I don’t participate in competitive dog sports or obedience trials, but I do love watching dogs and their handlers having fun, and appreciate how much time it takes on both sides to become proficient. While progressive participants focus on teaching dog sports in a humane way, there is still a tendency amongst many in the sport, obedience and companion dog world, to focus on gaining compliance at all costs, which usually involves a certain degree of negative reinforcement and positive punishment.


The word ‘obedience’ has negative connotations partly because the training methods used to gain compliance have traditionally been very harsh, and while there has been an effort in the last twenty years to move away from compulsion methods both in the companion and working dog world, compulsion is still widely used in both. But how did obedience training evolve from a set of working and show dog rules to what we use today and why is it so difficult for some people to move towards a kinder way of teaching? To understand the foundations of obedience training, we have to go back to the 18th century.


Beginning in England in the late 1700s, informal dog competitions were held at county fairs. By the 1800s, dog ‘shows’ for hunting breeds were held in local taverns and in 1891 Charles Crufts, a general manager for a popular dog biscuit manufacturer, founded what was to become the largest dog show in the world. With 22,000 dogs competing for Best in Show at Crufts, it is imperative that all dogs behave well in and out of the show ring. 


The practice of formally training dogs, however, did not become main stream until the 1920’s thanks to a German Shepherd called Rin Tin Tin. Americans of all ages were transfixed as Rin Tin Tin entertained and amazed them. The fearless dog, found in the French trenches in WWI by an American soldier, was brought back to the United States and thrilled movie and TV audiences with his ability to jump great heights and save the day. In fact Rin Tin Tin became so famous he was credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy and by the time of his death was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.


But the popularity of Rin Tin Tin was soon to be surpassed by a rough coated collie called Lassie. For fifty years audiences fell in love with this beautiful, obedient dog, who was so devoted to her little boy, she would travel miles and endure great hardship to get to him. It was the first time that any focus was put on the human/animal bond.

While these canine TV stars were showing audiences all over the world how smart dogs could be, a military and police dog trainer, Colonel Conrad Most, laid out an understanding of operant conditioning concepts such as primary and secondary reinforcement, shaping, fading and chaining. He was followed by another high profile military dog trainer called William Koehler. As the head animal trainer for Walt Disney Studios, Koehler popularized the trend of obedience training dogs and used methods designed to ‘improve attentiveness and off-leash control.’


But like most military dog trainers, the Koehler method of training was based largely on the principles of negative reinforcement and positive punishment.  Koehler believed that praise should be given for good behavior but the dog should be punished for being disobedient. In operant conditioning, ‘negative reinforcement occurs when the frequency of a response increases if an aversive event is removed immediately after the response has been performed.’ An example of negative reinforcement in dog training is the use of the “choke chain”.  After experiencing unpleasant yanks on the chain, many dogs work hard to avoid it. Koehler applied corrections with choke chains to turn a dog round quickly or to stop dogs from pulling. Unfortunately the ‘yank and crank ‘em style’ is still practiced extensively today, both in companion and working dog training.


Modern day dog trainers might not agree with many of the methods utilized by Most and Koehler, but their contributions certainly made training dogs more mainstream. Fortunately their methods were challenged by vet behaviorists and trainers such as Dr. Ian Dunbar and Karen Pryor, who are widely credited as being game changers in the dog training industry. Then of course came the TV dog trainers – Barbara Woodhouse in the UK and Ian Dunbar in the USA and UK, who paved the way for other trainers to take the TV dog training show concept to new levels of popularity. It’s Me or the Dog with yours truly and The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, showed two very different styles of training that created a clear divide in the dog training world.


Most and Koehler were by all accounts excellent trainers but they failed in one very important way. They did not look at obedience from a dog’s point of view. Handlers that still utilize their training methods, tend to focus on honing their techniques, learning the laws of operant and classical conditioning, working on reinforcement schedules and learning how to implement punishment effectively. You only have to watch competitive obedience to see their legacy at work. But a dog’s emotional well-being should not be ignored, and fortunately, even those who compete in obedience trials, are beginning to teach their dogs in a more humane way.


Whether dogs are trained to work, show, compete or merely fulfill the role of canine companion, modern dog training is now moving away from obedience at all costs. The very word ‘obedience’ is being replaced with words such as cooperation, collaboration, team work and assistance. These words move people away from the idea of having dogs obey at all costs, to consider the whole dog. Training should help promote confidence and self-control in our dogs while gaining the cooperation we want without the need to dominate or intimidate. Thankfully obedience is soon becoming a word of the past as we move into a more enlightened time of learning and discovery.




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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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