Anyone going to dog training classes over ten years ago will be familiar with this instruction.
I’m getting a real bee in my bonnet about the word ‘command’.
Isn’t it the word used by drill sergeants?
I find that people who have difficulty in motivating their dogs usually use this word ‘command’ a lot.
In fact, I meet few new clients, even those with no intentions of ruling their dog, who don’t talk in terms of teaching their dogs ‘commands’.
The word has sub-texts. The user is an authority figure, simply by virtue of being human. The ‘commanded’, by definititon, is an inferior. One who should rightfully obey due to being subordinate.
If the dog doesn’t obey the mighty human, what then? The implication is that the human mustn’t back down or he/she will lose status.
The command word may then be repeated many times in an ever-louder and threatening tone of voice in an often fruitless effort to enforce obedience.
(The word ‘obedience’ in training is another – I won’t get started on that!).
People get a dog and the first thing they do (believing it’s basic to responsible dog ownership), whether it’s a tiny puppy or a rescue dog….is to start teaching it commands.
I go to an eight week old puppy they have had for two days and they proudly say ‘Watch, I’ve taught her the Sit command already’.
(And why ‘The‘ Sit, ‘The‘ Down, ‘The‘ Stay? I won’t go on about that now either).
A problem of commands is that when they are not obeyed the person has failed.
I suspect this is part of many of the relationship problems between dogs and their humans. This whole command thing can set the most conscientious owner to fail and feel inadequate, and their dog bewildered.
Many dogs’ lives are peppered with commands to do this or to do that and for no good reason.
It can be such a relief for clients to find they can still be good dog owners without issuing ‘commands’. (Gentle ‘cues’ and ‘requests’ with rewards are another thing).
Yesterday’s dog brought this home to me. The excitable adolescent Jack Russell mix – the most delightful friendly dog imaginable – had learned to switch off. The girl used a harsh voice and bombarded the little dog with loud commands.
The dog took absolutely no notice at all.
They called me because the dog wouldn’t come when called.
I wouldn’t come either if someone commanded ‘COME HERE’ in that tone of voice.
I sat and fielded the little dog’s jumping at the table and other misdemeanors in near silence. Actions can speak a lot louder than words anyway. Each time he did what I wanted I rewarded him with what he wanted.
Walking around the room with food, a gentle ‘request’ to come had the dog following me everywhere. We called the dog between us with ‘Come’, rehearsing a bright and enthusiastic voice.
The little dog earned food when he came. He was very soon ‘coming when called’.
If there is one magic bullet in many cases of unruly dogs who simply won’t listen – it’s to drop out the notion of ‘commands’ altogether.
Think ‘request’. Think ‘thank you’ afterwards. Ask, is this particular request necessary? If requested, then follow-through is necessary to make the cue meaningful. Is it sufficiently important? Would something else better show the dog what works and what doesn’t?
Fortunately, modern positive dog training is really all about cues and rewards although the word ‘command’ is still everywhere. Training tricks are fun. Positive doesn’t mean permissive.
If we use the word ‘command’ in any other context than armed services or police – and dogs – it sounds ridiculous: ‘I commanded my child to go to bed’. ‘I commanded my teenager to put his plate away’. ‘I commanded my partner put the rubbish out’.
‘I commanded my cat to come in’!
Here is the story of a dog I went to recently who had been confused and frustrated by too many commands.