Most people who enroll in a Basic Obedience course are in search of better communication with their dogs. Usually, their problems are mundane — the dog pulls on the leash, jumps on people, will not come when called, etc. Some have more serious problems — the dog fights, chases cars, or bites. Whatever the problem may be, the owner has been unable to establish an acceptable degree of control over his dog and the course is expected to bring enlightenment as well as some semblance of control. It is also, of course, expected to solve the problem that prompted enrollment in the first place. Since the owner’s expectations seem to be rather low compared to the standards of an obedience buff, this inevitably results in somewhat of a quandary for the instructor: how much detail or precision in teaching standard obedience exercises is necessary, or even desirable? Is the owner not getting confused by the finer points involved in teaching heeling such as proper footwork and the straight sit when all he wants from the dog is not to pull on the leash? What is the point of teaching the recall with the sit stay and the sit in front when all the owner wants is for his dog to come when called? Besides, this is not the way it happens anyway when the owner needs to use this exercise, namely, when the dog is off leash and taking off in the opposite direction. It would seem that the exercises taught in a Basic Obedience course are totally unrelated to the problem the owner has and any emphasis on such things as good heeling and straight sits seems misplaced.
There is, however, another way of looking at it. Assuming that the purpose of an obedience course is to teach the handler how to get control over his dog by learning how to communicate with the dog, the various obedience exercises become the means to this end. How well the dog does in these exercises can be viewed as a measure of control the owner has achieved and as a measure of how well he is communicating with his dog. Mindful as I am of the dangers of generalizations, it seems that frequently the better the dog learns these exercises the better the communication between the owner and the dog and the better the control. If precision in training is regarded in this light, it assumes a different role. This is particularly true when it is considered that the most common goal of the owner is for the dog to come when called. To reach this goal, the owner must have a considerable degree of control over the dog.
When talking to other instructors about this, most believed that heeling is a very reliable test of control — it is a difficult exercise because it requires constant concentration by the dog and a dog that has mastered it will usually not be a control problem for his owner. Also, chances are, that in the process the owner will have learned to communicate with his dog to the point of having solved his problem. Quite important in this context, however, is precision handling, especially footwork, and insistence on precision on the part of the dog. Footwork, for example, aside from being a tool to achieve precision on the part of the dog, is a teaching aid making it that much easier for the dog to learn and in turn for the handler to get control. Each exercise, or each part of an exercise, may appear meaningless in and of itself, but, as a means to an end, they begin to add up like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until the desired goal has been reached. The owner may not immediately understand why he and his dog have to go through all this rigamarole until it is explained to him and until he realizes that it works.
The Club with which I am associated used to require the owners to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the course. One question asked the owner to spell out what he hoped to accomplish by taking the course. At the end of the course, the instructor would review the questionnaires with those who completed the course to find out whether they have achieved their purpose. By that time, many of the owners could not even remember what their problem was because somewhere along the line it had disappeared. Not necessarily because of any conscious training toward its solution but because the owner had learned how to communicate his wishes to his dog which presumably included forbearance from whatever objectionable conduct the dog was engaging in.
Insistence on precision, both in handling and on the part of the dog, in teaching a Basic Obedience course naturally is more burdensome on the instructor. And yet, in most instances the degree of control the owner will get over his dog will depend on it.
©1972 J.J. Volhard