What Is Obedience in Dog Training?

This article was also published in August 2015 Speaking of Dogs Newsletter.

We humans expect our dogs to be obedient, but do we actually know what this term means with regard to dog training? Obedience training is a rather traditional term that often refers to obedience competitions and a more formal type of training, but it is synonymous with something called stimulus control.

Without necessarily being aware, most dog owners have practised stimulus control with their dogs in one way or another. Here is a brief explanation: Fido lies down or sits or performs whatever behaviour when we tell him to, Fido does not offer this behaviour to us when we are not asking for it, and Fido does not mix up his cues (or commands, as they are traditionally called) when we ask him to do something. Sounds pretty easy and straightforward, but is it really?

Getting an “obedient” dog, in other words a dog that responds to us when we want him to, requires training skills and an understanding of how cues work. A cue is a stimulus that elicits a response because the animal is expecting a reward for doing the behaviour. It is like a green traffic light: go now and you will get rewarded.

Dogs don’t really have any idea about human linguistics; they only learn the meaning of words by association and not by us repeating them mindlessly and hoping that they will respond. Therefore, it is important to attach a cue to the behaviour when the behaviour is about to happen in order to make the association. In dog training we usually use verbal cues and our body language, but we often take things for granted and assume that the dog “knows” the words.

One of my favourite exercises in class is to ask people to cue their dogs to do a sit or a down while turning their backs to their dogs, spinning in a circle, etc. Guess how often the dogs get completely lost and have no idea what they are being asked to do? Yes, very often!

Simple exercises like this reveal that what has become the cue for the dog to perform the behaviour and to be obedient is something very different from what we think it is. The dog is not stupid or stubborn; he just perceives the cue differently. To get a responsive dog takes a lot of practice in generalization of cues: changing your own position and training in different places and under different distractions.

Professional dog trainers also practise the mechanics of training with other animal species, and I recently went to a four-day workshop where we practised putting behaviours under stimulus control using chickens as model organisms. The feedback from an animal who does not respond to any human emotion or gimmicks is ruthless: you have an instant mirror for your training skills.

Our task was to train a chicken to perform a particular behaviour, such as pecking a target or spinning on the spot, then add a cue to that behaviour, and then put the behaviour under stimulus by extinguishing the behaviour when it happened without the cue. What does extinguishing a behaviour mean? In dog training language, it means Fido does not get rewarded for performing a trick when we did not ask for it.

A lightbulb moment for me was learning that cues that last a long time become more efficiently associated with a behaviour than short ones do. For example, a long presentation of a light works better than just a short flash. That is why it often takes longer for dogs to make an association with a word (which are often short in duration) and a behaviour versus a human body language cue and a behaviour. It also made me want to use a whistle as my recall cue instead of just one word, as a whistle easily lasts longer.

So for the sake of “obedience,” it is important to train the dog to understand the meaning of the cue, but in many cases it is just as important to extinguish un-cued behaviours. If Fido sits when we don’t ask him to it is not that big a deal, and in many cases behaviours like this are desirable even when un-cued. A behaviour can have multiple cues, such as “sit when I tell you to,” “sit when greeting people,” “sit when waiting for your food,” etc.

But some behaviours can be undesirable when offered un-cued. For example, if the dog randomly offers a behaviour such as demand barking or rushing through a door without a release cue and this behaviour has been accidentally reinforced, it can be dangerous. This is when extinction of un-cued behaviours is very important. We only want the dog to offer the particular behaviour when told to do so. Therefore, working on cueing and stimulus control, i.e. obedience, even in everyday situations is very important for all dog owners.

Here I am practicing getting a pecking behaviour under stimulus control, extinguishing the behaviour happening without a cue (laser light) and rewarding only cued behaviours (excuse the poor camera angle!):

And just because I always enjoy watching my old “obedient” dog working, here is Bona Dea, passed away now for over 4 years:



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