Obedience is defined as: the state or quality of being obedient. In dog world, obedience training consists of teaching a dog to obey commands to show good behavior. This may consist of things like sitting and lying down on command, or coming when called. This is all fine and good and is important if you need your dog to do what you ask or if you want to teach your dog some fun tricks.
Unfortunately, you hear very little about teaching a dog manners. Manners involves your dog choosing to perform a polite behavior he thinks of on his own. We call these ‘default’ behaviors, which means it is something they do automatically. It is not a behavior preceded by a command or cue.
While it may take some dogs longer to learn a default behavior, they will retain this information because they thought of it themselves instead of just being told to do something. They really don’t have to think creatively or problem solve if they are always being commanded, they just learn to be compliant (sometimes).
Solid default behaviors provide dogs with an effective and polite way to ask for something they want or need, or if they are unsure of what to do in a situation. A reliable cue is a great thing, but it requires us to ask our dog to do something. Teaching your dog a default behavior produces a dog who is polite and more manageable in day-to-day situations. This is just as important as a dog knowing when to come when called AND has the bonus of building confidence in your dog because he is continually being reinforced for his good choices!
An easy (and fun!) way to teach and reinforce a default ‘sit’ behavior is through the game ‘Sit to Say Please’ made popular by the amazing Dr. Sophia Yin. Start by standing with your dog in front of you and waiting until they think of sitting. As soon as that butt hits the ground give them a treat. Move a couple of steps forwards or backwards, allow your dog to follow, and then stop suddenly. Again, once your dog offers a sit, they are immediately rewarded.
We teach and use this game daily at our dog school and most dogs are very quick at picking it up. Once they learn they can gain access to treats, attention, the backyard, etc. by sitting, they tend to be very quick to offer it. We do reinforce ALL sitting the dogs offer us-not necessarily with food or treats but praise, petting and a sincere ‘thank you!’
So, while basic obedience commands are important and crucial if you need your dog to do something like ‘sit’ or ‘come’, I believe it is equally important to teach manners for polite behavior and to help your dog learn impulse control, conflict resolution (sitting can be a calming behavior for many dogs), focus and help boost his confidence. Your dog is being reinforced for something he chooses to do-we ALL like to think we make great decisions!
Always make learning fun so you and your dog enjoy the process. Your dog will soon be throwing ‘sits’ at you for all kinds of things! Of course this does NOT mean you have to acquiesce if your dog sits politely at the table while you are enjoying your dinner….. but at least they are asking nicely! Do remember when your dog does offer a ‘sit’ for you, it’s important to acknowledge him or her with a ‘thank you’ to continue to reinforce their nice choice of behavior. Not as lovely as a table scrap perhaps but still effective at letting your dog know you appreciate them being so cordial.