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Collateral Damage

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Recently I watched part of a training video on youtube; the subject was someone working through their drop on recall in the presence of a guest instructor.  The dog was not performing the drop portion quickly enough.  The solution involved dropping things on the dog to induce a drop, and when the dogs stopped coming at all, jerks on a prong collar were added to get the dog to move again.  If I hadn’t checked the upload date, it could have been made thirty years ago.

By the time I stopped watching, the instructor’s solutions had taken a dog that started out happy, bouncy and willing, and replaced it with a dog that appeared bewildered, shut down and desperate to escape.

I have no idea if the dog eventually figured out what he was supposed to do.  I stopped watching when the dog’s drop on recall problem became a failure to recall problem.

What has since stuck with me is not whether this was an intelligent problem solving strategy. What I think about now is the potential effect of this training seminar on the dog’s future as a competition dog, and also how this approach to training was likely to be perceived by the new trainers in the room.

This was quite possibly a new building for this dog.  Ring gates were set up and an audience was watching.  The handler and the instructor were alone in the ring, and presumably the handler was nervous.

Even if the dog rebounds nicely from the actual training, what happens when the dog goes into his next dog show, looks around, and recognizes the context?  A single stranger standing in front of his nervous handler? Baby gates?  A quiet audience?  That seminar looked and felt a lot like a dog show, and the dog did not have a good time at that seminar.

Here’s what can happen at the next show:  The dog starts to get anxious because he learned in the seminar that dog show settings are unsafe.  He shuts down and fails to work even close to his owner’s expectations.  The exercise that would be most likely to fall apart?  Drop on Recall.

The handler, on the other hand,  has completely forgotten about the seminar from months earlier, and has no idea why their normally happy dog is shutting down.

But there is a second bit of fallout that should be considered from that seminar.  Let’s turn our attention away from the dog and to the audience in that room.

As I observed the people in the audience who appeared comfortable with what they were watching, I wondered how many others had just made a decision to find a different dog sport.

If you are a competitor or a dog club, you might want to take a moment and think about how you can affect the future of obedience.  Think about who your limited training dollars support when options become available.  Think about how your training methods and club trainers are being perceived by the general public.  Are you smiling, engaged and enjoying your chosen dog sport?  Are the dogs enthusiastic and eager to work?   Or are you and others seemingly angry or causing pain because a dog failed to fetch an object or sit straight?  Would an outsider perceive your priorities as rational?  Would they want to join you?

Your individual and club level choices about what sort of training to support are likely to have a heavy influence on whether or not our sport is able to survive into the future.  Keep in mind that we live in times when people engage in dog sports to develop a richer relationship with their dogsWhile many performance dog sports are thriving, obedience is not.  Our choices can help to change that.

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.

14 responses »

  1. I’m sure I have shared with you my first obedience trial as a spectator and not even a handler. I was in the perfect spot to see a competitor ear her aussie when the judge’s back was turned. It made me sick. And this was no podunk show in the back of beyond. It was the Mission Circuit in southern California. It was packed with dogs and handlers and owners and the general public. I didn’t know enough to go to the ring steward. I’d like to think I would have if I had known but I know I’ll never forget it.

    • I used to go in the obedience ring and line up and pet my dogs ears, it calms us both down, not any more I had a judge yell at me because I had touched my dogs ears and this was before he even asked if I was ready. I haven’t had a happy heeling dog seen then and are still trying to get the last CDX Q, I’m afraid to touch my dog in the ring now. I still do it in agility and my dog doesn’t stress there and loves to play with me there and I have never ear pinch my dogs, don’t even use a chock collar.

      • Why don’t you just pet your dog on the chest? There is no rule that says “no petting between exercises”. Or teach him to run between your legs or “high five” you on the hand. So long as you are moving to the next exercise and not making everyone wait and watch while you reward your dog, no problem. If the judge has a problem with it, don’t show under that judge anymore.

  2. Hi. I hope you are doing well. Do you give seminars? If so what is your prices, how far in advanced do you book, etc? I am on the board of Cudahy Kennel Club in Milwaukee, WI and as you mentioned in this blog post, OB is kind of dying (so is conformation, but I honestly don’t care about that). I’m more of a sheep herding and agility person, but appreciate the relationship that goes into obedience.

    I’d like to chat w/ you about the possibility of hosting you for a seminar, if you do in fact give those sorts of things 🙂

    -Meredith Biehl, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

    Certified Behavior Consultant Canine KA

    Certified Professional Dog Trainer KA

    Date: Tue, 13 Oct 2015 16:11:34 +0000 To:

    • Hi Meredith, Unfortunately I am not currently scheduling any seminars. If you look at the instructors at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, any of those instructors would teach using positive and current methods that emphasize relationship and enjoyment.

  3. I agree that obedience seems to be declining in interest and participation. I was trial secretary at UKC obedience for my club last weekend and we had only 49 runs for the weekend and lost money. We didn’t even have any Utility exhibitors on the second day.

    We do a little better at CDSP trials in a couple of weeks, but mostly because we have in-house judges. Also, CDSP has a much more relaxed atmosphere than AKC or UKC because it is intentionally set up to be more relaxed and dog-friendly.

    I think the decline might be related to two factors–the rise of sports like barn hunt and nose work that rely more on a dog’s natural talents and less on a trainer’s ability. In contrast, obedience looks too hard–even rally looks like a real challenge to a newbie. And you’re right, if any of the newbies attend a match or show where handlers stomp out of the ring and the dog looks like he wants to be anywhere else, they’re not going to be interested.

  4. Regarding the “it could have been made 30 years ago” comment: If it looked stupid today, it would have looked stupid 30 years ago too. If good trainers today would reject the idea of dropping things on the dog to get him to lie down, the good trainers 30 years ago would have felt the same way. Common sense is not a recent thing.

  5. Unfortunately you do not have to go to a seminar to see this kind of behavior in obedience training. A person that I used to go out and work dogs with has been so “over the top” in corrections that her once-happy dog is basically shut down…and all she does is get angry at the dog. Obedience was my sport for years…before there was agility or Rally or the other options we have today. If that is what I would have to do to my dog to get it to work…it wouldn’t be worth it. But just as bad is being around people at trials who think this is the only way to go. It has been a real turn-off.

  6. Nice post! I have worked really hard to get my dog happy in the ring and achieve a 190 last trial…I am training for a 185. Some of the comments I have received made me think others would be happier with a higher score and a less happy dog. There were several at the trial who clapped because I think they never thought we would Q in any way. What I’m doing is working and I’m sticking with it!

  7. I have pretty much left the sport of obedience for this very reason. I train and compete happily in Agility and tracking. I can’t watch the cruelty that I have seen.

    Barbara CroySent from Samsung 5 smartphone Life is like an echo what is sent out comes back.:

  8. Oh, yes! I have learned to NEVER let someone take my dog from me to ‘demonstrate’ 😦
    I have also learned to NOT take m dogs to training seminars. look ad observe what the other dogs are doing, and how the react to things.
    I have seen some terrible things done to dogs in the name of ‘training’ and I have seen (and been) owners too afraid to interrupt the ‘trainer’ to protect their dog 😦

  9. As a trainers, we must each ask ourselves are we supporting the dog first, and also supporting the sport? Effectiveness is not enough. Are we training humanely? Each of us must decide. Would we want a video of ourselves training our dog to be displayed on the evening news?

    A happy exuberant dog in the ring where both of us as a team are having fun is the only sport for me. I want JOY in the ring. JOY!!

    I have been to a seminar where I took my dog outside to the car, because I did not want my dog subjected to what you described. Ultimately, I thought it would improve, but I left myself when it did not. I now no longer spend my money where my training philosophy does not align with that of the speaker. Just because we can bully the dog does not mean that we should – in the name of “training.”

    Thanks for the post, Denise. I will keep supporting you with my training dollars!

  10. Reading the above makes me sad. People are now living their dreams through their dogs! They forget the first basic of dog ownership is loving and playing with their dog. As you keep preaching Denise from your wonderful books the more you play with and praise your dog the more you get back. They will work for you in a happy manner just for tug toy or the promise of a treat!! There are no short cuts to success. But sometimes I wonder if their dogs could talk what they would say back to these people who try and bully them in this way. Dogs are not stupid and learn avoidance very quickly! I agree the sport of Obedience is dying and it is little wonder if these are the tactics used in order to get dogs to preform!!!

  11. This is exactly why I changed to positive training with my English Springer Spaniel. She was shutting down more and more and my current trainer said to me…. I had never known her previously, “I can help you”. It took three years. She is a different dog now. I love competing with her and try to control my own emotions. She is now one of the happiest dogs that I have ever shared my time with.


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