Beyond Obedience

It’s high time for another term for ‘obedience.’ Language is important and word do mean a lot. So many of us associate obedience with rigid, mechanical compliance to a top-down order. Obedience implies simply following orders. It implies the action is forced or is done mindlessly. Some people encounter the word obedience as a turn off for these reasons, and as a result don’t train their dogs to the level they need. There are very important skills our dogs absolutely need to know how to do. Sit and stay. Walk on leash without pulling. Come when called. Wait until released before jumping out of the car.

I don’t want my dogs to be mindlessly obedient - that sounds incredibly boring. What's the point of sharing my life with exuberant, full-of-zest, furry creatures if I turn them into suppressed, obeying creatures? I want my dog’s personality to shine through in everything that they do. Otherwise… perhaps a stuffed dog or robot would be a better fit. I want something more out of life with my dog.

Cooperation, ah this now is vitally important. Cooperation between me and my dogs allows us to smoothly navigate life together. If they don’t pull, we can go for a hike. If they come when called, we can play fetch off leash at the park. Rex’s level of cooperative work even makes paddle boarding on the ocean past sea otters possible. He has to climb on, hold still, come when called even when swimming, and not jump off until I give the OK.

Our dogs also don’t necessarily know the difference between a ‘trick’ and ‘obedience.’ Both tricks and obedience are actions you are asking your dog to do, the difference is purely in our minds. We tend to think that a ‘focused heel’ should be boring and regimented. While ‘jump my leg’ is a fun trick. It’s all in the way we teach it, and how we reward it. Competition obedience is judged on accuracy, but in sports such as Schutzhund the teams are also judged also on the level of engagement and focus from the dog. It's not enough to have your dog just walk at a heel position at your side. They need to actually be happy, working as a team with their handler.

Going to work each day means we earn a paycheck which allows us to not only pay the mortgage and buy groceries but hopefully also fund a fun night out with friends. Working is something we all have to do (including our dogs), but not just for the bare necessities of living. In a modern world, we have weekends and free choice. So, let’s teach our dogs cooperation skills that they have to be able to do (sit, down, stay, heel, come) with the same fun we teach tricks (fetch, spin, touch, jump, run). When these skills can be done reliably, they allow a way for us to communicate with our dogs what we need them to do to gain access to life’s rewards (dinner, going for a walk, chasing a ball, a treat).

All dogs need to learn how to do certain behaviors or skills. They need to learn that these skills are valuable to them and to us. That these skills can be done in the living room, at the park, at the vet, while right in front of me and even 100ft away. Initially we teach our dogs that if they do this behavior we ask of them, they’ll get a treat. It’s an easy way to have them feel rewarded. As the years go on, we may not always give one treat for each instance of behavior. Over time, it becomes cooperation, as a way for us to be able to take our dogs anywhere. They figure out that if they do what I ask, they get something worthwhile for it - which includes access to romps at the beach! Perhaps we can also teach those skills such that our dogs want to do them? Perhaps we can have an understanding that this is more than just obedience. Ultimately, obedience, or whatever you want to call it, will unlock opportunities for your dog. It will keep them safe. It will save their lives.

What do you call these abilities? Skills? Cooperation? Other ideas? I'd love to hear 'em!


(And don’t worry, I’m still training my dogs for competition obedience. All three of my pups are stoked to work on focused heeling, straight fronts and perfect dumbbell retrieves just as much as spin, weaves and handstands.)