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The Miracle Method

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The “miracle method” is a popular method for trialing in a variety of sports.  I’ve seen it frequently in agility, obedience, IPO, etc.

It begins when you enter a trial with a dog that has never successfully completed the required exercises for the class entered.  In a mild case, the dog has performed successfully in familiar environments and with frequent support, as long as absolutely nothing goes wrong.  In the most extreme cases, the dog has never succeeded, even at their most familiar training facility and with all props in full use.

Proponents of the miracle method are an odd combination of faith and irritability.  They have faith that entering a trial will suddenly cause their struggling dog to be successful.  The irritability shows as the trial weekend comes closer and it becomes more apparent that the dog has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through the class.

I have been there.  Most trainers I know have been there.  What you do now, at this point when you’re looking at your canine snowball…that is where things get interesting.

You made a bad decision when you entered your dog in the show.  Too bad; it cost you $60 in entry fees for a couple of classes.

On the bright side, those dollars probably caused you to train with more purpose and intensity, quite likely exposing even more weaknesses in your training.  Good; now you can begin to systematically address them!  I know people who don’t “get serious” about their training until they’ve written the check, and if that’s what it takes to motivate you…fine with me.

On the dark side, some people compound their bad decision to enter the show with an even worse one; they compete with their dog, relying on the miracle method to get them through.

I’m not saying it never works.  I’ve seen the miracle method work in person. Admittedly, I only saw it once, but still…that’s the nature of miracles.  They are rare.  Special.  Not likely to be repeated.  Worse yet, they give everyone who witnesses the event an unshakeable belief that it COULD happen again, if they just keep the faith.

The problem with the miracle method is two fold.  First, it’s incredibly hard on your dog emotionally to be subjected to failure in the ring, where nothing can be done to make the situation better.  Second, it prevents you from taking a pro-active stance in solving your problems.  When it comes to competition, prayer is great, but training is even better.  And anyway, they are not mutually exclusive!

Sadly, proponents of the miracle method tend to be the only ones who believe it might actually come together in the ring.  Everyone else expects a train wreck.   Yet no one wants to speak up and just say it…. “your dog is not ready.”  If your training partner or student has entered a show and is relying on the miracle method,  SPEAK UP!  It is possible to be honest and kind at the same time, and over the long run, it’s a heck of a lot kinder to support someone’s desire to succeed than to abet their almost certain failure.  What they do at that point is up to them, but at least you said your piece.

I know a team that will trial this weekend in Open.  There’s a 50/50 chance that the dog will leave the ring in heeling.  If he gets through that, then there’s a 50/50%  that he’ll drop at his trainer’s feet on the drop on recall.  There’s a 50/50% chance that he’ll retrieve the dumbbell on both the flat and over the high jump before he is sent.   If he’s still in the ring at this point (not likely), then he may well complete the broad jump.  And then there are out of sight stays.  I have never seen him successfully negotiate the out of sight stays for the full duration under any circumstances, so I’d say the odds of failing those exercises is about 98%.

Why? Why torture yourself and your dog?  Why not start over and find the root cause of your failure, and be ready to go back to the most basic foundation skills?  Maybe you’ll spend a full year retraining, and maybe then you’ll be ready.

You already made one bad decision by entering.  Don’t make it worse by competing.

And if you go anyway, then my next best advice would be to start praying.  Oh yeah, and try not to screw up anyone else’s dog while you’re mucking around.

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. I don’t do many competitions, but I see this a *lot* in the service dog world both in terms of public access and expecting to see the dog reliably preform tasks/work in public that they cannot successfully execute at home. It generally ends in drastic failure for the team, lowers public perception of service dog teams as a whole, the dog and handler both get frustrated and lose their confidence and if repeated often it leads to a dog being washed out. In the worst cases the dog is rehomed, hopefully to a stable loving environment but, at times, surrendered to the shelter. All of these problems could have been avoided if the handler simply invested the necessary time into training and waited until their dog was ready to begin work in public. Or, just as importantly, if handlers were willing to admit their limitations as trainers either due to a lack of experience, their disabilities or both.

  2. This is so right on Denise! I enjoyed the read and I have to admit there were times when I too believed in the Miracle Method! Unfortunately I never got the miracles and have been lots more committed to training than I was. You have to do the work to get to the prize!!! Thanks!

  3. Margaret McLaughlin

    I’ve done this as recently as last September–in my defense, the only way to know how a dog will respond in a trial setting is to go to one & see–yeah, train wreck. Matches (hard to find, anyway) don’t give the same info, because I’M not scared. My real stupidity was going back the 2nd day & thinking that things would somehow be different.
    The only redeeming aspect was that it was UKC agility, & when my dog bailed off the teeter 2x the judge allowed me to take her collar, ease her up & over, praise the socks off her, & take every jump at a dead run on our way out of the ring.
    Still, not one of my better ideas.

  4. Excellent article! I would “add” two things:
    1. Unless you are very experienced, and even if you are, it is very helpful to get a second opinion before deciding to enter anything. Run through whatever you are thinking of entering, in a new location, with a trusted and knowledgeable friend observing, and ask them if you are ready…
    2. I do not entirely agree with your description of the ring as a place “where nothing can be done to make the situation better.” If, through whatever sequence of events, you find yourself in the ring with a dog that is not succeeding, there is a great deal that you can do to help. Forget about doing well, forget about being embarrassed, and help your dog. I am amazed how many people “abandon” their dogs in the ring. Laugh, talk to them, praise them, connect with them, find a way to help them (without messing up anyone else, of course). Show them that even in the ring when you are nervous, you are still their teammate and ally. By all means avoid it, but if you are in that situation, make the best of it…

    • EXACTLY! You have already NQ’d or about to. May as well turn it into a training session or at the least, get your dog out of there as soon as possible and as happy as you possibly can. People who continue to stay in the ring and “make the dog work thru it” are on the same level (IMO) as a person who believes the way to “teach” a child (or dog) how to swim is throw them in the lake and hope they don’t drown. I have been guilty of taking my dog into the ring before he was ready, but I am not too proud to abort and take him out if he looks like he is “drowning”. Luckily, he is now up to being able to doggy paddle (pun intended) and I hope that in a few months he will be able to accomplish the breast stroke. 🙂

    • Jeannine and JoyZee

      I agree with you Roland. If you find yourself in the ring with lemons, make lemonade!

  5. sigh… and that’s not only for trialing. People put their dogs in situations, that they can’t handle all.the.time! It’s frustrating for the dog and the human, the chances, that the dog will ever succeed in those situations goes down the hill, and the relationship, if there ever was one goes right with it… 😦

  6. this has to be one of the best articles you have written and its so true….I have yet to figure out why handlers think it will happen in the show ring when its not happening at home.

  7. I totally agree! Problem is peer pressure, even though you know it might not be the right time!

  8. The Miracle Method. One of the best dog training notes. Ever. Right up there with Connie Cleveland’s ‘Don’t Steal My Joy’. Thanks.

  9. I must have got extra lucky – miracle method seemingly has worked plenty of times for me. Green novice dog, my first dog, entered in a trial to keep a friend company ended up second on a count back and qualified. She then went onto to get her novice title in straight trials with a spare leg. A number of years later I jumped on a plane with my same now green “Open” dog, a friend had entered her in the State Champs and we walked away with a pass in Open at our first trial. Less then 2 weeks later she was titled having completed the title again in straight passes.

    Dog number 2 – probably much better trained didn’t manage the same feat. We took a while to get through novice because of blowing a number of very nice passes with a sit stay issue.

    Peer pressure isn’t always bad.

    • It seems there is a brief period of time between when dog figures out what the exercises are and when they start checking out the details. I trialed a “green” dog through her UD in four months on a dare. I don’t mean to belittle this once-in-a-lifetime dog at all, but I believe she was not thoroughly trained when she earned those titles. I think she understood the routine but hadn’t starting asking specific questions about the exercises, yet.

  10. Great article! I confess to in a way being afraid of feedback, esp. if I know I’m behind on something. Kind of like a cold shower, being willing to ask for and listen to it, and correct, always feels better after.

    In terms of not letting your dog disrupt others’ pups, also a great point. Particularly so if in an area of dog sports where R+ is still new-er.

  11. Eve Alexander

    Love the point of view.

    I am still in training classes with my dog, who probably is ready to compete, but I am still on the sidelines while some friends nag me to enter.

    I want both me and my dog to be ready…I don’t want to set a precendent with a 50/50 Hail Mary…My goal of a happy dog is more important than my ego.

    Thanks for reinforcing what I have been thinking.

  12. I dunno about “ask someone” though.
    I was told by an experienced instructor and competitir that my dog, Sally, was not ready to compete in RallyO.

    I was sure she was, so entered her anyway, and she came first in the ring with the loss of only two points — both of which were my mistakes 🙂

    Then, of coure, entering your dog who YOU think is ready, can be an excellent lesson — knowing just WHAT you need to work on with that dog.

    For example, Sally’s Mum was perfect in everything when I first entered her in a trial. BUT she’d never been before in the ‘tria; atmosphere’ and behaved that day as though she’d never done anything before! Lesson learned — it is well night impossible to train to trial standard by yourself even if you DO train in a wide variety of places 😦

  13. I appreciate your comment regarding the not mucking up the other dogs. I have a 6 lb pom that has awesome obedience skills. However, I don’t trial in obedience (we do compete in agility) because I have seen and heard of too many of these “miracle” competitor’s dogs breaking their group stays and going after other dogs. I cannot in good conscious take the chance with her safety. It is too bad because she would do very well and I would enjoy it. I have had judges and top competitors try to talk me into trialing her as she beautiful to watch.

    • FWIW I would be more concerned about trialing my small dog in agility than in obedience….

      • It is not the training. We both enjoy the training and she is very precise and animated. The only thing that scares me is the groups with dogs I don’t know. I have no problem with groups with dogs I know. In agility we are in the ring alone. And yes sometimes things happen but I am diligent. In obedience groups I would be helpless to intervene being so far away or out of site. If she were larger I would not worry so much.

  14. Jeannine and JoyZee

    Here, HERE Denise! I know way too many folks in OB and AG that are trialing their dogs either too young or without enough training. Many people ask me when we’re trialing and my stock answer is “no, we’re not ready yet.”

    That said, I think there’s one other option aside from praying and competing you’ve forgotten: Treat it as a training session. Personally, if I found myself in a situation where I’m in the ring and we’re screwing up royally, I’d continue on with praise and play. Why not? You’ve NQ’d anyway, might as well make the best of it. No?

    • If a person goes into a trial with the expectation/hope of qualifying, I find that they are unable to make that mental shift quickly enough to turn it into a good experience for the dog. Which is completely different than a person who goes into a trial knowing perfectly well that they plan to use it as a training run – a very reasonable option in agility where you can do three obstacles and run out of the ring to a toy or pile of food. Obedience just doesn’t work that way. Is it possible? Maybe. Have I ever seen it? No. Usually I see a person come out of the ring saying, “At least we got some ring experience”, and I see a dog that failed and floundered for several minutes while the trainer racked up that ring experience.

      Now “ring experience”. That is another topic altogether.

      • Now THAT is sensible 🙂
        When I was young (well not so old) it was important to me that we “qualify”. We flunked over and over again ;-(
        Now I feel that I am doing this for fun, t doesn’t matter at all whether we qualify or not, — because I’ve seen even highly experienced dog handlers and well qualified dogs flunking. SO with my current dogs we do much better — and enjoy the whole thing more as well 🙂

  15. Great article ! See this so much in obedience and the poor dog generally gets the blame. When I started obedience years ago, my attitude was ‘how quickly can I compete ?’ Now I take great pleasure in telling others ‘ we’re not ready for the ring,’ even if the dog is a couple of years old before able to compete. Funnily enough, I enjoy both training and competing much more nowadays and I have an increasingly happy, confident dog whose needs come first !


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