Basic Obedience and Beyond

For many dog owners, puppy kindergarten or basic obedience classes are an important part of their first year or more with their dog. When these owners find themselves in need of an animal behaviorist later, they often feel perplexed or especially disappointed, having imagined that the basic obedience classes were a way to prevent the development of behavior problems. These owners sometimes even describe to me how their dog was the “star” of the class. They wonder how it is that their puppy class valedictorian could now be acting like such a doggie delinquent!

Basic obedience classes have many strong benefits for dogs and their owners. In fact, when there are options for classes using positive reinforcement (praise, play, and treats as rewards for good behavior) and with knowledgeable and capable instructors in the area, animal behaviorists often recommend that owners utilize this resource fully. A good dog trainer teaches his or her students in the class how to effectively use cues with their dogs to bring about important responses such as Sit, Stay, Come, and Drop It, for example. A good dog trainer will employ positive reinforcement for owners’ behavior as well as their dogs’, keeping both members of each pair actively engaged and having fun while learning how to communicate with each other in positive ways. Owners learn how to talk to their dogs, and how to reward the right responses. Dogs learn how to listen to their owners, while practicing these important skills in the presence of other dogs and people in an environment outside of the home. Each of these aspects of group obedience classes is important and beneficial.

As any good dog trainer will also tell you, however, your dog’s long-term behavior and responding will be determined by variables outside of the 6- or 8-week obedience course. You must practice your skill acquisition in the home, in the community, in the car, at friends’ houses, etc. If you hope for your dog to be well-behaved with visitors, you must practice when you have visitors. If you hope she will behave at the pet store, you must practice at the pet store. This aspect of training, called generalization across context, is one area where owners sometimes fall short. Because the dog did so well in class, or does so well when in the kitchen at home, we might mistakenly presume that he “just knows” what to do and we might just expect him to do so all over the place. This doesn’t happen automatically in most cases.

A good dog trainer will also be sure to describe to you how to use intermittent reward schedules as needed. That is, he or she must teach you when you will need to rely on meaty treats and when you might get away with a “Good girl” or an ear scratch reward instead. These determinations are made based on your dog’s current performance and competing rewards in the environment. For example, you might not treat any more when your dog sits when asked while you are watching TV. In this case, a warm cuddle would likely do the trick. However, if you’d like your dog to Sit while on a busy walk, you might need to utilize that bit of hot dog or string cheese if you hope to compete with the joy your dog might experience by pulling toward that gaggle of school children running by her. All of our dogs are faced with competing rewards in life, and our job as leaders, trainers, and owners is to work to ensure that we can control and deliver highly positive consequences for those dog behaviors we most want to see. 

It is in these two areas described above that I most frequently hear complaints from owners whose dogs excelled in obedience class but continued to be challenging outside of or after class ended. In most cases, if these owners had been able to train more consistently in all environments or for a longer period of time after graduation, or if these owners had been able to effectively reduce reliance on food reinforcement while continuing to reward the dog’s behavior in other ways, some behavior problems may have been avoided. Of course, if the obedience class instructor was misguided, utilized outdated training techniques, or was ineffective in his or her teaching, this too likely would have contributed to a dog’s poor long-term performance.

If you are considering group or private obedience lessons for your dog, you should find out as much as you can about the instructor’s background and credentials. You might prefer someone who is affiliated with a national training organization, such as the Association for Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). You will want to ask whether punishment in the form of electronic collars, chain collars, or prong collars is recommended in the class. Most animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists do not recommend these tools in any basic obedience training. You should ask how many owner-dog dyads are allowed in the class, with the understanding that smaller classes allow for more individualized attention and instruction, but that larger classes present more challenging distractions and various dog personalities, which may be better for more advanced learners. You might ask whether socialization between dogs is allowed or encouraged, if one of your goals is to allow your dog to free play with other dogs at some point. Finally, be sure that you get a good feeling from talking with the instructor – you should get the sense that you will be able to ask questions and share concerns freely as you move through the training process.

Finally, there are many dogs who come to me, not as past obedience class superstars but as doggie dropouts. There are those dogs who have been asked to leave obedience class because of their unruly, loud, or aggressive behavior or those owners who felt compelled to quit because the experience was aversive or stressful for them. We will talk more about these families in next month’s post.