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Thoughts on Training Dogs

This past January (2019) two people that I knew from years of training and competing in obedience died. One was older by a number of years; the other was 3 years younger than I am.  They were people that I would chat with if I saw them at an obedience trial, match, or lesson.

As I have now entered my 7th decade here on this earth, complete with a touch of arthritis, it seemed a good time to ask myself “what am I doing this for?”

Obedience has changed tremendously since I put a CD (Companion Dog) title on “Byte”, our first English Cocker, in 1988. Since then I have obtained 46 additional performance titles (obedience, rally, tracking and flyball) on 19 other English Cockers over the years.  I have trained with obedience clubs, obedience schools, private trainers and by myself.

Obedience has gotten technical. When I first started training in the mid 1980’s, I just had to worry about doing my right, left and about turns properly and having decent changes of pace.  These days, I have to think about my stride length and speed, whether I’m maintaining proper shoulder position in the Figure 8, walking in a straight line while heeling, positioning myself properly to help my dog do a straight front on recalls/retrieves or whether I’m “holding my signal” in Utility Directed Jumping etc.  Those are a few of the things that popped into my mind in the last 30 seconds; there are many more.

Obedience training methods have changed. Back in the mid and late 80’s, we taught dogs, corrected and proofed with an emphasis on corrections; the training collar of choice was a metal choke collar.  Then the training philosophy switched to positive training, lots of play, no corrections; the training collar of choice was a flat buckle collar.  Food and toys were an integral component for most training, although there are purists who refuse to incorporate food at all.

Now if you want to “throw the cat amongst the pigeons” just raise the topic of training methods and philosophy amongst a group of passionate obedience enthusiasts. 🙂

Personally I incorporate food and toys in my training and wean the dogs of both as they progress. I still train my dogs in a metal choke collar and I will correct, as appropriate.  I try to expose them to as many different situations as possible.  I adapt my training methods to each dog’s personality.  As an example I was far firmer with TUX the party boy, than I ever was with his mother, Olivia, the worry wart of the family.  I also incorporate a lot of down time and “just going for a walk in the fields to relax” in my training.

Most of us now recognize the importance of “good health” for our performance dogs.  Back in the 80’s if a purebred dog wasn’t “show” (aka conformation) quality, the prevailing thought was that perhaps someone could do obedience with the dog. Health testing was typically only carried out by breeders for their breeding animals.  And then agility arrived in Canada.  Things changed!  I witnessed improperly conditioned dogs pull up sore after jumping.  I witnessed dogs with patella or hip issues clipping jumps.

Years ago, before we had the Optigen genetic PRA test, I witnessed a wonderful ECS, trained by a dear friend, take down the Utility bar jump because it appeared the dog could not judge the jump height.  Examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist confirmed that the dog was PRA affected.  I myself had Olivia competing in Utility when she was diagnosed with middle age, pinpoint cataracts; I had to retrain her in several exercises and alter some of my ring routines.  Olivia got her UD at 9 years old and was retired.

Simply speaking, performance folks have to pay attention to their dog’s health and conditioning.

A lot of us are getting older. In November 2018, Front & Finish magazine conducted an online survey of over 1500 obedience exhibitors. 84% of survey participants were over 50 years of age.  67% of survey participants were between the ages of 50 and 69.  I myself see the lack of younger competitors, particularly in the Novice level classes.  Obedience trials that I regularly went to in the 90’s and that had 55 to 65 entrie per trial are now down to 25 to 35 entries per trial.  And I see a number of us “seniors” doing obedience; that begs the question who will take over when all of us have retired from obedience?

So, “what am I doing this for?”.  Training dogs is exhausting, requires a lot of commitment, patience and thinking through problems.  Sometimes you hit a “plateau” in training and you have to back up a few steps and perhaps try a slightly different approach.  I build in breaks during the year, both for myself and the dogs.  And not all of my dogs are going to get that elusive Utility Dog title; some will only go as far as Novice or Open.  And I do a bit of Tracking and I’m interested in the new Scent Detection titles.

But putting a title on a dog, regardless of the level is absolutely rewarding.  When Olivia got her UD in October 2014, everyone present clapped and cheered; they all knew how hard Olivia and I had worked.