Doing Our Best

I recently had a conversation with a woman from a seminar.  She's been in dogs for a long time now; an obedience competitor who dabbles in agility and other dog sports.  She wants to learn; attends a very large number of seminars, and thoughtfully sifts through what she learns to create a workable plan for her dogs.  She's neither traditional nor primarily positive in her training.  She's a trainer of both dogs and people; working as an instructor for her local training club.  She's kind, thoughtful and helpful.

In private, she opened up a conversation about a few comments I made in the seminar - comments about the logic of using compulsion to teach an exercise (specifically the retrieve).  She talked about the dogs she had over the years, and what led her to the decision to use a forced retrieve- convincing the dog that retrieving was not optional.

In our conversation, I heard unsureness or maybe a little  discomfort.  Not based on my responses, but more the conflict in her own mind between wanting to use minimal compulsion and the need to get the job done - to get the exercises taught in a fair, expedient  and reliable manner while retaining joy in the work for both halves of the team.  Tradition -( the dog must perform) vs. motivational training -(make it worth the dog's while) were in conflict for this trainer.

Having just finished the seminar, I knew that she had some understanding of my opinion - I don't really have a problem getting the retrieve taught using positive methods and with relatively little effort - and they are surely as "reliable" as the next person's dog.  But then she made a final comment which really struck me.  She said, "If I teach it your way, there is no one to ask for help when I have problems"

And therein lies a root problem.

I don't live at the seminar location, and neither do any other competitive, motivational trainers. That leaves her with a choice; start down an unknown path with little help, or continue in a known direction.   I believe she'll continue with what she knows, and I do not fault her for that.  She loves her dogs and provides them with a good quality of life.  She tries to be fair, positive and consistent, but at the end of the day she also values participating in her sport.  She wants her dogs to enjoy the training process, but isn't  quite ready to give up control - to throw out 35 years of training, especially when her training is far from cruel or unethical.

I'm not offering new tools in the toolbox; I'm suggesting a whole new toolbox that suggests you throw out many of your old tools.  That's not very comfortable when your current methods seem fair, even if  those methods are occasionally unpleasant for the dog.

At the same time, what I offer seems attractive.  Reliability, enthusiasm and teamwork with a cooperative teammate.  Hard not to want it but at what cost? What if the dog fails to perform; where is the "have to"?  I tried to demonstrate and explain that issue thoroughly over the course of the seminar weekend, but she wasn't  quite ready to hear me. Intrigued?  Yes.

I'm hopeful that as motivational training becomes better understood, kind and thoughtful trainers with a traditional background will find access to the answers and resources that make them more comfortable training their next dog with a different philosophy, but change is hard.

Competition training is in the middle of a shift, and it's a struggle for many who find themselves in between two worlds - both attractive for different reasons. I truly wish this trainer and her dogs well - regardless of the paths she may choose.


Jackie Phillips

OK. Since nobody else has replied to your post, I thought I would give it a shot to answer your question.

The word “traditional” gets tossed around a bit, and used in at least a couple of different ways. Let me see if I can explain the two most common definitions I am aware of.

Prior to the advent of Rally Obedience, the word Obedience was used to describe the sport of Obedience which consists of Novice, Open and Utility exercises. Once Rally Obedience was invented, the word “Traditional” got attached to the sport of Obedience to separate it from Rally Obedience. So, when the term Traditional Obedience is used it describes the long-time sport of Obedience consisting of Novice, Open and Utility exercises.

Now, here comes the confusion. The word “traditional” obedience training also describes the type of training that was used prior to the use of clickers, which led to the term motivational and positive training. A lot people still use “traditional” training for both pet dog training and competition training. As a child, reading every training book I could get from the library, traditional training is what I first learned as the way to train dogs. I graduated from high school in 1982 in San Francisco, and I first saw clicker training when I moved to Santa Rosa in 1992. I have Linda Hause with County-Wide DTC to thank for that! I never turned back.

Traditional training describes the use of a collar, whether chain, pinch or electronic, to apply a “correction” or “pressure” or “shock” to teach the dog what to avoid. This type of training is a full reverse to motivational training. Pure motivational training teaches a dog how to achieve the various rewards by doing the exercise correctly without the use of a collar. Pure traditional training teaches the dog how to avoid getting the “correction” or “pressure” from the collar to receive the various rewards. In my opinion, the use or non-use of a collar is the difference between the two. Clicker training came out of the training of marine mammals where the use of a collar was not an option.

I hope that helps.


It probably doesn’t matter much, since things are very similar in Canada and the United States (I’m in Canada), but Denise is in the US, not Canada. Unfortunately, many people say they use motivational methods, but it’s not common to find someone who only uses that. I’ve noticed a lot of people who say they only use these methods, but once you watch them, it’s not the case. But everyone’s ideas of what this entails is different. For me, part of it is not blaming the dog, but instead blaming yourself for your inability to train something well enough. Based on the folks I watched while trialing my current dog for her novice title, there aren’t too many people out there who don’t get mad/irritated with their dog (and take it out on them) when something goes wrong.

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Ditto for me. I think it’s the person’s mindset, too, but in a slightly different way. With ‘traditional’ methods, there’s a huge body of work to fall back on when you get stuck – books, trainers, and so on. Creativity isn’t required.

When I first started out, I wanted answers when I got stuck – what do I do now? What steps should I follow? What’s the formula for a retrieve, drop on recall, fill in the blank? For methods that have been around forever, it’s pretty likely that if the thing you’re doing isn’t working, somebody somewhere has figured out another ‘recipe’ for that exercise.

But when you’re training motivationally, there aren’t as many proven recipes, if any. And the trainer has to get creative. Now, it’s one of the things I find the most rewarding about this way of training – I love figuring out how to solve a training problem. If something that I’m doing isn’t working, it’s not a problem, but an opportunity to be clever. :)

I’m a creative person by nature, but even I wanted recipes when I was learning. For those that aren’t as creatively inclined, or find it challenging, I imagine it can be a scary transition. It really is a whole different way of framing the conversation we’re having with our dogs.


Well, it’s easier if your dog will retrieve something to begin with. :) Some dogs, like mine, aren’t natural retrievers and thing you’re insane for asking them to fetch and carry things. Still, I managed with clicking and working with her natural drive to chase. But I can totally empathize with wanting a reliable method for teaching a fetch, to a dog that thinks it’s beneath them LOL.

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