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Intelligent disobedience in dogs is something guide dogs must be able to implement.  Let's face it : while the word "disobedience" gives the negative idea of a dog who ignores what he's asked to do and just does as he pleases, when we add the word intelligent in front of it, it brings disobedience to a whole different level! 

From something considered negative, disobedience becomes something remarkable, a quality that is sought in guide dogs working as a team with their owners for their protection and safety. So today let's learn more about intelligent disobedience in dogs, how it's trained and let's take a look at some examples of how it's applied.

What is Intelligent Disobedience in Dogs?

Intelligent disobedience, also known as "selective disobedience" is observed when a service animal willingly disobeys the owner's instructions because it isn't safe to do so.

Service dogs are taught this quality so they can make better decisions for their owners when the need arises. This entails important "judgement calls" on the part of the dog in critical situations.

Need an example on how a dog would apply intelligent disobedience? Here are a few examples:

  • At a crosswalk, a blind person listens for traffic and tells his guide dog to move forward, when a car that was not there a second ago, suddenly appears. The dog notices the car and refuses to move, thus disobeying the owner's request to forward.
  • A blind person is walking in the park, and at a certain point, the guide dog refuses to walk because there are low tree branches in the path. While the dog can easily walk underneath the branches, the low branches may actually injure the blind person as he walks through them. The blind person tells the dog to move forward, but the service dog disobeys.
  • Even search and rescue dogs are expected to demonstrate intelligence disobedience. For instance, if a search and rescue dog catches the whiff of a survivor, but the handler feels it's impossible for a survivor to be in that specific area, the dog must insist even if that would mean grabbing the handler's  jacket to pull him towards the missing person. 
If a blind person decides to descend a flight of stairs, a properly trained guide dog would exhibit intelligent disobedience by refusing to move unless the handler issues a specific cue that informs the dog he is aware of the stairs. 

If a blind person decides to descend a flight of stairs, a properly trained guide dog would exhibit intelligent disobedience by refusing to move unless the handler issues a specific cue that informs the dog he is aware of the stairs. 

How is it Intelligence Disobedience in Service Dogs Trained?

As the service dog training progresses, dogs are exposed to situations that become gradually more and more complex requiring increased problem solving skills.

The dog must learn not only to stop at intersections and navigate around crowds, but also must learn to avoid obstacles such as lampposts, mailboxes, strollers and shopping carts that are in the way.

Dogs must also learn to avoid potholes, narrow passages, construction sites, objects lying in the path and uneven surfaces.

When guide dogs encounter such obstacles, they must guide their owner around them or stop in front of them. While this entails lots of training, a dog's natural skills and perceptions also play a role.

Through consistency, repetition, and praise, a prospective guide dog is capable of learning how to work effectively around overhangs and branches. 

How is intelligent disobedience trained though exactly? There may be different methods used. 

According to Service Dog Central, in the case of the low hanging branch, the trainer walks with the guide dog towards a low hanging branch. 

When the cane hits the tree branch it makes a noise that is a cue for the dog to understand that something has happened. The trainer may say "ouch!" The team repeats the scene several times until the dog learns to consistently walk around the branch.

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To help the dog generalize, the same scene is repeated in several different locations and situations so the dog learns to apply the same walk-around behavior. 

Watching for low hanging branches entails lots of training especially considering that looking up is not a natural behavior for a dog, so the dog must become fully aware of the person he's guiding and always keep him in consideration, despite the fact that the dog can easily walk under or jump over obstacles.

While loads of training and repetition helps train these dogs and many training schools invest time in simulating street-like scenarios on their training sites, it's impossible to cover all real-life situations, so it must be said that a lot of "on the job learning" occurs throughout a guide dog's life. 

A great amount of teamwork is required in safely crossing a street, and as the team gets to know each other better, a strong partnership forms that's built on mutual respect and trust.

Sadly, in the past, intelligent disobedience was trained through punishment. For example, to train a dog not to cross the road when cars were passing, one trainer would drive by in a car while another trainer would be hitting the dog with a foam bat. Fortunately, such methods are no longer in use. 

"In the case of guide dogs for the blind, the dog is not a substitute for vision but rather helps the person with inadequate vision when he or she faced with the problem of safely moving through the world, an activity that normally sighted individuals rely upon their eyes to do." ~ Stanley Coren

Did you know? Guide dogs do not "read" traffic lights as dogs don't see colors the same way we do. Instead, the blind person listens for the sound of traffic, and then, with the help of the dog, decides whether it's safe to move across the intersection.

How is Intelligent Disobedience in Search and Rescue Dogs Trained?

In search and rescue dogs, intelligent disobedience is encouraged by emphasizing the importance of finding people through lots of praise and rewards. The missing person is made top priority. More training is dedicated in finding people than obedience training. 

To further help the dog understand the concept, the reward given for finding missing people is much greater than the reward for obedience exercises, explains Susan Bulanda in the book: "Ready! Training the Search and Rescue Dog."

Did you know? Mercy dogs were trained to guide combat medics to soldiers in need of care. 

Did you know? Mercy dogs were trained to guide combat medics to soldiers in need of care. 


  • Guide Dogs of America, An International Guiding Eyes Program
  • Psychology Today, What Assistance Dogs Can and Can't Do
  • Service Dog Central: How are Guide Dogs Trained?
  • Service Dogs The Rescue and Training of Heroes By Tom Coleman, Julie Coleman,  2016

Photo Credits:

  •  Conrad Poirier: Mr Thomas & his Seeing Eye Dog Public Domain

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