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.



It does seem like the dogs love doing agility for its own sake, which is just so much fun to watch (and, I think, serves as its own reward for the handlers too. Who doesn’t want to be able to give their dogs that much joy?). :)

Rally is a lot like obedience in that I don’t think the exercises themselves are inherently fun (in fact they’re a lot of the same exercises, just remixed on the course), but our club’s Rally class is always full to capacity. Every term, the instructor has more students wanting to enroll than she can handle. Local competitions often max out their entries.

It’s true that in APDT Rally you can have food on the course and can reward your dog with praise, which is not allowed in competition obedience, but I really don’t think that accounts for the difference in interest and engagement. People like seeing the Rally dogs being happy to do their work. They like seeing all the good stuff about positive training in action: the light in their dogs’ eyes, the happy cooperation from both parties, the warm encouragement from fellow participants. That’s what people want at the entry level (at least this is true of my client base and the fellow students I see at the sports club). They want to have fun with their dogs, and they’re not seeing that fun at traditional obedience competitions. (Even the NAME sounds like total un-fun. “Traditional obedience competition.” Three words calculated to thrill the young dog owner’s heart right there.)

From what I’m seeing, it’s the culture of the sport that turns people off, plain and simple. One of the reasons I love this blog so much, and get so much value from Denise Fenzi’s work, is that it’s a counter-example to a lot of the negative images people sometimes have. Dogs CAN love this sport. Competitors CAN be positive and welcoming.

So yes, hopefully with work the reputation can be changed! :)


A tangential but related issue is how many people in my area (greater Philadelphia region) are turned off by competition obedience because it’s perceived as the dog sport where “people are mean to their dogs.” Agility is very popular, as are Rally Obedience, flyball, nosework, you name it… just about everything EXCEPT traditional AKC obedience. My sports club recently dropped obedience from its list of offered classes because absolutely no one was signing up.

I’ve heard so many stories about people (not competitors, just new dog owners just wanting to explore what’s out there) going to these events and seeing competitors punish their dogs on the sidelines — and these people never go back, because they see that and they don’t want to be a part of that scene. They’re looking to get into sports because they want to share a joyous, cooperative relationship with their dogs. At the entry level, when people are not yet sold on a particular sport and are still deciding WHICH ribbons and titles they want to pursue, this is (happily!) the main consideration for most of the dog owners I know.

And that’s great, because that’s why I do dog sports and why I encourage clients and friends to do them. But I think it’s going to kill off traditional obedience. The (inaccurate, but as this post indicates, persistent) perception that you can’t “win” at traditional obedience without relying on punishment-based methods is causing a whole lot of people in my circles to say “well, okay then, that’s a game I not only don’t want to win, I don’t even want to PLAY.”

Again, this is a select group of people — mostly in their 20s and early 30s, mostly casual owners with pet dogs, typically affluent and well-educated and already sold on positive training methods — but it seems like that’s the young, motivated, enthusiastic audience you’d most want to capture to help your sport thrive. And the lack of good positive trainers doing competition obedience is definitely losing this crowd.


Wonderful post, Denise, & all the best to the lady you spoke with.
In my area there is a similar problem. There are a number of positive trainers around; there are also a few competition people. There is NO overlap. I do take (wonderful) lessons from a KPA trainer with lots of competition experience, but she’s a long drive away, & only in the area every few weeks. The rest of the time I take classes from more traditional trainers if they are willing to help me do things my way. Even the most helpful among them haven’t learned the principles of shaping & of splitting the behaviors into very small bits, but it is still better than training entirely in a vacuum, & does give my dog the experience of working with other dogs around. .


I don’t know why, but I’m suddenly reminded of something I saw on FB the other day of the educational system in the Netherlands (I think, or Sweden) where they said teachers were paid like doctors and lawyers, there was much more than an hour of recess and testing was not mandatory. And they had highly rated educational system. In otherwords, learning certainly seemed much more motivational rather than mandatory and it was the teacher’s responsiblity to motivate the learning process. (jokingly the post said, basically it’s the opposite of US educational system) Not that teachers don’t motivate in the US (I have no experrience in childhood educational system, so I can’t confirm), but certainly the attitude from mandatory learning/testing obviously is emphasized. Change will only come about by individuals willing to try somehting new.

In terms of “if i’m doing something wrong and I don’t have anyone to tell me how to do it” well, i know how valuable you are to have a trainer watching me, but one thing I picked up from you is to have the dog tell me what i’m doing wrong. I’m still trying to teach “triball” to my two dogs and it’s not easy and i have individual behaviors but nothing chained yet. The thing is, this is probably the hardest trick i ever trained and i keep screwing up in getting it to click in his head that i want him to go around and push toward me. (he has both behaviors separately) the thing is, when he doesn’t do it, i try my hardest to observe what it is that’s not clicking for him. i’m confident i’ll stumble upon it. but in the mean time, we’re having a BLAST working on it as a team and thinking outside the box or ball in this case and trying different things. I’m learning, they’re learning, they’re teaching me how to teach them. those are excellent lessons.

I can honestly say, nothing makes them happier than to try and they LOVE that open communication. “OMG, THAT’S what you wanted?” They love getting something and they love trying. they love the training game even if there’s a bunch of “not so successful” attempts. And that only builds into staying motivated long term.

Ellen Clary

I taught my dog to retrieve by transitioning from a squeaky toy dumbbell. It was a blast and doggy loves it, and it’s reliable, so when I find myself in a conversation with someone who believes that the only reliable retrieve is a forced retrieve, i just do not know how to respond. It’s funny the person I was talking to teaches positively in other realms (though she does use food deprivation which is another one I’m less than thrilled about). I’m just trying to figure out if there is even a way to have a conversation about it, other than to show my happy dog.

If my dog doesn’t want to do something, the reason why is there and it’s up to me to figure it out. (For my dog it’s noise issues.)

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