Solving Aggression and Anxiety with Obedience Training
There’s an old joke that the only thing that two dog trainers can agree on is that the third dog trainer is wrong. There’s a lot of truth to this. Once you get to a certain level of competence, we all have our preferred methods and tools, and ways of working.
But you know what? Sometimes, that third trainer IS wrong. I hear a lot of things from my clients who have often been to several trainers before me. I see the way a lot of “professionals” work. Let me tell you: there’s a lot of stuff that really is wrong.
Sometimes things are wrong in downright harmful ways—like this ridiculous idea that you should never correct a dog for barking or growling. (Ideas like this are what lead to dogs getting euthanized.) And sometimes it’s wrong in ways that are harmful, but not quite so directly. This leads me to what I want to talk about: the assertion that you cannot do modify behavior through obedience training.
Because what have I been doing for the past three decades?
It is ridiculous to say that you can’t resolve behavioral issues through foundational obedience. Generally, the people who say this do not have experience training basic obedience to a standard—that is, heel with auto sit, sit, down, stay, stop, come—in real world environments. Or if they do, they often seem to have trained obedience using heavy-handed, even abusive, methods.
In other words, some people don’t know how to do it—so they say it’s not possible. (And for the record, this is not limited to so-called positive trainers.) The thing is, I do it all the time. Obedience is the foundation for everything we do, for all behavioral modification cases. And trust me, this is the vast majority of our business. Often, we’re the fifth, sixth, seventh trainer people have gone to. We save the dogs that are slated for euthanasia, we get dogs off the drugs and resolve anxiety. (For more details, please read my article on aggression and anxiety.)
And we do it through obedience. How? Let’s get started.
It all starts with engagement
A lot of people are really in love with “motivational training,” which takes the form of food or toys—both things that are external to the handler. Many of you know that I do not train foundational obedience using food or toys. Not only is it completely unnecessary, it gets in the way. (To understand this in more depth, read this article.)
I understand why a lot of people buy into it. Dogs look excited, they look happy. It can be very seductive to have a fast and excited sit. But an excited dog is not necessarily a happy dog. (Plus, the lengths that some people go to build “food drive” are insane—such as withholding food or only feeding meals during training.)
The truth is, a dog performing a behavior for an external reward is not engaged with the handler. This leads to a second problem, which is that often, people see a particular behavior as a “trick.” And remember what I always say—a dog thinks by association. Sit means TREAT. Heel means TOY. Even if the trainer phases these things out (which I’ve never actually seen), the result is that it cheapens obedience and sustained attention to handler into to individual, disconnected behaviors.
So what does this all have to do with behavioral modification? It’s simple. Motivation is not the same as engagement. And you need handler engagement when using obedience to deal with aggression, anxiety, and all the rest. Food is not a replacement for feeling safe. A piece of hot dog is not going to stop a dog from aggressing. A bite of cheese cannot tell a dog, “You need to pay attention to me now.”
How do you do get real engagement? Through obedience.
About heeling and movement
Increasingly, people don’t teach dogs to heel. It seems to be a behavior relegated to the competition ring, and often, people assume that a heel means a very stylized behavior with head cranked. Don’t get me wrong, this can look fantastic. But it’s not working the heel in the real world and with dogs that have behavioral issues. This is a real lack. (Read my article on heeling)
Often, you’ll see trainers that start a dog in a room. The dog is on leash, there are no distractions, and the handler is motivating a dog to pay attention to them or performing a trick using food or toys. There are a couple of problems here. First, we don’t live in empty training rooms; we live and walk our dogs in real life. Although there is some value to the idea of reduced distractions for certain scenarios, it’s been carried to an extreme. Second, there isn’t enough clarity to the dog; often, you’ll see them sort of milling around, waiting to be told what to do.
Movement is vital. Training can be stressful for a dog, especially in the beginning—and it doesn’t matter how “motivational’ the approach. Movement allows them to discharge that stress. When they can discharge the stress, they can concentrate on the handler more. It’s a cycle that builds on itself. Dogs WANT to please their people. Anyone who tells you otherwise, who tells you that praise and love and affection is not enough does not truly understand canine behavior or how to work with a dog’s natural inclinations and motivation..
Movement also builds self-control in the dog, particularly when it comes in the form of the heel. It gives them the right kind of confidence. Why? Because they know what they are being asked to do. And it fosters real engagement because it requires sustained attention to the handler. When you walk, the dog heels. When you stop, the dog sits. And when you have this level of attention to the handler, then anything is possible. Dogs can be trained to ignore external environments when necessary. Dogs can be snapped out of drive and back into a calm state.
What do I mean by that? Remember, dogs think by association. The leash means WALK, the bowl means FOOD. When you train with food, sit means CHEESE. But when you use obedience, heel means INTERACT WITH ME. We can interrupt problem behaviors by asking for an obedience command. And when you think about it, it’s really quite simple: Where the body goes, the mind follows.
Obedience is the language of engagement
Essentially what we’re talking about is engagement on command. It’s a level of control, of communication that a lot of people do not understand. It’s also a level of BOND that most people can only dream of—because dogs want to please us, and we can please them too, by giving them love and affection. If you want to put it simply, think of it this way: Obedience is the language of engagement. And when you are fluent with that language, you can work through most behavioral problems.
A “loose leash walk” can never accomplish the same thing as the heel in obedience that is trained without food and toys. When people teach this instead of a heel, they’re forced to look to outside solutions to get engagement, relieve anxiety, resolve aggression because they simply do not have the same level of engagement. This is one of the reasons that there are so many protocols for counter conditioning, which usually involve some form of standing in front of a trigger and feeding the dog treats. (No movement.)
To give you an idea of the level of engagement that is possible through obedience, take a look at this video. Greg is one of my apprentices; he’s been working with me for about two months. With the dog’s owner, he’s doing what I call the Push-Pull exercise. Notice how engaged the dog is. Notice how the commands are crystal clear and the dog knows exactly what he is expected to do. Notice the continuous movement and the side heel.
Now consider: This is the dog’s first lesson.
Dogs are fully capable of making decisions for themselves. The role of obedience training is to teach them to make the right choices. But more than that, good obedience training makes them WANT to make those choices. Engagement is a huge part of this, but how you train that engagement through obedience also plays a role.
Let me explain. Many trainers use negative reinforcement in the form of sustained leash pressure, “low-level” e-collar stim, or spatial pressure as a go-to. Practically speaking, what this means is that they apply pressure and then release it when the dog does what they want him to. The dog is then motivated to perform the behavior because of the release of pressure.
I don’t do a lot of this. It can be intimidating, a form of coercion that can be counterproductive for the average dog who just needs some training. It can be downright dangerous when you’re dealing with aggression cases because it often builds frustration.
When I talk about a correction, I mean a quick prong collar correction that mainly functions as an attention-getter. I’m not going to lie—sometimes there are some real Come to Jesus moments. But mostly, corrections are very gentle and can barely even be seen. Over the years, I’ve developed a leashwork system that is designed to use very small light corrections. I use a prong collar, fitted mid-neck and not too tight—because I don’t want the dog to feel the prong unless I want him to.
The result is that the dog doesn’t just make the right decisions, but is taking an active role in making them. I can’t stress what a huge distinction this is. And again, this works toward better engagement and a better relationship.
Putting it all together
I don’t want to give you the idea that solving problem behavior dogs is a walk in the park and teaching the dog to heel will solve all woes. It won’t. It takes time, and energy, and work. It takes learning to pay attention to your dog, the same way that he is paying attention to you. But when all put together properly, obedience remains the single best way to resolve behavioral issues.
One of the biggest advantages is that it’s consistent. A down is a down (and we teach a relaxed down— that is hip over—because again, where the body goes, the mind follows). A sit is a sit. A heel is a heel. When you do things over and over the same way everywhere you are, in every situation, they become ingrained. They function as anchors for the dog, something they understand. You can counter condition any number of behaviors in this way.
Consistency is also the opposite of a lot of the current disconnected systems I see. For instance, walking nicely on a leash is considered one behavior, but dog reactivity is counter conditioned in a completely different way. No, you teach the heel and change the underlying emotion by redirecting focus back onto you. You don’t correct for reacting to the dog; you correct for not maintaining a heel. This approach is far faster, far clearer, and far more effective.
So if someone is telling you that obedience won’t solve your dog’s reactivity or aggression, steer clear. There is a huge push towards sending clients with anxious or aggressive dogs to veterinary behaviorists, many of whom could not train a dog to perform the simplest behaviors reliably. On the flip side, also stay away from people who are extremely heavy-handed; this can cause its own set of problems, and is not fair to the dog. But there are many of us trainers out here who do behavioral modification—and often extreme cases—using obedience training as a foundation. We do it day in and day out, and we do it successfully.