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.


Beth Bishop

Bob Bailey trained dolphins to perform in the open ocean (with LOTS of live fish available for the taking) for well over 10 minutes. What was the reward? A dead fish at the end of the routine. Oh, and NO compulsion. It takes a lot of time and excellent training, but is NOT impossible


Thanks Beth, I was going to mention that specific example, but ended up deleting it because it was getting way too long! :-)


when I say “tradition”, I mean what is considered “required” now – which varies quite a bit by sport. I simply want people to consider that what we know today is not the end of our knowledge; we’ll have more to work with in a few years. The challenge, from my point of view, is that incremental change only takes us so far…new tools in the toolbox is different than a whole new mindset. In my mind, a new mindset is required for obedience to evolve. But hell, I found my way incrementally, so maybe that’s not a bad thing at all. If change means better quality of life for the dogs we work with and having more fun with them, then I’d argue it’s a good thing.


I’m a newbie to obedience and I only started training two years ago. Next month, I’m competining in rally novice A with my eight month old shih tzu. I intend to compete in formal obedience with her. I would never have started this journey, not in a million years, if it wasn’t for R+ training. In 2000, I had intended to learn to compete with my shih tzu after watching obedience for hours at a dog show. I was so excited because I had just gotten my dog. I signed up for basic obedience, watched the trainer jerk my dog around when she wouldn’t heel, and I never returned. It took me a decade to find my way back. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that as long as my dog is having fun, I can go in the ring with her. We will do our best. I’m not nervous about my dog at all, but I need to develop a thicker skin. People seem so opinionated about breeds and how to train. I’m already tired of that.

Heather Staas

Give it more time! Without the help and support of the experienced people in the sports, really we can’t EXPECT to be winning top scores at the trials YET. First we’ve gotta figure it all out from the ground up, on our own, with what little information and undrestanding we can scrape up. But it’s only a matter of time…

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