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Lighten Up, Folks

by Chris Robinson

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In the past couple of years, I have attended a considerable number of performance dog events ranging from hunt tests to obedience and agility trials. Something that has been bothering me is the number of dogs participating in these activities that clearly are not having a whole lot of fun doing these things which means it is time to once again mount the soapbox. Based on interviews with some of the participants and judges, a lot of this dog unhappiness is due to overly competitive owners/handlers who are determined to win at any cost.cFirst, let me dispose of a couple of things. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. It’s always fun and it provides a little ego boost to boot. But, there’s a fine line between being competitive and overly competitive, between winning when it counts and when no one’s counting. Way too many dog people in field and performance activities seem to be crossing that line with appalling regularity. The ultimate result, in some field events, is dogs slinking to the line with their ears flat, their tails between their legs and searching frantically for the location of the next painful experience. Nor are things much better in competitive obedience where, despite great strides in positive training methods, there are still too many dogs that are so scared silly of making a mistake that all the fun has gone out of whatever activity they are doing.

I’m far from being the “humane society trainer” a professional trainer known for his harsh training methods once called me. I happen to have a breed that two or three times a year has to be reminded, sometimes fairly forcibly, which one of us is the dog and which one is buying the dog food and paying the vet bills. In my other life as a “real reporter” for more years than I care to count, I’ve seen things in the course of my work that would give a starving buzzard a case of the dry heaves. All of this means I’m not a bleeding-heart when it comes to the subject of crime and punishment.

Nor is this an indictment of the electronic collar. I own one and there have been times when I have had to resort to low levels of electricity in order to get the attention of one of my dogs who was 200 yards away and needed to listen to me instead of whatever muse was whispering in his ear at the time. When in hot pursuit of a fleeing pheasant rooster, my dogs sometimes need to be reminded that their hunting partner is old, fat and slow and if they are to have a hope in hell of getting feathers in their mouths, they have to pause long enough for me to at least get in gun range. However, it has also been my observation that the collar’s greatest virtue—the ability to administer a correction immediately when the offense occurs—is also its greatest vice because it allows you to correct the dog without thinking about why you are doing it or what sort of outside influences may have caused the dog to disobey.

While there are certainly times when an electronic collar is a useful training tool in the hands of someone who understands how to properly use it when working with dogs that have been properly collar-conditioned and that are required to work at long distances from the trainer, I can’t think of a single reason to use one on an obedience dog that is never more than 30 feet away from its trainer. Yet, I recall one Golden Retriever that picked up the wrong article in a utility trial and promptly dropped it like he had been shocked, which he undoubtedly had. Another time I watched a Border Collie on the “go-back” do a complete 360 degree spin three times on his way out. You can’t fool me, folks. I know a “pressure spin” when I see one and I can also recognize a “collar dog” a hundred yards away. I’ve simply seen too many of them in retriever, pointer and spaniel trials and tests both as a judge and as a participant to not be aware of what I’m observing.

Nor can I think of any reason why the use of an electronic collar would be appropriate in agility. But, I have seen dogs running agility trials who may be fast but their attitude and posture was a clear indication that their speed was motivated by fear. It’s obvious to even the least knowledgeable dog person that these dogs were not having any fun. Now, obviously, not all of the dogs that were unhappy in agility were the victims of inappropriate collar use but I’ll bet that a significant number of them were and those that weren’t have had some sort of other bad experience in training.

One of the problems with misusing the collar as well as other harsh training methods is that both tend to render dogs brain dead. I watched a dog running a master retriever test this year that swam within a foot of a freshly killed duck and refused to even look at it. He was convinced that if he so much as turned his head, really terrible things would happen to him. It deeply saddened me to watch this poor beleaguered dog because I remembered him from junior tests with eyes alight with excitement, feet dancing with joy, he played a game so delightful to him that he couldn’t get enough of it. Now it was merely a terrible, pain-filled chore.

Retriever field trials, for the past twenty or more years, have quite frankly made training for these events torture for dogs. In moments of candor, even the most ardent supporters of that game will admit as much. When dogs running in trials cannot or will not disregard what every fiber of their instinct tells them to do, trainers beat them with BB-loaded whips, turn up the electricity to full wattage or pepper them with marbles or birdshot until they are forced into submission. But, because of the intense, competitive nature of field trials, brutal and cruel training practices that would distress the Marquis de Sade have become necessary and acceptable to people who would immediately call child protection authorities if they saw someone swat an obstreperous child on the backside. I am honestly surprised that humane societies all over the country haven’t jumped down the collective throats of retriever trainers for many of their training practices.

These are not bad people for the most part. It is just that inch-by-inch, training method-by-training method, they have been sucked into the dog abuse maelstrom in their desire to be competitive. As they have moved along this path, they have rationalized each step as essential to getting the dogs to do what is necessary to win. Sound familiar, performance people?

It always makes me cringe when I hear someone say they have the youngest OTCH or MACH or FC or MH in _________________ (you fill in the blank). I always wonder what price the dog paid for an accomplishment that serves, for the most part, only to feed the ego of its owner. Certainly there are some very precocious pups who can do wonderful things naturally at a young age. But there are many more young dogs being pushed harder than any dog should ever be pushed at that age. Most dogs should not be finishing performance championships or earning master hunter titles before they are two and the only thing dogs under the age of one should be finishing are their bowls of puppy food. Patience, when you are dealing with dogs, is not just a virtue, it is a necessity and giving the dogs the necessary time to grow up and mature to the point where they can successfully cope with the stress that is normal when you are trying to teach them to do something is an area where patience is an absolute requirement.

It is important to not lose sight of the fact that these dog sports are supposed to be fun for both you and your dogs. I received some really good advice many years ago from a fellow competitor in obedience that I’m going to pass along and it applies to virtually every dog sport. Most of my dogs have been indifferent performers in obedience for a couple of reasons. They view it as boring and pointless and they only do it to humor me. This particular dog was no exception. He barely squeaked through in open obedience and at the time I was caught up in the “gotta win” mentality which meant that a mere qualifying score wasn’t enough. He should also score high, something that should have been clear to me was beyond the pale given his mediocre scores in novice and his lack of enthusiasm for the entire business of obedience. But, he did have fun when we actually got to a trial and he was in the ring, mainly because he could goof off without fear of retribution. So he had frolicked around the ring, had a great time entertaining both himself and the gallery and still managed to earn a green ribbon. Sensing my disgust at his performance, my fellow competitor put things in perspective. He said, “Look, the dog qualified, didn’t he? That’s really what’s important, not how he did it. You are walking out of here with the same green ribbon as a dog with a perfect score. When your dog finishes his title, he gets the same CDX as the dogs that have won every class. The title certificate on your dog will say ‘Ch. Fido Companion Dog Excellent’ not ‘Ch. Fido Companion Dog Excellent 176 points.’”

He was correct. The bottom line is a dog that enjoys training sessions no matter what you are training the dog to do be it obedience, agility, tracking, rally, draft work, sled dog or field work including hunting, herding, earthwork or coursing, has a good time in the ring or the field and earns a few qualifying scores or an occasional win along the way. Training and competition should be fun for you and for the dog with titles merely a goal to work toward. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, to paraphrase the words of the old U.S Army recruiting slogan, help the dog “be all that he/she can be.” It just means that training and the events themselves shouldn’t be onerous for the dogs because you are a trophy and title hunter.

It is imperative that those of you training your dogs for these events do your best to resist the “win-at-all-costs” mentality and, further, do your part to put an end to abusive training practices, not just out of fear of what might happen if some animal rights group secretly tapes your training for the six o’clock news. The dogs that earn these championships or master hunter titles are the ones that are going to be singled out for breeding. They are the future of many breeds, the sires and dams of the next generations of hunting, working and performance dogs. They should have more going for them than just the ability to withstand pain.

Short URL: http://caninechronicle.com/?p=1857

Posted by on Jul 26 2020. Filed under Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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