Traditionally, we’ve talked about wanting dogs to be obedient. There are obedience classes for dogs and puppies, and any number of people have asked the question (sometimes in frustration), “How do I get my dog to obey me?” But what if that’s the wrong question? What if the most important questions are, “Is my dog happy?” and “How can I make them happier?”
These days we increasingly think of dogs as family members. We spend a lot of time with them, we like to cuddle on the couch, and we let them sleep on our bed (or at least in our bedroom). And while talk of obedience might fit with old-fashioned wolf pack metaphors for dogs, it doesn’t fit with thinking of dogs as family members. And it also doesn’t fit with models of animal welfare which focus on our duty to provide dogs with what they need. Dogs are living creatures with needs and wishes of their own – and positive emotions are now seen as an important part of good animal welfare.
Part of this change is a shift in how we think about training. A focus on obedience neglects things dogs need (like chew toys) and it turns the dog walk into a heeling exercise in which dogs don’t get the chance to sniff, when we know smell is so important to dogs. We know that the use of aversive methods such as shock collars, leash jerks, and prong collars has risks, including the risks of fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression, plus a potentially worse relationship with the owner. Reward-based methods work without those risks. They can make training a fun, enriching activity for the dog. And if we focus on teaching dogs the skills they need to live in our society – like how to be handled at the vet and how to cope with fireworks noise – it can help them be happier throughout their lives.
Some behaviour issues stem directly from a failure to meet dogs’ needs. If we think about these issues in terms of obedience, we’re missing the point. When dogs don’t get enough exercise and enrichment, they are going to find other ways to burn off some energy. When dogs don’t have chew toys, they are going to chew on some of our stuff because chewing is a natural behaviour for dogs. When dogs are fearful, they need us to help them find ways to cope, to remove the thing they’re afraid of if possible, or to gradually teach them that it’s not scary after all using desensitization and counter-conditioning. In a busy household with lots going on, they may need a safe space where they can go to relax if they’re finding it a bit much. And when there’s a medical cause, such as pain or a urinary tract infection, a trip to the vet is needed.
Of course it’s true that some things that make dogs happy are just not ever going to be acceptable to us: Taking chicken breasts that were left to cool on the kitchen counter, for example, or eating bear poop, or rolling gleefully on a rotting salmon carcass. Dogs may like these things, but we do not. It’s up to us to use management and training to prevent them from happening: Keep the chicken out of reach or the dog out of the room, for example; or deal with the consequences with dewormer and a bath.
The good news is that “Are you happy?” is the number 1 question people would ask their dog, if only they could talk, followed by “How could I make your life happier?” If you want your dog to be (even) happier, there are lots of things you can do. The checklist for a happy dog at the end of my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, is a start. You can also pick things you know your dog loves, and do more of them: walks, sniffing, play, training for treats, and so on. If there are behaviour issues, seek help. Make sure any trainer you hire will only use reward-based training methods. And of course, find ways to deal with things that make your dog fearful, anxious, or stressed.
In general terms, when we provide dogs with what they need, it means they have good welfare and they are happy. When dogs have what they need, they are less likely to have behaviour issues, and they are more likely to have a good relationship with us. So instead of thinking about obedience, we should think about happiness. Everyone loves their dog. And I think everyone wants their dog to be happy too.
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Todd, Z. (2020) Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Foreword by Dr. Marty Becker. Greystone Books.
Ziv, G. (2017) The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs – a review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 19:50-60.