Originally published on Facebook:
My preferred dog sport is competitive obedience. The sport is struggling right now and various powers-that-be are working to make it, in theory, more appealing. How might we get there?
Making dog sports easier is not going to solve the problem of new people not coming into the sport. Adding food, allowing talking, and keeping dogs on leash is not going to solve the problem. Removing stays is not going to solve the problem. Blaming whatever training method you don’t approve of certainly won’t work. Adding more levels between titles might help a little, mostly because trainers will break their work down more.
At the end of the day, the dog sport’s underlying training culture is the issue. Obedience is perceived as unkind, unwelcoming, inflexible, stuck in the dark ages, and too difficult. If that does not change, then the issues will continue.
People need to learn how to have fun while gaining cooperation and control with their dog. You need all of that. That is not a matter of adding cookies or corrections. Both of those additions will work for a percentage of dogs but at the end of the day, what you need to do is learn how to train dogs.
Training is innately interesting to many people (and palatable to dogs) if it is done well. That requires understanding. In my mind, that is what is missing in competition obedience training facilities across the country. Some have added cookies because they have learned that when an owner is holding a cookie the dog is more likely to behave. Some use harder and harder corrections for the same reason – they have found that when the dog is on leash he appears under control. These are not the answers – both are crutches that mask the lack of training.
Understanding and teaching excellent training, rather than “training to the competition exercises” is the answer. Treating people with care and respect so that they want to learn is the answer. You can do that as a competitor, a coach or as a judge. Talking badly about others with differing views is a rather poor way to attract people to what you love. It might be somewhat gratifying to those who are already there, but it certainly won’t bring in new people. Or at least not the kind of people that will make for a very warm environment.
When your ship is sinking, it’s time to consider structural changes – patching the leaks only works for so long.
I want to talk about the TEAM training program. Not as a way to title your dog, but as a way to change the culture of training within obedience based sports.
The point of TEAM is to teach people how to train by breaking down exercises and improving them. It emphasizes good training that leads to results, rather than results driving training. Poor trainers could get through it, but it would be a whole lot harder for them.
If you have not taken a hard look at the TEAM program, consider doing that now. Notice how the levels build on each other and emphasize excellent training at every step.
Now consider what would happen if your local dog training club started competition training in this way. Consider what would be happening in the entry level class – compare “one step halt” to doing things with impulse control, cones, jumps and scent work – as the starting point? Consider what would happen if the trainer learned early on how to maintain control in the face of distractions, in new places, and when they weren’t holding a cookie or a leash. Consider what would happen if entry level obedience was more than precision heeling? Consider what would happen if a person got stressed during a videotaped run, and saw that their dog reacted badly to that – before they ever hit a live competition. Consider what would happen if a person realized that taking the cookies off of their body or working without a leash ended their dog’s work.
People can’t wrap their head around that, but to me it’s obvious – excellent training illuminates the holes long before you go to a show.
Why can’t people visualize this? Maybe it’s because incremental change (or better yet, no change at all) is a lot more comfortable for people than fundamental change. But sometimes a new foundation is the only viable solution.
Take any exercise at any level of any rally or obedience organization that interests you. See if TEAM skills would cover it with just a bit of behavior chaining – I bet it would. A new way of thinking. Much more intriguing for dog and handler. Kind. Friendly. Welcoming. If you’re not sure what that might mean, join the Facebook group, “Fenzi Team Players.” You’ll see what kindness looks like.
If clubs trained TEAM and then pulled those skills together into finished exercises, that could potentially change all of the obedience based sports altogether because the process would teach the training excellence. Are they ready? Maybe in a while.