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.


Caroline Moore

Great, great post. Even the “lay people” I teach in dog classes – people who just want to take a couple of classes and have a well-behaved family pet – really struggle with this issue. They frequently ask, “What do I do if the dog doesn’t do what I ask?” or “How do I make the dog do it if he doesn’t want to?” You hit the nail on the head – we’re not just giving these folks another tool for their toolbox, we’re asking them to use a whole different toolbox that is frequently incompatible with their old tools. It’s a tough sell and a lot of work for the dog owners, but I think the results (that glowing, respectful, happy, fun relationship between human and dog) are worth it.

Roz Merryman

I had an extremely successful Obedience trainer tell me that she will not drive 1000 miles to a dog show,pay a house sitter and spend all that money and have her dog decide he’s not going to pick up the retrieve item. She said he must know," he has too ". I personally like a motivational retrieve . If i can retrieve it ,i will send Denise one of the hottest motivational retrieves i’ve ever seen by a young German girl . When this girl throws the dumbbell ,the dogs on fire to get it !! fun to watch .

Sam Tatters

While I don’t want to berate this woman for her reluctance to try a new way of training, surely – on some level – she is aware that assistance and help are there if she wants it. Sure, it might not be physically close to her, but what with blogs, videos, email lists, and telephones I’m not even sure that’s a real barrier.


I really appreciate this person’s dilemma, but from a totally different perspective.

I’ve been competitive in many dog sports with different breeds and canine temperaments. I’m not trying to pass judgement on anyone, but I’ve personally not had a problem switching to a purely motivational retrieve technique and have had good success with it. My last “competitive” obedience dog earned his OTCH without ever experiencing a forced retrieve. In fact, I don’t have a problem teaching any of the obedience or agility exercises in a positive manner. For me, I’ve found that doing lots of trick training with shaping has given me insights on what to do when things go wrong.

I work with my dogs primarily in herding now. Like retriever field training, which I also have experience with, most herding training involves alot of pressure – pressure and release. The difference with these two activities, compared to obedience, is that herding dogs are usually bred to do this work and have a very high drive for it (as do field bred retrievers for their work). When in high drive, dogs can tolerate more pressure. But after really enjoying the results of positive approaches, I struggle with this. And like the woman at the seminar, I need help because things do go wrong in herding, and everyone who trials uses the pressure/release techniques. I’m struggling, not only with the tactical issues of blending motivation/pressure techniques, but also on a philosophical basis.

In the long run, I know this struggle will improve me as a trainer, and teamwork and relationship with my dogs need to be at the core of this journey.

Great post Denise!

Do you know that you -and you alone – taught me the fun and beauty of the motivational retrieve…with Nolita and Harry? I have never forgotten those “ah-hah” moments and taught Nolita to retrieve such a variety of items with enthusiasm, spirit, and reliability. Glad you are a teacher:)).

Hope you are well.

All my best, Suzanne

Sent from my iPhone

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