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Manners vs. obedience in dog training

Stefanie Strackbein is owner of What Dogs Want.

Obedience is defined as: the state or quality of being obedient. In dog world, obedience training consists of teaching a dog to obey commands to show good behavior. This may consist of things like sitting and lying down on command, or coming when called. This is all fine and good and is important if you need your dog to do what you ask or if you want to teach your dog some fun tricks.

Unfortunately, you hear very little about teaching a dog manners. Manners involves your dog choosing to perform a polite behavior he thinks of on his own. We call these “default” behaviors, which means it is something they do automatically. It is not a behavior preceded by a command or cue.

While it may take some dogs longer to learn a default behavior, they will retain this information because they thought of it themselves instead of just being told to do something. They really don’t have to think creatively or problem solve if they are always being commanded, they just learn to be compliant (sometimes).

Solid default behaviors provide dogs with an effective and polite way to ask for something they want or need, or if they are unsure of what to do in a situation. A reliable command or cue is a great thing, but it requires us to ask our dog to do something. Teaching your dog a default behavior produces a dog who is polite and more manageable in day-to-day situations. This is just as important as a dog knowing when to come when called AND has the bonus of building confidence in your dog because he is continually being reinforced for his good choices!

An easy (and fun) way to teach and reinforce a default “sit” behavior is through the game Sit to Say Please. Start by standing with your dog in front of you and wait until he thinks of sitting (if you think he might wander off, you may want to keep him on a leash and attached to you). As soon as his butt hits the ground say “yes” and give a treat. Move a couple of steps backwards, dog following, and then stop. Again, the second your dog offers a sit, reward immediately. Practice several times a day for several minutes and your dog will figure out “the rules” quickly. We work this daily at our dog school and most dogs are very quick at picking it up. Once they learn they can gain access to treats, attention, a play yard, etc. by sitting, they tend to be very quick to offer it. Sitting = GOOD STUFF. This makes for a very harmonious classroom if the dogs automatically sit at a door or at our feet instead of them jumping against the door or us, demanding what they want. It’s also nice to see them thinking, and not having to ask for the umpteenth time for them to “sit.”

So, while basic obedience commands are important and crucial if you need your dog to do something like “sit” or “come,” it is equally important to teach manners for polite behavior and to help your dog learn impulse control, conflict resolution, focus and help boost his confidence.

Make learning fun so you and your dog enjoy the process and your dog will be throwing “sits” at you for all kinds of things. Which does NOT mean you have to acquiesce if your dog sits politely at the table while you are enjoying your dinner (it’s important for dogs to experience and deal with disappointment, too)… but at least they are asking politely!

– East Valley resident Stefanie Strackbein is owner of What Dogs Want, a program that encourages people to have more fun with their dogs. Visit www.whatdogswant.org to learn about their subscription box See Spot Think!

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