Don’t train your dog. (Yet)

Via Neil Sattin
on Jul 13, 2010
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Dog Jumping in Midair

I don’t believe in training dogs.

Oh sure, I believe that it’s important to have a dog who knows how to behave when they’re with you in public, or when left alone to their own devices at home. But if you’re focused on getting your dog to act the way you want them to act, then you’re really missing the point.

And you’re also missing an enormous opportunity.

What’s important about the dynamic taking place between you and your dog is the relationship, the trust that exists between the two of you.  When that relationship is strong, when your dog understands that you can be trusted no matter what is going on in their world, then you will get the behavior you want, almost automatically.

That’s because most of the time, your dog is simply trying to answer one question: 

What do I do with my energy?

If you answer that question for your dog, then your dog’s behavior will orient around you.  No matter how emotionally charged the environment is.  If you focus on the behavior, then you increase the likelihood that all your training will fall apart when it matters most.  Because in those moments your dog isn’t “thinking” about what to do—they’re just doing what feels right.  If you are focusing on answering your dog’s primary question (what do I do with my energy?)—then you are working with your dog on the level of feeling.  And a feeling always comes before an action.

Let me ask you a question.

What if someone gave you a little robot dog that could sit, speak, come, heel, and maybe even “act spontaneously” on demand.  Would that satisfy what you’re looking for, the reasons why you have a dog?

Could someone create the perfect robo-spouse for you?  The perfect robo-child?

Even though they’re behaving correctly, my guess is that these robo-companions might satisfy you for a little while, but that there’d be something important missing.  And that something important is probably something like a real, true, emotional connection, coming from another being—a being who otherwise thinks for themselves.  A being who makes a choice to give you their love and trust.  And you’re both better for it.

So why start with the behavior, since what you really want is the relationship?

Some people train dogs through intimidation, convinced that you have to be the “alpha” dog in the pack to get your dog to listen to you.  Others train dogs by using rewards to reinforce the behaviors they want, and punishment to discourage unwanted behaviors.  Both of these approaches focus on the symptom – getting the “right” behavior – rather than the cause – which is the relationship between you and your dog that underlies all that transpires in your dog’s actions around you (or in your absence).

However, you can have the kind of relationship that you want with your dog if you simply pay attention to your dog’s emotional needs.  If you consistently show your dog what to do with their energy, if you give your dog outlets for their stored stress (and avoid creating more stress), then the force of emotional attraction between you and your dog will increase.  That’s how you teach your dog to trust you.

And once your dog trusts you, then sit/stay/come/heel/down all flow effortlessly.  At that point there’s nothing to “teach” your dog.  You just have to get out of the way of their doing what comes naturally.


About Neil Sattin

Neil Sattin is a father, husband, educator, dog trainer, coach, musician, friend and physical comedian. Neil is also one of the nation's leading experts in Natural Dog Training, a method that utilizes a dog's emotional awareness of the world to resolve problem behaviors and elicit obedience. He is the author and creator of the Natural Dog Blog. In 2009 he released a 2 DVD set, Natural Dog Training: The Fundmentals. Neil also recently published the online course "How to Speak So Your Dog Will Listen" in partnership with DailyOM. A member of the founding coaching certification class of the Robbins-Madanes Center for Strategic Intervention, he also coaches and writes about relationships and personal development at his eponymous site.


9 Responses to “Don’t train your dog. (Yet)”

  1. Vanessa says:

    Wow, this is great! I've been struggling with "training" my dog but feeling bad every time I have to yell a command at him. I'm so happy to see that there are other ways!

  2. Cheryl says:

    My dog and I went to dog training. We flunked.

    Well, not really flunked, but left after 2 sessions. I remember the dog trainer saying 'this can take five weeks or five months." She was advocating the 5-week approach.

    I didn't really care how long it took because I knew I was cultivating a relationship. I never thought of her as an animal – she was a being of another species that I was getting to know. I would say it probably closer to 5 years before we really knew each other so well that we had established an unconditional trust. I would also say she was a happy and energetic dog right up until the end. I still miss her. She was my first and only dog. She was the best dog ever (of course). I'm going to stop writing now because I feel emotion lurking.

    How nice to know about there is something "official" called 'Natural Dog Training".

  3. Great post. A dog is a companion. You are there for the dog as much as the dog is there for you. If you cultivate this sharing relationship the dog will naturally want to listen to your requests, knowing that you are a continual source of helpful advice based is based on long-term trust. You also must listen closely to your dog's requests. Since you do not have direct language communication, understanding what the dog needs based on behavior is crucial. If you force their behavior you will never truly know or understand the dog, and it may as well be the robo-dog described in this article.

  4. Cheryl says:

    Dear David – yeah about what you wrote. Thanks.

  5. Hi Vanessa,

    Yes, most definitely other ways. In fact, you can teach your dog how to do just about any behavior without using your voice at all. I add it "after the fact" – when the behavior is already occurring predictably, and you can elicit it with body language alone.

    I look forward to hearing about your shift.

  6. Cheryl –

    Thanks for telling us about the relationship you shared with your dog. That emotion you're feeling – it's a good thing, of course. 🙂


  7. David,


    I'll be talking a bit more about my perspective on what a dog "needs" in future articles. Focusing on listening, and on what you can contribute to the relationship, is most definitely the way to go.

    Works for humans too.

  8. Jenny says:

    Yes. 🙂 Our Ellie would agree.

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