Note: I wrote this blog post within a few days of starting my blog in 2011. I don’t recall why I never published it, regardless, I found it here in my drafts folder today. Because I think it’s interesting to observe how thoughts about training (and writing style!) change over time, I’m publishing it now. I could’ve written this today:

9/2011

With time, I imagine I’ll end up writing a fairly large number of blog posts.  A portion of those will involve videos and specific training techniques that I use with my dogs and with student dogs.

In addition, a central theme is going to emerge; the idea of “Choice”.  I allow dogs to choose to work.  Or not. This belief is fundamental to how I train and what I believe about training for dog sports.

Allowing choice is still a radical idea in the world of competitive obedience.  Common obedience wisdom holds that work is not optional, because on some days the dog would choose not to participate.  As one person put it, “when the going gets tough, the dog must understand that leaving is not an option.”

The above statement holds two assumptions.

One, that the work is not particularly fun for the dog, and therefore if given a choice the dog will opt out, and, two, that even if the work were fun MOST of the time, a time will come when learning or competing will be stressful, and the dog must be convinced that even then, he must perform.

When one considers the history of obedience, this was absolutely true.  Traditional obedience training was NOT fun for the dog, and few people really that gave that much thought.  The point of training was to subdue the dog into reasonable behavior, not to develop a relationship with the dog.  The sport of “obedience” meant “obedient”.  Obedient means doing what you’re told.  Nowhere in the word “obedient” is the concept of “willing” suggested or implied.  

When I began training 30 years ago, obedience looked NOTHING like what we see today. It simply didn’t cross competitor’s minds to consider how the dog might feel about what we were doing, and dogs expressing every degree of misery were common sights in both training and competition.

The sport of obedience was an offshoot of the practical need for a well behaved dog.  Calm, reliable, obedient dogs were valued, whether or not they actually liked us or enjoyed our company.

At that point in time, it was considered normal to have to drag a dog out from under the table to go to work, or to go through periods where the dog would simply roll over and give up and no, the dog was not allowed to “get away” with that.  The standard method was “jerk and praise”.  How much the praise meant in light of the jerks is open to speculation.  If nothing else, it must have represented a reprieve, even to dogs that didn’t care at all about the praise.  The use of “bribes” – food and toys – were strongly frowned upon.  The dog was expected to work for….love.  And if not love, then fear.

Today, a much broader range of trainers exist.  Those described above continue to train and trial, but their numbers are diluted by trainers with a kinder and gentler approach.  Most trainers today use cookies or toys, at least at times or to teach specific exercises.

And this is reflected in how most dogs approach their training sessions.  Dogs enjoy cookies and toys.  They like being told they are clever, and a high percentage of dogs learn quite well for the possibility of earning a much-loved motivator.  Trainers who have learned to work with the dog as an active participant instead of a passive one consistently and routinely teach dogs by relying on motivators that dogs will work to earn.  And a high percentage of dogs enjoy the process – when those motivators are present.

So, the change has begun.  Most sophisticated trainers today do take a fair amount of responsibility for communicating with the dog about what is expected.  Exercises are broken down into small pieces and expectations are raised incrementally.  Most dog and handler teams now enjoy the learning process, and it is rare to see a dog being trained to do something it does not understand with compulsion (with the glaring exception of the dumbbell retrieve, which is a story in and of itself).

30 years ago, the dog was responsible for all phases of learning; the handler simply showed up and applied pressure in the appropriate directions until the dog figured it out.

And now? Trainers take responsibility for communicating what is desired, and the dog’s responsibility begins at a later stage. But make no mistake; at some point, many trainers feel they need to communicate that work is not an option.

I’d like to suggest that this is a mistake.  By making the dog successful continuously with food and toys, and not allowing the dog to experience the option of choice IN THE LEARNING PHASE, we create passive learners – we lure with food and the dog simply follows.  And by training in this way, with continuous lures and not encouraging choice from the beginning, we set the dog’s up to fail long term – to work only in the presence of those special motivators or when the handler is being highly active and entertaining.  

If we do not allow the dog to experience choice – the choice to work – from the very beginning, then we are guaranteed to have a problem down the road when those motivators disappear.