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secret ingredient in dog training
Get down on the ground with your dog

Have you ever wondered why some dogs just seem to magically be more responsive and engaging with their owners? Do you wonder why all your training seems to go out the window when your dog has other options than paying attention to you? If so, you’re not alone and in this blog post I will attempt to explain why the secret ingredient in dog training is more than obedience.  The secret ingredient might be your relationship.

What do I mean by relationship

Your relationship with your dog is your entire history of not only punishment and reinforcement but also and most importantly the amount of time you spend with them. The amount of time feeding, training, playing, snuggling, walking, and taking for adventures.  It also has plenty to do with how we institute consequences, both good and bad. How predictable our love and affection is as well as our punishments make up a large context for the bond between human and canine.  Your relationship with your dog is demonstrated in large degree by how well we have established ourselves as an opportunity for reinforcement, fun, play, freedom and learning and very importantly, safety.

To Cue or Command?

In dog training these two terms are often interchangeable.  However there is a significant difference with relation to consequences and it can affect your relationship with your dog.  I am often asked when approaching new training clients what commands I teach.  I tell them very matter of factly, I teach cues not commands. Command is a word we all know and it implies a consequence of punishment.  It is authoritative and challenging and removes any options for your dog to disagree with your request. Conversely, if you consider your request to sit, down, stay or come a cue, your thought to correct them may be replaced with thought of why doesn’t my dog want to do this for me right now in this place and time.  With that information we can construct better approaches to asking them to perform next time.  Imagine living with or working for someone who never lets you make your own decisions. In other words imagine having no agency or faculties in your life. That would surely sour any relationship, even if there is love and affection behind it all.

The power of choice

With respect to the cue vs. command scenario mentioned above, what is being offered to your dog and possibly best friend, is the power of choice.  The choice to be safe, the choice to rest, the choice to observe or discover and the choice try again another day.  Choice is control and when humans, dogs or any organism looses control over their lives unwanted behavior patterns will emerge.  Giving dogs a choice is a huge dog training secret and often neglected in traditional dog training. Being able to make more choices of their own lends dogs more confidence and self reliance. Conversely, the more we control our dogs the more they tend to act out and demand or ignore us.  Consequently, the dog becomes more frustrated and even depressed leading to a state of what is called learned helplessness.   Here are two examples of how we don’t offer choice to our dogs.

Not so secret ingredients: Fun, Food, and Play


All dogs come wired to love to eat.  If your dog isn’t particularly interested in eating that is an unnatural condition and you should consider looking into how it got that way.  Consider first that all baby animals start their lives associating their food with their primary care giver or “most important person in their life”.  Food and eating creates positive feeling and associations which are long lasting.  For those dog owners who refuse to use food and treats as motivation or who use them very stingily are doing a disservice to themselves as food used generously in training and reinforcing desired behaviors is likely one of the most powerful tools we have for building strong and long lasting relationships with our pets.

Fun and Play:

What are we all working so hard for anyway? Whether your fun is surfing, visiting new places, or just reading a book, fun is what makes all the rest of your life worthwhile.  Without it we are miserable. Likewise, without enough fun in their lives, our dogs unwanted behaviors will become problematic and seep into our lives, diminishing our relationship. In order to keep our bonds strong we need to incorporate more fun into our dogs lives. This means learning how they like to play and what stimulates them.  For example, I just finished a fantastic seminar on play therapy with Dr. Amy Cook which showed huge success’ in using a modified version of play to help dogs cope with stressful situations.  It turns out specific types of play can rehabilitate the most fearful and reactive behaviors in dogs.  Here are some suggestions on how to engage better with your dogs to promote fun.

No more fears

Teaching your dogs what behavior you find appropriate and those you want to discourage doesn’t mean we have to train them with the threat of punishment and pain.  Your dogs relationship with you largely stems from how we respond respond to them over time.  Be the source of security to your dogs and don’t let them down by using harsh training methods and tools that cause pain like pinch, choke and shock collars.  It’s no dog training secret that these tools and methods cause pain and confusion, damaging any relationship. Pay attention to their body language and remove them from situations they find overwhelming.  Use food and touch to calm them in stressful times if possible. Don’t force unwanted social interactions and give them a place to feel safe.  I promise the more you learn to identify signs of stress in your dog and act accordingly, your bond and responsiveness from your best friends will improve.  For an easy read on canine body language check out “On Talking Terms with Dogs”, by Turid Rugass.

Control is a myth

Why do we have the deep desire to control things? Maybe it has something to do with how much is constantly changing in our world.  Maybe the illusion of control offers our minds some kind of stability or traction in this wobbly and wonky world.  If we can control some aspects of our life then we can add more complexity to our lives.  Eventually, when we are in over our heads we tighten up our grips and try even harder to control.  This may be with our dogs or anything actually.

Consider your children if you have them.  Do you offer them choice when teaching them or do you decide everything for them? When they make the right decision on their own did you respond to those actions and choose to reinforce them, hoping for more of the same behaviors in the future?  If so you were teaching the value of choice, not control. If anything, the power of choice teaches self control, furthering our connection to our children and dogs.

In Conclusion, instead of the old paradigm of imposing discipline and obedience onto our dogs as the reason they respond to us, let’s focus on that secret ingredient in dog training.  A strong relationship and bond with our animals that includes more food, fun, freedom, and choice may be what is needed for a more responsive and eager dog.

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