Dog Training: A Philosophical Perspective

Blair, Roscoe and Sage awaiting their driver.
Blair, Roscoe and Sage awaiting their driver.

Someone recently asked about the “philosophy” of my training … it’s simple, really.

There are myriad methods when it comes to working with dogs. Generally speaking, they’re grouped into two major camps – those who work with operant conditioning and those who focus more on a behavioral perspective. There are arguments pro and con for each, as there is for everything. I fall squarely into the behavioral camp. My work begins and ends with the premise that to work with dogs first you must speak to them in a language they understand. From there it’s about retaining their spirit and freedom while giving them rules and structure. It’s not about making them into machines. It’s not about turning them into trick ponies where you snap a finger and they execute some amusing task. It’s not about using obedience as a behavioral Band-Aid. It’s about stabilizing the dog’s temperament at a basic level and communicating to them the clear structure they are genetically predisposed to understand.

So what, pray tell, does this mean in English? It means that before engaging in any sort of training program with a dog, the first step I take is a behavioral assessment. (This is the first step for membership to Hydrant Club as well.) All dogs undergo a detailed behavioral evaluation before we begin to talk about what kind of membership or services they’ll need or want to use. Think of it like a Montessori School approach.

Dogs are dogs – canis familiaris. As such there are, broadly speaking, a number of factors that motivate their actions – social desire, need for food, aversion to discomfort and the prey/kill drive. Beyond this core set of drivers, there are breed specific behaviors/characteristics also to consider. Then there is the fact that, like people, dogs are individuals and have their own idiosyncratic quirks. You cannot just take a broad brush and paint the same training program for every dog – any more than you can use the same exact teaching method and expect that every single child will be able to process/retain the information. Yes, dogs are less complex than humans in many ways making the variations for training far less complicated than human education, but the premise isn’t altogether different.

First we must understand the dog – what motivates it, how it learns and where its energy/personality lay along the Behavioral Stability Spectrum. Why is behavioral stability is so central to my belief?

As detailed in this post, there is a distinct difference between obedience and behavior. In my opinion, it’s not an “either/or” equation but decidedly more of an “and” – just as it’s important for people. And the truth is that once you establish true behavioral stability for your dog, which centers on providing a very clear structure of leadership and rules for the dog to follow, obedience becomes a given. I’m not suggesting the dog learns to sit, heel and stay on its own. I’m suggesting that once you have a behaviorally stable dog you don’t really need those commands as much. Again, you still should provide basic obedience training for your dog – just as you insure that a human living in any sort of society has basic civilized manners (or at least should), but to engage in obedience training with a dog that does not recognize you as its leader and that has not been stabilized behaviorally is to be relying on the dog tolerating doing things. There will come a point in time when that dog’s tolerance may be tested and without stability and leadership that obedience training will go right out the window.

So forget about all the gimmicks, tricks and alleged “tools” that so many trainers insist are imperative for training your dog and think about how well you know your dog and more importantly how well you know yourself and your ability to truly lead the pack.

If you are interested in exploring a new, private, online community to gain more insight into your dog’s behavior and have direct access to trainers and behaviorists for tips, check out the new Canine Conversation Community, powered by The Hydrant Club.