It’s an odd world out there in the realm of dog training. I have concerns about it, and it’s not just for the sport of obedience, although I think the sport has suffered because of some instruction trends found in and outside of the sport.
Let’s start with puppy training. In the real world, puppies grow up to be dogs. If the owners of those growing puppies don’t learn how to use leashes, administer discipline correctly when needed, and get past tricks-for-treats to actual obedience, they are paying a lot of money to not get information that they need. And as an additional bonus in classes where the emphasis is at least perceived to be off-leash play with other puppies rather than responsiveness to the owners, they are programming their puppies to be over-excited every time they see other dogs, and to ignore their owners when excited. That combination becomes a fast road to a shelter for many young dogs, when puppy excitement evolves into adolescent experimentation with aggression as power.
Today, many puppy classes are being taught by folks who either are actively antipathetic toward obedience as a sport, or totally unaware of it. To compete in the market with Big Box Stores and every other person who has ever taken a course in R+ training and decided to open a business, some clubs have modeled their puppy classes for pet people on the play group format that sells so well, and actively avoids teaching heeling, stays and recalls as skills that are truly useful. Much of the training that IS done is actually pretty vague with quite variable criteria: Loose leash walking, come here so I can send you back to play with other dogs, sit and look at a treat until I release you to get it (neither a stay or a leave it as far as I’m concerned.).
Most of the antipathy can no longer be based on basic training methodology in the sport of obedience. As competition training has taken a turn for the more stylized ideals of heeling and speed as a virtue, I’d say the majority of trainers are just as interested in using treats and games and toys to make training the skills fun as any pet trainers or agility trainers embracing R+ as their primary tool. But there are some attitudes that are projected by some folks in the competition world that are rather intimidating, and we can be more aware of them and adjust them when we teach to meet the needs of the immediate audience.At the ground level for puppy owners and beginner level training, we still need to
focus more on explaining the practicality of the skills, rather than talking too much about “perfection” and “points”. We need to NOT threaten new trainers with the idea that it will take hundreds of hours of drilling to achieve success. Okay, it probably will overall, but focusing on progress week to week rather than intimidating them with an unfathomable hour count to achieve Ultimate Perfection is more encouraging. Today, it’s possible to show them that teaching heeling as a short-duration tight control option based on the dog following a particular focal point is actually easier to teach clearly and see progress on than loose leash walking. I can have a team doing excellent puppy heeling in about 5 minutes. Loose leash walking is so non-specific that people don’t really have a clear vision of what is right and what is wrong, or when or how to fix it. You could teach it, but you’ll have to define it to help your students be clear in their own minds, and know specifically what to do when the line is crossed.
It’s possible to show the advantage of teaching a recall with a sit in front for treats and praise, so the dog learns not to do drive-by runs or jump on their owners, or gradually start ignoring the recall in anticipation of simply being sent back to play with his friends, rendering the recall to owner a waste of time. It’s possible to show the advantage of teaching a really good stay and the skill of being calm AROUND new people and other dogs without actually physically interacting with all of them, so that folks and other dogs who don’t want to play with every young dog they meet can also be comfortable around your students’ dogs rather than having to fend them off because, you know, “He wants to say hi!”
We can all review our programs and look for improvements in puppy and beginning classes that make training both fun and effective, and facilitates progress that will build on skills rather than put the new trainer back at square one in an alien world if they choose to explore competition. As a former club trainer who inherited students from varied puppy training backgrounds, here are my observations of things that would have made their transitions easier.
1) TEACH LEASH HANDLING SKILLS! Off leash training for puppies is fine for the puppies in a secure class room; but when they become adolescents who really, seriously need to be on leashes, their owners are uncomfortable with the tools, and that is a huge disservice. Include information and practice with the use of long lines, and yes, even Flexi leashes.
2) Teach leash manners! Many of the dogs our club inherited had learned to see the leashes as the tools they used to drag their owners into the class room where the leashes would be removed so the puppies could play. And then the bigger adolescent dogs used the leashes to drag their owners down the sidewalks to the nearest dog park, where again the pulling was rewarded with freedom to play with other dogs. This meant that folks had to endure sumo wrestling matches and rodeos with some of their dogs as their first moments in a new class, and some of the dogs were so big that two-handed restraint necessity made it pretty impossible for them to use any sort of motivators. That sort of experience is WHY a lot of them were there, but it’s a source of embarrassment and frustration and even fear for the owners that could have been prevented with better leash skills (handler) and leash manners (dog). (Not to mention that a more responsive-to-owner foundationmwould have been a better idea altogether!)
3) Teach heeling as a useful skill first, not a dance display. It’s possible to demonstrate the usefulness of showing the dog a focal point to use as a beacon to follow closely in distracting circumstances, without getting over picky about head posture and body alignment with young awkward dogs and unskilled handlers trying to juggle a leash, a treat, a bouncing puppy, and two left feet. Talk about heeling as one of those replacement behaviors for pulling on the leash, jumping on people, and eating stuff on the ground when out for a walk. If you don’t, trust me, the way the owners replace pulling on the leash is to take the leash off, and various levels of disaster ensue.
4) Teach recalls with fronts. Teach it in the context of being consistent about what the “come” command means, so that the dogs know they will always be praised and rewarded for coming in to sit and face their owners. Don’t talk about points off for crooked sits; just talk about focus, cooperation, and consistency.
5) Teach acceptance of physical restraint and guidance. While luring has some progression issues, it is a method that helps new trainers and young dogs achieve sit, down, stand and come skills quickly. When combined with other hands-on work, such as yielding to collar pressure or accepting guidance with hands, it gives owners a bigger and better toolbox for communication and teaches the dogs how to respond to it confidently rather than resist it. Any dog who will exceed 20 pounds at adult weight will need that, and their owners will eventually appreciate it. Teaching a young dog to yield to directional collar pressure is easy; stopping an excited adolescent from APPLYING collar pressure to his owner is not so easy.
6) This next one is going to offend some folks, so I’m putting my flame suit on. Skip the clicker and free shaping stuff in beginning classes for pet owners. I have had the chance in my travels to sit on the sidelines and listen to students talking among themselves at clubs all over the country. What I have heard is not resounding admiration for the clicker training. While free shaping is fun for experienced trainers to play with, it is frustrating for new trainers who wouldn’t know an approximation if it slapped them in the face. But here are some other reasons I think it’s a bad idea.
1) Free shaping teaches dogs the process of guessing, rather than looking for and receiving information from their owners. (Also known eventually as obedience!)
2) Free shaping takes way more time and way more environmental management and limitation to achieve timely progress than the average owner is either capable of or willing to do.
3) Free shaping fosters a hands-off communication system, and I believe this is very dangerous because it reduces the amount of practice the dogs get on accepting touch, hugs, and guidance.
4) Free shaping, even done well in terms of success at collecting a lot of behaviors, creates a mental state of excitement and acquisitiveness that is not necessarily a truly cooperative and stable emotional state desired in the average household. It’s also a method that actively discourages clear identification of mistakes aside from no marker and no reward, which is not a good thing outside of the carefully managed training setting when the world at large motivates so many social errors. It is also disastrous for many dogs who end up competing, because the ring is so marker-andreward barren compared to training that the dogs either start throwing behaviors to find the right answer, or they shut down out of frustration.
5) Yes, there are some issues of working past the lure stage of lure and reward training, but it’s a method that lends itself better to defined instructions that are transferable to other family members. Once skills are established, lures can be combined with leash guidance to teach dogs how to respond to it physically and emotionally so that the transition to cue response rather than lure following is an orderly and successful one. And remember that THERE IS NO MAGIC TO THE CLICKER ITSELF! It’s a noise. Any time that its marketers of clickers tell you it will increase learning speed because of the part of the brain it activates (the amygdala), remember that the saved time is lost when you have to then condition verbal markers that you could have used in the first place. And…that particular part of the brain is a very excitable part. It’s not the thoughtful part that needs to be well developed for excellence in stability, social tolerance, and reliability.
7) Teach the process of transferring off of a lure to achieve command or signal response. Different trainers will have different ways of doing this. I combine lures with directional collar pressure both to add the directional information to the conversation, but also to use it as a slight annoyance that is a valuable tool as a negative reinforcer when it comes to dealing with obedience failures. Please DON’T pretend that dogs trained with enough positive reinforcement won’t ever be disobedient. Prepare people for coping with reality. Strive to give folks methods and tools that are effective in a matter of moments or hours or days, rather than months or years. Resolving conflicts quickly between owners and dogs, with temporary but impressive penalties of personal comfort directly associated with bad social behavior, will reduce the frustration level in the relationship, and it will keep more dogs happily in secure homes for long lives. Performance obedience is an art form, but the happy family with a wellmannered dog is the real purpose of TRAINING.
Next time, I have some thoughts on Rally and advanced level obedience instruction.
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