Who Cares About Obedience? All I Want is a Well-behaved Dog!

Happy and obedient dog | Vanillapup

Is there a difference between an obedient dog and a well-behaved dog? What do dog owners really want and are we achieving it with professional trainers?

Not a Well-behaved Dog | Vanillapup

“Bonnie is getting us to point where we aren’t sure whether we can live with her anymore. It is hard to believe that only 18 months ago we adopted this little bundle of joy with a vision of a long life together – full of love and fun. Now, we find ourselves considering that life without her would be easier.

It isn’t that we haven’t taken time and effort to train her. We knew we had to put in a lot of time early on to train a dog to be a great family pet. We attended the puppy class the vet had recommended. After which, we joined the local obedience club. To be frank, the problem is not her obedience. She would generally follow our instructions and do things we ask her. We are surprised, in fact, by how many cues she knows. During the classes, we taught her tricks we never even thought of.

So, why are we finding it so hard to live with her? It’s the things that she does when we aren’t interacting with her. To put it simply, she is not well-behaved. Let me give you some examples: every time someone moves in the room she gets unsettled and comes to be in the middle of the action. She steals things from counters and tables when we are not watching. She barks if she hears things at night and barks to get attention from us. We know that we shouldn’t react so that we don’t mistakenly reinforce, but how can we ignore her bad behaviour? We already had a neighbour complain.

The other issue is that she absolutely loses it when we don’t allow something she wants. Due to the counter surfing, we tried to place her in her crate or tether her to prevent behaviours we don’t like when we are not watching. Well, our dog, who usually enjoys wandering into the crate and resting there when free, would howl and bark as if she was being tortured.

If she sees another dog while on a lead, we will, if we were lucky to notice the dog before she does, be able to ask her to heel and reinforce with high-value treats. But, if we get too close without spotting the dog before she does, she barks and lunges. She looks so aggressive, even though all she wants to really do is play. No treat is good enough to get her to put her focus back on us.

Oh, and lately, she has started to not come back at the end of our off lead walks. We call her while we are at the park and we give her a reward and play with her when she does – like what we were told in puppy class. However, she knows when we are heading back to the car, and as if someone has flicked a switch, she will not come and play chase with us. We now have to trick her and ask other people to fetch her, otherwise we will never get home.

The problem really is the way she deals with life and makes her own decisions. It is a personality problem!”

An obedient dog may not be a well-behaved dog

Happy and obedient dog | Vanillapup

As I was listening to my client’s tales about Bonnie, I couldn’t help but remember so many other calls like this one. Well-meaning people who went the extra mile to train and look after their pet ended up with a nightmare instead.

Over the 12 years I spent helping family dog owners, the debate about a well-behaved dog versus an obedient dog has grown in intensity.

What dog owners want

By asking clients what they really want to achieve from dog training, I discovered that the average pet owner believes that the following characteristics make a REALLY good pet dog. Going forward in this article, a well-behaved dog refers to a dog that meets these three characteristics:

  • Doesn’t choose to do unwanted behaviours when not interacted with
  • Doesn’t throw a tantrum the moment she can’t do whatever she wants
  • Comes when we call, even at the end of playtime

And when an average pet owner gets a family dog, they want to achieve the above without:

  • Studying for a Masters in Applied Animal behaviour
  • Getting contradicting advice from different sources
  • Dedicating every minute of the day on training the dog

In short, we can say that most dog owners are looking for a well-behaved dog, and not a genius in following cues or a trick star.

Well-behaved vs. obedient

When I first started noticing this discrepancy with my clients, I looked up the meaning of these two words:

Well-behaved: Behaving in a polite or correct way

Obedient: Willing to do what someone tells you to do or to follow a law, rule, etc., submissive to the restraint or command of authority, willing to obey

Nobody ever confided in me that they were desperate for their dogs to know how to sit or lay down. Let’s face it, if you have a dog who is well-behaved, meaning she makes the right choices in everyday life on her own, obedience really isn’t that important.

Training a well-behaved dog requires a different focus

Puppy friends Picjumbo | Vanillapup

There is a big expectation amongst dog owners that canine obedience training would create a well-behaved dog. Unfortunately, many of these classes only focus on obedience. To nurture a well-behaved dog, the focus of training needs to be on:

  • Developing strong frustration control and tolerance
  • Teaching the dog to be able to disengage and relax
  • Creating strong stimulus control in real world scenarios

There has been lots of talk within the professional world about trainers and behaviourists overshooting clients’ expectations.

The reason is that many trainers believe that teaching obedience is harder than developing a well-behaved dog.

I cringe at this because I know, as an experienced trainer, that improving behaviours and cues, as well as improving my clients’ communication with their dogs is not more complex than building the traits of a well-behaved dog.

Hence, we need to start communicating with our clients and understanding their goals with their dogs, instead of projecting our own goals.

Parenting > training

While researching on “the ultimate well-behaved dog”, I analysed successful case studies of dogs owned by both my peers and clients.

It wasn’t surprising that more of my peers’ dogs had well-behaved dogs compared to my clients. But, I also noticed that some of my “training obsessed” peers did not actually have well-behaved dogs.

Some of these dogs, while extremely successful at being obedient and learning behaviours, still consistently made poor choices when left to their own devices.

I concluded that this has more to do with the education and parenting the dog receives than with the training experience of the owner.

Contributing factors to a well-behaved dog

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No one has a definition of what a well-behaved dog is, and the expectation of how a dream dog should behave varies from family to family.

However, in my experience, some factors have contributed to helping dog owners successfully train dogs who are well-behaved in their eyes:

Genetics and early upbringing

  • Genetics – make an educated choice on which dog to get by consulting an independent behavioural specialist
  • Interaction with mum and sibling puppies, especially with mum enforcing the rules
  • Large litters – the puppy naturally learns to deal with frustration if she doesn’t always eat first or get as much as she wants from day one
  • Natural weaning
  • Living room rearing – the more a puppy spends time within a highly managed family set-up, the calmer and more relaxed she would be

Holistic parenting and training approach

  • Tight consistent rules that are followed from the get-go, including responsible crate training, alone training, Four On The Floor training, and being ignored by humans within reach or view
  • Repetition and positive reinforcement of wanted behaviours, especially when behaviour occurs unprompted
  • Extensive management (leash, tethers, crates, gates, etc.) to prevent the dog from learning unwanted behaviours, while still exposing her to various situations. These “boundaries”, when used responsibly, can improve frustration control
  • Prevent predictable routines and condition disappointment to become a cause for good things
  • Good recall – a strong positive association to returning to owner
  • Teaching a disengagement cue. E.g. “Enough”
  • Dedicated client commitment to follow trainer’s advice

Socialisation and lifestyle

  • Living room living – letting a dog spend a large amount of time around humans, often while being ignored
  • Extensive socialisation – kept calm without letting the dog be the centre of attention
  • Providing a safe, preventative physical setup, including restriction (responsible crate training)
  • Work on extensive stimulus control exercises, applied in as many real world and unpredictable situations as possible

Nurture a well-behaved dog through positive reinforcement training

Unwanted dogs are being euthanised in alarming numbers around the world. It is probably not because they are disobedient but because they are ill-behaved.

Traditional (negative reinforcement, punishment, and dominance focused) trainers often bring forward the argument that positively trained dogs lack the ability to follow rules, deal with boundaries, and behave in a way that is acceptable in most common family homes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s not give them more ammunition. We need to improve communication between dog owners and trainers, draw out proper goals, and prove instead that pain and force-free training does not mean out-of-control or ill-behaved dogs.


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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via / CC BY-ND and ynaka29 via / CC BY-NC-ND

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Barbara Wright
Founder at Positive Puppies
Barbara Wright is the founder of Positive Puppies, Sydney's premier dog training, walking, and boarding company. She is an honours graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers at San Francisco SPCA with Jean Donaldson.

Barbara is a mother of five - two children, a Border Collie called Ace and two free-flying Cockatiels.
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