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I can listen – cues vs threats in dog obedience training

Many dog trainers, and owners, believe that obedience is at the heart of everything a dog should be. If a dog is obedient it is therefore respectful of its owner, won’t show behaviours that owners find problematic (aggression, destructiveness etc), and is easier to live with because it will always do what it’s told. Hmmm, the stuffed dogs I use in class are obedient, have no problem behaviours and are very easy to live with, but they aren’t a patch on a real dog ūüėČ

Very obedient dogs

Very obedient dogs

I take a different stance; obedience is important because it can save your dog’s life in an emergency but it has very little¬†to do with respect (at least as far as the dog is concerned), can be¬†beneficial when working with problem behaviours (but changing the dog’s need to perform the problem behaviour is a better long term bet) or being easier to live with (but teaching default good manners is even better) and everything to do with good training. However, how much ‘obedience’ really comes from knowing and following the cue (true obedience) and how much comes from the implied threat of the tone of voice or body language being used?

I’m going to be honest; there are times when I’ve used ‘The Voice of Doom’ with my dogs. It’s rare enough for me to remember exactly when.¬†Once when Riley was heading towards the busy road at the edge of Barnes Common as she spotted a friend on the other side; and with Cooper not long after he first came to live with us when he started to head off after a rabbit on our early morning walk before work. He was about to leap a 4ft fence and take off over open fields towards the A15. Both times it was an instinctive reaction – the terror I felt was evident in my voice – and both times resulted in the dogs stopping and coming back to me with appeasement written large on their faces and bodies. Horrible.

I don’t want my dogs to obey my commands out of fear of the consequences; I want my dogs to respond to cues I give them because doing so is rewarding for them. And for really important, life-saving behaviours such as recall or leave, I practice and reinforce so that dogs respond to the cue without thinking, as close to a reflex as we can get with a classically conditioned behaviour. If a dog truly understands the cue, and therefore behaviour that you want as a result of the cue, then you don’t need the implied threat of the tone of voice or the body language. In some cases we inadvertently teach a compound cue for a behaviour that we want: the cue to place your bottom on the floor isn’t ‘sit’ as far as the dog is concerned; it’s ‘sit..siT…SIT!’ because that’s what actually elicits the behaviour. ¬†When we teach you how to teach your dog new behaviours in our Life Skills Puppy¬†or Beginner classes¬†we focus on ensuring you work with your dog in a way that they can listen and respond the first time you ask, because doing so pays off.

Note, my preference is to talk about cues, not commands. As I like my relationship with dogs to be a partnership – with expectations and obligations on both sides – I also don’t generally command them to do anything. I teach them words / noises / signals i.e. cues which elicit the response that I want and make the correct response rewarding for the dog. Dogs are masters of associative learning – they make connections between behaviours and consequences extremely quickly – and that’s what we’re using when we teach them to do the things that we want.

I am also a lazy owner; I don’t want to spend my life telling my dog what to do in situations we face every day. I want them to know what to do, and to do it without thinking, or being asked. For example, I feed my dogs twice a day. I want to exercise and maintain their self control, and I like them to have manners and know the rules. I don’t want them to obey a verbal cue from me to ‘Wait’ as I put their food bowls down; I want them to automatically be calm and polite¬†as a default behaviour and only to start eating when I give them a release cue to do so. This is the same with all of their daily behaviours – calmness and manners as the default when putting on the lead, letting them off lead, opening the car crate, anything they do regularly. Dogs can easily learn contextual cues which save you teaching them a verbal one, but also learn that behaviours that work in one context – such as sitting when the food bowl arrives – are likely to work in another – such as sitting for the lead to go on. Don’t you want your dog’s default behaviour to be calm and polite rather than over-excited and bouncy?

There are times, however, when excited and bouncy are exactly what we’re after; recall is a perfect example. A dog’s recall cue should have them snapping their head around to orientate towards you and then running back towards you without a second thought. I see lots of lovely recalls being practised in our secure field¬†and it’s always a pleasure to watch. However, there are times when owners will insist (because that’s what their trainer has taught them to do) on their dog performing a perfect obedience sit in front at the end of the recall, and insisting on this can take all the speed, joy and reward out of the recall. It’s important that you can take hold of your dog at the end of the recall – so they don’t play the hokey cokey with you as an unwilling participant; in out in out, shake it all about – but teaching a simple collar grab solves that problem. ¬†A recall isn’t a competitive obedience exercise – you can use a different cue for that kind of precise recall in that context; it’s a potentially life-saving behaviour that your dog needs to perform with maximum joy, whoever asks.

There are lots of reasons why a dog might respond differently to one member of the family over another but none of them are to do with respect, dominance or status. Often it’s because one member of the family has done more training – so the dog is more sure of a predictable reward for following the cue, or understands the cue fully when given by this person. Sometimes it can be because one person uses a tone of voice or body language that has an implied ‘threat’ behind it – so the dog obeys out of fear of the consequence of not doing so, even if that person has never intentionally punished the dog in the past. Some trainers advise using ‘the voice of doom’ in order to ensure compliance – but that’s not the way I work or advise. If a dog truly knows and understands a cue or command then it will follow it – no-one should ‘need’ to use a harsh voice or intimidating body language to communicate with their dog. Above all else, dogs require consistency, compassion and to develop their ‘I can Listen’ skills through good training.¬†

If you’re interested in improving your dog’s recall then take a look at our Recall Workshops, or if you want to learn more about training and having fun then our Activity classes might be for you.


Sian Ryan



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