Functional Obedience and the Development of Character.

Blog Category: Blog

By: Tyler Muto


“…Thorough obedience training does more than assure a dog’s response to his master’s command; capacities for learning and emotional stability could be increased and integrated as permanent qualities of character.”
-William Koehler, 1962

For many years, I chose to leave the behavior of sit-stay out of my basic obedience programs, and give preference to teaching the dog to stay in either a down position, or on a dog bed.  This is not to say that I did not teach sit, or that I did not teach stay.  I simply did not find that it was important to teach the dog to hold a sit position for a duration of time independently of his human.

When questioned about this, I held fast to two primary points of reasoning:

  1. It is not functionally necessary. The rationale behind this trajectory of thought is that I have already taught the dog to stay in a “place” command (on a dog bed), and I have already taught the dog to stay in a down position.  With these two positions, I can control my dog and expect them to stay put in virtually any circumstance that I can imagine. So, why would I need a third ”Stay” position?  Additionally, I cannot fathom a scenario where it would be necessary for my dog to stay where he is, at a distance from me, and it be absolutely imperative that he is sitting up rather than lying down.
  2. When I observe dogs behaving naturally, I rarely see them holding a sit position while they are in a passive state of mind. In fact, what I see is quite the opposite; dogs holding sit positions are most often in an active state of mind, or in anticipation of an action. To illustrate my point by way of example, you can often observe a dog watching a squirrel up in a tree or running along the top of a fence, while holding a sit position anxiously awaiting the possibility that the squirrel might come within reach. Similarly, you may be watching in amusement as two dogs are roughhousing or playing, when suddenly one of them stops to eliminate. The second dog often sits while waiting for his playmate to finish up and return to the game.
    Generally, when I ask my dog to stay where he is, what I desire is not only that he physically remains stationary, but also that he becomes calm and passive, not anxiously awaiting his release so that he can explode into a fury of excitement. The down and place commands more readily lend themselves to this relaxed state of mind. Thus, if my goal is to create calmness, they are preferred.

These were my reasons for not teaching the sit-stay, and I was certain that my logic was sound. Luckily for me, I discovered that I was wrong (I say luckily, because I am always delighted to discover a way in which I can improve my skills as a dog trainer).

My mistake was in only considering the value of the behavior in relation to its tangible function. This flaw in logic would be akin to me stating that the painting, which hangs on my wall, is unimportant because the wall itself is already painted and the painting adds nothing to the wall’s structural integrity. What I have failed to acknowledge is that filling ones home with art adds not only to the character of the home itself, but also to a sense of well-being while there. The entire feel of the space changes by virtue of the art and its placement.

Likewise, my assessment of the value of sit-stay was flawed because I only took into account its tangible functional value, while neglecting to investigate the potential value it may have of establishing qualities of character.

What I have come to realize, is that holding a sit-stay without fidgeting and without lying down is not only physically demanding for the dog, but requires a level of attentiveness and self-discipline that characterizes a well mannered companion. It is an exercise which I relate to the image of a soldier standing at attention. Compared to a down-stay where the dog can relax and her mind can wander, the sit-stay requires that she stay focused on the task at hand and possess an unwavering commitment to the act of sitting.

I find the exercise to be equally beneficial for the fidgety and impulsive dog as it is for the lazy and lackadaisical dog. While I may not use the sit stay behavior itself functionally in my day-to-day routines, the regular practice of this exercise develops and adjusts the dog’s character in such ways that generalize, and seep in to virtually everything else we may do together throughout the day. In this way it becomes highly functional.

Virtually all aspects of training a dog, when properly executed, should serve to develop and maintain a component of the dog’s character. Poorly done training, that is undisciplined, may teach a dog to respond to command, but will leave something to be desired. That something, while less tangible, is at the heart of what most dog owners want and need. It is the essence of what makes a trustworthy companion.

When setting out to train your dog or the dogs of others, keep in mind the words quoted above from the great Bill Koehler. Responsiveness to command is undoubtedly a desirable thing; but there is no greater satisfaction than realizing you have developed a dog with a sound mind and a noble heart.

– T. G. Muto