the 1920-era European trainer Konrad Most, bluntly state an approach to education that many of us would recoil from today: “In the absence of compulsion, neither human education nor canine training is possible.” Others, like William Koehler (circa 1960s), give rational-sounding advice: “Lay down a set of rules, and see that your dog lives by them.” But the means used to accomplish that goal are harsh and authoritarian.
What these trainers share is an emphasis on punishment over motivation or reward and an expectation that a dog should offer instant, precise obedience to any command given by a human. The expected response is almost robotic in its uniformity and immediacy.
Trainers with these expectations do not believe that dogs can — or should — think or be part of a decision-making process. No, the dog should know who’s boss and, according to Most, “do what we find convenient or useful and refrain from doing what is inconvenient or harmful to us.”
While both Most and Koehler were both enormously influential in the development of dog training, much about their approach is antithetical to the goal of raising a thinking dog.
Demanding instant, precise obedience to all commands in all situations does not allow for the dog to think or process the command in any way. When you expect instant, unquestioning obedience from your dog, you are essentially prohibiting him from thinking. In human relationships, we talk about such expectations this way: “When I say jump; you may ask only, ‘how high?’ ”
To raise a thinking dog, that is, to use a cognitive approach to your dog’s education, you must have expectations that not only allow for but encourage the dog to think and solve problems. The cognitive dog needs to learn, understand, and, ultimately, buy into a shared goal. Expecting unquestioning obedience at every request, mapping out not only the end result but every step the dog must perform to get there does not — cannot — allow dogs to think conceptually about what you are trying to accomplish, learn to solve problems, or offer a different (maybe better!) solution.
Granted, there are situations where an instant response is necessary — if your dog is unthinkingly following a bouncing tennis ball into a street, for example. But developing your dog’s cognitive abilities does not prevent you from also teaching your dog a strong recall and an “emergency recall” cue that, when taught and practiced with the highest-value treats possible, will ensure an automatic response in a true emergency.
There are many ways to lead or manage (or parent). Those of us who want to share our lives with thinking dogs should be wary of dog professionals who talk a lot about alpha roles and hierarchical relationships. Instead, we should look for ways to develop our dogs’ considerable cognitive abilities. Start by figuring out what motivates your dog. Read future blogs for tips on how to do that and more.

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