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.


Jana Stein

Hi from Germany,
I am a bit irritated by your post, because it gives me the impression, that motivational training is rare in Canada.
And this thought is very strange for me, as I personally never came into contact with everything else.
This may be because I started with dogtraining only 6 years ago, but in all this time I went to many competitions, mainly obedience, and the people I met there, were all training on a motivational basis.
An especially the trainers, that give obedience-seminars are all working with clicker or markerwords.
It is only the Schutzhundpeople, that have problems to adapt modern training methods, but also there are many people, who change their way und use clicler and positive reward to reach their goals.
So I would like to know, how you define the “traditional” way of training, because it’s so hard to imagine that there are so big differences between here and canada.
By the way, your blog is great, I love it and I got so mucb inspiration ! Thanks!



Note to readers of comments: I will NOT post responses to Kathy’s opinion above. She has stated her opinion here, and there will be no war back and forth on my blog. This is one more point of view to which you may agree or disagree – leave it at that.


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 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.

Darren Sweet

This FB group is helping a lot of pet owners get force free answers.

Kathy Kail

I was surprised to see that you think that motivational only training is something new and/or not widespread, since it’s all over out here where you live. I see it all the time in dogs that choose not to work either because they aren’t in the mood or because something else is going on that is more attractive. But these folks just don’t want to be what they perceive as “mean” by giving any sort of correction, so their progress is slow, if at all. This was really brought home to me last weekend when I attended two Rally trials and watched person after person beg their dogs thru easy courses.

While I and most everyone I know and train with teach in a motivational way, eventually there needs to be some compulsion somewhere so the dog understands that we are not just asking it to do X. And compulsion doesn’t equal “brutal” or “force” or any of the other scarey words I see above; it can be as simple as taking a dog by the collar and putting him back where he was supposed to be or pushing a dog back into a sit. Corrections at a level to suit the temperament of each individual dog.

Motivational training is great and used by many, but by itself it cannot create a truly reliable obedience dog. I don’t mean just in the ring tho that is a big part of it, but outside the ring as well. A reliable obedience dog can do stays outside of a lineup in the ring, comes every time it is called. etc. I am amazed at the number of people with advanced obedience titles who cannot let their dog out of a crate unless they put a leash on it, because it won’t stay in the area once out otherwise. Inside the ring motivational only also breaks down if you show a lot, since eventually the dog just isn’t going to feel like it and then what do you have? If the dog understands its a job – a fun one but a job just the same – then they can have a nice long career without going sour or unresponsive. You also don’t need to find a specific sort of dog to succeed – balanced training tailored to the dog will work on all temperaments and personalities.

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