Do you want "something more"?
Do you know what you want out of the time and money you'll spend raising your dog? Most people, at least at first, want their dog only to do what they tell him, when they tell him to do it. Pet owners want an "obedient" dog.
It's understandable; a lot of value is placed on obedience in our society. Obedience provides order, prevents chaos, and ensures safety. Until very recently, obedience overwhelmingly defined capable parenting: good children are obedient. And a good dog sits when commanded to sit and stays when commanded to stay.
Yet as the foundation for any relationship between intelligent living things, mere obedience imposes a low, unimaginative threshold.
My "something more"
My household consists of a 79-pound, two-year-old black Lab named Tucker, two elementary school-age kids, their friends, lots of older and younger nieces and nephews, two working parents, and a guinea pig.
When I started raising and training Tucker, I thought about the goals for my life with my dog:
- I wanted Tucker to be happy and safe in the environment of our home and family and my work.
- I wanted to enjoy living with Tucker and for him to enjoy living with us.
- I wanted Tucker to be a rock-solid family dog, a dog whose food bowl you could take away while he's eating and whose tail could be pulled without complaint, a dog who is thrilled but calm when he sees every member of my family, my friends and their dogs, gerbils, or guinea pigs. (I'd made an exception for the neighbor's cat.)
- I wanted Tucker to wrestle with me!
- I wanted to be able to take Tucker to lots of new places, to be able to adapt to new environments like friends' houses, new walks, or my children's schools.
- I wanted him to demonstrate, each day, that he possessed that fine balance between enthusiasm and self-control.
That's what I wanted, and that's what I got. Like every other pet owner, I wanted Tucker to do what I asked of him, but obedience was not the explicit and overarching goal. It was just assumed and, actually, subsumed by this richer vision of my life with this handsome new family member.
In order to achieve these goals with Tucker, I needed an entirely different set of training objectives from those traditionally taught in dog training classes. I needed to teach Tucker self-control, to desensitize him to all kinds of touch, to leave things that aren't his. I needed to teach him to look for direction from me in uncertain situations. I needed to have a sustainable system for teaching him to be an enthusiastic learner his whole lifetime. In short, I needed to teach my dog life skills.
The "something more" training method: clicker training
"You should train using the methods that best meet your goals. If your goals go beyond merely having your dog 'obey commands,' then clicker training is right for you and right for your dog."What type of teaching and training would best help me achieve these goals? Only clicker training could get me there. Like it or not, one can teach many common behaviors using dominance-based training, which is intrinsically aversive—but no one can compellingly argue that the general public can teach their animals to be enthusiastic learners that way. Can the pet owner develop robust learning and life skills in her dog with those approaches? No. Those goals can be achieved only by clicker training.
Choose the method that meets your goals
I believe that the simple task of articulating a vision of your life with your dog is among the first, most important step you can take to incorporating a dog into your life. Write down a description of what you envision; set some goals. Don't worry that they may be incomplete, just start writing and see where it take you. It could be as simple as " I want to take my dog with me to Starbucks." Seemingly simple goals like these cross the threshold from wanting simple obedience to "something more" because they involve teaching your dog life skills.
You should train using the methods that best meet your goals. If your goals go beyond merely having your dog "obey commands," then clicker training is right for you and right for your dog.
Do you have goals for the animals in your life? Post your comments below and share them with us.