Just Shut Up and Train!

The bickering and bantering back and forth between the so-called "balanced trainers" community and so-called "positive trainers" community has gotten worse than the Miley Cyrus vs. Nicki Minaj Twitter wars.  And if you have never heard of Miley Cyrus or Nicki Minaj, that's probably part of the problem.  I purposely waited to add my 10 cents to this conversation because I needed to let myself calm down a bit until the F-bombs I would have dropped a few weeks ago disintegrated into mid air.  Plus that's already been done in another blog.  So I promise to keep this one PG-13.  Firstly let me just say this is directly to the Competitive Dog Obedience community.  Agility people, you're great and completely off the hook here.  It's no wonder people continue to flock to that sport because it is user friendly, forgiving and welcoming to all.  You see people and dogs of all shapes and sizes and abilities enjoying the sport without all the bickering over training methods.  They let their performances do the talking.  So yes, those of you who continue to participate in competitive obedience, this is for you.  And this isn't going to be about who's right or who's wrong because frankly, I think anyone even engaging in this bickering is wrong.  Why?  Because it is based on a plethora of misconceptions and assumptions.  It is based on semantics and what is coming out of people's mouths.  And guess what, you can't go by videos either because people get to pick and choose which videos they want.  In a nutshell, this is all based on "he said/she said," jumping to conclusions, assumptions, jealousy and ego.  Oh, and way too much time on your hands.

1.  Nobody really knows how anyone else really trains.  People can say how they train, teach certain techniques and methods, but in the midnight hour, it's all honor system.  So when you criticize, praise or attempt to emulate anyone else for his/her achievements based on the supposed "methods," he or she claims to use, I hope you realize that unless you live with that person 24/7, you are doing so purely under the assumption that he/she is completely transparent and telling you everything.  But honestly, all that doesn't really matter anyway because the first thing one must be to achieve consistent high scores and stellar performances is a damn good trainer, regardless of what methods he/she has used.  You can argue and speculate all you want but the fact remains that whatever he/she is doing WORKED and that's really all there is to it, but that still doesn't mean it will work for you.  Remember that training thing?  Yeah, you really should be focusing your attention and effort into becoming the caliber of trainer he/she is before you praise or criticize.  In other words, just shut up and train!

2.  What is it with all this picking sides and "all or nothing" mentality these days?  For one, how juvenile, but most importantly, newsflash,  EVERYONE is a "balanced trainer" to varying degrees.  If anyone truly believes that a dog can be reliably trained using ONLY positive reinforcement then I would say you have a lot to learn about training or are just not being honest.  I've seen the term "purely positive" thrown around quite a bit lately and as someone who considers myself a trainer who uses primarily positive training methods, I don't really even know what that is or who that would apply to.  In my mind, that person doesn't exist, at least not in dog sports training.  I've personally never seen or heard a dog trainer not communicate to his/her dog that they've made the wrong choice in some way, whether intentional or inadvertently.  If your dog is running toward oncoming traffic and isn't responding to your recall, I am quite sure most reasonable people will (if he's on lead) jerk their dog back before being killed, or at least scream "NO" or whatever you have to in order to stop the dog.  I've also never seen a dog trainer not use some form of punishment in training.  If you use NRM's (no reward markers), leave or put away your dog when he/she doesn't feel like working, and/or end a play session when your dog starts playing too roughly, guess what?  You're  not "purely positive," and so what.  It's a ridiculous term anyway.  Just as ridiculous as the term "balanced training" becoming synonymous with the use of compulsion, force and physically aversive corrections.  Even 30 years ago back in the dark ages when I first started training, though we rarely if ever used food, we always used praise and petting as a reward.  If we can at least agree that learning involves implementing fair and predictable consequences that the dog will perceive as desirable or undesirable, then the only thing up for debate is what those consequences are, and what an individual trainer deems as "fair."  Yes, that certainly can vary greatly from trainer to trainer, but the training by all would still be considered "balanced" regardless of which way a trainer leans. So what's next?  Are we going to start assigning ourselves percentage numbers?  "I'm a 50/50 trainer," "I'm "80/20," "I'm 95/5."  Seriously?  Just shut up and train.

3. Stop questioning others' motives or reasons for competing.  It's none of your business.  I can't believe how ridiculous it is to read long time obedience exhibitors actually complaining about new people coming into the sport who may or may not have different objectives than their own  Are you kidding me?  Who the %$^& cares? (Oops, caught that renegade F-bomb just in time).  Despite the implementation of Rally and other new classes and rule changes, obedience trial entries continue to pale in comparison to agility and other dog sports such as nose work and now barn hunt.  You know, those fun sports that welcomes all and the competitors are a lot less judge-y of each other.  And for you newbies, I also think you should show a little respect for a sport that, even if it might be behind, is steeped in tradition and really started it all.  If not for those old timers who you show so much disdain for and snub up your noses to, the sport would have died a long time ago. So what if someone is ultra competitive and competes for placements and high titles. Um, hello, it is a c-o-m-p-e-t-i-t-i-o-n after all.  Has it ever occurred to you that maybe, just maybe since they've been doing this for a long time they might be able to teach you something or give you some helpful hints?  There are a lot of insider tricks of the trade that can help enhance your obedience trial experience.  Who better to learn from than someone who's been around the block a time or two?  And for the highly competitive who snub your noses up at those lowly people who enter "just to have fun with their dogs," what's it to you?  Actually, that's a good thing too.  They are also helping preserve the sport, are paying the same entry fee you are, and deserve their time in the ring with their dog as much as you do.  And believe it or not they might be able to teach you something too, at the very least how to update your trial attire or where to get some of those new fangled training gadgets.  As a woman of a particular age myself, I don't mind taking a cue from some of my younger friends on where to find comfortable shoes appropriate for the ring and breathable clothes that still look good.  Trust me, these young whippersnappers really know how to navigate the internets!  I kid, but the bottom line is, anyone who wants to still participate in the sport of competitive dog obedience is on the same team.   In the words of Rodney King (again totally outing myself as one of those old timers), "can't we all just get along?"  But in the meantime, just shut up and train.

4.  Stop questioning anyone else's relationship with their dog.  I'm going to take a stab here and say I'd be willing to bet that anyone who is competing at a high level and turning in consistently stellar performances with their dog(s), regardless of what training methods he/she uses, has a pretty damn good relationship with that dog.  Again you can't accomplish this without being first and foremost a top notch dog trainer.  And it is my belief that you can't be a top notch dog trainer without a strong relationship with that dog.  Now it may or may not be "your" idea of the relationship that you cultivate or would want with your dog, but that's not your choice to make any more than it would be your choice to tell any human parent how to raise their human child.  Let the dog's attitude in the ring reflect the relationship.  You will be hard pressed to find consistently top achieving dogs slinking around the ring in fear.  And let's take a minute for some honesty here.  You know good and well that just as many dogs that are trained with primarily positive methods are stressy and walk around the ring as if it's a death march as any other dogs.  Is there anything you've done to your dog to make him/her behave that way?  Why is your dog like that?  You must have done something to that dog.  Poor pup, I feel so bad for him.  Are you a horrible person or something?  Why are you continuing to compete with a dog who is clearly showing you that he/she doesn't want to be there?  Wow, that was awful judge-y of me to ask all those questions and make all those assumptions when I don't know you or you and your dog's relationship, wasn't it?  Hopefully, point taken.  Just shut up and train.

5.  Stop blaming "an increase" in dog attacks during group exercises on "positive training."  Firstly, until anyone can definitively prove to me that there has, in fact, been an increase in dog attacks over the past 10 - 15 years, I will continue to consider this claim to be pure and utter hogwash.  Like I said, I've been in this game for over 30 years now and there have always been dog attacks.  Again, back in the dark ages you would only know about it if you happened to be at that particular trial or by word of mouth from someone who had been.  However,  in today's world of social media and the ability to spread information (whether factual or otherwise) instantaneously to the rest of the world with the click of a mouse, word travels fast.  So just because we hear about it more often doesn't necessarily mean there's been an actual increase.  Secondly, as I've already pointed out above, EVERYONE is a balanced trainer anyway, so this mythical "purely positive" obedience competitor you speak of is non-existent.  I have yet to see a trial entry form requesting exhibitors to describe how they've trained their dog, so this claim would never be able to be substantiated anyway.  Now one thing I will say is a dog being out of control in the ring, breaking a stay and/or initiating an attack can definitely be chalked up to ineffective training and obviously a handler entering a dog too soon, regardless of training methods.  In that case, everyone needs to just shut up and train, and that too, would be taken care of.

6.  If you have time to argue over training methods, I envy you.  I have had so many significant challenges in my life the past 15 years or so, I'm just happy to have the time and energy to make it into an obedience ring these days.  It is all I can do to focus my attention and energies on my own dog and my own training, let alone concern myself about anyone else's.  I am just happy and grateful to wake up in morning, be able to get myself out of bed and be able to squeeze in training my own dog.  If I am able to make it to the occasional obedience trial, I really don't care who else is there.  All I want is our performance to reflect the training WE'VE put in.  I am a firm believer you get back what you put in.  If I've put in consistent and effective training that should land us in the ribbons, and yes, then that is what I will hope for.   if I know I haven't quite put in the time to expect that type of performance, then I'm not going to have sour grapes and start complaining about the training methods used by those who beat me.  Talk about poor sportsmanship.  If you have all this time on your hands and you aren't getting the performances that put you in the ribbons, you know what I'm going to say.  For the love of Pete, please, first get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars, then shut up and train.

Those who know me know that I use use and teach positive training methods , but I am also an equal opportunity "getcha" and have tried my best to keep this blog as "balanced" (there goes that word again) as possible.  So if you happen to see me competing at an obedience trial and my dog and my performance is less than stellar, please don't blame my training methods.  Feel free to blame my overall training skills, lack of preparedness and readiness for the ring on that given day.  Whew, this is hard to admit, especially publicly, but who am I kidding.  I know full well I'm not the trainer I once was.  Having been ravaged by chronic illness and surgeries, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own body.  Some days my timing is way off, my body just won't move as quickly as I would like and I'm unsteady on my feet.  There are many days I am just too exhausted to train.  Fortunately, my wonderful, accommodating and forgiving dogs do their best to take up my slack, but my decline is piercingly and painfully apparent.  But this is also why I am so grateful to just be able to be out there enjoying the sport that got me interested in dogs in the first place all those years ago when I was a young woman and my body was whole.  And that's why, rather than get caught up in all this bickering, I plan to just shut up and train for as long as I'm still able to.  I suggest you do so as well.