Dog obedience: you have it or you don’t

October 21, 2008

By Dianna Young

One of my dog-boarding clients came to me recently with a serious concern: She had taken her dog through an obedience course, she said, but the animal had forgotten everything it learned.

“When is the last time you trained with your dog?” I asked the woman.

“Oh, two years ago,” she said. “When we were in class.”

And therein lay the problem. This woman nurtured a misconception about obedience training that a lot of people share. They think it’s something that you do just one time. Actually, enjoying an obedient dog doesn’t spring from a class you take. It springs from a way of life.

It’s up to you to implement that way of life.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your dog looks to you for leadership. If you fail to provide it, your dog — whether it’s a four-pound Chihuahua or a 150-pound Rottweiler — has no choice but to take over the leadership role itself. This is not misbehavior. You have unintentionally set the dog up to do it. The dog is hard-wired to do this because it is his “default” setting.

First, however, it will look to you to exercise your role as pack leader. A dog’s brain is wired for hierarchal relationships. Everyone, in a dog’s view, has a specific place in the pecking order, including you and him. He finds comfort and security in this, and will instinctively look to his leader for guidance and decision-making.

What kinds of decision-making? All kinds. A dog looks to its leader — human or canine — for decisions about whether to bark at certain people or not to bark; whether to aggress other dogs or not to aggress; to chase cars or not to chase; to dig holes or not to dig; to jump on people or not to jump.

As leader, you can make these decisions for your dog, and communicate them verbally or non-verbally; through words or tone of voice, or through touch. In cases where companion dogs consistently make decisions for themselves it’s usually because their leader is not communicating properly.

Messages from you to your dog must be frequent. They also must be consistent. Your decisions about hole-digging, car-chasing and jumping on people, for example, should be the same from day to day to day. It’s a leadership responsibility that never ends, even with a trained dog. And it’s a responsibility that’s relinquished as soon as you stop reinforcing your leadership role.

Leadership and control can be communicated most easily through leash and collar. Think of the leash as your telegraph line. You want it to be like a fiber-optic line, through which you send clear, crisp, concise messages. We’ll talk in a future column about how to do that. Most importantly, you don’t want to send muddled messages as though your leash consists of two soup cans and a string.

In my next column we will talk more about communication between you and your dog, in general, and about utilizing your dog’s currency.

Dianna Young is a certified, professional dog trainer and canine behaviorist from Camano Island, where she operates Camano Island Kennels Dog Boarding and Training Facility. She can be reached at (360) 387-DOGS or at Her web site address is Or visit us at facebook.

2 Responses to “Dog obedience: you have it or you don’t”
  1. Janine says:

    Excellent article – I have a lot of work to do!

  2. Reatha Macconaghy says:

    Admiring the persistence you put into your site and detailed information you provide. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same outdated rehashed information. Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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