Whether a Basic Course should be capped off by graduation exercises will depend on what is meant by “graduation” and how it is approached. As always, there is a middle ground between two extremes. When I started in dog training I was exposed to the one extreme, probably the least desirable one. The graduation at the Club with which I started consisted of the Novice routine, but without the heel free and stand for examination. Scoring was done on the basis of 100, with a passing grade being 80, provided at least one-half the point value of each exercise was obtained. Almost from the very first session, we were told that the main object of the course was to teach us these exercises so that we could pass graduation; we were also informed that we would only get a diploma if we passed. I remember thinking at the time that this was a rather arbitrary approach as well as being somewhat resentful of the fact that to pass or fail, and thus the diploma, depended on such technicalities. Moreover, my idea of training consisted of teaching the dog to come when called, not to pull on the leash and not to jump on people. That was all I wanted to accomplish and all I was willing to work for. It mattered little to me if the dog sat in front and then went to heel, provided he came when I called. Similarly, I couldn’t care less if he heeled properly and sat when I stopped, provided he did not pull.
Even though I considered the whole routine somewhat silly and only peripherally related to what I wanted, I went along. But I was one of few that did – out of the twenty people who started the course, only five made it as far as graduation and only one passed. Could it be that somewhere along the line the other people had been frightened away by the prospect of the graduation or had become discouraged by not being able to learn and advance at the prescribed rate of progress?
My prior misgivings notwithstanding, I stuck with obedience and subsequently, after a number of years, assumed a policy-making position in the Club. One of my very first decisions was to change the graduation exercises. First, I felt that its goal was unrealistically high as demonstrated by the extremely, if not ridiculously, low passing percentage. It was, therefore, changed to being entirely on lead. Second and probably even more important, the pass or fail was eliminated and the obtaining of the diploma was made dependent on class attendance and overall progress instead of the previously adhered to one-shot, hit or miss proposition. Moreover, the direction of the Basic Course was changed. Instead of concentrating on the mechanics of teaching specific exercises, greater emphasis was placed on teaching owners how to communicate with their pets. Specifically, more effort was spent on trying to insure that the owners were successful in what THEY wanted to achieve, with less attention being given to what someone else thought they should achieve. After all, this is the primary purpose of dog obedience – to teach the owner how to live more comfortably with his pet. By all means, insist on precision on the part of the handler and the dog in the teaching of the various exercises because ultimately this will determine how much control the handler has over his dog; but at the same time be sure that the owner’s goal is not neglected. Naturally, this approach requires a greater flexibility on the part of the instructor and is perhaps a little more demanding. On the other hand, this is why the owner is in class in the first place.
The effect of this change in direction was extremely rewarding. The drop-out rate was significantly reduced and the completion rate went up to seventy five percent. Even more important, however, is the fact that it produced greater owner satisfaction with the results. In addition, having been successful or seeing signs of-success, more owners than had previously been the case decided to continue in their training.
Graduation should be the highlight of any Basic Course – the participants should be able to enjoy themselves and show off to each other as well as the instructor what they have accomplished. By all means make it competitive, but at an appropriate level and in the right spirit; care must be taken that the advantages of bringing out the competitive spirit do not become outweighed by the disadvantages. If the prospect of the graduation has the effect of causing people to drop out and become discouraged, it should be reexamined, particularly to see whether what is sought to be accomplished is too difficult for a majority of the owners. It should also be examined to see whether the competitive aspect is being injudiciously applied. Many of us like to compete, but only in an area in which we think we know what we are doing and feel we have a chance. Nobody likes to be a loser and if we think we are going to be a loser, we drop out. It may be well to remember, as has been observed before, that the object is to help people achieve their goal whenever possible and if they drop out because they become discouraged they probably will not achieve that goal. You may be most brilliant instructor in the world, but your drop-outs probably have been helped little, if any. Not infrequently a high drop-out rate is caused by a tendency among some who instruct a Basic Course to make the Novice exercises of paramount importance and to see how many owners they can “whip into shape” to begin competing as soon as is feasible after completion of the course. Often this is done by concentrating on one or two owners who are really catching on BUT invariably at the expense of the rest of the class. The Basic Course is not the place to prepare for Novice competition, even though the foundation is laid for those who want to go on. If the majority of the class does not progress satisfactorily, the instructor is probably going too fast or is not getting his message across. I realize that of necessity any Basic Course is based on, and in some way has as its objective, the Novice exercises. But in teaching a Basic Course, these exercises should be viewed as a means to an end, the end being the owner’s goal of solving whatever problem made him enroll in the class, and not as an end in themselves.
©1973 J.J. Volhard