Listen to Your Dog, Don't Cue Your Dog
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
The goal of dog training might seem obvious. Teach the dog to sit, lie down, not jump on people, walk nicely on a leash, etc. You would be correct in that these things can be necessary to learn and helpful to know from day to day, however are we putting too much emphasis on teaching cues (we like to use the word "cue", not "command") and behaviors and not enough on teaching coping skills and confidence building? The true goal of dog training is to create a two way path of communication where you both understand each other, and not you simply telling your dog what to do.
Over the past year-and-half working with mostly aggression and anxiety cases, I have noticed that I rarely and almost never teach walking nicely on a leash, sit, down, stay, etc. to these students or their dogs. Back when I first started out as a trainer, I would teach sit, down, stay, and more to all clients no matter their overall goals. At the time, I felt that the dog would be set up for success if they knew these cues and they would help with the main goals the client had. Now I focus more on teaching my student to listen more to their dog, and the dog to feel more confident and comfortable in various situations.
I began to truly notice this change in my teaching style when I realized it had been a while since I taught obedience to any of my students, and their dogs were still seeing improvement. Each lesson with my student and their dog the focus would be less on teaching a cue and instead focused on building the understanding of the behaviors currently being exhibited and how we can modify them and see the best results. I recently watched a video of Victoria Stilwell's on her Facebook page discussing this very same realization and it inspired me to write this blog.
I learned early on that cueing "leave it" to your dog when they bark or pull towards a stimulus they don't like, only increases the overall frustration/anxiety/fear and does nothing to actually help the dog cope with their triggers. Sure your dog can learn to "leave it" and look away but if you have to give the cue each time they see the trigger because they tense up are they really better than before learning leave it? The answer is no.
By focusing more on the emotions of your dog and teaching them to accept their triggers at various thresholds, increasing these thresholds over time, we are actually helping them to overcome their fears or anxieties. Doesn't this sound more like the type of help you'd like to have for yourself or a loved one if you or they had trouble coping with something scary? Instead of asking for a sit, down, or leave it, let's simply look for what your dog would like to do to feel more comfortable. It might be standing, it might be walking away, it might be a number of other behaviors that are not what you would have expected or cued your dog to do.
Even for dogs who aren't struggling with fear/frustration/anxiety, the same mindset can still be true. Why teach your dog or puppy to sit for scratches when instead you can simply teach them to be calm for scratches? Maybe your dog would prefer to be in a standing position when greeting people. If you take the time to listen to your dog, and listening with your eyes to observe their behaviors and body language is the best way to do this, you'll learn what they would rather do.
There is so much more that can be said about this topic, but for now I leave you with this: The idea is that we should allow our dogs to have more choice in their life and guide them in the right direction when they do something we like or that makes them comfortable. I'm not saying obedience training isn't important either. Sit, down, stay, leash manners and more all have their benefits and can be useful in certain situations. What I hope this conversation does is spark some ideas of how you could listen to your dog more and cue them less. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish by doing this.