K9 Obedience Training

Teaching Pets and Working Dogs to Be Reliable and Free-Thinking



What is a free-thinking dog? In short, it is a dog that can think for himself. This is a dog that will invent games on his own or solve novel problems, doing things and making connections between events and objects that he was never explicitly taught. You may have already met or even owned a free-thinking dog. These dogs are often fun dogs to spend time with, providing lots of laughs with their antics, and tending to be more confident, cool, and collected in the face of new or difficult situations.

Whether or not you’ve met a free-thinking dog, it is important to remember that all dogs do think—there is no question about that. Although it is true that some breeds are bred specifically to think on their own, and that certain individual dogs will be more inclined to think freely than others, the ability of a dog to think freely (or not) is, more often than not, more dependent on the dog’s training than on his breed. That is, free thinking is something that can be actively taught—or not—in training. This means that, by using the correct methods, a dog can become more able to think and act reliably and independently. This is a necessary skill for the working dog, who will often find himself faced with novel problems and situations that cannot be specifically trained.

Not all training methods encourage free thinking in the dog. Specifically, methods that require exact responses from the dog and correct every deviation from the desired behavior tend to discourage free thought. When a dog is not encouraged to think freely, the dog becomes hesitant to do anything other than what he is told to do. The dog will not think on his own or make decisions, even if he is given a command that puts him in an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation. For example—and I have seen this happen—if an owner commands his dog to “Down-stay” in the direct sun, the dog down-stays, no questions asked, even if he’s uncomfortable, and even if there is shade a few feet away. Those are the rules. Again, while some dogs may behave this way because of their individual personality—they are not inclined to think for themselves—this is most often a learned behavior.

A free-thinking dog in the same situation might make a slightly different choice. He will still follow the command, but might play with the rules. For instance, he might get up, move to the shade, and then do his down-stay. This kind of playing with rules differs from both the stiff following of rules described above and from breaking the rules, or simply not obeying. A dog that is breaking the rules will simply not do what he was asked to do, perhaps because he doesn’t have the self-control to obey the command. A free-thinking dog, on the other hand, will obey the command in a way that is both comfortable and safe for him.


When a dog struggles to think freely, he may not be successful in a working context. Take this example: we once had a handler and her very nice, champion obedience dog come to our unit. The handler wanted to train her dog in SAR. This dog seemed to have all the qualifications of a good SAR dog. She was friendly, pleasant, good with people, very intelligent, and physically fit. However, in order to win the highest level of obedience competition, she was taught to do what she was told, when she was told, and precisely in the way she was taught. Her training did not allow her to deviate from her routines.

We started with one of the most basic SAR training exercises, in which the handler hides from the dog, who is then meant to find her. The dog typically gets very excited and wants to find the handler, his owner. This dog showed real promise: she got very excited, had a good nose, and was able to run right to the handler. She really got into this “find the person” game, so much so that she momentarily forgot her obedience training and was able to simply play.

In the next round of training, a volunteer ran and hid for the handler and dog to find. At first, the dog did well. She did succeed in finding the hidden volunteer. However, after she found the volunteer, you could see her whole demeanor change: she went into obedience mode, losing the excitement of the game and replacing it instead with the resolution that she must wait for the next command. Nothing we did could get her to think on her own. All the members of the unit saw this, even the dog’s owner, and we all knew that the dog would progress no further in her SAR training. This was unfortunately due to her previous training, which never allowed her to do anything but what she was told, and had diminished her ability to think freely. This dog failed at her SAR training because in some contexts, including SAR, a dog must be free-thinking in order to do a job or complete a task well—must, that is, be able to act on her own, without needing to be told what to do every step of the way.

In the context of SAR, a dog that knows that his handler is wrong or has missed something must disobey in order to show the handler what he has found: a clue, maybe, or a related object, or even the missing person. An experienced handler will learn to trust his dog, but almost every handler fails to do this at one time or another. I am no exception. Once, when one of my SAR dogs, Scout, was young and not very experienced, I sent him by an overhanging bank of a river to check if a missing person’s body was caught underwater in the roots of the trees. He came back and gave me the signal that nothing was there. I thought he worked too fast, so I sent him out again. The second time he worked even faster (he knew no one was there). I did not like that either, so I gave him the command to go out a third time. He purposely sat in front of me and gave me a look that clearly said, “Lady, don’t you understand Canine? No one is there!” I realized that I had been the one who had broken a rule—the rule to trust your dog. I laughed, told him he was a good boy, and did not insist that he go out again. There was no body, and he knew it much better than I did; he was a free-thinking dog.

Sheep herding is another context in which a dog must be free-thinking. A dog may be given a command when working the sheep but will disobey because he sees something that the handler does not see. Again, you must trust your dog. Your dog may prove to be an excellent problem solver. I remember reading about an incident in which a ewe with a newborn lamb would not move when the Border Collie working the field tried to bring her and her lamb in from the pasture. She was focused on protecting her lamb. Nothing the dog did would get the ewe to move. Instead she tried to defend her baby and attack the dog by charging at him. When she did this the lamb would follow, so the ewe stayed where she ended her charge. After a few tries, the dog repeatedly approached the ewe in such a manner that she had to keep moving toward the barn to charge after the dog. It did not take the dog long to lure the ewe and her lamb back to the barn. While this may sound like a logical solution to the problem (and it was), it was nothing the dog had done before: he had never been specifically trained to work in this manner. He’d just figured it out on his own—because he was a free-thinking dog.

Free-thinking is also an important quality in sled dogs. The lead dog of a dog sled pack is always the one to make decisions for the pack, and the one to alert the musher (the person driving the sled) about any dangers. Sometimes mushers may choose shortcut routes across frozen lakes—but if the lead dog detects that it is not safe to cross the lake, the dog will refuse to go. The smart musher trusts his dog and will not proceed. This, too, is a free-thinking dog.





Free-thinking is not just for the workplace. Take, for example, Chaser, the Border Collie. Perhaps you’ve heard of her—she has, after all, become famous, featured on television, the star of countless YouTube videos, and the subject of a book. Her fame stems from her ability to identify 1022 toys by name, and to retrieve them by category. She also knows common nouns such as house, ball, and tree, and can even learn new words by inferential reasoning through exclusion. This means she can pick out an object—the name of which she has not been taught—by eliminating all the objects she knows. She also understands sentences with multiple elements and can learn by imitation.

Chaser is, clearly, a free-thinking dog—that is, she is a dog that has been given the training and allowed the space to make decisions of her own, and to exercise her creative potential.

People are astounded by Chaser’s apparently unparalleled talent, and for good reason. Chaser is indeed exceptional in her abilities, but scientists have shown that the kind of intelligence that is foundational to her abilities is not unique to her; similar potential lies in most dogs. They have discovered that dogs understand both vocabulary and intonation of human speech using their left brain, just like people do. So while Chaser is indeed a prime example of how a dog can do multiple jobs and understand multiple commands without making a mistake, she is certainly not the only example of a dog with this kind of canine intelligence (though perhaps we could say that she’s the top of her class). Indeed, it is this kind of intelligence that any dog must have in order to be cross-trained to do different jobs.

Dogs are smarter, intellectually and emotionally, than we tend to realize, and one of the most important things a dog owner must do is to keep an opened mind about how a dog thinks, and what they know and understand. Not all dogs that are free-thinking dogs have had any special training that make them that way—they just are free-thinking, intelligent individuals. Prizes are awarded every year to dogs that have rescued people, alerted their owners to dangers, and sometimes even rescued other animals, all without special training. In fact, a recent study showed that some dogs experience empathy when they perceive that their owners are distressed and will try to rescue them.

For those who are skeptical of canine intelligence, tests have been designed to try to determine how intelligent dogs are. However, there is not yet a test that can fully illustrate the intelligence of dogs—and no wonder! Unless a complex common language is developed between humans and dogs (and other animals, for that matter), we cannot completely test them.

Because we cannot give dogs an overall IQ test, scientists try to test different aspects of canine intelligence or recognition. For example, they have studied how dogs see your emotions and how they process the look on your face. One of the most popular ways scientists have tried to determine intelligence in dogs is by using puzzle-solving tests. (A variety of tests are available online for you to try with your dog!) And, in some recent research, scientists have determined that dogs like Chaser really do understand words that they are taught, and possibly understand them with the correct meaning. In other words when a dog learns the word walk, he knows it means, specifically, going for a walk and not simply something exciting is about to happen. (See Chapter 3: Talking to Your Dog.) Overall, scientists are finding out that dogs are much smarter and more aware of the human world then we ever thought.


There have been many books and articles written about the intelligence of dogs, some of which label certain breeds as smart and others as, well, not so smart. What the books fail to take into consideration, however, is how biddable (willing to obey) any given dog or breed is. This is an important oversight because we often assume that intelligence correlates with a dog’s behavior, and specifically with his ability to do what he is asked, but this isn’t necessarily true: you can have a dog that is not very intelligent but is very willing to do what you ask. By the same token, you can have a very intelligent dog that does not care to do what you ask.

In terms of breeds, Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers are often considered very smart dogs, but oftentimes what makes them test successfully is the fact that they are willing to obey, or are biddable. On the other hand, consider some of the livestock guarding breeds such as the Akbash Dog and the Anatolian Shepherd. They are bred to be independent and do not make good obedience dogs. For this reason, they often do not make the list of “intelligent” breeds. They are, however, extremely intelligent: they are bred to work on their own with vast herds of sheep and goats and often must make decisions independently about situations that they have not been specifically trained to deal with. To a lesser degree, hounds also get a bad rap. They are often difficult to train, but this is not because they are less intelligent than the working breeds. Rather, it is because they are bred to follow their nose and block out all other distractions, including you. All of these dogs are intelligent, but in their own ways. This raises the question of what, exactly, intelligence is: perhaps we need to rethink our concept of intelligence, for animals as well as people.

Although some dogs are bred to use their intelligence in different ways, it’s important to recognize that there is also a range of intelligence in every breed. Not all dogs in a breed are the same, just like all people are not the same. The genetics of a breed, different levels of intelligence, and individual differences make it impossible to classify any breed as more or less intelligent. Therefore, when potential dog owners consider a certain breed because they have heard that this breed is “smart” or “easy to train,” hopefully they will understand that intelligence and temperament can vary widely amongst individuals of any breed.


In terms of training, dogs are capable of learning as many commands as we can dream up. They do not make mistakes by confusing one command for another, and although every dog does not demonstrate the level of skill that Chaser does, most dogs are capable of learning much more than owners teach them.

When it comes to training your dog, it is important to remember that how you train your dog is as important as what you train your dog. The reason Chaser can do what she does is because her owner taught her all of the words that she knows (the what) and taught them in a way that didn’t quash or dominate her natural talents and intelligence (the how). Succeeding at this as a trainer or dog owner takes a lot of time and dedication.

We still have so much to learn about the mind of our dogs. It is our responsibility to give them every opportunity to use their intelligence while at the same time making sure they are safe—and safety requires a certain amount of reliable obedience.


Training a dog successfully for SAR and other types of work, or as a pet, requires that the foundational basic training in obedience be solid but not overpowering, and that it leaves room and encourages your dog to think on his own. That being said, a free-thinking dog is not a dog that is free to disobey whenever he pleases. Whether your dog be a working dog or a pet, obedience is necessary for the safety and well-being of your dog—but obedience must not stifle or punish your dog’s creativity. This balancing act between freethinking and obedience can be cultivated with the right kind of training: training that uses positive training methods to develop a bond of trust between you and your dog.

This book and the exercises within (which include a plan and a schedule that will make it easier for your dog to learn the basic obedience lessons) are designed to help SAR, working, and pet dog handlers and owners develop a strong, foundational relationship—a relationship that is based on team work, that encourages your dog to think freely, and that will help pave the way to successful advanced and specialized training.

Table des matières

1. What Is a Free-Thinking Dog?
2. A Positive Training Philosophy
3 Talking to Your Dog
4. Questions to Ask Before You Start Training
5. Housetraining and Crate Training
6. Handling Your Dog’s Body for Grooming and Hygiene
7. The Equipment
8. Setting Up for Success
9. Basic Obedience Training
10. Advanced Obedience for Safe Work, Sport, and Play
11. Exercises for Common Behavioral Challenges
12. Tricks
Photo Gallery
About the Author

La description

In K9 Obedience Training, certified animal behaviour consultant and veteran search and rescue (SAR) dog handler and trainer Susan Bulanda shares the secrets of building an effective obedience training program. For trainers who demand the best obedience training for future working dogs, Susan’s techniques lay the groundwork for success. And pet owners who want to help their dog be easy to be around will find lots of training tips and exercises too.