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.


Hope Schmeling

I can totally understand the conflict. Thankfully I didn’t spend much time in the traditional training world before being introduced to clicker, but some of what Denise has introduced recently in seminars is different from what I’ve known. I was taught that when you use a clicker, to be very quiet with body and voice, and certainly it’s sound scientifically, but for one of my beagle mixes it was all wrong relationally. She needs me actively engaged with her. Again, much of what we’ve been taught about tricking the dog into thinking they’ll be getting reinforcement in the ring is different from what Denise taught recently at a seminar. I absolutely LOVE the new approach, and I know I’m on the right track with my dog now, but there’s still a bit of hesitancy to break with what we’ve been taught, even if we think it’s an improvement. Even though I know I’m overly reliant on food, it’s hard to make those changes. (I might need a 12 step program for this.) What’s even worse (and embarrassing) is that even as I see improvements in my dogs as I adjust my training methods, I’m still lured by the security of the old way.

It seems like rather than dissing a trainer for not immediately switching to a motivational retrieve, we should encourage her to move forward in small steps, so the leap doesn’t seem so big. That’s what we do for our dogs anyway. :-)

Sara Pisani

Oh great topic and actually one dear to my heart. I started training my Novice A lab in 1996 with a wonderful woman that was a cross over trainer. Jazz was not ear pinched, but her first retrieves were horridly boring. I set her up formally, threw the dumbbell and did a front and finish each and every time. One day practicing in a park, I threw the dumbbell and Jazz trotted out to get it, sniffed the grass like it smelled bad near the dumbbell and came back without it. I was aghast, not that she didn’t retrieve, but that there must have been an aversive on the grass that I had subjected her to. I told her it was OK and I got the dumbbell myself and we went home. It never occurred to me that there should never be an option not to get the dumbbell. Jazz never once refused a dumbbell again after that day in the park.

My next trainer was an amazingly wonderful purely positive trainer that accepted Jazz’s retrieves as they were. One thing she did do was put lots of food in the article pile so that Jazz could munch around the articles and enjoy being in the pile before she went to work getting her article which she always did. In her long career, she never got a wrong article – more on this in a second.

Our last and most influential trainer, had a balanced approach between the equation of “want to” versus “have to” and she truly taught me to be 1,000 times more clear in my cues to Jazz to increase her precision and knowledge of what I was asking of her. Not once for the rest of her career did I stand formally waiting for her to come back with the dumbbell or article in training. I always ran out of the ring for a chase to negate how boring I was in her early years. We were headed to the Lab National outdoors. The food in the article pile had transformed into eating all the grass in the pile and never looking for the article. My trainer wanted me to ear pinch to correct this. I told her there was no way I was going to do that. Of course, to my competitive spirit, it mattered that Jazz was munching instead of working, but I could never have ear pinched her. Instead, with my urging, she came up with a humane, positive and clear way to teach Jazz to get her article without eating grass. My trainer was happy and my dog was happy.

I wish the lady you met at the seminar the best of luck. If you really, really look at the dog when you are training them you can see the consequences of your actions in their faces. Often times that is enough to light the way for your training.

One last thought! Communication is a good thing. Perhaps, this woman could approach traditional trainers in her area to help her without using a forced retrieve and she’ll be helping them expand their own toolboxes.

Bev Maahs

Being a positive instructor and starting in the world of competition, I find that there is a lot of places, to find information on positive competition training. There are instructional dvd’s available and books, and people who are willing to help. With the shift in focus on happy non compulsion based performances, everyone involved should see more information out there and proof that it can be done. Denise is one of the people who has proven it can be done without force. (Schutzhund I think is probably one of the toughest sports to prove it in). She is one of many, and depending on the sport you can find them if you really look for them. Support is out there too, I am from Canada, and a lot of information and training and in fact my certification is from the US. I find it quite baffling that people can’t find motivational trainers in the US? There are plenty of force free positive trainers! Every year I go to the US to a conference to update myself on the latest techniques and learn more about it. And, there are many motivational ways to train, clickers, food, toys, play, you name it. And of course I know Denise travels too, although I missed her when she came up this way.


I will not approve comments that either 1) berate this person’s choices, or 2) explain how to teach the retrieve. If you do not see your comment here, then I made a choice not to approve it because I believe you missed the point. I wish for my blog to remain positive and constructive.

Deb Jones

When I first started training for competition obedience in 1992 there was NO ONE that I knew of that did it positively. Or even mostly positively. By purposely choosing to avoid/minimize the use of aversives I definitely made it harder for myself. I truly had to stumble through on my own making many mistakes along the way and reinventing the wheel. But would I do it the same way again? In a heartbeat. Because it’s an ethical issue as well as a practical one for me. If it couldn’t be done positively then I didn’t want to do it. But now we have LOTS more resources than we did back in 1992 when I started competition training. I totally see your point that people are afraid of not having anything to fall back on when things go wrong, and of course things go wrong in any type of training. It’s no fun to be at a loss and not have any support or anyone to brainstorm or give useful feedback. GREAT post Denise!

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