A couple of years ago, I was walking beside an acquaintance and her Golden Retriever at an agility show. It was difficult to hold a conversation because I was distracted by her frequent leash “pops.” The Golden would start in heel position, forge ahead by a front paw or two and then would be jerked back into place.
This behavior continued for the length of our two-minute walk. Clearly, the dog didn’t understand what to do, and worse, neither did her owner. The correction was so automatic that it had become a mindless habit.
If I had mentioned it, I guarantee she would’ve denied it. She considered herself a “crossover trainer,” that is, someone who previously relied on compulsion and now uses positive reinforcement and force-free training methods.
If only I had been able to give her Dog Sports Skills, Book 1: Developing Engagement and Relationship by longtime dog trainers and competitors Denise Fenzi and Deborah Jones, PhD. The first in a series for dog-sport enthusiasts, it will also benefit dog lovers who would not willingly hurt their canine companions but lack the guidance or resources to learn humane alternatives to aversives.
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All of the information is based on scientific techniques and principles of learning, such as classical and operant conditioning. This underscores the authors’ mission: “We feel that it is important to not only understand what to do and how to do it, but also why you should do it in a particular way.”
Just as important, the training exercises are simple to follow and realistic, so the reader does not have to be a professional dog trainer or dog-sport fanatic to follow through. For example, the “Slow Treats” game is a wonderful way to teach a dog self-control; all you need is a handful of treats (or part of the dog’s meal). The tricks chapter includes a variety of fun, easy tricks that reduce stress on the human to get it exactly right, unlike obedience.
Perhaps the most enlightening chapter is the one dealing with stress-reduction techniques. As a dog trainer myself, I often hear students say, “But he does it at home!” Assuming they have been taught what to do, dogs who struggle with stress or distraction in public are often mislabeled “stubborn” or “dumb” by their frustrated or embarrassed owners. In response, that owner might resort to correction-based methods to make the dog perform, even if it erodes the trust between them.
“Am I comfortable holding dogs responsible for their trainer’s lack of skill?” asks Fenzi, who has firsthand knowledge of the patience required to successfully leave compulsion behind for good. She is one of the few obedience and IPO (a protection sport formerly known as Schutzhund) competitors who have achieved success at the highest levels of these sports using positive-reinforcement methods. She and her students around the country are proof that pain does not have to be used to be successful in these exacting activities.
Reading about Fenzi’s evolution as a trainer brings some questions to mind: How responsible are instructors for giving their students the skills necessary to keep their dogs safe and happy? Conversely, how responsible are students for researching trainers before entrusting their dogs to them? While these questions aren’t specifically answered, the authors make it clear that we’re accountable for the training (and trainer) choices we make.
Rather than focusing on how to perfect an exercise, the authors invite their audience to learn how to train their dogs through observation, education and mutual respect. Dog Sports Skills is a thought-provoking guide to achieving an even better bond with your dog, whether your goal is an agility championship or good manners in public.