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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