Let’s stop training dogs with commands
“Command.” It is the second word spoken amongst the dog training community that needs to disappear. More about the first one here. A command is defined as an order to be carried out by a subordinate. It is not a request and must be obeyed whether the dog wants to obey or not.
It's all about relationship
I want to talk about my relationship with my dogs, Fisher in particular, before I go further into the topic of why “command” should be taken out of the dog training vocabulary. Fisher is a 6 month old Golden Retriever that came to my home at 8 weeks of age. From that first interaction through today, we have developed and built upon our personal and working relationships.
I want Fisher to have the enthusiasm and drive to work with me, not for me. To achieve this, I follow 5 simple rules that I put in place for myself.
- Have a plan before starting any training session
I need to make sure that I have a clear picture of what I am looking to achieve in our session and what I can do to tweak the activity if Fisher seems to be having trouble.
- Keep sessions short
This is a tough one for me. I love training and I want to keep going well past the amount of time that is beneficial for Fisher. But I make sure to stop before reaching the point where training becomes work; one to two minutes maximum. Training sessions should be kept especially short when learning new activities.
- Mix it up
Working on the same activity over and over again is tedious and boring to a dog. It’s a great way to fizzle out his enthusiasm to train.
- Avoid the “no reward marker”
A no reward marker is a signal that tells the dog they have done something wrong. Think of the words “no” and “eh-eh” and how you would feel if your boss continually said them to you instead of helping you understand the new task you have been given. I would dread going to work if I was in that position. I do not tell Fisher that he is wrong. Instead, I tweak the activity and set Fisher up for success. It is not the learner’s fault for continually getting something wrong, it is mine as the teacher.
- Have fun
If we are not having fun then there is no point in training.
Scientifically outdated dog training beliefs told us that we need to be “the boss.” Our dogs must do what we ask whether they want to or not. There is no better way to ruin the relationship with your dog. Instead, I focus on cooperation.
Don’t get me wrong. There are certain things that must be done whether Fisher likes them or not. He needs to have medication put in his ear to treat his ear infection. We both prefer that this process is an enjoyable one, but time to train the cooperative process before an infection occurred was not on my side. That is a future goal. In the meantime, Fisher’s health is more important than his ability to choose to take part in receiving his ear medication.
Creating a conversation
Instead of using a command where I am communicating to Fisher that he must obey “or else” I give him the choice to participate. That changes the activity from a demand to a conversation. “Are you ready to train with me? Are you mentally in a good place to learn something new?” If Fisher tells me the answer is “no” by losing focus, struggling with the activity, or it looks like he is not having fun, we end the activity and play.
I evaluate what went wrong as we play. Maybe I did not give him enough time to acclimate to a new environment. Maybe there are too many distractions. Maybe the activity needs to be broken down into smaller steps that are easier for him to understand. Maybe I am expecting too much.
Fisher opting out of training is data. It gives me the opportunity to alter the scenario so that he can be successful and we can have fun together. Doing so builds both our training and personal relationships and gives me the confidence that he will want to train with me in the future. Fisher is not my subordinate, we are a team.
I couldn’t agree more. I often am guilty of taking a training session too long. 🙂 Especially when they “get” something we have been working on. Great article.
It is so hard to keep sessions short for many people. I often don’t even realize how long we have been working unless I set a timer.
Wonderful!! Insightful and sensitive
Thank you 🙂
I love this. This is how I train and teach my students as well. Most come to me with the “command” word. I explain why I use Cue instead and then demonstrate by how I teach them to work with their dogs.
Just did a Behaviour session today and told these people pretty much exactly what you wrote there! Thank you!
Excellent blog! The first time I came to one of your trainings, with Cally as a puppy, I recognized the first night that the most important thing about training is relationship with your dog, and the second most important for me is to make it fun. Thanks for sharing this important information!
It’s great that you recognized this so early on in your relationship. It really shows!
I agree about not telling the dog they are wrong only from I have seen the past few months. I have been a lot more successful getting Monty to come and stay much easier. Now if I could only get him to “settle” and “leave it” life would be great. Baby steps though. Great article
Baby steps for sure!
So much of this is Smokey and I. He met with situations that reversed his training – and not with the initial individual he trained to be comfortable around. It’s been a long process to turn his reaction with this second individual around. He often is out of control and we just walk away from the situation. This feels to me like a punishment, but i.t works and Smokey calms down. I have many questions surrounding Smokey’s issues and this takes time to get from him. Smokey is an abused, rescue dog and absolutely wonderful with me and many others.… Read more »
Smokey is a lovely dog that has come a long way! One of the ways that we can teach him that there are other appropriate behaviors is by trying to manage the environment so he is not in situations where he will have a reaction. Then building from there 🙂
I think these ways of relationship building with your dog is a great concept and am looking forward to using it at home with my puppies.
I am so glad 🙂
I have been consciously using the word cue instead of command in my classes. I used to think that the nuances of words weren’t that important but I have changed my thinking. Reading your blog on the other word/s to remove from dog training – alpha and dominance – I would also like to suggest that we remove leadership. Although leadership can be interpreted as benevolent or cooperative, I find most people interpret it with the same mindset as being in charge, dominance and giving commands. Gradually the language used in dog training is changing to include terms like teamwork,… Read more »
Great article Tori. I love how you equate telling a dog “no” to a boss doing the same thing to an employee. It’s definitely something I’ll be more aware of with Trapper.
I totally agree. I like to think of my dog and I as working together. I have to be open to learn him to be able to do activities with him. I have to recognize his cues in order to have our time together be fun and successful !! Sometimes his focus just isn’t where mine is or I want his to be and so we take a “paws”!!😁