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Purely Positive??!!

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From one trainer to a group of trainers:  “Don’t attend that seminar because she’s purely positive”.

In my mind, that makes as much sense as saying, “Don’t make new friends; you might enjoy their company” or “Don’t go to school; you might learn something interesting and useful”.

Too much smiling and laughing in one place?  Happy dogs and happy people?   How can that possibly be a problem for someone?

Don’t attend a seminar based in positive methods because you might learn….

How to train a dog based on “want to” rather than “have to”?  How to achieve success without force?  How to successfully relate to your dog as a teammate?  How to make obedience an attractive sport to new competitors?  How to smile and laugh while you train?

Which one of those might a person want to avoid?  Seems that if even one of those changes happened for you it would be a pretty cool thing.

One of the saddest things I see when watching some obedience competitors train is the wary hardness in their expression; it is always there, just waiting for the mistakes that simply cannot and must not happen.

How freeing some people would find it to give up that hardness.  How might that small change bring people into our sport?  If our culture were forgiving and team based rather than controlling and handler driven….would our sport be able to grow again?

Of course, you might attend this “purely positive seminar” and you might learn nothing.  In that case, you’ve wasted some time and money.  If that is a concern (which it would be for me), its easy to research seminar presenters these days – try Google or a Facebook training group.  If people attended a seminar and learned nothing, they’ll say so.    If they learned a lot…well, that will come out too.  And that’s free.  Unless a trainer is brand new, there is plenty of information to be had, if you simply look for it.    One would hope that you could get more information than, “don’t go because she’s positive”.  That’s just weird.

Unless a fellow exhibitor knows these things already, why would you want to discourage someone from having that opportunity?  Worst case, they learn nothing and you have an ally in your resistance to positive training.  Best case, they discover just what an amazing journey obedience training can be.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

23 responses »

  1. Denise, are you giving a seminar somewhere close by? If yes, when and where do I register?

  2. Charlene Schreiber

    Your comments are right on target, Denise!

  3. Thank you Denise. Great article. I’ve been in dogs long enough to have seen the changes, and embraced them. I’m loving the training and competing I’m able to do with my Border Collies in a variety of disciplines, and seeing them happy and ready for fun (sometimes too much fun, but that’s a good problem to have.) I’m grateful to all the positive, relationship building trainers both online and in person, who have helped us on our journey, and continue to help us.

  4. Once again you nailed it! Just keep doing what you’re doing and the changes will continue and hopefully the sport will evolve to something more people and dogs will enjoy. Actions and results speak louder than words. Information is power and the more access people have to positive methods, the more they can use them to solve their individual training challenges.

  5. There’s a lot of resistance still, but things are changing. Your Academy is a great resource for folks in areas where it’s hard to find positive ways to train precise, beautiful obedience, while having fun with your dog! I help out with our club’s monthly obedience run-thrus, and while we still see a lot of collar jerking we also are seeing more treats, more tricks, more fun. Change is slow, but it’s coming.

  6. Amen, sister.

  7. Excellent (:

  8. I remember, with my first dog, there was a woman who literally scared me with her constant scowling as she warmed up her dog at a match or trial. You really have to wonder why people do it if that’s how they feel about their dog. Very sad.

  9. In principle I agree, but you’ve touched on a major pet-peeve of mine. Feel free to ignore, long comment is long.

    I hate the term “Purely Positive”. In part because it doesn’t actually exist (any time to you withhold a reward you’re no longer “purely positive”) and mostly importantly because trainers who use force, who believe that the only way to guarantee that an animal will listen to you is to dominate it completely, use that phrase to suggest that trainers who don’t use force let things slide, that there are no rules for their dogs because “those purely positive trainers” can only get a dog to behave by leading them around with a cookie. The term is misleading, which is why I prefer “force-free”, because in a world where marketing and appearance is everything, and you’re trying to find a label for a hugely complex subject that encapsulates it in one to two words, for me that’s the phrase that comes closest, and has less “touchy-feely” elements to it.

    I’m a crossover trainer (not a professional, just in how I train my own dogs), and not only did I begin by buying into the whole dominance idea (I still shutter at the thought of how many Brad Patterson shows I watched, thank god I switched over before CM became a thing), but before getting my first dog I actually started out training horses, and working as a groom professionally for years. I was indoctrinated with the whole “Ask, tell, demand” mentality, I used to work with breeding stallions, and horses with behavioural issues severe enough that I could have gotten killed if I’d been off my game (or just unlucky). There was no room for softness at the top levels, so throwing out a phrase like “purely positive”, which sounds like a self help gimmick to me, even now that I’ve eliminated force and harsh tools from my training, isn’t going to work very well. It’s not a phrase I would use to try and convince any of my old horse-trainer buddies, and thinking on it I don’t think ANYONE that I’ve worked with since starting with horses seventeen years ago has switched over to R+ methods, or would have anything particularly nice to say about it.

    I remember about ten or so years ago when Natural Horsemanship was really becoming a “thing” (thank you Monty Roberts) and I started researching it and came across Pat Parelli’s website. I was there for about five minutes until I read the word “horsenality” and immediate dismissed it as nonsense. I remember blithely saying to a friend, “I can get a horse to love me in a second with a carrot, but I’d rather have their respect.” Because in the world I was living in at that time “love” and “respect” didn’t have to happen at the same time.

    When you come from a training culture where a large part of your reputation is built on being a tough guy, it becomes super easy to dismiss anything that suggests you should become weak. When you’ve spend your professional career rationalizing to yourself that what you’re doing is just “tough love,” and that there’s no problem with the relationship you have with your animals because you honestly believe it is based on respect (when in reality it’s based on intimidation and fear), you become convinced that anyone who thinks different is just naive. And it’s real easy to conflate “naive” and “stupid”, so why would you want to learn about something from someone you already think so little of?

    Now, anyone reading this blog knows that R+ has nothing to do with being weak. But telling a trainer used to employing force that they should try being “purely positive” is like telling someone who does manual labor to go to a self-help seminar because the experience is “so positive and nice”. To which they’ll say, “Yeah, that’s great, but that stuff is for people who can’t handle the real world, and for people with lots of free time. I’m perfectly happy with the results I’m getting, and am too busy for that sissy stuff.”

    I switched because I had a dog with issues, I tried all the dominance tricks I was told (though thankfully never could bring myself to use anything beyond a buckle collar, which hopefully made my collar popping and alpha rolling less horrible for my poor girl) and it still wasn’t working. Not long term, anyway. And I knew it wasn’t my timing, and I knew it wasn’t my application, so I searched out other methods and arrived where I am now, and I couldn’t be happier. I want to be an advocate, but I often feel like we “purely positives”, or “positive-onlys”, or “cookie trainers” do a bad job of representing ourselves as a group. It’s how insanity like this gets put out there as a viable reason to continue using force ( We’re not going to convince these sorts of people because they think they already know how force free training works, and they’ve found it lacking.

    I wish I could think of a way of rephrasing “Positive does not mean permissive” into a catchy label for R+ training, I think we’d catch more flies with that type of honey.

    • personally, I never use the phrase “Purely Positive”, because I don’t believe it exists, and the only time I hear it is when it’s being used in a disparaging fashion. But I used it in this article because that is what the person said to the other trainers. I tend to say “+R” but even that is not accurate. “Force free” is pretty good, but the training I believe in goes well beyond that. And “I know it when I see it” is probably not all that helpful either:). I do like Susanne Clothier’s “relationship based” training because that has meaning to me, but probably not to most others, and relationships come in many forms. Thanks for writing.

      • Great article! I also like Susanne Clothier’s “relationship based” training and this is what I try to teach.

  10. I really liked the way you wrote this. Purely positive or force-free…only truly meaningful when you observe someone in action. A simple phrase needs a pretty lengthy definition for others to really understand all it encompasses – and all that it doesn’t 🙂 For example, I believe that you can “force” a dog to do something they don’t want to (say, pressuring them into approaching something) using a treat! It takes a little finesse to fine tune such a task with distance or criteria changes to take this pressure off. Thanks again for writing this. It’s great to have this in the obedience world.

  11. Pingback: Purely Positive? I don’t think that means what you think it means.

  12. While I absolutely agree with your post, I have to point out a reason why some trainers may speak disparagingly of “purely positive” training. Many years ago, my dog club was approached by a local person stating that she would love to help us move to “purely positive” training. She didn’t want to join our club she just wanted to use our facility whenever she wanted and be put in charge of our training program. When she came to the club meeting to make a presentation about her proposal, her attitude toward everyone at the meeting (including those of us who were trying to change the culture to reward-based training) was that we knew absolutely nothing, were cruel and evil, and needed her to “save us from ourselves.” Needless to say, her proposal was roundly rejected. Worse, her nasty attitude nearly undid all the progress those of us who were working to change the culture.

    Many “purely positive” trainers are wonderful but there are a few bad apples who fail to realize that positive reinforcement works even better on humans than on dogs. If you are going to be condescending, dismissive and, even, argumentative with the human half of the team, you are not going to succeed in changing their behavior.

    • Alicia, your post hit home with me, cuz I remember reading Donaldson’s Culture Clash and she wrote something like ‘anyone who would use force is “morally bankrupt”. I never forgot that condescending, denigrating phrase, and how I thought she obviously treats dogs much better than she treats humans, or else she’s one heck of a hypocrit.

      Now, playing devil’s advocate….almost all sports are accepting of FF during foundation training these days, and there are lots of great seminar-givers who teach wonderful, fun foundation training.. The perception problem (IMO) comes in progressing to the advanced levels of training and competing while remaining FF. Since almost no one is successfully doing it, it’s a hard sell.

  13. Thanks for writing this Denise!

  14. Good article! I really hate those Grumpy Gus/sies giving me the stink eye at an Obedience event. Really? Wow, I expect that in the breed ring but at Obedience, Rally, Agility???

    I am frankly rather intimidated by “Force Free” training even though I’ve used it with my herding-breed dog since I got him…..and I’ve known about it for over 15 years…..and for a very odd reason….

    Mind you,, I’m not advocating forced training here. I had a dog years ago I did really well in Novice with (using luring mostly, very few mild corrections — ever) but she would not retrieve because it had been forced on her. The Ancient Method. You don’t want to know.

    Here is where All-Positive or Force Free gets intimidating and it’s not just me. I’ve talked to other “novices.”

    So much of it is based on timing: Correct Timing. You always hear about Timing and Accuracy! Now, I have a vision limitation which creates about a .5 to almost 2 second delay in either (or both) the click (or tongue click or Yesss!) and/or the treat delivery.

    In other words, I want the dog to, say, give paw. My dog has offered me a slight paw thing and I’ve missed the proverbial boat by a mile. “Oh, yes, I DID see that!” Click!! Ah, but it’s not for the paw thing. He’s gone beyond that.

    Thus, oftentimes, my dogs look at like me like I’m gone crazy. I end up feeling frustrated and feeling seriously sorry for two bright, willing canines whose mom just says, “It ain’t happening, kids. Sorry: bad mom! I’ll settle for you all to be reasonably civilized. I know ignoring the cat is not in the cards. And that Novice/Rally thing? Oh, well…..”

    I’ve talked to a few AP trainers about this so they know that’s my particular “fault”. Seriously, picture me at Chicken Camp?? “The chicken did WHAT? When??” It could be amusing…and I think amusing is sorely needed in training.

    I think a lot of people are so truly afraid they’re either going to get it “wrong” and establish an unwanted behavior or that they’ll NEVER get that wanted behavior — that it will literally take years. And years. If you’re like me and you grew up in horses, you were probably taught that 90% of unwanted behavior or bad performance is squarely on the rider’s shoulders. So if the dog “screws up,” you mentally flail yourself.

    We all see a lot of good obedience runs from folks who either use force or a combination of treats and corrections. So you think, well, that’s the way to go because a lot of them are high scorers/winners etc.

    The other thing is, and I know this is weird too — but more men are needed who use Force Free. They need to be in the spotlight. Women seem to “get it” and do it, at least in the spotlight. Think of the really big AP dog trainers: you, Sophia Yin, Karen Pryor, Kikopup on YouTube etc. etc. Ladies all.

    Believe me, I always recommend AP or FF as the way to go when people ask me. And my younger dog has only been trained that way. I can certainly see where using force was a big detriment to my older dog and I’ll regret that to my dying day.

    I just think being intimidated by the whole thing, thinking it is going to take FOREVER to compete for a certain title or working with people who have certain limitations needs to be addressed..

    Just saying —- and thank you!

    • What you describe sounds like a challenge regardless of your training method. ALL training relies on good timing. A poorly timed correction is just as ineffective as a poorly timed cookie. The difference is that in one case the dog is wrong through no fault of their own and suffers for it. In the other instance, the dog may end up fat but they’ll be happy enough, even if they accomplish nothing:).
      There are many more women in dog sports across training methods than men. At the top you see more men; I assume that they are somewhat more competitive by nature.

  15. I’m intrigued by what to call the kind of training that appeals to me. I am not purely positive — I’m perfectly willing to eat the cheese my dog was expecting if she isn’t putting in the effort (negative punishment). Truth be told, I’m not even really force-free — if my dog tries to snatch my sandwich off its plate he will certainly get yelled at and could well get his muzzle swatted. I think what I’m aiming for is joy-based training. My baseline for adequate training is that the dog and the human are both having a good time. For me, I find part of having a good time is seeing progress being made, so I want training techniques that are effective, and lend themselves to success in competition. But another part of the good time is in the relationship I have with my dog, and our mutual enjoyment in spending time together. And those two things come together on the occasions when I achieve my ultimate goal of demonstrating to the world how utterly adorable and brilliant my dog is, which only happens when we manage to show both that we are having fun together and that we have mastered challenging material. Joy-based training is as good an expression of that goal as any I’ve found (although I’m always on the lookout for a better one).

  16. Very thought-provoking comments. One thing I’d note is that, while the Fenzi Academy, this blog, and other similar efforts are changing this, there aren’t yet many short, practical guides to training utilizing predominantly force-free methods. Also, there are several areas of activity using dogs that are still fairly “under-served” by effective +R trainers. Some of this may simply involve more percolation down to a practical levell, which can take time.

    Donna Hill’s “bird dog retrieve” videos on YouTube, for instance, I think are good, and still some of the best +R videos in that context up on YouTube. But, from a marketing perspective, a video with a non-hunting breed, likely a non-hunting trainer, and no actual birds may not resonate that well with a large part of its potential audience. A neat training project would actually be a video diary of taking two or three pound dogs and a lab and teaching them all to hunt with +R, including field footage. Technically the same info as in Donna Hill’s video might be there in the “retrieve” section, but packaging-wise it might have more sizzle to many people and make them more likely to take +R seriously as an approach.

    • Such a great reply! The same is desperately needed in herding….to reach a wider audience!! I can’t find anyone who’s doing +R in herding, certainly not in the midwest. Practical “doing it in real life” stuff! And short, fun sessions or “baby” seminars!


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