Dog Training – What is Deference?

Natural DOg - Deference

Whether you are training a dog to sit, or working with a serious behavioural issue like aggression, there is one key ingredient that is necessary for success: Deference.

What is Deference
Deference is simply defined as the dog understanding that all information coming from you is the most important information it can receive. This is not randomly demanded but rather taught like any other skill the dog will learn. Your communications must be clear, concise and consistent in order for the dogs brain to recognize that the information is useful and calming.

Go to any obedience class on a Saturday morning and you will see half of the class getting it, the other half not. The half that isn’t getting it is failing because of deference. In other words, the relationship they have with their dog is ambivalent. The dog hasn’t truly bonded and doesn’t see the information the owner is providing as necessary. If it’s even being provided at all.

The scary part is that a lot of obedience trainers do not understand deference, or how to teach it. Some trainers who still use force and dominance don’t even know what it is.

How do I get Deference
I have a special protocol for teaching deference and use it for all types of problems including aggression, fears & phobias and hyper-activity. More importantly, I use it for all training I do with a dog, and that includes my own dogs Nip and Tuck.

You must start by understanding that most of the information you give a dog comes from body language and tone of voice: for deference, the actual words aren’t as meaningful as you may think.

Lets try a very simple deference exercise to get you started:

Step One

  1. Put your dog on leash in the house and just stand in the middle of the room, but do not look directly at your dog. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING!
  2. At first you dog will be a little bewildered, but he will eventually look at you – When he does, mark it (reinforcer) with a treat. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING!
  3. Then move to different areas in your home and repeat.

Step Two

  1. Once you have mastered just having him look at you, then start requiring a sit – When he looks up, simply touch the end of your nose with your finger, leaning very slightly toward him (do not bend down to him) to imply and emphasize a sit. When he does, mark it (reinforcer) with a treat.
  2. We are expecting the dog to figure out what we are asking for, when he guesses correctly with a sit, we reinforce it.  The dog is starting to understand that information that comes from you is important, and problem solving and that in order to get it he has to look at you.

* Please note, we a NOT teaching sit, we are actually teaching: predictability – focus – trust


This is a very simple version of the full deference protocol, but using this method to teach it (with lots and lots of repetition), is critical to gaining focus and trust. I can walk my dogs to the middle of a very busy off-leash park and touch my nose and my dogs will sit and not take their eyes off me. They ignore all other dogs in anticipation of whatever exciting piece of information I have.

You should be able to do this too, without yelling, screaming or marching about like a drill sergeant.

Here are some other important benefits of Deference:

  • Establishes predictability which reduces anxiety (great for fearful or cautious dogs)
  • Actually forces processing to different region of the brain (cortex) than where the problems are occurring (amygdala)
  • Increases focus allowing you to actually get useful information to your dog (critical for redirecting)
  • Can keep a dog sub-threshold, reducing reactivity and aggression
  • Is a key ingredient in establishing and maintaining contextual trust
  • Helps fix doorbell issues
  • Is a key calming signal

* If you do not have deference established with your dog  ALL of these things are very hard, if not impossible. If you are interested in learning the Deference Protocol, please call 403-931-4161 or click here for more information.

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