Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Forget formal

Got an interesting e-mail from a friend and student recently. She asked about the best way to “transition to formal training without (insert dog’s name here) hating it.”

The underlying assumption is that once you quit playing around with food and toys in training and start to seriously prepare for the ring, the dog will naturally hate obedience in the absence of his goodies.

It happens. We’ve all seen it. Watch any beginner-level obedience class and the dogs are usually pretty happy. There are cookies. There are toys. There’s no pressure. Everyone is having fun.

Then trainers decide it’s time to get ready to show and they “get formal.” The cookies and toys disappear. What have you got left?


What a complicated word.

It’s not just loving your dog and your dog loving you back, although that is part of it. But it goes deeper. It’s about really enjoying working together. It’s about finding one another rewarding. It’s about trust and respect and patience. It’s accepting there will be good days and not so good days when it comes to achieving the things you want.

You’re never done building and maintaining a strong relationship with your dog but it’s more valuable than any magic treat or favorite toy and absolutely worth every second you put into it.

Having said all that, one of the (many) huge lessons Phoenix has taught me is that “formal” is overrated.

I used to train by taking my dog to a park or building, setting up gates, jumps, etc. and then running my dog through each Open and Utility exercise. Everything was just like they would see and do it in the ring, right down to the fronts and finishes. We did this over and over and over.

Oddly enough, this method worked great for my first sheltie, Jess, because he truly LOVED (yes, in all caps) obedience. It also worked with sheltie Connor because he was a Type A workaholic personality. It worked to a degree with Jamie, because he is the Most Patient Dog In The World and he just did whatever I wanted him to do.

It did not work with Phoenix. Phoenix did not truly love obedience and he is not a patient dog.

That was when I learned that “formal” training is overrated.

Our training now is a mix of doodling, problem solving, drive building and play with an occasional formal element thrown in. This is how we "get ready for the ring."

Granted, this is with a dog who has his UD and understands the exercises. If he showed any confusion about a skill, then we’d go back to the foundation and focus on clearing up the problem. But since he is allegedly “trained,” our training time is not spent marching formally from one exercise to the next.

It’s about having fun together. Training has to be fun on a level far beyond cookies to expect any lasting ring carryover. We’ve learned to play. I’ve learned the difference between him eating a cookie and totally turning on for a game of chase or tug.

When preparing for the ring, I think it’s important for the dog to see the whole exercise assembled occasionally, so yes, by all means, do a formal recall once in a while. Do a stretch of formal heeling. Then do a half-dozen informal recalls using restraint or heel with hand touches, spinning and chasing. Do whatever makes it fun for BOTH of  you.

This takes a little more effort on the trainer’s part because you won’t be relying on external motivators to build your dog up. But you’ll be building something even more important - your dog’s attitude about doing obedience with you and loving it.


  1. Great post and very timely for me. Hoping to get into the rally and obedience ring this year and struggling to keep it fun for Sophie while trying to prepare for the ring. I like your approach to training!

  2. I lucked out: my Novice A dog was more like Phoenix, and he insisted we have a real relationship and it be not boring. I think some folks don't believe me when I say some of my best memories of working with him were NQs: but he worked so hard for me, just because I asked him to. Now I have a dog whose idea of a good time is doing anything I ask of him. I can see how it must be difficult and dumbfounding to go in the other direction. :-)