The American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen program was designed to foster responsible dog ownership and recognize dogs who have good manners at home and in public. When I first became involved with CGC, over 10 years ago, I took our dog, Ajax, through a training course and the test. Ajax was an exceptional dog, both in his physical appearance (he weighed over 200 pounds) and in his behavior. Even from a young age, he was extremely attentive and well behaved. I found it very rewarding to work with him to achieve his CGC certification, and I learned a lot about how dogs should behave in public in order to be welcome. In fact, though we have always taken our dogs to different places and had lots of people over, I never really thought specifically about the things that your dog should know in order to be welcome within the community. I think the CGC program does a good job of defining good behavior in its ten test items.
The test items are fairly simple: 1) Accepting a friendly stranger; 2) Sitting politely for petting; 3) Appearance and grooming; 4) Out for a walk (walking on a loose leash); 5) Walking through a crowd; 6) Sit and down on command and staying in place; 7) Come when called; 8) Reaction to another dog; 9) Reaction to distraction; and 10) Supervised separation. Most dogs can pass some of the items without a problem. Some can even pass most of the items, but very few dogs pass all the test items without preparation.
One of the things that not only makes the test more difficult, but also more effective is that testing in an unfamiliar area is much more difficult than testing the dog in its home environment. Lots of dogs behave perfectly well at home, but are not accustomed to focusing on the owner and performing behaviors with the distractions of testing in public. I see this at work almost every day. Dogs are nervous when they come to see me. There are all sorts of unfamiliar sounds, smells and sights. Sometimes, I need the dog to lay down, and he can’t listen to the owner because he’s worried about what I’m going to do to him. If you’re never going to take your dog away from the house, it’s not that important that they can listen away from home. But how many times do we take our dogs on vacation with us? How often do they go to the dog park? Or Petsmart? Or on a walk around the neighborhood? A change of scenery is just as good for our canine friends as it is for us. However, it is much more enjoyable for you and your dog if they are well behaved.
Another challenge is that many people think that if their dog is friendly, they will pass. Certainly, the AKC doesn’t want dogs that are aggressive or terrified to pass, but a friendly dog is not necessarily a well-behaved dog. Running up to strange dogs for a sniff is just as unacceptable as jumping up on new people, and can be more dangerous. You can’t assume that just because your dog loves to meet new dogs that the dog they’re greeting feels the same. If your dog runs up to another dog, and they end up fighting, your dog is just as much to blame. Not all people or dogs you meet want an over-excited dog running over to them or jumping on them. In fact, four different test items require your dog to be calm, restrained and in control in situations where they might get really happy. In my experience, item 8, reaction to another dog is one of the toughest items for dogs to pass. To pass that item, your dog must stay at your side and can’t pass in front of or behind you to see the other dog.
I think my favorite item is “Out for a walk.” This is the other test item that gives people the most trouble. I like it because it encourages people to communicate effectively with their dog through the leash. They must work with their dog to follow subtle cues on the leash, rather than either the dog jerking and dragging the owner around OR the owner dragging and jerking the dog. It is truly amazing how difficult this item can be, but it can be so important. Imagine if you didn’t have a fenced yard and you had to walk your dog on a leash. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they listened to you without it becoming a fight? If you dog could walk nicely on a leash, how much more time would you spend together?
Working with your dog to achieve AKC Canine Good Citizen certification is not easy, but the challenges you face with him help improve your understanding of his behavior. They help you communicate better with your dog, and they help your dog be more attuned to you and what you want from him. In three short weeks, it can really change your relationship with your dog, as well as simply improving his behavior. The AKC Canine Good Citizen program is important for many reasons. It can help you get homeowner’s insurance. It can help people identify your dog as a “safe” dog. People use it to help get their dogs in service and therapy programs. There are many benefits, but the biggest benefit is sharing the success of passing with your dog.