We’ve all heard the word and plenty of us still use it. The word the makes me cringe a little every time I hear it…”obedience.” Most people don’t give it a second thought. They want their dogs to be obedient or they are proud to show off their already obedient sidekick. But what does that really mean? I mean really mean?
If you do a simple Google search, one of the first definitions you will see is:
1. compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another's authority.
That is a heavy definition; too heavy to be thrown around so lightly. Semantics matter. We derive meaning from words and understanding from meaning. Is “submission to another’s authority” something we want to teach and understand, especially when it comes to our relationship with our dogs? My answer is definitely not! But why you might ask? It’s just a word, why get so uptight about a word? Well, I’m glad you asked.
When we utilize the words: obedience or obey, we automatically exclude the option of choice. We establish an “I say, you do” mentality. And, God forbid, one does not comply! Now they are disobedient. One understands this to mean: they do not do what they are supposed to do. In our society, this ties closely to deviant behavior.
This structure of thinking, you know the one where dogs should obey us? Well, this comes from some seriously harmful, ever present ideas about dominance. In short, these ideas came from a Swiss animal behaviorist named Rudolf Schenkel. In the 1930s and 40s he observed non-related, captive wolves. He concluded that these wolves often fought and displayed aggressive behavior over resources. The top wolf was the Alpha. There are a few key words to keep in mind here: ‘non-related’, ‘captive’ and ‘wolves’. This is the most unnatural setting to observe wolf behavior and, believe it or not, wolves are not domestic dogs.
This study has since been debunked. We now know that wolves live in family groups. The Alpha pair is the breeding pair. They do not maintain this status through dominance and aggressive behaviors, but rather through teaching, guiding, decision making and deference offered by their offspring. Wolf packs are cooperative groups.
So how in the world did a debunked study of strange, captive wolves lead us to believe our dogs must obey us so we remain the Alpha? The answer is…. who really knows! But this idea is something that has not only been suggested or believed in the past, it still exists pervasively today!
Well I have good news for all of you. Your dog is not trying to take over you life, your world, your status or your couch…okay, well, maybe your couch. But if you ask them to scoot over, they are usually more than happy to share. So why might our dogs be disobedient if they are not trying to exercise dominance? The reasons could be plenty and I’m sure you can relate to a few.
•Your dog may be in pain
•Your dog may be tired or have too much energy to focus
•Your dog has no reinforcement history for the behavior you are asking
•Your dog doesn’t know what you want!
•You have previously punished your dog in a similar scenario
•Your dog is distracted
•You are sending mixed communication signals
•You are asking for too much too fast
•Your dog is stressed
•The list goes on
Have we forgotten that dogs are emotional, sentient beings? They have their own needs and (barring any safety issues) we need to put those first.
The question becomes: does my dog need to obey me when I say, “sit?” The answer should be: maybe I need to listen to what my dog is saying. Maybe I need to give my dog some freedom of choice. Maybe a sit is irrelevant in this moment. Is it the end of the world if he doesn’t?
Do my dogs have good manners? Yes. Mostly. They wait when I’m trying to get leashes ready. They happily go chew bones or lay on beds out of the kitchen during dinnertime. They run, play and check in with me. They walk great on leash. These things happen because they’ve been reinforced for doing them. They choose the option that has proven rewarding in the past and is attainable in the present. If they don’t do it, I need to evaluate my motives for requesting it and their needs in a particular moment. Perhaps my dog doesn’t want to sit because he prefers to get away from something scaring him. We need to listen.
My dogs are not obedient nor do I believe in obedience. Let’s focus on teaching good manners and building relationships not perpetuating submission to authority.
Holly Tedor CPDT-KA
The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
For the Love of a Dog by Patricia McConnell
Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson