Obedience Training: Off to school

The importance of obedience training


New shoes, haircut.
Notebooks, pocket dictionary, computer disks.

Training collar,
Six-foot leash,
Tennis ball on a rope . . .

Every year the summer doldrums fade fast and soon it's time to get ready for school bells, soccer practice, heel on leash, sit and stay, and come-when-called. When Johnny and Suzie are doing their homework, Baron will be attending obedience classes to polish his manners and maybe get ready for competition.

The depth and breadth of canine learning pales in comparison with 13 years of schooling for human children, but it is as crucial for a successful family life. A dog that does not sit, come, or stay on command is a dog with great potential to become a family pest and a neighborhood nuisance — or worse.

Obedience training is not to teach dogs to do tricks or competition excercises, it's to train dogs to be obedient, to do what they're told to do. It covers a wide range of lessons a dog can learn, including tricks, family manners, show ring exercises, and skills demonstrations. Sniffing dogs, service dogs for handicapped owners, search and rescue dogs, sled and carting dogs, hunting dogs -- all carry their obedience training to the highest degree. They have been trained to obey an unusual set of commands that increase their value as helpers to man.

Canine senses and learning styles

Canis lupus familiaris — the domestic dog — is a different species than Homo sapiens — man, woman, and child. We are taller, have opposable thumbs, can communicate with words, and have a sense of time; Baron is shorter, has more powerful senses of hearing and smell, and gets around much faster on his four legs. These obvious differences are more than physical — they influence the way the dog learns as well as they way he looks.

Things sure look different from a dog's eye view. As a predator, the dog has binocular vision, but his eyesight is more attuned to movement than details. His field of vision is cluttered with objects that are between a few inches and a few feet tall, objects such as chair and table legs, kitchen cabinets and appliances, doors he cannot open, wastebaskets, laundry baskets, bed frames, and bookshelves. The dog's limited field of vision can be a help or hindrance in training; you must appreciate it to decide which it will be.

Stormy's moderate sense of taste is dwarfed by her ability to use her nose and ears. She can smell a treat in your pocket, find an odoriferous sock, or locate some vile-smelling stuff to roll in with scarcely a moment's notice. She can hear a refrigerator door opening or a can opener working, and she can tune out the most frantic calls and commands at her pleasure. Her senses of smell and hearing can be used to advantage or become maddening distractions in training.

Fluffy's sense of touch can be a major player in her learning style if she is not accustomed to walking on a variety of surfaces, if she startles at the touch of strangers, or if she is so insecure that she leans on Mom's leg during training class.

Dogs do communicate, but they do so in a foreign language. Their barks, roars, howls, whimpers, whines, and growls can be distinguished and understood with a little effort. Some dogs are very vocal; they burble and roar and woo-woo as a greeting, an attention-getter, a mood-indicator, and an expression of joy. Owners must learn the difference between these “words” and “songs” and the growls that indicate dominance or aggression and the “chatter” that accompanies stress.

Like children, dogs are eager to learn. They may not want to learn what you prefer to teach, but they will learn something from every lesson you give — even when you are not trying to teach them anything.

Along with species' differences in learning style, dog owners have to contend with breed differences and individual differences. It is no accident that the top obedience dogs come from the herding and sporting groups, the conglomerations of breeds developed to work with man and obey his signals. It is also no accident that the most difficult dogs to train are the independent breeds of the hound and working groups, for they were bred to think on their own and they are easily bored by repetitive instruction. However, although Border Collies and Shelties and Golden Retrievers are excellent competition dogs, every Border Collie, Sheltie, and Golden presents an individual challenge to the trainer.

Puppy kindergarten

School for puppies begins the morning after they join your household. An eight-week-old puppy can quickly learn to sit for his food or a treat, walk on a leash without pulling, and come when called without formal classes. However, unless the household is full of dogs and kids coming and going at all hours, the puppy will not get his critical socialization at home.

Most clubs and training schools offer a puppy kindergarten class that fulfills two goals: helping the owner understand the puppy and exposing the puppy to the world. Puppies should not be subject to regimented lessons in these classes but should learn basic commands, play a bit with other puppies, and learn how to behave in a friendly and stimulating community.

Many veterinarians prefer that clients keep their puppies at home at least to the age of three months so that vaccinations have a chance to protect them from distemper and other diseases, so they should not be enrolled in a class before that age.

Elementary obedience

This is where the work begins. Up till now, training has been a game for Charger — the challenge is to keep it that way as the pup grows more and more independent. Some of the fun wears thin in the wake of chewed socks, soiled carpet, and adolescent dares, but if you can get through these “teenage” years, you'll have the basic foundation of a lasting relationship.

Persistent and consistent practice, a sense of humor, flexibility, and a thick skin are necessary to teach manners to a growing puppy or young adult dog.

See tips from an expert on keeping Rambo and the kids interested in training and check Vicki DeGruy's Obedience questions and answers for answers to a few common questions about obedience classes.

A lifetime commitment

Learning for all animals is a lifetime commitment. Just as education for humans does not end with a high school diploma or a college degree, so the graduation certificate after eight weeks of training class does not end Flash's brush with scholarship. Dogs learn constantly, but they may not be learning the things you planned to teach.

In the old days — even a generation ago — many dogs were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Suburbs were less crowded, no one ever heard of neighborhood covenants that limited pets and fences, pooper-scooper laws were few and far between, and litigation was the exception rather than the rule. A dog that didn't want to be bothered by the kids could explore the neighborhood instead; today, he has nowhere to go. A dog that was out of sight was also out of mind; today a dog that is out of sight must be constantly in mind — if he's not the victim of an accident, he could bite someone who chased or teased him, scare someone who is afraid of dogs, get picked up by the dog warden, join another household by choice or default, destroy the neighbors garden, torment other dogs or cats, all activities that can result in injuries, lawsuits, financial loss, or grief.

Today it is a challenge to keep dogs at home, especially since the canine penchant for digging, disobeying, making noise, soiling yards, wearing paths in the lawn, escaping through open doors, and other inconvenient habits put a damper on the fun of owning a pet. Obedience training is the only way to ameliorate the impact of these annoying canine activities.

Dogs are pack animals. If they are not taught from an early age that humans are the pack leaders, they will jockey to gain that position for themselves — not because they are necessarily bullies, but because nature abhors a vacuum. If you don't fill the slot, Rambo will; if you don't do what's necessary to hang on to the job, Rambo will take over, inch by inch.

So, when you pack the kids off to school this year, make sure to take time for Ranger's education as well. Puppy kindergarten, basic obedience, a refresher course — all are tools to help build the best relationship possible with the family pet. Tuition is modest, supplies are minimal, and the rewards are immeasurable.

More on obedience training

For what can happen if the need for obedience training is ignored see "He didn't like it so we stopped." and Nikki's story

Norma Bennett Woolf

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