All dogs benefit from receiving an education so they can learn to reliably respond to basic commands, a process known as “obedience training.” The advantages of implementing obedience training are several. Obedience training takes more than just holding a cookie and training a dog to sit. There are different schools of thought when it comes to obedience training and methods used. There are also many tools that can aid in the obedience training process. Learning the science behind obedience training can help better understand the dynamics that may promote or interfere with a dog’s ability to learn.
For many centuries, obeying to commands was a main requisite for the working dog. The dog obedience training centuries ago entailed engaging canines in tasks that were useful to owners. Each dog breed was selectively bred for excelling in distinct roles under the owner’s guidance. Collies were herding flocks of sheep, spaniels were flushing quarry out of bushes and retrievers were retrieving downed birds in lakes and ponds.
In the 20th century, many dogs were utilized in military and police operations using a militaristic approach. However, in the later part of the century there was a grown interest in training marine mammals for shows. Positive reinforcement training became popular as marine mammal trainers started using clickers to mark wanted behaviors and reward with food. This training method quickly became popular in the dog training world as well.
Nowadays, most dogs are no longer utilized for work, but have become companions, members of the family and society, and as such, they are expected to behave in the public and show good manners. This is accomplished through modern obedience training.
Why should dog owners obedience train their dogs? The advantages are several:
- Help reduce problematic behaviors such as jumping, barking, chewing and digging – a dog that is taught to sit cannot engage in boisterous jumping at the same time!
- Dogs who are routinely trained are also often calmer dogs – because obedience training provides them with an outlet for pent-up energy and mental stimulation.
- Opens the lines of communication between dog and dog owner paving the path to a deeper bond.
Types of Training
Various types and levels of obedience training constellate the sky of dog disciplines. Obedience training classes should ideally start from an early age and should continue throughout the dog’s life. It should be a life-long commitment. The following is a rundown of obedience training classes.
Canine Good Citizen Classes
These developmental classes are meant to introduce puppies to the world surrounding them. Puppies will be socialized with people and other dogs and introduced to common sights and sounds. Puppies enrolled in puppy classes usually range between the ages of 2 to 6 months. Instructors will provide information about growth stages, nutrition, behavior, grooming and the housebreaking process. A few basic commands are also taught.
These classes are suitable for older puppies and adult dogs and focus on teaching the basic commands all dogs should know. Sit, down, stay, come when called and loose-leash walking are common commands taught in these classes. A basic class generally lasts anywhere between 6 and 8 weeks with once-a week encounters. Dog owners may choose between group and private basic classes.
Becoming a good member of today’s society is important for dogs nowadays. Dogs who attend Canine Good Citizen classes must show a good grip on basic commands even in distracting scenarios. Dogs who pass these classes in flying colors are granted a Canine Good Citizen Certification from the American Kennel Club.
Advanced classes focus on teaching dogs to respond to basic commands with more precision and accuracy. They also can teach new commands altogether. Often, these classes help prepare dogs for sporting events such as Rally-o, Canine Musical Freestyle, tracking or agility. In order to enroll in these classes, dog must have passed basic training.
The Science Behind It
In order for dogs to learn, they must acknowledge that their behaviors lead to consequences. Whether the consequences are pleasant or unpleasant will largely depend on the training methodology employed. Operant conditioning is the term used to depict how dogs learn to “operate” in order to attain a desirable outcome or avoid a negative one. Edward Thorndike studied operant conditioning extensively and created the famous law of effect, which is named after him. Thorndike’s Law of Effect claims: “behaviors that are followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.” The following are the four quadrants of dog training.
In this case, a pleasant consequence is added to increase the chances for a dog to engage in wanted behaviors. For example, if a dog is given a cookie every time he sits, he will be more likely to want to sit in the future because a positive association between cause and effect has been established. While food is the most common reinforcer, toys, praise and life rewards can be utilized as well.
In this case, something the dog perceives as unpleasant is removed to increase the chances of engaging in a wanted behavior. For example, a squirming puppy may be released only once the puppy calms down. After some time, this should encourage calmer behaviors in the future. In another case, leash pressure is removed the moment the dog heels nicely so to increase this behavior in the future. Leashes, remote collars can be used in such a way as to deliver negative reinforcement.
In this case, an unpleasant consequence is added to decrease an undesired behavior. For example, if a dog is scolded every time he jumps on the couch, he may reduce his couch jumping behavior because he has made an association between cause and effect. Scolding, a physical correction, or the use of a remote collar may used to decrease undesirable behaviors.
In this case, something the dog perceives as pleasant is removed to decrease an undesired behavior.
For example, attention may be removed the moment the dog jumps on people. In this case, the dog learns that jumping takes away something they like; therefore, this should decrease the jumping behavior. Withdrawing attention or removing a treat from sight are popular ways to decrease unwanted behaviors.
How well a dog does in obedience training depends on a variety of factors. Humans often forget that dogs are a different species and have different drives and instincts. A good understanding on how dogs learn and realistic expectations are a good starting point for successful training. It’s also important to understand that not all dogs respond in the same way to obedience training.
For instance, scent hounds may be challenging to train because these dogs have a history of being selectively bred to track scent. They may be sitting nicely one moment and tracking scent the next. Coming when called is not something these dogs excel in. Sight hounds, on the other hand, may be distracted by anything that moves. However, there are many reported success stories about talented hound owners who were able to put several obedience titles on their hounds.
Other than breed, how well a dog responds to obedience training will also depend on the level of commitment of the owner. Some dog owners find it difficult to incorporate training in their busy lifestyles. Often this means it takes longer for the dog to start responding; yet, it’s important to realize that even a few minutes of training a day, even during a commercial break, can be helpful.
Training should always start in a quiet area where there aren’t too many distractions going on. It’s easier for a dog to learn this way. Too many distractions will interfere with the dog’s ability to focus. As the dog learns commands, then distance, distractions and duration can be added to the picture. Once a dog responds quickly and with precision to commands, he is said to be under “stimulus control.”
Methods used to train also produce variable results. Reward-based methods are helpful in motivating dogs. Motivation is the internal motor that puts dogs into action. High-value treats can make a food-motivated dog jump for the stars, but not all dogs are food motivated. Other rewards may need to be employed such as toys and games.
There are several methods dog trainers use to train basic commands. The choice of method may vary from one school and another. To teach a dog to learn with enthusiasm, positive, reward-based methods work best. With this method, dogs are eager to learn and they are more likely to trust and bond with their handlers. Methods based on intimidation may instead lead to a dog that is inhibited and obeys mostly out of fear. The following are some popular and less popular methods used to train dogs.
In this case, food or toys are used to guide the dog in a desired position. For instance, to train a dog to sit, a treat is brought to the dog’s nose level and then moved back towards the head area. As the dog follows the treat, his nose will point up and his rump will touch the ground. The treat is given the moment the dog’s bottom touches the floor causing the dog to sit.
In capturing, dogs are rewarded when they engage in spontaneous, desirable behaviors. For instance, during the day, the dog may sit several times even if he doesn’t know the sit command. The watchful trainer will be ready to praise and reward the dog every time he spontaneously sits. Because behaviors that are rewarded tend to repeat, the dog will be sitting more and more often.
Shaping consists of rewarding dogs for small approximations of a finished behavior. For instance, in training a dog to sit, the dog will be rewarded for each small step before achieving the finished behavior. In the cases of a sit, the trainer may use a food lure and may initially reward the dog for just following the tasty tidbit with his nose. Afterward, the dog will be rewarded for following the treat and then slightly bending the back legs, up until the point the dog bends the legs deeper and eventually sits.
In this case, the dog’s body is physically put in the desired position. For instance, for a sit, the dog’s back may be pushed down until the dog is in a sitting position. This method is not very popular because some dogs may resent being touched this way. Older dogs or dogs with orthopedic problems may also have back or joint pain.
The choice of training tools can also vary from one method and another. Some tools are meant to build motivation through positive reinforcement, while other tools may be used to discourage certain behaviors through positive punishment. On the other hand, some tools can be used for negative reinforcement. The following are common tools used in obedience training.
Used in the past by marine mammal trainers, clickers are small, hand-held devices that make a clicking sound when one side is compressed. Clickers are used to mark wanted behaviors with cutting-edge precision. Before clicker training dogs, the clicker must be properly introduced and “charged.” In other words, the dog must learn that every click is followed by a treat. Once this association is made, the dog can be trained using capturing and shaping techniques.
Targets are objects the dog is trained to interact with. Dogs are naturally drawn to targets by curiosity. A target can be any object, but trainers often use items such as sticky notes, plastic lids and wooden spoons. A sticky note may be used as a target to train a dog to touch it with the paw. The sticky note than can be placed in different areas to train the dog to paw doors, turn off lights or even play the piano. The target can then be gradually made smaller and smaller until it is no longer used.
Treats are used to reward desired behaviors. The best treats for training are small, soft and bite-sized. They must be considered high-value enough to overcome other distractions around. It’s important to learn how to use treats correctly. In luring, the treat is presented as a guidance to help the dog learn to perform the wanted behavior; however, to prevent bribing, the treat must be faded quickly from view, otherwise the dog learns to work only when treats are in sight.
Dogs who are not treat motivated can be rewarded by using tug toys. Some dogs can become obsessed with games of tug which makes them valuable tools to reward behaviors or distract dogs from engaging in unwanted behaviors. Dogs with high predatory drives may find tug as an irresistible game.
Certain obedience competitions require dogs to retrieve a dumbbell over an obstacle. A dumbbell is simply a retrieve toy often made of wood. Dogs bred for retrieve work may have a natural inclination to carrying dumbbells around and retrieving them.
Sometimes, dogs need to be trained from a distance. Long lines allow handlers to train dogs recalls with the safety of knowing that the dog cannot just take off at any time. Long lines can also be used in training dogs to track scent or herd. Long lines are simply long leashes made of lighter materials measuring anywhere between 10 and 50 feet.
Silent whistles also come handy for distance work. A silent whistle reaches the ultrasonic ranges which are barely audible by humans, but readily audible to dogs. Whistle pips and blasts are used in different combinations to give the dog different commands. Silent whistles are often used for herding dogs.
A vast array of training collars are used to train a dog to heel; basically, walking nicely besides the owner without pulling. Some collars though are meant to deliver punishment. Choke collars work by tightening around the neck when the dog pulls too much; whereas, prong collars may pinch the skin. No-pull harnesses and head halters offer a more humane way to train dogs to walk politely on the leash.
Some collars are meant to punish undesirable behaviors. For instance, bark collars may train a dog not to bark by emitting a shock, aversive spray or an ultrasonic sound the moment the dog barks. Electronic fence collars are meant to deliver a warning beep, followed by shock the moment the dog is about to pass a property boundary line.
Electronic shock collars can be used to deliver shock remotely so to stop unwanted behaviors. They can also be used to reinforce wanted behaviors through negative reinforcement. For instance, in training a recall, the handler may deliver shock and turn it off only once the dog decides to run towards the owner. The term “remotely” is used to emphasize the fact that the shock can be delivered from a distance.
Basic Training Commands
These are common commands taught in basic classes that all dogs should know. These commands aren’t just for showing off a dog’s talents; rather, they can turn handy in many circumstances. For instance, a dog that is asked to sit when guests come over will be less likely to jump all over them. A dog that learns polite leash manners will be safer than a dog that drags the owner down the street to go meet an unknown dog. Following are common basic obedience commands and how they can be taught.
In this command, the dog’s hind legs lower leaving the dog in a sitting position. The sit command can be easily taught by holding a treat between the thumb and index finger and allowing it to protrude a bit so the dog can see it. The dog is allowed to sniff the treat. The treat is then moved from the nose area to the back of the head in a slow upward and backward motion. The dog will tilt his head upwards to follow the treat with his nose, and at the same time, his hind legs should lower causing his bottom to touch the floor. The moment the bottom touch the floor, the dog is praised and rewarded with the treat.
In this command the dog’s front and hind legs are lowered leaving the dog in a lying down position. This command is easily taught by holding a treat between the thumb and index finger. The treat is brought to the dog’s nose level and then is brought down in an imaginary straight line that goes from the dog’s nose down to the middle of the front paws. Afterward, the treat is brought out from the middle of the dog’s paws. It’s as if the trainer would be drawing an imaginary “L.” As the dog follows the treat, his elbows and hind legs should lower. The moment the elbows touch the floor and the hind legs are down, the dog is praised and rewarded with the treat.
In order to train the come command, the dog must be kept on leash by a helper in a quiet area where there aren’t too many distractions. The person training the dog shows a treat and then suddenly runs away, kneels down and calls the dog in an enthusiastic tone of voice. The moment the helper feels tension on the leash, he lets go of it. The person training then lavishly praises the dog and rewards him for coming to him by giving the treat.
The person training the dog teaches the dog that pulling no longer works. Every moment the dog pulls, the person stops in his tracks, entices the dog to return to his side with a treat, and then praises and rewards the dog for staying in heel position by giving the treat. The process is repeated several times until the dog learns that pulling no longer works, and that staying by the handler’s side is rewarding. Learn more about the training of loose-leash walking in this article.
In this exercise, the dog is taught to remain immobile in a standing, sitting or lying down position. The dog is asked to sit, lie down or stand with the handler right next to him. Then, with the hand open as a police officer’s stop signal, the handler commands the dog to stay as he takes a few steps forward and then swiftly returns back next to the dog to praise and reward the dog for staying immobile. Distance distractions and duration is gradually added as the training progresses. Learn the stay command in this step-by-step guide.
The Bottom Line
As seen, obedience training offers many advantages and benefits to both the dog and the owner. A well-trained dog makes a great, happy companion and is a joy having around us. Best of all, a well-trained dog is also often allowed much more freedom compared to a dog with poor manners. Indeed, well-trained dogs get to be in more places and get to share many activities with those they have bonded and trusted the most: their beloved owners.