How Training Helps to Improve Your Relationship
As much as they hate to admit it, scientists and behaviorists agree that our dogs don't speak our language. Dogs are empathetic, and they can get our body language, and they can even pick up some cue words when those words are paired correctly in ways that promote learning, but they don't understand us really... this is why I can get away with saying some pretty nasty stuff to my crew... if you say it with the right tone, you can say anything... they just wag and love you anyway. (Whqt really comes to mind here is when I'm snuggling Achmed close, with my nose in his neck, telling him what a nasty stinky boy he's become...) Using training, though, gives us a way to learn to predict their behavior, and it gives them a way to learn to predict ours... we learn to "read" one another, and we make a bargain, which teaches trust. This is the foundation for our lives together. This training is a way of bonding with our animals, through interaction.
1.) As extremely social animals, dogs crave the presence of their people. These animals have been bred, culled, tested, bred, trained, retested, culled some more... until the end result, thousands of years later, is that they not only "do well" as our companions... they have an innate, inbred need to be with us. It's what they're bred for. They want and need interaction, in varying degrees, depending on breed and individual dog -- some are more independent than others.
2.) All dogs need a job to do. They are not happy, just laying around all day (Be honest -- would you be happy, just laying around all day?) obedience training can be very useful in this respect -- it gives the dog a feeling of worth, by making him earn things -- giving him a job.
3.) This training can be a much-needed physical and mental outlet -- the smarter your dog is, the more of this type of stimulation he needs. And, remember, if you haven't bothered to teach your dog anything, that doesn't mean he's not smart.
4.) Obedience training teaches owners the necessity for courtesy... this can be a big hang-up, in the day-to-day relationships (between humans, as well as dog-human!). Having the dog sit for treats or petting, down while you fix his meals, sit to attach his leash for a walk helps to incorporate courtesy and mutual respect into our everyday lives -- incorporate his training into your daily routine -- that's what it's for!
5.) In a group setting, obedience training offers much-needed mental stimulation involving other dogs (so long as your particular dog is able to handle this!), and also opportunities for "proofing" -- generalizing a behavior using distractions (there is probably nothing more distracting than another dog!)
Companion Obedience vs. Competition Obedience
There are very specific rules and regulations for how each individual command and chain of commands is to be performed, in competition obedience. Competition obedience has its place -- you and your dog can both benefit from the high degree of competition involved, so long as you keep things fun, for both of you. You can learn more about how to teach competition obedience by reading Clicker Training for Obedience, by Morgan Spector.
I teach companion-style obedience. Companion-style obedience is a much more relaxed (not sloppy!!) version of competition obedience, and involves teaching only to a level that suits the dog for companionship purposes. The sit can involve leaning (it's been expressed to me that leaning dogs are an asset in Animal Assisted Therapy -- it gets the dog closer to those individuals in wheelchairs), you can have an automatic (default) sit, walking on loose-lead (as opposed to "heel"), etc. I also tend to teach at least some of the "everyday manners" inherent to the situation... these are the commands that you use to teach your dog not to bite in play, not to jump on guests, not to take food without asking, not to "dive into" a food or water bowl before you put it down, not to jump on other people's furniture, not to jump out of the car until you're ready, not to pace in agitation when they see another dog, etc. Teaching your dog basic companion-style obedience can ensure his future!
What You & Your Dog are Learning
The gist of all of this lies in this simple (but not simple) question: what is your dog (and you) learning from all this? Since your dog can't tell you what he needs, it's incredibly important that you learn how to tell what he's learning... you have to learn to know what his body language and behavior is telling you, but you have to learn this slowly, in a way that doesn't sacrifice his trust (or yours). He'll learn to trust that you've agreed to the doggie credo "it's all games", and you'll learn to let him earn that trust: trust in the training bargain; trust in learning theory to guide the outcome; trust in you. If you make a pact with yourself to only allow those consequences that won't sacrifice that trust, you'll get there.
Brenda Rushman CCBC