A good amount of my clients’ dogs know some commands before even meeting me. The dog may know sit, down, or come… That is, until something exciting happens or they choose not to. The doorbell rings, they see a dog on a walk, they are at a new place – whatever it is, the dog is too excited to listen to the command anymore, or may not have any incentive to do so. So what typically happens is the owner starts to repeat the command – “Sit, sit, siiitttt” – almost as if their dog didn’t hear it the first couple times. Then the louder “Sit! SIT!” comes – as if their dog is hard of hearing.
The truth is, even if their dog cared about what they were saying, they were too excited to process it. However, a calm state of mind won’t make poor, impulsive decisions. A calm state of mind doesn’t need to be told to sit. A calm state of mind is able to focus on their owner for guidance.
When clients come to me seeking help with their dog, a lot of the time they tell me they want to teach some “basic commands,” or at least solidify them – that’s because that’s what training generally is thought as. As humans, we hold a lot of value in words because they’re our primary way of communicating, but when you think about how often dogs vocalize, it’s pretty minimal compared to us and they are generally in a heightened state of arousal (alerting, fearful, begging, aggression). Dogs are always communicating with dogs and people, just silently. That’s why we like to tap into the primal way a dog communicates to get on their level to convey our rules and boundaries.
The more a command is said without it being reinforced, the more that command is devalued. Can you get a sit without saying the command or touching your dog? Once that has been achieved, that’s when you can think about labeling that action “sit” – otherwise, “sit” can mean “sit after I’ve said ‘sit’ 4 times,” “sit sometimes, when you feel like it,” or “sit for a second and then pop up immediately.” You don’t label the ingredients that go into a cake a “cake,” you only call the finished product out of the oven a “cake.” Once you’ve figured out how to effectively communicate to your dog to sit without saying a word, that’s when you can think about labeling it a command. By then, you probably won’t even care about saying a command at all. This all comes about by teaching a dog how to be calm in situations and to look to you for guidance, as their benevolent leader. A calm dog won’t need to be told to sit when encountering another dog on a walk; a calm dog will stay by your side and often sit if you stop walking. Whereas, I’ve been walking with dogs towards another owner and their dog and the person pulls off to the side and tells their dog to lay down, which the dog does. The entire time as I’m approaching, I can tell whether the dog is going to hold the position or lunge at me and my dogs once I’m close enough. Usually lunge. That’s because the physical position was being obeyed (temporarily), but the dog wasn’t in the right state of mind. The state of mind is more valuable than the physical position a dog is in.
“Teach a command and you have a temporary solution. Teach a state of mind and you won’t need the command.” -Marc Goldberg, Chicago Dog Trainer