Is Obedience All There Is?
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
During a hike late last year, a dear friend innocently remarked on how obedient my dog is. Outwardly I smiled and nodded. Inwardly, however, I immediately felt a very visceral reaction of ew. This may seem strange considering that I am a professional dog trainer and I spend a lot of time helping folks live more amicably with their dogs. My friend certainly meant it as a compliment after all.
Please notice that I did not say that I train dogs to be more "well behaved." Instead, I consider myself a part of the new wave of dog trainers who are mindful of the language we use. I do not give "commands," I give "cues." I do not want an "obedient" dog for myself or my clients. I want a happy and fulfilled dog with life skills that help the dog function in their family and out in the world. I do not want a dog to "respect" me, I want a dog that has learned to listen because listening keeps them happy and safe.
So let's take a look at the word obedient:
I don't know about you, but the idea of having another living creature "obey" me is just off-putting. My dog is not my subordinate, she is a member of my family.
I would like to think that as our understanding of dogs grows and changes, so do our expectations of them. Science tells us that dogs are sentient beings with their own likes and dislikes. Should the language we use not reflect that?
For example, the continued use of words like alpha, dominance, and submission are not only incorrect from a scientific point of view (don't just take my word for it), it also negatively impacts the welfare of individual dogs on a daily basis. Trainers using out-dated methods based on dominance theory are more likely to use physical and verbal punishment, thereby increasing the likelihood of aggression.
Let's backtrack to obedience for a moment. Doesn't obedience matter at all? Am I suggesting that our dogs do whatever they want, whenever they want, in spite of the consequences to their own health and safety? Of course not.
What I am suggesting is that we tailor our language and expectations to fit the truth. The truth is that dogs are capable of learning that it is worth their while to listen to us.
My dog does not come when I call her because she's afraid of what will happen if she doesn't, or out of some archaic sense of having to obey me or else. My dog does not come when I call her because I have positioned myself as alpha. My dog comes when I call her because I have demonstrated that there is value in doing so. Demonstrating that value helps keep her safe.
I do not command her to perform tasks at my behest. Instead, I communicate with her in such a way that demonstrates value.
Obedience is certainly not all there is when it comes to our relationships with our dogs. There is love, fun, connection, awareness, consideration, and so much more. Reducing our relationships with the dogs in our lives to obedience and dominance causes us to miss out on the richness of what it means to have a dog as a family member. And truthfully, it means a lot.
PS. If you're not quite sold on what I have to say when it comes to old-school training rhetoric, here's what the experts tell us:
American Veterinary Society's Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals
The Dominance Controversy by Dr. Sophia Yin
Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs by L. David Mech
Dominance and Dog Training by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers
Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid? by Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
Misconceptions of the Mythical Alpha Dog by Dr. Ian Dunbar
Let's Just Be Humans Training Dogs by Dr. Ian Dunbar
Using “dominance” to explain dog behaviour is old hat from University of Bristol