Behavioral vs. Obedience Training

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Behavior Modification vs Obedience Training


What’s the difference?

On an almost daily basis, I am contacted by dog owners who need help with their dog.  I’d estimate that about 80% of these callers say something to the effect of: 

Caller: “I’m looking to do some Obedience Training with my dog. Is this something you can help me with?”

Me: “Sure can, but I want you to understand that Obedience Training is not the focus of what we do here..we generally focus on Behavior Modification for troublesome behaviors.”

Caller: “Oh, that’s what I meant, I guess. My dog is showing signs of Fear Aggression, I think, and actually just bit my neighbors kid…I thought Obedience Training is what he needs. What’s the difference?”

Well, I guess for some, it’s just semantics. An accomplished Trainer should know the difference but for the average dog owner, they may have only ever heard of the term Obedience Training and not so much, Behavior Modification (or, B-Mod).

What IS the difference?  In short…Obedience Training teaches a dog to comply with a Verbal Command provided by the owner (as long as the owner is present) where Behavior Modification allows a dog to learn how to respond to any given context or situation without the need for Verbal Commands or for the owner to even be present.


Here’s how I see it, with a little help from Wikipedia:

Obedience Training

Obedience Training usually refers to the training of a dog and the term is most commonly used in that context. Basic Obedience Training teaches the dog to reliably respond to basic commands such as “Sit,” “Down,” “Come,” and “Stay”.  Obedience implies compliance with the direction or verbal command given by the handler. For a dog to be considered obedient rather than simply trained in obedience, it must respond reliably each time its handler gives a command.  Training a dog in obedience can be an ongoing and lengthy process depending on the dog, the methods used, and the skill and understanding of both the trainer and ultimately, the owner.

While I find Obedience Exercises to be a beneficial part of creating a solid and rewarding Leader-Follower relationship and it provides the dog with a set of compliance behaviors that should predict a positive outcome, or Reinforcement, I don’t see Obedience Training to be a viable or effective solution as a remedy to truly troublesome behaviors.

  • Obedience Training “tells” the dog what to do in any given context, via a Verbal Command provided by the owner/handler/Trainer.

    • This type of Training would seem to work ONLY when the owner/handler/Trainer is present to provide the Verbal Command
    • Also, the dog would need to have a “working relationship” with the person providing the Verbal Command in order to comply with consistency on the first command given
    • The dog will likely comply ONLY if and when the Verbal Command is provided exactly the same way it was used when the dog was Trained.


Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification refers to behavior changing procedures based on methodological behaviorism, where overt behavior is modified with presumed controlled consequences, including applied Positive and Negative Reinforcement contingencies to increase Desirable Behavior, or administering Positive and Negative Punishment to reduce Undesirable Behavior.

Behavior Modification relies on one or more the following to effect Positive Behavioral change:

Behavior Modification provides the dog with the opportunity to learn for himself, which Behaviors will “work” (Reinforcement) and which Behaviors will “not worK” (Punishment) in any given context or situation.

    • This type of Training works to guide the dog into making the proper choice of what behavior to offer in any given context, without the need for a human to be present to give a command.
    • Because B-Mod creates a dynamic where the dog learns through Associating predictable Consequences to any offered behavior, soon enough, the Desired Behavior becomes highly consistent.
    • Through the B-Mod processes of CounterConditioning & Systematic Desensitization, the dogs underlying emotional feelings (Fear, etc.) that have been “fueling” the Undesirable Behaviors can actually be modified to allow the dog more confidence and to feel safer and more secure.  This is just not possible by teaching a dog to Sit on Verbal Command.
    • Behavior Modification will generally last a lot longer and be far more solid and consistent than Obedience Training because with B-Mod, the dog actually believes he “figured out what works” by himself as opposed to being “told what to do”.


So, how does it make sense to hire an Obedience Trainer or sign up for Obedience Training to solve a Fear-Aggression problem? It doesn’t.  

Will training a door-darting dog to Heel on Command prevent him from running through open doors in the future?  No, it won’t.

However, this does not mean that Obedience Training is a waste of time…it’s not.  It’s a great way to build a solid working bond with your dog built on gentle compliance exercises.  It’s just not the type of Training you would be looking for to provide a successful remedy to your dog’s behavioral issues.

I guess if you worked long enough and in countless different environments, over time a truly accomplished Obedience Trainer could potentially get their dog to Sit on Command BEFORE the dog bites someone…but how does this Modify the dogs underlying emotional feelings that are fueling the actual Fear-Response?  It simply doesn’t.   

The Moral to this post?  Be sure to understand what you are “shopping” for when seeking assistance to help you with your dogs behavior. 

  • For dogs WITHOUT Behavioral Issues, Obedience Training can be a great way to enhance the working relationship between owner and dog and build in compliance to Verbal Commands.
  • For dogs WITH Behavioral Issues such as Aggression, Fears/Phobia’s, Hyper-Arousal, etc. Behavior Modification is the type of training that will actually change the way the dog views his own behavior with the eventuality of the dog offering a conditioned Desirable Behavior in place of the previously displayed Undesirable Behavior.  This is all accomplished without the need for an owner to be standing there shouting Verbal Commands.

Closing Summary Opinion:  In my experience, when dogs (and humans!) figure out “which Behavior works best” for them in any given situation – they tend to repeat that same Behavior each and every time they are in a similar situation in the future.  After all…they figured it out “on their own”.  That’s basic premise of all our work here at CBS Inc.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email