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 dogs. While many performance dog sports are thriving, obedience is not. Our choices can help to change that.