What is an Obedience-First Approach?

Odin the Presa Canario holds a down stay in the pet store

An obedience-first approach is something that me and many professional trainers use. I’m not certain if I coined the phrase, but I Know trainers as far back as William Koehler employed this back when he penned the Koehler Method of Dog Training. There are many trainers in the world who will employ obedience before attempting to address problem behaviour and I can’t speak for all of them, but I can speak for myself. So here are my big reasons why I employ an obedience-first approach:

It Lowers Stress

Many things that trigger common problem behaviours have more stress surrounding it than just the presence of the trigger. Things like leash aggression, poor manners with guests, stealing food and hyperactive behaviour all have one thing in common: the ‘bad behaviour’ that the dog is exhibiting is not the only problem. Obedience normally reduces many of these layers of stress by giving the dog something to focus on, establishing clean and easily understood communication between the dog and the human and lowering overall stress by getting the dog to switch from an instinctual mindset to a more cognitive one. What many of my clients have witnessed with leash aggression in the way I deal with it is the trigger (dog, human or thing with wheels) never really has to be addressed. Once your dog’s overall stress level comes down, one single stressor isn’t enough to send him over the edge!

It Builds Your Relationship

What’s the difference between a stranger and your best friend? Time and experiences. See, time and experiences create connection. Over time you build mutual trust and respect as well as open lines of communication and a sense of cooperation between you. It’s us against the world! What many folks have with their dogs is a relationship that is fine when things are calm, but when pressure or stress is up things start to fall apart. A large part of my training with clients is teaching how to handle distractions which is essentially teaching your dog to still be mindful of his responsibilities even when the stakes are higher. It might be the first time you’ve ever insisted on your dog doing something in the presence of a distraction and that itself can be strange to your dog. The point is this: your relationship is not built on moments of calm, it’s defined by how well you both handle moments of stress.

It Teaches Alternatives

There are many alternative behaviours within the obedience training spectrum. A dog who comes when he’s called doesn’t chase squirrels or run after people and dogs, a dog who can walk at heel around distractions doesn’t react at other dogs, a dog who can hold a stay isn’t harassing your guests and so on. There’s tons of inherent “alternatives” that we can use to give our dogs very useful information on what we like and don’t like about their behaviour. It also teaches very useful skillsets like impulse control and slowly picks away at a dog who has an overinflated sense of “self”. These dogs do as they please with no regard for the social group which can be dangerous in the wild let alone a world they aren’t familiar with. A dog with obedience training understands putting the needs of the group before the needs of the individual.

It Builds a Strong Frame That Can Handle Some Pressure

One of the biggest things in my system is I try as hard as I can to avoid intense pressures, but this isn’t a controlled environment. The real world has it’s share of surprises and realities that can’t be avoided and punishment (much to the dismay of some people out there) can be essential to some dog’s success. Many of my clients believe if they use heavy pressure on their dog that they might stop loving them or that it’s damaging to the relationship, so let’s frame it a touch differently. What would it take for you to punch your best friend in the nose? Or for him or her to do that to you? Would you jump right to it, or try and talk it out? Perhaps you and your friend run your own personal fight club and this example is lost on you, but I know for my best friend to punch me in the face it’s going to take a lot. After we’ve build a solid relationship with our dogs, when we’ve done the ground work to teach alternatives, when we’ve lowered stress and when we’ve provided the dog with alternatives if they are still acting like assholes then a more intense consequence will not destroy your relationship. In every example I’ve ever witnessed after doing all of what I have mentioned above and then giving a dog a good correction, the dog has always sucked up to the person who delivered the punishment after the fact (this goes against what behaviour science and many vets will tell you… but trust me, me and my colleagues have boots on the ground in this area). If you are patient and trustworthy and respectful of your dog and you still have to punish him or her for bad behaviour, your dog will likely suddenly realise the gravity of the situation for the first time. This can be a little stressful for the dog, but it’s an important learning experience that in most cases doesn’t needed to be repeated more than twice if you do your practice. More often than not, after one instance of more intense pressure I rarely have to use it again.

“Obedience is like insurance. It must be acquired before the moment of need” –William Koehler, The Koehler Method of Dog Training

There’s a ton of dogs out there who don’t require an obedience-first approach, who you can toss on a leash and give them a pop and they’ll straighten right out. Dogs out there who the first time you tell them “no” in a way they understand they stop because they’ve never understood before this point. That’s simply not the way I do things. It’s not because I can’t. I can apply pressure on a dog to make him stop any behaviour in seconds, but cooperative obedience is also super important to me and I see far too many dog owners out there struggling to communicate what they want from their dog because not enough work has been done before the distractions have been turned up. They’ve done nothing to earn the cooperation or respect they want but instead attempt to demand it or buy it. Make no mistake, this isn’t easy work in some cases. Their will be times of frustration and times of miraculous success but the one thing almost every dog owner wants is simply for their dog to listen to them, but in order to be heard you must first be WORTHY of being heard. You must sell your dog on the value he’ll gain from listening.


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  1. extremely broad for me specifically with regard to sports physiotherapy. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang


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