Why Didn’t Obedience Classes Work?

The Right Tool for the Job

Pat Blocker, CPDT-KA, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with over 19 years experience. She offers private in-home training specializing in solving canine behavior issues. 

Trick dog training kids

kids can train too!

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

“What do you want to get from this class?” It happens in almost every obedience class orientation. Someone responds to that question with the likes of, “I want my dog to stop barking and lunging at other dogs.” “I want my dog to stop growling at children.” “I want my dog to stop barking all day while I’m at work.”

Owners are surprised to learn that the aforementioned are behavior issues, which cannot be effectively addressed with obedience training. In reality, there is obedience training and there is behavior modification. They are not the same. To use Maslow’s analogy, attempting to solve behavior issues with obedience training is treating the problem like a nail, because the only tool we think to be available is a hammer.

The widely held belief that obedience classes are an easy fix to all problems can ultimately result in owners believing that training doesn’t work. Take the problem of barking, for instance. The dog that is barking all day while home alone is not disobedient or unruly. Her barking might be due to separation anxiety, boredom, and/or lack of basic needs being met. It’s not a disobedient dog that is growling at children or barking and lunging at other dogs. The behavior could stem from, among other things, fear, which cannot be addressed with obedience training.

Behavior modification and obedience training have different objectives. Obedience training is for the disobedient and unruly dog. It sets boundaries and establishes rules. Behavior modification is intended to change the dog’s emotional state. It requires effective management and training that addresses the root cause of the problem. Manners can help with the management and control of many issues, but don’t change them on the emotional level. If we change the way a dog feels about something, we will change the way she behaves in its presence.

Behavior modification and obedience training are, however, intertwined. Obedience exercises can be taught to complement behavior modification. For instance, basic obedience training can help build the fearful dog’s confidence and leash-walking skills, like paying attention, can help the reactive dog. Basic obedience builds communication and both types of training help to establish a healthy relationship between owner and dog. (Communication and understanding canine body language are important elements in preventing problems and instrumental in the treatment of behavioral issues.)

Behavior modification addresses issues, which are often complex. It requires evaluation and treatment by a skilled trainer or behaviorist with knowledge of learning theory, animal behavior, and ethology. Some owners, believing that obedience training will solve behavioral issues may employ ineffective, even abusive punishment resulting in frustration (on both ends of the leash) without solving the problem.

Taking a dog in need of behavior modification to obedience class could make matters worse. For example, immersing the fearful dog into a roomful of other dogs, risks creating extreme fear and even damaging the owner-dog relationship.

Obedience training in lieu of behavior modification may not only exacerbate the problem, but can be unkind as well. In my opinion, it is cruel to ask the frightened dog to sit and look at me or to punish her in the presence of the thing that terrifies her. For example, training methods based on the theory of dominance, often use obedience as the solution. In theory, if the dog is afraid, make her obedient and submissive. Here, it appears that dominance has worked because the dog is not reacting. However, if anything, the dog is more afraid–afraid of the frightening situation and now of you. Pushed to her limits, she will revert to the old behavior. Punishment and dominance can serve to suppress the behavior, but like a beach ball held underwater, sooner or later, it will resurface.

Behavior modification takes you from reactive to proactive. Sure, I can correct a dog for lunging and barking at another dog. I can (maybe) get the dog to sit and look at me instead, but this won’t change future behavior.

Choosing the right training tool can be confusing because the same problem might require a different tool. For instance, your dog lunges and pulls on the leash whenever another dog passes. The problem could be solved either by obedience training or by behavior modification, depending on the emotion that lies beneath the behavior. Is the dog lunging at the passing dog because she is excited and wants to greet him, or is she doing it because she’s afraid and attempting to warn him off?

The friendly dog with no leash-walking skills wanting to greet the passing dog has, perhaps learned that lunging and pulling gets her what she wants. If she’s been allowed to pull her owner up to other dogs, she gets a payoff–greeting the dog. Here, we could use obedience training to teach polite meet and greets.

The fearful dog is lunging and barking at passing dogs in order to get space from them. She’s using a good offense as her best defense. A behavior modification plan to help her feel more comfortable in the presence of other dogs will address the root cause of the behavior. When the emotions behind the actions are dealt with, the lunging and barking will diminish naturally. Then, if we want to tweak leash-walking skills we’ll do some obedience training.

Knowing the difference between obedience training and behavior modification will help you choose the right tool for the job. Ensure that your training choice meets the criteria to resolve the issue by properly defining it, and then implement the plan. Now, you’ve nailed it.

 

Pat Blocker, CPDT-KA, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with over 19 years experience. She offers private in-home training specializing in solving canine behavior issues. Contact Pat at Peaceful Paws • 303-364-4681 • http://www.peacefulpaws.netpat@peacefulpaws.net. Pat the author of Taking the Lead with Jerking the Leash available on Amazon. www.peacefulpaws.net

 

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