What is Possible?

Recently I heard an interview with a very well known competitor/trainer.  He said "positive training works with dolphins.....it is not possible to train a dog without physical contact; it's a lie…”.

Physical contact means pain compliance.

My first thought was, "How egotistical is THAT?  If you can't do it, no one can?"  Let's call that my irritable reaction.

My irritation was soon replaced by sadness, however, because if positive reinforcement training is "not possible", then what sane person would attempt it? If a "top trainer" ridicules the possibility, then the message to thousands of less experienced trainers is clear: do what is proven to work, regardless of the outcome for the dog, or the sport.  If a young trainer decides to attempt positive training anyway, the blatant ridicule, followed by subtle sabotage, will usually drive them away from the sport or into the hands of tradition soon enough.  It takes a strong and courageous person to do something that others say is impossible, and few individuals want to play the fool, especially if they are relative novices themselves.

If you want to be a successful competitor, the safest route is the known one.  Many of the most accomplished competitors have very little to offer outside of their method,  which often crams every dog into exactly the same hole they've been crammed into for thirty years.  Yes, these folks win.  If winning is the most important element for you, then it makes sense to go with what is proven to work.  But, when well regarded trainers or competitors state that a progressive method is "not possible", you discourage innovation and set dog sports in the wrong direction.

Wouldn't it be better to say, "In my experience, positive training does not work."? That phrase opens up a place for dialogue and the possibility that you may be confronted with evidence, which might, over time, allow you to change your perspective and try something new.

If the world of today had been described to me thirty years ago, I would have been unable to process what I was hearing. I would have had no way to reconcile such unbelievable information with what I now know to be real and true.  The possibility of video telephones, computers, internet - I would have laughed at you.  If you had told me that athletes were breaking records that were considered physically impossible, that science had taken us inside of cells and DNA and into the very heart of what makes us human - I could not have heard you.  Big Science was a test tube baby, not Dolly the cloned sheep.

If you had told me that I could use food to train a dog; that a plastic toy called a clicker could help me with my training, that I could wait for a behavior to occur and then name it rather than creating each behavior... I would have made fun of the waste of time and the "stupidness" of it all.  I was young and opinionated.  I knew it all, and if I wasn't doing it, then it wasn't worth doing.

While it's sad to see such a close minded attitude on a thirteen year old, it's relatively harmless since no one is listening anyway, but coming from a well known trainer with excellent skills and insight to offer... it's damaging and cause for great concern.

The world of today was NOT POSSIBLE just thirty years ago. Outside the realm of comprehension.  Yet it's here, not only possible, but now reality.    So if the not possible can become reality, isn't it better to try and stay away from absolutes in our thoughts and speech as much as we can? There are so many places to throw up barriers and argue that something is not possible.  Honestly, it makes me tired even thinking about it, which is why I have waited a while to broach this topic. The words that come out of our mouths frame the reality in our heads.  Close your mind to new possibilities and you are right, it will not happen for you.

I cannot predict where a changed mindset will take you, any more than I could have predicted that Dolly the Sheep was possible.  The possibilities suggest, however, that the dog/human relationship can be so much more than what tradition and prior experience may have led us to believe.

I made the change to positive training  techniques many years ago, but it was only two or three years ago,  when Cisu began failing in the ring,  that I made a complete change in philosophy to dog as partner rather than dog as subject.  I can't wait to see what I'm doing in five years, because really, I've just begun to explore the avenues of possibility that are appearing in front of me, and they seem endless.   There is so much to learn.

Training is a journey, not a destination.  If you think you've arrived, you've already missed out.


Raegan Walter

“Yes, I’ve done schutzhund with R+, but i’m only one person. It takes more than single examples of people who are successful to change tradition.”

But you made them move the goal posts again.

Sam Tatters (https://pawsitivelytraining.wordpress.com)

“The words that come out of our mouths frame the reality in our heads. Close your mind to new possibilities and you are right, it will not happen for you.’

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have been telling my OH that a long time, and this is another great example of how that works. Great blog, thank you! :)


“Your treat and praise or tug and praise is worth an 8, chasing a squirrel is a 10, the dog is going to chase the squirrel.”

Curtis, you have obviously never trained with Susan Garrett. :-) It’s actually pretty simple to make rewards that you, the trainer, can offer, more enticing than squirrels. I previously didn’t believe it was possible to do this without corrections/punishment, but it is. Trainers who use physical and verbal corrections do so only because they haven’t discovered how to do it without them. Violence begins where knowledge ends.


I do not think it’s easy to train a dog well and thoroughly without compulsion, in particular in sports where you do not always control or have access to the motivators (schutzhund, field, etc). I also don’t think it’s easy with compulsion, which is why the quality of the trainer is so relevant, regardless of method. My essay asked the question, “what is possible,” not what is easy. If you find value in the idea of working with a dog as a partner rather than as a subject, then the topic (and finding a route) will appeal to you. If you do not see value in removing compulsion wherever possible, then it’s a non issue. I find the process of looking for new ways to communicate and “get my way” without causing mental or physical discomfort to be rather fascinating and worthwhile for it’s own sake.


I am not a top competition obedience (or any other sport) trainer, but I’ve been training dogs for 30+ years now, starting with Koehler, later folding into the traditional and still commonly used competition obedience training, and later yet into clicker and drive training. I don’t know how many titles I’ve put on dogs; quite a few in a pretty wide variety of sports, often with pretty darned decent scores; I’ve had Nationally ranked dogs in 2 breeds and 2 sports.

My training goals have evolved tremendously, but are now two-fold. First and foremost, my dog must enjoy the sport and the training in the sport. If my dog is miserable or stressed, I am doing something wrong. If I can’t find a way for my dog to begin to love the process and the sport, then I do not do that sport.

Second, I will no longer deliberately or systematically cause my dog physical pain in pursuit of a sport score. To me that is a totally unacceptable reason to hurt a dog. You hurt your dog so you could get a 200 or stand on a podium and get a trophy? Really? Why would anyone feel good about that?

We have our dogs for a very short period of time. Our training of them for sport should not just be about us, but about them. Their joy is as important as ours. It really boggles my mind that I used to think it was okay to hurt a dog because I wanted a title or a score. I will never go back to that kind of training.

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