How most behavioral issues can be resolved through obedience training
As a dog trainer specializing in aggression (towards both dogs and humans), I know first-hand that the great majority of behavioral issues can be greatly improved, or “cured” altogether through an obedience first approach. Many highly successful trainers old and new, including the late William Koehler, have employed this approach with great success. The main reasons the obedience first approach works so well in my practice and for my clients are as follows:
Most dogs with behavioral issues have “triggers” (things that set them off). The triggers themselves are usually not the root cause of the behavioral issues, though. Most behaviorally challenged dogs are suffering from stress, and the triggers just push them over the edge of their stress threshold (kind of like the old saying, “The straw that broke the camel’s back”). Stress layering (multiple layers of stress that stack on top of each other) is a common problem, and happens with humans and dogs alike. Things that can cause a dog stress can include, but are not limited to: being on a leash, new people, new surroundings, noise, inconsistent or unclear communication from their handler, lack of training, other dogs, barrier frustration, unusual events, inconsistent schedule, lack of clearly stated behavioral boundaries, lack of impulse control, pain, etc. Behaviors that result from stress can be leash aggression, poor manners with guests, hyperactive behavior, house soiling, unwarranted aggression (towards dogs/humans/other animals), fearfulness, etc. Proper obedience can significantly reduce stress for dogs; it can peel back the layers of stress by giving the dog tasks to focus on, establishing clear and consistent communication between the human and dog and teaching the dog how to be in control of his own emotions and actions. Specific triggers rarely have to be dealt with individually, as the training lowers stress overall, so any one trigger is rarely enough to send your dog over threshold.
Proper Relationship Building
Do you ever wonder why people act differently around strangers than they do around friends or family? Have you ever noticed that your dog acts differently around different people, or around different dogs? Have you ever wondered why? TIME AND EXPERIENCE. Time and experience create connection. It takes time and effort to build mutual trust and respect, as well as clear communication and cooperation. Most people that have dogs displaying behavioral issues have a fragile relationship built on “love” and hope, not a healthily developed relationship built on trust, respect, communication and cooperation. A lack of proper relationship seems fine when things are calm, but when pressure or stress is introduced, things fall apart quickly. I spend a great amount of time teaching my students how to build proper relationships with their dogs. A lot of this time focuses on teaching them to properly train their dogs around distractions, so that their dogs can learn to be responsible for their own actions and mind-set, even when pressure and stress builds. Our relationships with our dogs is not built on moments of calm, but instead should be defined by how well we handle the moments of stress together.
Teaching “Right Action” as the Preferred Alternative
Dogs, like humans, will be faced with many decisions to make throughout a typical day; having a history of success with making the “right” decisions will make the decision to take “right action” in every situation easier. Dogs that have solid recalls and proper impulse control don’t chase cats, squirrels or run after people or dogs. Dogs that know how to properly heel around distractions won’t pull on leashes or be reactive towards other dogs, strangers, etc. Dogs that can hold an extended “place” or stay don’t harass your guests or react to distractions, etc. Teaching a dog to choose “right action” in situations where he is tempted to do otherwise should be our objective with training. The dog will learn important skills like impulse control, and having regard for other members of his social group. A dog that lacks impulse control and that has an overinflated sense of “self” tends to do as HE pleases, which can be a dangerous thing.
Building a Solid Foundation That Can Handle Pressure
When I train dogs and students, I do my very best to make the training motivational, enjoyable and fair, which includes making it easy for the dog to “get it right”. While we have to use some stressors and pressure during training, I make a solid effort to avoid intense pressures. The “real world” is full of surprises and realities that can’t be avoided, and that can be dangerous or deadly to our dogs if they are not properly prepared to deal with these pressures. Corrections and punishers, as a part of a well-thought out and executed training plan, can be essential to the success of many dogs. If we have done a good job at peeling back layers of stress, building a proper relationship, and teaching alternatives, then our dogs will be prepared for a fair correction or punishment for failing to take right action when the situation dictates.
“Obedience is like insurance. It must be acquired before the moment of need.”
- William Koehler, The Koehler Method of Dog Training
There are plenty of dogs out there that don’t really require an obedience first approach; these are the kind of dogs that will listen up and straighten out with one leash pop or stern, “NO”. Even with this type of dog, I would rather reduce their stress, build a relationship with them and teach them “right action” through obedience training first. To me there is a difference between teaching a dog to be “under control” and teaching a dog to be “in control”. The difference, in my opinion, is TRAINING as opposed to FORCING. When a dog is forced to be under control, his choices have been made for him. When a dog has learned to be in control, he is making decisions for himself, decisions based on experiences that he has had through proper and consistent training. When a dog has learned to be in control, he needs very little input from his handler, and has very little to worry about in his day to day life. Earning your dog’s trust, respect and loyalty through an obedience first approach can make the struggle of dealing with your “difficult” dog a thing of the past. It isn’t easy work, it takes time and effort, there will be times of frustration and times of elation, but in the end, it can get you what you have always wanted: a dog that will listen to you! In order to be heard, you must first prove that you are WORTHY of being heard. You must show your dog that there is value to be gained from listening to you.
Every day I receive many phone calls and emails from frustrated dog owners with a common theme – “My dog is out of control, I don’t even know where to start”. The issues of concern range from housebreaking issues, excitability, nipping, jumping on people, dog reactivity, destruction/chewing, fence fighting, barking out the windows at everything, stranger aggression/reactivity, dog-vs-dog aggression inside the home, leash pulling, etc. Many of these households are chaotic at best, due to the out of control dog(s).
Dogs that are out of control in the home are typically even worse out in the “Real World”. Many dogs have developed such bad habits (think leash pulling, reactivity, leash aggression, etc.) that the owners rarely (if ever) take them anywhere. The easiest place to take control and deal with most behavioral issues is right in your own home.
The range of situations and personalities (dog and human) involved make a “One Size Fits All” approach difficult, but here are some very simple, nearly free and effective tips that can make a huge difference right away. Start working on these at home, where the environment is familiar and distractions are low:
Why Keep Your Dog On-Leash?
Having your dog tethered to you with a leash (often referred to as the Umbilical Cord Method) will instantly limit his options and allow you to give him feedback (information) to guide his choices. When your dog is not on leash, he should be crated or kenneled; this is a proactive approach (preventing undesireable behaviors and creating a learning environment). Allowing an untrained or poorly behaved dog too much freedom in the house, or even in your fenced yard, is a sure-fire recipe for chaos in your home, requiring you to have to take a reactive approach (chasing him down, yelling at him, punishing him out of frustration, etc).
When I am working with a new Board & Train dog, they are on leash with me or crated/kenneled, until they prove to me that they can be trusted to follow the rules. We don’t go out to train in public or distracting environments until we have the basics covered. Having the dog tethered to me has a lot of learning benefits for the dog, as well as being a preventive measure against potential problem behaviors during the training process. Corrections are minimal and learning is optimal.
Benefits of Tethering:
How Long Should Your Dog Be On-Leash?
You won’t need to have your dog tethered to you forever, but if you are bringing a new dog or puppy into your home, or are looking to end the chaos your dog is currently creating in your home, these tips are a great place to start.
Once your dog starts to understand the rules of your house and learns to be calm, attentive and obedient, you can drop the leash and let him drag it (this is the testing period where he can show you that he can behave appropriately when not under your direct control). After the dog shows you that he can consistently behave while dragging the leash, you are probably ready to remove the leash altogether.
I have had dogs “get it” as soon as only a few days, and others that required months of tethering before they could be trusted off-leash inside the home.
Follow these tips religiously, and you will quickly be on your way to a calm and relaxed home where you can actually enjoy spending time with your dog(s). Setting clear boundaries and having higher expectations for your dog's behavior is up to you, the pack leader.
Remember: The more your show your dog what TO do, the less you will need to tell him what NOT to do. ~ Happy Training!