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Put your dog's emotional health before obedience

An obedient dog is often seen as the ‘gold standard’. A dog that will respond to your every command is considered a perfect, loyal companion – a dog that will not is often labelled naughty, disobedient, or bad. However, we need to remember that dogs are not robots: we can’t programme them and then expect them to behave exactly how we want in every situation we come across. Dogs are living, breathing animals that feel fear, frustration, and excitement.

Imagine trying to read a book on a rollercoaster. You would probably struggle to focus with the fast movement and noise. If you practiced enough, you might be able to achieve a calm state in which you could read – but it would still take significant brain power. Now imagine your dog at the park. You want them to concentrate on walking to heel, but they can see other dogs running and people walking, they can smell squirrels, they can hear barking and children playing.

A dog that is frightened of other dogs is the same: their fight or flight response will often prevent them from being able to obey your cues, no matter how well trained they are.

These two examples depict dogs in heightened emotional states. Obedience training will only go so far towards helping these dogs, and is often overridden by high arousal. Instead of thinking purely about whether your dog obeys you, consider how you can help them to manage their emotions. Do you need to manage situations better to keep them away from fear-inducing stimuli? Should you enlist a trainer or behaviourist in order to improve your dog’s emotional response to situations?

This does not mean basic obedience isn’t important – it’s essential that you maintain proper control of your dog in public, and training using positive reinforcement is a fun and engaging way of stimulating your dog. What it does mean however, is that you put your dog’s emotional needs before your own requirement for an obedient dog.

For example, my Patterdale terrier, Chase, will walk nicely on a loose lead when the roads are quiet. However, if there are lots of vehicles coming past us, he starts to lean forward into his harness and pull, which is a response to his fear of vehicles. We’ve come a long way from his old response, which involved lunging and barking, but he is still wary. When we walk along busier roads, I manage the situation continuously, providing reinforcement and reassurance every time larger vehicles or motorbikes pass by.

The most important thing to note however, is that I don’t try to train him in these situations as heightened fear and anxiety are not conducive to training success. Instead I aim to gradually change how he feels about traffic, leaving the training for when he is less aroused.

Next time your dog ‘disobeys’ you, consider whether they were actually being ‘naughty’ or if (as is more likely) they were simply trying to handle their emotions.

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