Nearly every book and most obedience classes dealing with obedience start with the student holding in their hand a leash that is attached to some form of training collar on the dog and the traditional “heel” command. Regardless of whether the instructions are for physically (through short jerks on lead, etc.) or through inducement (food, treats, etc.) they all have one basic commonality—the leash or lead is in the handler’s hand or hands from the very beginning of the training. This has been an accepted tradition for years and, in most cases, serves its purpose of getting the dog to walk with the handler on a loose lead (without dragging in any direction, forward, sideways, or backward). In so far as this is an excellent skill for the dog to master, the methods employed, so long as they work, are not in contention.
However, if you are going to progress from simply taking the dog out, on lead, for a walk, you will find that things can start to get progressively difficult with some breeds and a few individual dogs within almost any breed. It would appear that there is more going on with the learning of the skill to heel than is covered in most obedience material. After considerable research, a few interesting observations have come to light.
First on the list is the fact that canines are the most diversely bred species on the face of the earth. Genetically they lend themselves to a considerable variety of types, sizes, colors, temperaments, and inbred skill aptitudes. Throughout the species there remains many commonalties that continue to make them good companions or helpers for a wide variety of partners. The area of inbred skill aptitudes suggests that each breed brings to the learning arena a different genetic package in regard to how obedience training will be addresses.
The second observation concerns the radically different demands on the performance skills of today’s canine in contrast to the original agenda when obedience was introduced to this country after 1900. Not only the extreme variety of performance skills but also the degree of precision demanded has put great stress on the teaching techniques employed twenty or more years ago. And while many instructors deal only with daily or casual obedience, quite a few are finding that obedience showing as a sport has grown rapidly in the past few years and is continuing to become increasingly more accessible to a much wider variety of potential exhibitors.
My third observation indicates that using training methods that are restricted in content has greatly reduced the number of specific breeds showing success in current competition while at the same time giving unrealistic weight to those breeds genetically programmed to learn the more difficult obedience skills. It is very doubtful if only those breeds currently enjoying such great success are capable of doing so. It is more likely that current training methods tend to eliminate many breeds not bringing the same genetic learning package to the training situation. In other words, some breeds are specifically bred to do obedience while others were less specifically designed to do so. Those without the gene package to learn regardless of the method will need a slightly different approach to overcome the genetic lack of desire and willingness to continue through all types of frustration to a successful conclusion.
My fourth observation is that many breeds, especially those that are resistant to any use of force in training (even to the extent of gently placing them), will exhibit an unwillingness to perform when the leash (instrument of control) is removed. This tends to cause frustration in the dog, the handler and the instructor often resulting in even more force (corrections) to be exerted on the dog resulting in increased resistance and resentment on his part. A vicious circle often results that all too frequently ends with the handler and dog going home and not returning.
My final observation concerns the acceptance that some dogs are not as apt or as willing as others, but because they are dogs, they still possess the potential for doing all of the required basic obedience at much better levels that is generally seen. This potential appears to be better realized through the process of communication rather than coercion. And communication is greatly accelerated through the correct use of food.
©2012 Dr. Mary Belle Adelman