Cesar Millan famously says “I rehabilitate dogs; I train people.” And he often insists that he is not a dog trainer. Whatever one’s opinion of Cesar, or of his philosophy and techniques, I think the distinction he makes here is important to recognize, to understand, and to apply in our own lives with our own dogs. I always explain the distinction between training and rehabilitation to clients who are looking for help with their dog, because if you don’t know what you’re really looking for – what your dog really needs – you’ll very likely end up paying for something that doesn’t help you or your dog at all.
The distinction I’m talking about is between what I’ll call “obedience training”, on the one hand, and “behavior therapy” (aka “counseling” or “rehabilitation”) on the other hand. The basic difference is that obedience training is about teaching a dog to do what the owner says (i.e. to be obedient); while behavior therapy is about creating a psychologically well-balanced, happy, sociable dog.
Obedience training, for instance, teaches a dog to “Sit”, “Come”, and “Stay”, on command. It can teach a dog to “Heel” behind the owner when walking, to “Drop” a chicken bone found on the street, or to get “Off” after jumping on a human or other dog.
Behavior therapy, on the other, hand, is called on to cure aggressive dogs from attacking other dogs at the dog park; to stop obsessive dogs from caring about nothing but their tennis ball or their leash; and to stop overly-needy dogs from whining, barking, and chewing as a result of separation anxiety when their owners leave home to go to work. Therapy is needed to keep fearful and nervous dogs from having an anxiety attack every time a bus drives by or a thunderstorm rolls in. It can stop resource guarding around food, possessiveness and jealousy around toys at home or at the park, or cure boredom that can result in barking, chewing, digging, and other destructive behavior.