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.


Roz Merryman

Why can’t the lady use your video teaching if she gets stuck & needs help ?

Jackie Phillips

One of your best posts, Denise.

I have discovered all those exact things in the last two and a half years working Dino in Obedience and Rally. Having been out of the Obedience sport for over 10 years, I was aghast at all the excepted methods of force and brutality in Obedience that remained, and these were by the “top” in the sport.

I told myself that if we were to achieve his highest potential, whatever that might be, then Dino had to want to do the exercises all on his own, and it was my job to motivate him to want to do the exercises.

Now, we are starting, of course, with an athletically fit, highly motivated herding mix, physically capable of doing all the exercises, a natural retriever and an experienced tracking dog. Motivation involved every trick in the book, and a few new tricks, from toys, treats, favorite foods, clickers, physical praise and mixing all those up in every conceivable method I could concoct. The main goal remained: not to participate in the sport, but to train a dog that loves to willingly do the exercises and to show and compete.

We certainly have hit many brick walls along the way, and continue to hit them in the quest for the UDX, but my goal is always that he must be willing to do the exercises on his own. I say my dog has many options, and my job is to help him choose the best options for that moment, and to make him happy with his choice.

My life does not revolve around the sport of Obedience or any other sport. My life revolves around my dogs’ happiness and satisfaction. Everything else is secondary. My dog’s job is not to make me happy. It is my job to make my dog happy, and, in turn, that makes me happy.

That might be the fence this person is sitting on. The participation in the sport with a winning dog, or the thrill of a deeply satisfying relationship with a dog? Maybe they feel they have to choose between one or the other. I truly think that both can be achieved.


Jackie, that was wonderfully said! I am not always 100% successful, but my main criteria when teaching something is my dog’s joy.

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