Basic Obedience and Beyond, Part 2

Last month, I talked about dogs who excelled in obedience class but wound up developing behavior problems later. There are plenty of families whose dogs were attentive, happy, and motivated in puppy kindergarten and beginner obedience class, but if training is not generalized to the home and community or if the dog experiences inconsistent, frightening or aversive events in its home life, then often obedience skills are lost or problematic behavior replaces good behavior over time.      

Some families, on the other hand, aren’t even able to complete puppy kindergarten or beginner obedience because their dogs already show signs of excessive barking, fearful behavior, aggression, or hypervigilance and lack of attention in class. These families often reach out to in-home dog trainers or animal behaviorists for private instruction that can be tailored to their dog’s needs and behavior.

Several factors determine how a dog will respond to a group obedience environment. Of course, the dog’s genetic tendencies will play an important role in determining his or her behavior. At birth, dogs  vary in their likelihood to explore new situations, respond fearfully to stimuli, display defensive or aggressive behavior toward people or dogs, and many other behavioral characteristics. It is ideal if owners can meet the dog’s parents and littermates before selecting a dog so as to determine what behavioral characteristics are “in the family.” This is often not an option, however. Whether because the puppy’s littermates or parents were not onsite or because the dog was adopted from a shelter, we often have pitiably little information about a dog’s family history or inherited traits.

Thus, we must work with the environment we have for the dog to mold and structure his or her behavior as best as possible. Group obedience classes can be an important part of doing this, as was discussed last month. What happens, however, if you find yourself with the dog who is the wildest one in the bunch, barking, lunging, hiding, growling, or creating a stressful environment for you and the people and dogs around him? In this case, you and your dog would likely benefit from individualized instruction instead. You might start with private lessons with a qualified dog trainer who can teach you how to teach your dog some of the basics – Sit, Stay, Come, Drop It, and walking on leash are common introductory skills. You should work with a trainer who makes you feel comfortable and who uses positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, and play for your dog and praise and encouragement for you too! You may find that this option is available in your own home or in a training facility at quiet times or away from other dog-owner pairs. Either option has advantages. If you are working in the home, you can tailor your exercises to the dog’s primary environment, and if you train at a training facility, you can allow for ongoing practice in a calmer but still public environment.

How do you know if your puppy or adult dog would benefit from a group class versus private instruction? If your dog barks a lot at other dogs or people in public situations, even when you are providing opportunities for toy play and treat deliveries, he may be a challenge in a group setting. If your dog is not interested in taking treats in public situations, even when you know she is hungry and you are using extra-yummy edibles, then she might be better able to learn in a private setting. And certainly, if your dog is already showing signs of fear or aggression in public situations, then some private instruction with a board-certified animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, or qualified dog trainer is recommended before moving to the group class setting. Even when group settings are just the thing your dog ultimately needs to become adjusted to, he will likely proceed more successfully when he can be provided with an individually tailored behavior plan that works him toward group settings in smaller steps, rather than trying to muddle through the group class right from the outset. A group class could be overstimulating for him, and the instructor will be unable to provide as much individual feedback while instructing multiple dog-owner pairs.

It is important to reiterate again that board-certified animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists, along with a majority of dog trainers, will not recommend the use of painful or aversive stimuli in the form of electronic, prong, or chain collars, harsh reprimands, muzzle grabs, or pinning the dog down during basic obedience training. Such strategies are stressful for the dog and often for the owner as well, and many risk creating aggression or fearful behavior as side effects. Animal behaviorists recommend instead the use of positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, toy play, and natural rewards for good behavior in and outside of training classes.