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

I would like to pose a different viewpoint on why some people like the sport of Obedience and some do not. Frankly, I absolutely LOVE the sport, and I get so excited to get the opportunity to go into a ring and compete with a dog that is having fun. I have participated in agility in the past, but, as this point, I don’t care for it, and don’t compete in it.

First and foremost, I LOVE Obedience, because it is difficult to train and difficult to perform and difficult to achieve the desired qualifying and OTCH point earning level of performance. That might seem a bit sadomasochistic, and, in a way, Obedience, is sadomasochistic. The exercises can be so difficult to train and then perform in public that an intense level of concentration and focus is needed that a large majority of people are not willing to endure, especially for the long haul, like years, that is needed to achieve a consistently high scoring dog.

Then, not only do you have to teach the exercises to your dog, and get your dog to perform in public, but you also have to teach yourself a level of performance. Obedience is a “performance” sport, and a level of formality is still desired and, in many places, expected. The judges still dress formally, including suit and tie for the men and pantsuits for the women. I know that I only wear certain “performance” clothes like black pants, black shoes, black jacket, etc., and I know many people who do exactly the same thing. When you and your dog are in an Obedience ring, you are performing, like on a stage, and many people are turned off by that. I LOVE that, and I, inherently, am a very shy, introverted person, but in the ring, I can be something different. The Obedience ring is the ONLY place I even wear makeup, if that emphasizes the point better.

When I take my dogs lure coursing or racing or other sports, I can wear the grungiest clothes available, and I would be laughed at if I showed up to a lure coursing field in my Obedience clothes. But, in Obedience, a level of formality, appearance and professional attitude is expected. Now, I know of some top handlers who still wear blue jeans in the ring, but those are less common, especially in the upper levels of UDX and OTCH. You may find that in Novice A and Open A classes, and, that is too be expected.

Having travelled throughout Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada to show, that is what I see. If it is different in other area, I wouldn’t know. And, of course, I believe this to be more common at an AKC show, especially if Conformation is also on the same show grounds. At APDT trials, due to the food in the ring, things seem to be less formal and more “fun,” but I still dress formally and act formally. For me it is the same.


People who are training at high levels in obedience (OTCH/UDX with high scores) quite naturally and logically prefer to learn from others with a similar level of skill and accomplishment. There are so relatively few motivational, positive trainers in the US at this level of achievement. (There are many such trainers who train pet manners and such, but very few at high levels in obedience.) I am very lucky to live near one of the relatively few (Joan Armstrong). The next closest one I would personally want to take lessons from is Denise, and she is 600 miles away. I completely believe that there are large areas with no “coverage” in this sense.


It was Finland.

Cynthia Heyman

Definitely one of your best posts. I think this dilemma is common now in the dog training world. It’s interesting to see how things will shake out. I think it’s a good dilemma, in a way, it’s giving people more options. And hopefully the dogs are having a more positive time of training too.


Our obedience trials get fewer and fewer entries all the time too, and we rarely see new people, most likely because of the reasons you talk about in your comment. For myself, agility is my main sport, but I find obedience has been the most challenging sport I’ve ever trained. Finding motivational training methods to encourage the dogs to do what I want in the obedience ring, without treats or toys or corrections, is exceptionally difficult. Agility and other sports have a natural energy that the dogs find fun in and of themselves. Obedience does not. So finding ways to make it fun for the dog and get them to like the exercises is challenging and exciting. Unfortunately, obedience does have the reputation of being the sport where people are mean to their dogs… hopefully we can change this image in the future!

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