Do obedient dogs actually exist?

Updated: Jul 19

A short story from 2007

It was November. The festivities of Diwali were just over and the family was getting back to the usual routine. It was raining that evening, which was quite odd since monsoons were long gong. Perhaps these were early signs of the impact of climate change. The rain got heavier and the skies got darker. We could hear a whimpering sound coming from outside our home. My brother and I stepped out to see a tiny black puppy curled up, trying to make himself smaller in size. He was drenched, shivering and looked in terrible condition.

From the time he showed up, Caesar completely changed my life around

My mother’s maternal home had a dog at that time. Amir was an Indie hound who looked like he could terrorise the entire neighbourhood. I used to spend time with Amir whenever I got the chance. But most of the time he was busy wandering the lanes connecting FC road, Apte road and JM road. I had very little time interacting with a dog, let along knowing how to handle one. So I was quite out of wits on what to do with the puppy outside home.

Seeing his condition, we rushed him to the vet so he could get medical treatment. To our surprise, the vet told us that he would only treat the pup if we were going to keep him (this is a story for another day). We left and went to another vet who saw him and immediately put him on saline as he was severely dehydrated. He had plenty of ticks and fleas on his body too. The doctor wasn’t certain of his survival and asked us to keep him safe while the treatment is ongoing.

We took this tiny puppy back home and kept him warm with blankets placed around him. To convince our family, my brother and I listed all the possible reasons to keep the pup as our pet. The security angle was sufficient for all of us to welcome Caesar into our homes.

Tried to comfort Caesar by showing the cone isn't that bad. I don't think it made him feel better.

Caesar lived with us for 11 and a half years until cancer got the better of his ageing body. He didn’t like strangers and we had to be super careful when random people showed up at home. He wasn’t too fond of dogs either, except a select few who were accepted as friends. The concept of a dog trainer wasn’t common knowledge at the time and nobody bothered. If we faced an issue with our dog we just figured out a way to go about it.

Once you go full crazy dog person, you can never go back

As time went by, we had more dogs at home. First came Cleopatra who was found under a car when she was just a month young. Then came Jazz, who was rescued from an illegal breeder’s house. Then came Kaiser, who joined the family shortly after Caesar passed away. During lockdown about 200 puppies lived home (not at the same time).

One of the pups who stayed home - Niko

They were all rescued in horrible condition, some from construction sites, while some after being abandoned by bad people. Thankfully all of them found loving homes. A part of the process was to guide families in understand their new pup, being patient and being empathetic to what the pup is going through. At many times I felt like the family’s therapist and most of the job was just reassuring them that it is all going to be okay.

Enter the world of dog training

During this period I was getting a great amount of practical knowledge by simply observing these pups. The way they interacted with my home dogs, the way the went about their life in a home was quite fascinating. All this while I was quite confident that dogs do not require “training”. I just need to figure out how to raise them well. After having conversations with a couple of friends, I signed up for ‘basic obedience course’ for dogs. To be honest, I quite enjoyed it. It was quite amazing to see dogs respond to my commands. I felt powerful. The ego went through the roof when I would go train basic obedience to client’s dogs and see them struggle with their dog when the dog would listen to me effortlessly. I could sense the client’s emotions and I got a high after training sessions after teaching the client on how to make their dog listen to them.

At that moment I did not question why I am asking a dog to sit, stay and wait for a treat.

However, very soon the whole process felt repetitive. Go to client’s house, teach the dog certain things and then leave. So I asked myself, what am I doing? Why am I teaching a dog to shake hand? Is any of my training really helping the family?

I had no answers for these questions at the time. So I went looking. I stumbled upon an institute in Bangalore which did an introductory course to dog communication. I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into but dog communication sounded interesting. Signing up for that course has changed my life.

Exiting the world of dog training

After completing the short course, I realised there is so much more to our dogs than teaching them to be obedient. Curious for more knowledge I did further courses from institutes in Norway and the US. None of the courses talked about disciplining dogs. I remembered my younger self living with Caesar and just managing the problems together. These courses taught quite a few valuable strategies in solving problems together.

Is dog training badly designed?

Dog training still remains a very new concept. I recently asked families if the issues their dog trainer “fixed” reappeared and 36% said they did. I am inclined to believe that dog training is flawed in design. Perhaps the biggest issue is feedback. Communication between humans and dogs exists but it is not as effective as human-human communication.

For example, we now know that dogs show visual signs when they feel stressed. But it is still quite easy to miss or misinterpret them. Another person would just say this is stressful and we would understand faster.

The lack of communication between dogs and humans is also the reason why veterinary care is a concern. Since dogs cannot communicate the problems, we tend to treat the symptoms until we can find the reasons. Thankfully, science has developed several tests to help us understand the reasons without the dog telling us.

But science hasn’t developed that fast when it comes to a dog’s behaviour. If a dog gets excited to see people, trainers will teach the family to make the dog sit when guests come home. If the dog still jumps then the the dog is brandished and disobedient and the family feels incompetent. Same thing when dogs go on a walk and react to certain people, cars or other animals and a trainer tells the family to heel and walk by your leg. When the dog doesn’t walk in this manner, well, you know how that goes.

The reason why I believe dog training is badly designed is because it isn’t created from a dog’s point of view. Basic obedience tells people that an obedient dog is supposed to behave in a certain way and anything outside that is absolutely terrible. Sadly, this way of thinking is not only unrealistic but also extremely dangerous. When dogs behave outside these parameters, we quickly label them as disobedient or naughty and sadly at times aggressive. This makes the family feel that they have failed as dog parents and blame themselves.

How to fix dog training?

Living with another species is a complex topic. In theory the answer is quite easy - meet the dog’s needs, have the dog in ideal environment and your relationship with your dog will be wonderful. But meeting the dog’s needs is a complex process, especially considering today’s urban development.

While studying the Family Dog Metiaton course by Kim Brophey, she aptly pointed out that we need to consider four LEGS of a dog and how they work in tandem. LEGS stand for:

  1. Learning

  2. Environment

  3. Genetics

  4. Self

As humans, we have these LEGS as well. Our behaviour is affected by so many aspects that we have gone through. The same is the case with our dogs. Every day they are learning, perceiving and figuring out different ways to feel safe and comfortable.

All of this goes beyond dog training and basic obedience. Having a dog at home is more about how you can build a relationship that based on mutual respect, trust, and communication. When I first started dating, I would try and observe the little things which my girlfriend liked. So when she was having a rough day, I knew making her coffee the way she likes it would make it slightly better. And it is the same with our dogs. All our dogs are unique in their own ways. They have a personality. They go through different moods. They have good days and bad days. It is absolutely ridiculous to take such a complex species and demand them to behave in a system which humans have called as obedience.

More parenting, less training

A good relationship is built on respect, trust and communication.

As family members, we know our dog the best. The dog trainer doesn’t. As parents we just don’t know why certain behaviours are happening. And that is absolutely fine.

What really matters is our intent. If we intend to keep our dog happy and healthy, we will work work towards meeting our dog’s needs. You don’t need to send your dog to doggy school or a board and train programme or have someone come over to teach your dog how to sit and go down. You need to put your parenting shoes on and do things in the best interest of your child.

I did so many things incorrectly with Caesar. I walked him on a choke collar almost all his life. But now we have access to reliable information backed by research. Let our dogs be dogs. Let’s work towards becoming better guardians and not think of dogs as our property. We aren’t dog owners. We might buy them things or feed them their meals but that doesn’t give us the right to own them. We are their guardians.

Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Phyla-Vell, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, and Adam Warlock don’t own the galaxy even though they are its guardians.

About me:

I'm Kapil, a certified Family Dog Mediator. Honestly, I am trying to live a boring, calm and uneventful life. A life which our dogs would be happy to live.

If you need help with your dog, you can book a session as well.

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