When Obedience Isn’t The Answer

“Hello!” The voice on the line is earnest and cheerful.  “I’m calling to sign my dog up for obedience class, please.”

Of course, I say.  We have new class sessions starting every few weeks, and we’d be happy to help her sign up.  I ask for a bit more information about her dog, and what skills she’s hoping to work on in class.

“Well, he’s a nice dog.  I mean, he’s great with the family.  But whenever strangers come around, he just goes crazy!  Barks at them constantly – I tell him no, but he doesn’t listen at all!  Last week, a friend of mine came over to visit and he spent the entire time growling and barking at her.  So embarrassing!  We can’t have him acting like that every time someone stops by the house.  He just really needs to learn some manners around people.”

This is a common scenario, as any obedience class instructor can attest.  Does your dog bark at strangers?  Try to attack other dogs?  Destroy the furniture while you’re at work?  Snap at the neighbor’s kids?

Sign him up for training class, then.  It’s the obvious solution, right?

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Now, don’t get me wrong… obedience classes are great things!  Provided that the instructor is a good teacher and uses modern, dog-friendly training methods, I truly believe that taking your dog to a training class is one of the most important things you can do to help strengthen your bond.

There are lots of “life skills” that every dog needs to learn, in order to live comfortably in our world – things like walking on-leash, coming when called, and greeting people without jumping all over them.  Many dogs have trouble with this at first, which is perfectly normal!  A group class can be a great way to get a start on these skills, while also practicing focus and self-control in a very distracting environment.

But – what if your problem is something different?

For dogs with true behavior problems, including dog or human-directed aggression, leash reactivity, or anxiety issues, a basic obedience class won’t be nearly as helpful as you might think.  It’s not so much that obedience training is a bad idea, per se… although certainly, for dogs with certain types of behavior problems, a group class environment can be very overwhelming.  It’s just that it misses the point.

There’s no denying that obedience skills like sit, down, and stay are always handy. But they’re largely irrelevant to the underlying problem in cases like this – so if you enroll your dog in a class hoping that it will fix his problem with barking hysterically at strangers or snapping at your grandkids, you’re likely to be very disappointed.

It might surprise you to know, in fact, that it’s not uncommon to see serious behavior problems like aggression, reactivity, or separation anxiety in dogs who are otherwise extremely well-trained.  Even high-level competitive obedience dogs can suffer from these issues, no matter how many ribbons and titles they’ve earned for their impeccable ability to execute complicated behavior chains on cue.

Puzzling, indeed.  So why is this true?  The answer, in a nutshell, is that we are talking about two entirely different things.

To explain:

Obedience skills like sit, come, and heel are voluntary behaviors that your dog chooses to perform on cue – they must be taught, and then reinforced consistently over time in order to be reliable.  This type of learning is known as operant conditioning in behavioral science terms.  Your dog learns that putting his rear end on the ground in response to a “sit” cue earns a reward; therefore, he sits when you ask him to.  It’s a learned behavior that he chooses to offer, based on the expected consequences.

In other words, obedience training is all about cause and effect.  If I do this (sitting), then I get a reward.  Therefore, I’ll be more likely to sit again next time.  This is how we train dogs to do a tremendous variety of different things – everything from simple behaviors like sitting or lying down on cue, to more complicated behavior chains like a formal dumbbell retrieve or a full 20-obstacle agility course.

Makes sense, right?

So now, let’s talk about behavior problems.  What if your dog barks at your neighbors, tears up your stuff when you’re not home, or lunges at other dogs on walks?  Can’t we address these issues the same way?

Well.  Not quite… for one very simple reason.

What all of these issues have in common is that they are emotional reactions, rather than learned behaviors – and this is an absolutely critical difference.  Your dog is not voluntarily “choosing” to bark and lunge at strangers, in the same way that he chooses to sit for a treat.  Instead, he does this because strangers are scary to him; he’s anxious and defensive, with adrenaline coursing through his body, and he’s reacting the only way he knows how.

We can’t make our dogs “choose” to stop barking when we say so, because it’s not a choice at all.  This is why attempting to apply consequences to behaviors like this is generally not an effective strategy.  Your dog isn’t thinking logically about consequences – he’s overwhelmed, and reacting on instinct.  He isn’t ignoring you when you tell him to stop barking and sit.  He truly isn’t capable of doing what you ask, no matter how well he knows the commands.

Fixing the problem, then, requires a much more nuanced approach.

To effectively treat behavior problems like this, we need to focus on changing the dog’s emotional response to the situation – this is classical conditioning, rather than operant conditioning as discussed above.  So if your dog is barking and lunging at strangers, I’m not actually all that interested in making him stop; instead, I want to change how he feels about strangers.  If we can teach him to associate strangers with great things (like fun games, or tasty treats), the barking will stop on its own.

Pretty nifty!

So what does this mean for you, if you have a dog with a behavior problem like this?  In most cases, it means that your time and money would be better spent working one-on-one with a professional who can help you address your dog’s specific issues, rather than a general obedience class.

A veterinary behaviorist is the ideal option for serious behavior problems like aggression or anxiety, if you have one nearby or are able to travel for a consultation – if you’re in the US, you can search for one in your area here: www.dacvb.org.  If you don’t have a boarded behaviorist nearby, you can also search for general practitioners who are members of AVSAB (the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) and able to treat behavior cases, like myself: www.avsab.org.

A good reward-based trainer can also help with many of these issues, depending on their level of education and experience in the field.  Just make sure that they are comfortable dealing with behavior problems like aggression, anxiety, and reactivity – some trainers are extremely knowledgeable about these issues and very skilled at treating them, while others focus more on basic manners training, dog sports like agility or obedience, or other specialized niches.  As with any other professional, ask questions and make sure you’re comfortable with the recommended plan before getting started.

And by all means, sign up for a good obedience class if you want to!  Just make sure it’s a good fit for your dog, and don’t expect it to solve all of your problems.

Dog training, like everything else in life, is a bit more complicated than that. 🙂

  1. I love your blog and this is an important post. Thank you! 🙂

    There is one other organization that uses psychometric testing to verify certificants knowledge of behavior modification techniques – the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. There behavior certification is CBCC-KA, Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed.

    From their web site “The exam domains are applied behavior analysis; consulting skills and best practices; ethology, body language, and observational skills; health, development, and life stages; biology and anatomy; scientific method. For a complete test content outline, download the CBCC Candidate Handbook.”

    As with all trainers and consultants, owners should interview potential consultants and feel comfortable with their teaching style and methods.

    • Thanks for adding this!

      You’re absolutely right – agreed that CBCCs are knowledgeable in this field and should be well-qualified to help with behavior problems. CAABs (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) also have advanced degrees in behavior and rigorous certification requirements, so I would add them to the list of qualified professionals as well.

  2. I’m off to my third obedience class with my year old Irish Terrier tomorrow. By third I mean third trainer. The first one actually used a pinch collar on a large dog that had never been to a class before. She strung him up and I walked out! The second trainer did nothing but have us walk our dogs around in a circle time after time after time. Four weeks of this was definitely enough for me and my dog.
    Please understand, both of the trainers came highly recommended by dog savvy friends including one vet. They had warm and fuzzy websites too, One I even investigated by observing a beginners class.
    I have trained terriers for over thirty years. I’ve put conformation and obedience titles on my dogs. I’ve even trained therapy dogs successfully and thoroughly enjoyed that work with my dogs for over ten years. My present youngster I thought just lacked manners until a close dog friend told me what she was reading was fear and anxiety. She told me this after taking care of him for a week while I was out of town. In fact, she told me this the day before yesterday! Your article was so timely and on point for me! Now I know there is an animal behaviorist in my very near future, like this week.
    Thank you so much for enlightening me!!
    Dottie

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I’m sorry to hear about your bad experiences with the first two training classes that you tried – it can be very hard to tell what you’re getting into sometimes, even when you do lots of due diligence to try and make a good decision. Kudos to you for recognizing quickly that they weren’t a good fit for your dog, and moving on.

      Your story is an excellent illustration of the point that obedience does not necessarily solve behavior problems. If you’ve trained and competed successfully with terriers, you’re obviously a skilled trainer and dog handler with lots of experience – my hat is off to you, lol! It can be frustrating to have a dog with anxiety issues like this, who doesn’t respond to the methods you’ve always used successfully in the past.

      I hope you’re able to find a qualified professional in your area who can evaluate your boy and get both of you started on a training plan to work on his issues.

  3. Ditto what Su had to say. I am so grateful for your blogs and share them OFTEN with our adopters. This one was particularly relevant.

    • Thanks very much! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, and that you find it helpful for your adopters as well 🙂

    • Yes – the IAABC is another reputable organization that certifies behavior consultants, and is also an excellent resource for finding a qualified professional to help with behavior issues in dogs. Thanks very much for adding this! 🙂

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  6. Remember, though, that each of these people, regardless of how close they are to you, is a stranger to your dog. He may not know whether he can trust your best friend or your son-in-law. Keep giving your dog one tiny treat after another while your guest walks through the hall to another room. Your guest should ignore your dog, so that your dog is not pushed beyond his comfort zone.

    • Yes, indeed! This is good advice, in general, for dogs who are fearful of guests in the home 🙂