20160416-DSCF8821“The dog bit the boy.”

It’s a simple statement. And no – the dog didn’t really bite someone. Just hang with me for a moment.

Now how about this?

“The boy bit the dog.”

That simple statement takes on an entirely new meaning. All we have to do is change the order of the words and we’ve completely transformed the sentence.

Welcome to your grammar lesson for the day. Like I’ve told you a thousand times – I’m a giant nerd. Sue me.

First I’m comparing Algebra to dog training, and now I’m using grammar lessons to make my point. When will the madness stop?

But here’s the plain and simple truth – order matters. It matters in grammar, and it matters in dog training. And it’s something many dog owners and handlers, whether brand new to this dog training thing, or crazy experienced, tend to neglect.

Here are a few examples. See if any resonate with you.

  • A client of mine calls her dog to come, without teaching the dog what “COME” means. Order matters.
  • Many trainers use corrective collars to teach dogs lessons, without first teaching the dog what the collar pressure means and how to avoid it or turn it off. Order matters.
  • Many folks teach obedience commands before they have engagement or focus. Order matters.
  • A client of mine, upon our initial consultation told me she struggled to get her dog to focus on walks. And threw in at the end that her dog was human aggressive…….right after the dog had snapped at me. Order matters.
  • Another client of mine consistently used toys in his training but couldn’t get his dog to let the toy go or bring it back. So training sessions inevitably went awry and were terribly unproductive. Order matters. 
  • Folks with reactive dogs teach obedience at home and try to get their dog to focus around other dogs without dealing with the reactivity first. Order matters.

The thing is, you have to have fundamentals in place before you can expect compliance from your dog. And you have to teach your dog what your words mean before you can bark commands at him. If your dog isn’t complying with your wishes, it isn’t a sign he’s being stubborn or being “alpha”. It’s far more likely that you’ve simply confused him. And for that reason, you’ve got work to do.

Now I get it – it’s only natural to jump into obedience first. Everyone starts there. Many (not all) group classes focus on teaching the basics (sit, down, stay, heel and come) while completely neglecting the fundamentals you need in place to get those things right. Heck, when I was working with my own dog, back before I was a dog trainer myself, all of my trainers focused on three primary things – sit, down and stay. All on lead. Over and over again. Never mind that my dog was aggressive with people. Never mind that he was completely out of his mind around other dogs. Never mind that back then I was tiny, meek, and frail and trying to manage an 85lb dog alligator rolling at the end of his leash trying to get at anything that moved. We didn’t deal with those things because we were trying to “give him a job” and teach him to “do something else” to keep his mind off of all of his stress.

I liken those lessons to someone telling me to just sit down on the couch and stay there when I’m having anxiety. Yeah….that would totally work. (sense sarcasm). A better option would be for me to get to the root of my anxiety. And the same goes for our dogs.

20160416-DSCF9254But this doesn’t just apply to dogs with anxiety. It applies to any dog, whether it’s the family pet that simply can’t focus when out and about, or the working dog that checks out on the training field, or fixates on something (other dog??? decoy???) and just won’t reel it back in.

Order matters…. in grammar and in dog training.

We have to teach the fundamentals first. We need to teach our dogs what our words mean and we have to give them reinforcement history, setting precedents before we ask for the tough stuff.  If we are using correctional collars, we need to teach our dogs how to respond to those collars – what the collars mean and how they can avoid or turn off the pressure. We need to get strategic about what distracts our dogs and get to the root of it, using those distractions to drive our training instead of struggling through them. And we have to work our dogs through the things that are really challenging, instead of forcing them to take a stationary position and simply “deal”.

Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Teach focus and engagement first – If your dog learns to be with you, learns to work with you and learns that you are pretty darn awesome, you’ll have a much easier time getting all the tough stuff later down the road. Spend time rewarding engagement and focus. Reward your dog for simply being with you. And don’t throw your dog to the wolves when you first start out. Build your dog’s focus at home first, in a quiet setting. And SLOWLY add in distractions. It’s up to you to set your dog up for success.
  2. Teach your dog about consequences – Teach your dog how to earn rewards and what your reinforcement looks like. Teach him contrast. Show him how he gets the good stuff, and what actions turn off those rewards. And if you use compulsion or corrective collars in your training, PLEASE teach your dog what they mean before employing them – remember, order matters. (And if you don’t know how to use rewards right or can’t get your dog interested in them, you need to learn how to build your dog’s work ethic and use your rewards more strategically. And if you don’t know how to teach your dog about your training collar, you need to learn that first. Get with a trainer that can help.)
  3. Teach your dog your words – Your dog isn’t born speaking English. I promise. So it’s up to you to show your dog what your words mean. You need to spend a significant amount of time on this and you need to work your way up the distraction scale. If your dog checks out, take it back to basics. Non compliance isn’t a sign of a stubborn dog. It’s a symptom of a communication problem and YOU my friend, need to be a detective and get to the bottom of it!
  4. Behavior before obedience – If your dog suffers from aggression, reactivity, fear or anxiety, or if your dog simply gets overstimulated by his environment, fix that first. Get with a good trainer that doesn’t force obedience to fix the problem. Once your dog starts to improve, you can add in some fun obedience games and start to work up to control around the hard stuff, but trust me when I say that, from experience, and in my not so humble opinion, forcing your dog to hold a position when things get really tough just won’t cut it. Not only is this really hard on your dog, it’s a hard thing for you as his owner to be consistent about. Your trainer has no emotional attachment to your dog, but YOU do. So while your trainer might be able to get really tough, it’s very common for us, as our dog’s best friend, to struggle to achieve the same level of control. Just sayin’….

I preach it all the time, I know. Fundamentals matter. And I say it because more than anything, fundamentals are what we tend to neglect. Your words and actions mean nothing to your dog until you give them meaning. So spend time here, forming associations and setting precedents before moving on.

And make sure that:

“The Man (or Woman!) trained the dog” doesn’t become “The dog trained the Man (or Woman)”. Because order matters to your dog. Make sure it matters to you too.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    8 replies to "Order Matters: It’s up to you to set your dog up for success"

    • Richard Chan

      This article really spoke to me. I always try my best to train my dogs with as little conflict as possible. I have found that conflict often arises unnecessarily when the proper order is not follow.

    • Rene

      Can you still obtain these goals if your dog is older and you started them off wrong with obedience etc?
      Has no interest in me at all when trying to do obedience or rally. Everything else is more important.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Yes. Absolutely! Revisiting fundamentals can for sure help you regardless of the past. The only difference is that you have a little bit of reinforcement history to undo. But stick with it and stay consistent and you will for sure get results. You can check out a few of my articles on focus and play. Those should set you off in the right direction!

    • Marvin

      Just what I need!

    • Alec

      Wading through your content I feel like I don’t know anything about training dogs despite the fact I’ve been doing it professionally for 24 years now.

    • Helen

      Loved this article. It is close to my heart as many of my clients come and say hey I got him to sit and wait for his meals, but unless I have food he just won’t sit or he only comes to me when I’ve got food in my hand.

    • Janice Dougherty

      I acquired my first Dutch Shepherd pup after several decades of a very different breed (Alaskan Malamutes). I had done a few different types of training with them: show, standard obedience, a puppy agility, sled team, weight pull, back packing/camping/canoeing. They are a breed with no lack of dog aggression, but it comes from predatory arrogance, not fear. Once they were in a class with other dogs, learned the long sit/down all in a row, that was it. I could do head on passing on a narrow trail without a fight. Never trained with food, since they knew it was a bribe they could smell in my pocket Never had this high anxiety, leash reactive, blind and deaf drama dance – and now I read how prevalent it is. After puppy and beginner group classes, my boy will soon be learning via an e-collar. Professional trainer remarks that it’s very common in shepherd types. Definitely a different kettle of fish!

      • Lee

        Ha, puppies are a handful and they are temperamentally distinct breeds. He’ll mellow out with age and training. It seems like a no brainer but many people forget dogs are not programed understanding English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.