When most people come to me for training for their dog, they initially ask for obedience training. They are typically looking for their dog to listen better to commands, or for their dog to listen better in certain situations. They might also be looking for their dog to stop doing certain behaviors like jumping, barking, or pulling on leash.
It all makes perfect sense, there are certain things we want our dogs to do, and certain things we don't want them to do. Obedience for most people is defined as telling your dog a behavior to do, and getting your dog to do it no matter the circumstance. It relies on your guidance and input.
However when we only focus on our dog's behavior we miss the whole picture.
It would be like telling a kid at school they can't push other kids without addressing why they feel the need to push the other kids.
If you only focus on changing the behavior itself, the reasoning behind why the behavior happens is still there, and will often leak out in other places. Maybe they name-call now instead of pushing, for example.
A dog who pulls on leash might pull because they are anxious about the environment, confused about how to respond to the pressure on their collar (which is uncomfortable), or not realize they can gain support and guidance from their human if they knew how to ask.
When I start training my first concern is the dog's nervous system.
What is their baseline stress level?
How quickly can they return to their baseline stress level when they become stressed?
Many rescue dogs already have a relatively high baseline stress level without any additional stressors being introduced into their environment. Meaning even when nothing is going on at home they may have a relatively high stress level already and be on the lookout for potential threats, or sudden changes. When additional stressors like a stranger entering the home occur, these dogs can often be pushed over their limit and start to excessively bark, jump, become "fear aggressive" and/or be unable to calm down and relax for a long time, if at all, while the house guest is present.
Once I have helped a dog reduced their baseline stress level through direct training exercises, structure, diet, and exercise we can start to teach the dog how to access calm even when they experience a stressful trigger like the guest entering the home. Since their baseline has gone down, they now have more "bandwidth" available to experience a stressor like a person entering the home and learn what to do with their feelings and their behavior in this situation.
It is so important to remember that learning cannot take place when a dog is overwhelmed or feels unsafe. This is still the case whether it's overwhelming excitement, or overwhelming fear.
Once we have calmed the nervous system, given techniques to deal with heightened emotions (excitement, nervousness, fear, stress), now we can start to focus on behavior.
So the order I typically approach training in goes:
Nervous system < --> Emotions <--> Mind <--> Physical Body
It's not necessarily exactly like this because all of these aspects affect one another. I do have an arrow going back and forth between these aspects for this reason. However, I still find it the most helpful in teaching people and dogs to approach things in this order.
I also find that the body is often too tense/reactive or busy to access in the beginning of training so starting in this way really helps prevent conflict and frustration for all involved- and of course every dog is an individual so that will also impact training choices.
So really obedience is the last thing I often focus on with a dog. If you change the underlying factors causing a "bad" behavior, the "bad" behavior will most likely go away when you change what's causing the behavior. For example, settling the overactive nervous system, or changing the fearful emotional state to an optimistic emotional state, will change a dog's need to charge the door barking when a guest enters the house.
If the "bad" behavior doesn't go away completely, then I will use obedience as extra guidance and management of the dog to steer them in the direction we need them to go. However, my goal is to need management and control as little as possible, especially since most of the training I do is for pet dogs, not competition dogs. Most of the training I am addressing is "lifestyle training" - how you and your dog live together vs nailing a perfect sit at the competition on Sunday. I want dogs to want to choose the behaviors we want them to do, especially around the house, and I don't want to have to "police" them at all times. Which I find a lot of owner also want.
So training your dog really starts by changing their internal state, rewiring them in many ways, and then the outward behavior changes.
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