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Three ways of controlling a dog

People usually think of dog training as being about teaching the dog to “obey” or respond to commands. In that way, the handler can control the dog’s behaviour.

I maintain that this is only one aspect of controlling a dog, and that there are other ways which deserve our attention. I suggest three ways of controlling a dog:

[1] Physical control or management

Physical control is more a matter of management than training, but it has its place. It’s why we have collars and leads, fenced yards and front doors. If the front door is closed, the dog will not be running down the street. However, the problem is that one day, the system will break down. Someone will leave the gate open and the dog will get out.

[2] Training, in the sense of response to commands, signals or cues

This is what most people focus on. If you tell your dog to “wait” at the front door, she won’t be running down the street.This is useful, except that no dog will be 100% reliable, so there will come a time when training in this sense will not hold her. The other problem is that training, especially in the traditional sense of “obedience” can put the dog in conflict. You dog desperately wants to jump out of the car to run around in the park, but will exercise restraint if you say “wait”. The dog’s inclination or option of first resort, is to jump out. There will come a time when that outweighs the command you give. It is standard practice to teach a dog “leave it” say for example when you don’t want your dog to take food. The fact that you have to say “leave it” suggests to me that your dog would otherwise take the food. That is her default option or inclination, to take it unless you say “leave it”. The third method, below, reverses this.

[3] Internalised habits

Each of the first two methods has its place and can be used in different ways. However, the third way, creating internalised, habitual behaviour that becomes the “default option” in a particular situation is, in many ways, preferable. The dog responds to contextual cues rather than specific commands or signals. In the context of you opening the car door, your dog’s default option and inclination is to wait unless or until you say “out you get”. At the front door, before going out for a walk, your dog’s default option, in the face of an open door, is to wait until you say “let’s go” and proceed to walk out. You can teach your dog to automatically leave food that is dropped on the ground or placed on the furniture. This becomes the default option, to leave it until you say “take it” or whatever your release word is. This form of control is the safest and most reliable, because the dog is not in conflict. The behaviour you want automatically predominates, not because you say so but because you have manipulated the consequences of your dog’s actions. If he tries to leap out of the car, the door shuts. If he tries to grab the food from the ground, it is whipped away. On the other hand, if he waits, you invite him to get out. If he restrains himself, you reward him with food. You are on the same page and he is not in conflict.

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