I flunked obedience class. The last time this happened I said my dog flunked the class. But I am older and wiser and I know now where the real fault lies.
So forget the question of which breeds are best to train. Which humans are best at training dogs? And can the average dog caretaker become more like them?
My personal training record: Dogs 7, human 0
I never really managed to train any of our seven dogs, although I tried. They all would come when called, most of the time. They refrained from pooping in the house and didn’t bite, mostly. (Our Pomeranian did nip a neighbor once.)
Nobody in our house was what you would call “obedient.” But all of us, dogs and people, tried to be considerate of each other and would sit down when another family member suggested it.
My obedience failure with Annie, our golden doodle puppy, was therefore no shock. She was too excitable to handle obedience class, and I was too unmotivated to keep up the training. When I tried to get her to lie down, she batted at my hand holding the treat with a very cute paw, and I laughed and thought, why does she need to lie down?
The skills of a good dog trainer
All of this made me wonder about the personality of trainers. I’ve seen that the good ones have patience, discipline and consistency (none of which I am graced with). But what else?
I talked to several researchers and trainers about this and was delighted to find that, yes, there are certain qualities at the heart of being a good trainer.
Listen to your dog. Cynthia M. Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, put it best: “I think, for me, the biggest thing is that a good dog trainer actually listens to the dog.”
“A really top notch trainer,” she said, “doesn’t have a prescriptive plan. They actually take the time and start to understand the dog.” Otto, who started out training dogs to do tricks, oversees a program in training scent detection dogs, and she starts with puppies. Part of the program is to watch to see what tasks the dogs enjoy and are suited to before a training program begins.
Patience and adaptability. The training director at the center, Annemarie DeAngelo, who started and ran the K-9 program of the New Jersey State Police before retiring as a major in 2012, made similar points when I spoke to her, emphasizing the importance of patience and “being adaptable.”
For instance, when she was with the police she was watching an officer try to train a dog to crawl under a barrier by pulling the dog on a long leash. It was a struggle. She stopped the trainer and threw the dog’s favorite toy under the barrier, and the dog went right after it.
The process was quicker and easier. Even for the most serious tasks, she said, for the dog, “it’s a game. It has to be a game.”
An “authoritative” pet parenting style. Some dog experts have begun to use the tools of social science to study the effect of human personality on dogs. Monique Udell, director of the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at Oregon State University just published a research report in the journal Animal Cognition with Lauren Brubaker, a PhD student at Oregon State, on “pet parenting styles.” The phrase is not accidental. They are adapting tools used to study human parenting styles to learn more about how people relate to their dogs.
Udell said she and Brubaker surveyed pet owners about their pet parenting style and then watched those owners’ dogs attempting to solve a puzzle and reuniting with their owners after being alone for a few minutes. The dogs whose caretakers had an “authoritative parenting style” did best on several measures. They appeared to be more securely attached to their caretakers, and Udel said, “are more persistent. They’re more resistant to stress and recover from stress more quickly.”
“Authoritative” is not what you might think. Udell and Brubaker used existing categories of parenting established in human studies. The authoritative style is firm, with high expectations of the dogs, but also warm and adaptable. Permissive humans are warm and adaptable but don’t set clear expectations. Authoritarians are firm, with high standards, but rigid and less warm.
Collaborate with your dog to solve problems
The study did not look at obedience training, but Udell said the study of dogs’ performance on problem solving “suggests that having an authoritative parent or trainer might actually help dogs or other animals be more successful at those sorts of training activities.”
Udel has herself trained dogs, wolves and other animals, and said that from personal experiences understanding what the animal is doing and trying to figure out what it is thinking are paramount in good training.
“It can really allow us to make better training decisions,” she said. “It’s not an adversarial relationship. It’s a dance that should be collaborative.”
To take one obvious example, she said, some dogs, like whippets, have bone structures that make it uncomfortable for them to sit in the standard position. So it’s much better to be aware of that. And, she said, alertness to what the dog is doing is how trainers get dogs to perform what we think of as tricks.
On my dog Annie batting at my hand instead of lying down, she said: “What a really creative trainer might do is say, ‘We’re switching. Now we’re teaching paw. Or shake. It’s our opportunity to teach shake.’”
Questioning traditional obedience training for dogs
Behind all these questions, of course, is why we want dogs to be obedient in the first place. The word does remind me of learning about the sin of disobedience, and of my poor grades in conduct and penmanship in my Catholic grammar school, which indicated my failure to follow strict and somewhat arbitrary rules.
Dogs are not human, of course, but for most of us they are not utilitarian possessions either. Most of our pets don’t pull carts, hunt stags, herd sheep, or detect drugs, where we need to ensure correct performance.
Alexandra Horowitz, author of the recent “The Year of the Puppy” and a researcher on dog cognition at Barnard College, said that particularly after her year of bringing up a young dog during the pandemic, she questions the need for traditional obedience training for all dogs.
“Some things are really useful,” she said, such as the “sit” command, which can teach a dog to be still. But she views the raising of pets more like the raising of children, in that we teach and socialize them in all the things we do.
Obedience training can be wonderful and exciting, she said, for some dogs and their humans. But “I would argue you don’t have to train your dog in the way that training is usually cast, which is to teach them to sit on command or to heel.”
However, for people who are training dogs, for fun, or for serious work, she said the best trainers notice small things we might not
“They see little gestures of stress, for instance, in a turn of the head,” she said. “They’re noticing what’s within the dog’s capacity and how far to take the dog before going on to the next step. They’re really just sensitive to what the dog is doing all the time.”
Or, as Otto would say, they “listen” dog, something I am now determined to do more of, particularly since Otto confided in me that she, too, had flunked obedience class once.
It was with “a little mixed breed rescue” whom she described as her “heart dog.” She said: “I took him to obedience class, and we failed. I was devastated.”
She kept going, however. “We started doing more things,” she said. “We started to do tricks. And in the end the relationship that dog and I built was magical.”
“I’ve watched that with so many people,” she continued. “As you start to actually take the time to listen to your dog, because you have to do that to train, then you learn how to listen to them, and you start to pick up other subtle things.”
Do you hear that Annie? We are not giving up. What do you think? I’m listening.
James Gorman is a long-time science writer and the author of books on hypochondria, penguins, dinosaurs and the ocean around Antarctica. He writes about animals, viruses, archaeology and the evolution of dogs.
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