Many dog owners are turned off by structured dog obedience classes because they find the environment too strict and structured. Others are bored walking in a circle and working on the same commands.

Perhaps the very word “obedience” is the problem for some.

My mutt Ace and I love attending “obedience” classes because we enjoy working together. I can’t think of a better environment that provides socialization, distractions and an excuse to work with others just as nuts about dogs. Ace absolutely loves being challenged, receiving treats and having my attention.

But while I take dog training seriously, I don’t want my dog to be afraid to think for himself or to hesitate while learning something new. Being “obedient” is one thing, but I don’t want a robotic dog. It’s OK if Ace and I make a few mistakes along the way.

I like how Ace will grab a crumb off the floor and then do what I asked. I like how if I’m struggling to get my shoes on at the door he tries to sneak out ahead. I like that out of nowhere he initiates play by tossing pieces of garbage at me.

Ace is just being a dog. Obedience training can’t change that, and I don’t want it to.

Obedient dogs

I can’t help but notice how obedient us humans are during these dog obedience classes as we walk around in unison responding to commands from the instructor such as “halt,” “right turn” or “left circle.” The most important factor in dog training is to train the human first, right?

It’s also a bit disturbing to me when some owners get so caught up in perfection that dogs must be corrected for shifting their weight from one side to the other during a long sit or for moving one paw during a stand. Put Ace in a down position for more than 30 seconds and he’ll likely start licking himself, um, there.

During class, I often hear dog owners say things like “Hey! I did not tell you to get up! You have to listen to me! No treats! Do you want a cookie later? Then you better be good! I mean it!”

The dog probably got the point at “Hey!”

I know it’s easy to get on a power trip. I lose it all the time with Ace when he cries in the car, obsesses over a ball or pulls on the leash. But he’s taught me that a simple laugh and a shrug can go a long way.

Canine Good Citizen program

Dog obedience training should be fun. It’s not about perfection and control. It’s about building a better relationship with our dogs.

I’m currently in the middle of reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin and Ken Robinson’s The Element. Both challenge the structured society we live in and the problems with the U.S. education system training us from an early age that we must blend in, avoid creativity and be obedient. Like most things, this got me thinking about dog training.

I’ve been assisting with and teaching a class that prepares dogs for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program. A challenge for myself and other trainers is to make sure we are preparing handlers to control their dogs in all of life’s situations and not simply preparing them to pass a test.

Although preparing for the CGC test should be a goal for dog owners, it is not for everyone and like all standardized tests, it has major flaws.

For one, dogs that take the test at the same location they’ve been training at for months are obviously going to do better than the dogs that train in other locations.

Although one dog might get out and experience more, meet more people and train in dozens of real-life situations, the dog that is conditioned to pass the test at his usual training center will probably do better.

I’m not sure there is such thing as a “Canine Good Citizen.” Dogs will always be dogs, and it’s our job to always be teaching them how to interact in this human world.

We should train our dogs everywhere we go. Obedience classes are great, but they should be used in addition to or as building blocks for training throughout the dog’s life.

Do you take your dog to obedience classes?

Ace and I train and teach at Red River North Dog Obedience Club. If you are interested in obedience training with your dog in Fargo, N.D., the training center offers classes for all levels.

Speaking of “obedience,” look how well I trained these two to walk together:

Man and black lab mix with a backpack walking together in the woods

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  1. Christie Lindemann on April 23, 2010

    First of all, I love the picture! Look at that loose leash! Whoo Hoo! I love to take classes with Buddy becauase I enjoy spending time with him. Watching him learn something new is especially rewarding for me because with eash task that he masters, he seems to get a little more self-assured. The last class that we took was an agility class and although we enjoyed it, there were people and their dogs in the class that were there for some serious training and some, like myself, that thought that it would be a fun and exciting to try. I found myself getting a little frustrated. Probably the most important thing that I have learned from the classes that we have taken,
    (obedience, therapy training, and agility) is how to interact with Buddy and other dogs that I meet. That is very valuable indeed.

  2. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 23, 2010

    Nice backpack too, right? :)

    I love taking different classes with Ace for the same reasons. I get a little frustrated during agility because Ace gets too excited and drives me nuts! But he loves any kind of training.

  3. Christie Lindemann on April 23, 2010

    Love the backpack! LOL!

  4. Amanda Steiner on April 24, 2010

    Eli and I have been taking agility classes at the Molen Pet center, and the trainer keeps telling me he needs “basic obedience.” This bothers me because he knows sit, down, come, stay and performs them when I ask, but apparently it is a HUGE problem when I put him in a sit stay, and after a while he decided to lay down and stay. I personally don’t care because he’s still staying, even though not in the same position. And the other part is, that we are not training for an obedience competition or even agility competition, I just do it because it is fun and challenging for both of us, and it is frustrating sometimes when my dog doesn’t do exactly what I want, but if I got upset about it that would take the fun part out of it! I think one of the reasons I have never taken a formal obedience training class is because I felt I could do it myself, and I think I have done a fairly good job even though my dog isn’t perfect, but I doubt everybody that has taken an obedience class has a perfect dog. There a lot of things to an obedience class that I really can’t simulate at home, so I have been kicking around the idea of enrolling in one. I might just check out the Red River Obedience Club :)

  5. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 24, 2010

    I just assumed you’d taken Eli to obedience classes cuz he’s so well trained! The classes might help you because then he will get some practice sitting, staying, heeling, etc with other dogs around. I decided to do obedience classes with Ace so meeting other dogs wouldn’t be such a big “event.” He used to pull pretty bad when we came across other dogs on walks. Now he usually could care less.

  6. Shay on April 24, 2010

    Amanda,

    I get annoyed at people who think a dog shouldn’t be allowed to down-stay instead of sit-stay, when sit-stay is way more uncomfortable for certain kinds of dogs! But I might be biased, because Lady thinks that “stay” means “from a down position.” She doesn’t like sitting for too long on most surfaces, so her down-stay was always much better and I guess we wound up practicing it enough for her to think stay means from down. At some point, I need to use a new word for “stay” that means “from a sit position” – but right now, I don’t see the point. We took the TDI test, which is similar to the CGC test, and the down-stay was fine for them. The evaluator didn’t care what her position was as long as the stay was legitimate, which is my attitude as well. I was a little concerned Lady would struggle on the test being in a brand new environment, but she did just fine, despite not having gone to any classes.

    To answer Lindsay’s original post, we originally had a problem finding the right level of obedience class. We tried a beginner class once, and it was a poor fit. So we just worked on our own and then had a private trainer come twice to show us tricks for specific things we wanted to teach, like better heeling or how to teach Lady to use the treadmill.

    We’re going to try agility classes over the summer. Given her style of play, I think she’ll really like it. But we want to do it an environment that is about having fun & working together, not perfection or training to compete.

  7. Susan on April 24, 2010

    We recently did the CGC class. Stella really loved going but in the end we failed because she couldn’t pass the strange dog without wanting to stop and chat. It’s funny because when we pass other dogs outside of class (and we do every day) she’s learned to overcome it especially if there are multiple dogs(?).

  8. Marie on April 24, 2010

    I might be in the minority here because I do train my dogs with the intention of being able to do competitive obedience and agility with them. I don’t mind all the attention to detail that is required. In fact, I enjoy it and so do my dogs. I wouldn’t keep training with them if we weren’t having fun.

    I do find it ironic how many people think competition obedience is too strict and asks the dogs to do unnatural things, yet they think agility is just fun and games. Think of all the unnatural things you ask the dogs to do in agility! LOL I mean it doesn’t even make any sense to ask a dog to weave through 12 poles, when running straight past them is faster. Not only do we ask that, but we insist that they enter on the same side each time and not skip any poles. LOL Crazy really.

    One of the things that I enjoy about both competition obedience and agility is that you have trained with your dogs to the point that you can ask them to do a behavior that may not be easy or natural and because of your relationship with the dog, they understand what you are asking for and will work with you as a team. It’s a beautiful thing!

    Having said that, I don’t think competition dogsports are for everyone and I really wish that there were more practical classes around here for people. I find it frustrating that in a beginning obedience class here the students are being taught things that they will likely never use. I sincerely wish that all that time and effort could be spent on something they would use daily…like training a reliable recall, (without a perfect front position), or a wait or stay in whatever position the owner decides in practical situations like at a door or gate. Or loose leash walking, rather than concentrating on perfect heel position. Don’t even get me started on things like teaching the dog a skill like “stand for exam”, when the dog is struggling with basic handling like brushing, or toenail clipping.

    Sorry, I think this comment turned into a post of it’s own. :-P

  9. Amanda Steiner on April 25, 2010

    Thanks for the comments Shay and Marie! Marie, I do admire you and my trainer’s relationship’s with your dogs, I am always impressed that my trainer can tell her dogs exactly what she wants in one command, or even just with body language and they know exactly what to do. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these competitive sports, I’m just not sure a serious agility trail or obedience competition would be for us! And I liked your last comments about more practical obedience, I think that every owner needs to find how they want their dog to behave in every environment, and continue to work on it. Shay, I hope you and your dog like agility! I think it’s very fun for both the handler and the dog. It has given my dog and I a whole new set of commands to work on, and he’s always exhausted when we get home :)

  10. Shay on April 25, 2010

    Marie,

    I play sports and have coached. So I guess I take that perspective when I talk about wanting to do agility for the fun & learning to work together aspects rather than the competition version of it. There is a time to encourage competition and a time to ease off of it, in favor of skill-building & teamwork. From my perspective, I ask people what kind of doggie Little League parent are you? I am not singling you out, because it does sound like you do focus on the fun/teamwork aspects first, and the competition is only a byproduct of that.

    My dog, who is about to turn 2, is naturally athletic. She’s very fast for her breed, loves jumping and hurdling other dogs, twists in the air, etc. There is a downside to this – we’re semi-regulars at the Vet. Hehe. We view agility as an opportunity to channel this energy and playfulness, while having her learn to look to us for her cues more than she does in standard off-leash play & exploration.

    When it comes to the competitive aspects of dog sports – obedience or agility (or other activities) – I want to ask most poeople: who is competing (you, the dog, both?) & why are you making it competitive? Does it help the dog learn better? Does it give you a goal to train for? These can be good reasons. When we were training to pass the TDI test, it gave us a focus that helped us stick to it. We were eager to start volunteer visits, so we were motivated to train Lady. And Lady likes training, because it’s time with us, gives her a job to do, and she gets praise/treats. For some people, though, the competitive aspects is really about their own desire to earn titles, independent of the dog. I think everyone into doggie competition should ask herself if she is engaged in doggie Little League parenting where the human is more interested in the trophy/title than the dog is in the treats.

  11. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 25, 2010

    Great comments!

    The CGC test is very lenient when compared to competitive obedience. The CGC test is not about perfect sits and downs, it’s about having control over the dog in different situations. When not in an obedience competition or agility competition, it should be up to each individual owner to decide what his or her dog should do for different commands. Ace certainly has a much more reliable down-stay than a sit-stay because he gets tired and wants to lie down after about 30 seconds.

    Shay, I think you and Lady will love agility!

    Susan, dogs are contextual and therefore just because they learn a behavior in one situation, they won’t necessarily do the same in another situation. That’s why Ace heels perfectly with me in our neighborhood but poorly when we visit somewhere more “exciting.”

  12. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 25, 2010

    Marie,

    I totally agree with you and see your points. I like the details of working with my dog too. I’m always trying to get my dog to come in perfectly straight for recalls and to heel with his nose right at my side and to not shift or sniff during long downs. It’s always a good challenge for us both. I’m a perfectionist during agility, too.

    Interesting points about the beginning obedience classes. You’re right that the majority of people in those classes have no intention of ever competing and yet that’s basically what is taught in beginning obedience, from finishes to coming in straight on the recall, etc. Most training centers could probably use a little re-vamping on what is taught and maybe offer different classes for those interested in competing and those who are not. Same with agility.

  13. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 25, 2010

    Shay, I haven’t competed in obedience or agility with Ace, but at some point I may. It wouldn’t be about being better than anyone else, it would be to work towards a goal with my dog. Just successfully attending and completing an agility trial would be our first goal! No matter what I do with Ace, it’s always about having fun and building a better bond.

  14. Amanda Steiner on April 25, 2010

    By the way Lindsay, I really like that photo! I can barely get my boyfriend to walk Eli, much less get a picture of it! Haha.

  15. Sarah on April 25, 2010

    Marie you took the words right out of my mouth! I compete with my dogs so for us classes are taken seriously and they are also fun, believe it or not you can have your cake and eat it too on this one! I know my dogs love to work, especially my Lab, his face lights up every time he is in the ring. But one has to consider that through a dogs entire life span we as humans are asking them to do something that is unnatural. We are asking our dogs to remain puppies, so to speak, their entire lives. We are asking them to be friendly to everyone, depend on us, be happy all the time, not be aggressive to other animals like the famiy cat, and yes sometimes twist, turn, and literally jump through hoops!

  16. Apryl on April 26, 2010

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Gus and obedience don’t go together. There should be a special class for bloodhounds. It would be absolutely hysterical! Sniffing and howling breaks, etc.

  17. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 26, 2010

    Ha! Amanda, Josh hardly ever walks Ace! This was a rare moment :)

    Thanks Sarah! I admire the work you do with your dogs! They love it! Good points. Everything we ask them to do is unnatural.

    Ha! Obedience for bloodhounds! They would have to schedule a snacktime in there, too.

  18. Ty Brown on April 27, 2010

    Good post. I always tell my clients that if they want to do obedience competitions then we’ll focus on precision and perfection.

    If they want a good pet, though, then let’s focus on what’s functional and most useful to help the dog learn a proper relationship and be obedient in the scenarios that they live in.

  19. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 27, 2010

    That’s good that you train differently depending on what each dog owner wants.

  20. Sarah on April 28, 2010

    Actually Apryl its funny you should mention that….. Have you ever checked into tracking or field competitions? Ckeck your local kennel club, you dont have to be a member to compete and they are tuns of fun, you’ll love watching your dog work and Gus will love it too!

  21. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 28, 2010

    Great idea! I’ve thought about doing that with Ace.

  22. Amanda Steiner on April 28, 2010

    I am actually going to try that this Sat. with Eli. Fresca, the trainer at the Molen Pet Center does search and rescue training with her Belgian shepards, and since Eli has and can track and flush birds we are going to give it a try!

  23. Matthew on April 28, 2010

    “Dogs will always be dogs, and it’s our job to always be teaching them how to interact in this human world.”

    Totally true. I have seen so many people trying to get their dogs behave like robots.

    Hi Lindsay!

    I like the photo of Josh and Ace (is that him?) in that photo.

  24. Lindsay Stordahl Author on April 29, 2010

    Amanda, let me know how it goes! Maybe Ace and I will join you sometime. I still need to get over to Molen to try agility there.

    Thanks Matthew! Yep, the photo is of Josh and Ace.

  25. Apryl on May 3, 2010

    Getting Gus to a track & trail training would be quite a feat. The poor guy had a rough life before we got him so he’s now in full diva mode and completely spoiled. It isn’t totally out of reach but he would need LOTS of work!

    Oh yeah, there would need to be nap breaks too!

  26. Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 4, 2010

    Haha! I’m glad Gus has a good life now and is completely spoiled :)

  27. Apryl on May 20, 2010

    He IS completely spoiled!

  28. Lindsay Stordahl Author on May 21, 2010

    :)

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