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Denise Fenzi
15 Dec

What is Possible?

Posted by dfenzi in Most Viewed Posts, Musings

Recently I heard an interview with a very well known competitor/trainer.  He said "positive training works with dolphins.....it is not possible to train a dog without physical contact; it's a lie…”.

Physical contact means pain compliance.

My first thought was, "How egotistical is THAT?  If you can't do it, no one can?"  Let's call that my irritable reaction.

My irritation was soon replaced by sadness, however, because if positive reinforcement training is "not possible", then what sane person would attempt it? If a "top trainer" ridicules the possibility, then the message to thousands of less experienced trainers is clear: do what is proven to work, regardless of the outcome for the dog, or the sport.  If a young trainer decides to attempt positive training anyway, the blatant ridicule, followed by subtle sabotage, will usually drive them away from the sport or into the hands of tradition soon enough.  It takes a strong and courageous person to do something that others say is impossible, and few individuals want to play the fool, especially if they are relative novices themselves.

If you want to be a successful competitor, the safest route is the known one.  Many of the most accomplished competitors have very little to offer outside of their method,  which often crams every dog into exactly the same hole they've been crammed into for thirty years.  Yes, these folks win.  If winning is the most important element for you, then it makes sense to go with what is proven to work.  But, when well regarded trainers or competitors state that a progressive method is "not possible", you discourage innovation and set dog sports in the wrong direction.

Wouldn't it be better to say, "In my experience, positive training does not work."? That phrase opens up a place for dialogue and the possibility that you may be confronted with evidence, which might, over time, allow you to change your perspective and try something new.

If the world of today had been described to me thirty years ago, I would have been unable to process what I was hearing. I would have had no way to reconcile such unbelievable information with what I now know to be real and true.  The possibility of video telephones, computers, internet - I would have laughed at you.  If you had told me that athletes were breaking records that were considered physically impossible, that science had taken us inside of cells and DNA and into the very heart of what makes us human - I could not have heard you.  Big Science was a test tube baby, not Dolly the cloned sheep.

If you had told me that I could use food to train a dog; that a plastic toy called a clicker could help me with my training, that I could wait for a behavior to occur and then name it rather than creating each behavior... I would have made fun of the waste of time and the "stupidness" of it all.  I was young and opinionated.  I knew it all, and if I wasn't doing it, then it wasn't worth doing.

While it's sad to see such a close minded attitude on a thirteen year old, it's relatively harmless since no one is listening anyway, but coming from a well known trainer with excellent skills and insight to offer... it's damaging and cause for great concern.

The world of today was NOT POSSIBLE just thirty years ago. Outside the realm of comprehension.  Yet it's here, not only possible, but now reality.    So if the not possible can become reality, isn't it better to try and stay away from absolutes in our thoughts and speech as much as we can? There are so many places to throw up barriers and argue that something is not possible.  Honestly, it makes me tired even thinking about it, which is why I have waited a while to broach this topic. The words that come out of our mouths frame the reality in our heads.  Close your mind to new possibilities and you are right, it will not happen for you.

I cannot predict where a changed mindset will take you, any more than I could have predicted that Dolly the Sheep was possible.  The possibilities suggest, however, that the dog/human relationship can be so much more than what tradition and prior experience may have led us to believe.

I made the change to positive training  techniques many years ago, but it was only two or three years ago,  when Cisu began failing in the ring,  that I made a complete change in philosophy to dog as partner rather than dog as subject.  I can't wait to see what I'm doing in five years, because really, I've just begun to explore the avenues of possibility that are appearing in front of me, and they seem endless.   There is so much to learn.

Training is a journey, not a destination.  If you think you've arrived, you've already missed out.


I’m coming into this conversation later, but….yesterday I was at a fun match. I’m working an 8 yo dog in Open, we have two legs….the long sit is always our demise…sigh. But, she looks like she’s having a party during the individual exercises, tail up, ears up, laughing face, jumping and prancing…she’s pretty cool to watch. The judge said to me “If you worked to get tighter sits with her, she could be a 200 dog”….my answer was that I was perfectly fine with the happy performances she gives me and I didn’t care about doing the nitpicky work with her. She won’t win her class, but we look like we’re having the best time…at the end of the day, the scores we get for a title aren’t published, so if we’re having fun it doesn’t matter if we win the class or not.

Posted by Laura Norie on April 23, 2012

Reblogged this on Denise Fenzi and commented:

This blog got some people up in arms, though I stand by my statements – it’s a wonderful journey to try and find ways to move through life which are kinder and gentler to others, including animals outside of humankind.

Posted by dfenzi on September 10, 2012

I totally agree with Curtis when he says that there have to be consequences for poor choices, otherwise why would the dog always choose the behavior we ask for over the one he would prefer to do. What is missing from this discussion is that those consequences do not have to be positive punishment (compulsion)…..it is equally effective if those consequences are NEGATIVE punishment. Someone said Susan Garrett uses strictly positive reinforcement. That is absolutely not true – and in fact, IMO, the key to her HUGE success is her incredibly wise use of negative punishment. When you have a drivey dog that wants something, you can manipulate his desire to earn it using positive reinforcement, but you can also punish wrong choices by causing him to lose the opportunity to earn it. And that’s what Susan does better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Her border collies are every bit as drivey as any Schutzhund or Mondio dog, but they learn at a very early age that she controls the reinforcers and the only way to get them is to go thru her. Failure to comply can mean you lose the chance to play, and that’s what they want more than anything, as do most of our sport dogs.

I had the opportunity to spend 4 days working with Tracy Sklenar, one of susan’s instructors, in a private seminar with a fabulously talented, drivey, world-team schutzhund dog. Those four days showed me that it was absolutely possible to make this dog believe that if he didn’t comply, he was going to lose the chance to play the game, to get the ball or to bite the helper. He learned to exercise self-control and to make the right choices because it simply was better for HIM – it got him to his beloved reinforcer faster when he complied with the handler than if he made poor choices. It was really amazing how quickly a very short timeout or withholding of the reinforcer changed this dog’s behavior, where prong and ecollars had failed. The consequences of poor choices do not have to be pain; they can be the loss of something the dog values. Both are punishment and both, if done well, will modify behavior.

One of Susan’s favorite phrases is “control the reinforcers”, and she doesn’t just mean the ball, or the sleeve. She means ALL the reinforcers in your dog’s world – the access to chase the squirrels, to play with other dogs, to sniff and mark, to even be allowed to WATCH the helper (that’s reinforcing to most dogs too). When the dog understands that access to all reinforcers are at YOUR discretion, he becomes highly motivated to comply because the outcome is so much better for HIM, and dogs are just like us, they do what is best for them.

We all need undesirable consequences for poor choices….it’s those punishers that keep society within acceptable norms. But the punishers are typically loss of something we value – our money, our freedom, social acceptance. I think dogs are no different – they have their own agenda and I simply cannot make myself more reinforcing than everything the world has to offer to them, especially if they’re hot, tired, etc. So yes, poor choices (after the dog knows what the right choice is) should have consequences. But I don’t have to physically hurt the dog to exert pressure on him to comply with my cues. If I manipulate his access to his favorite reinforcers, it puts just as much pressure on him to comply.

I am convinced that the lack of understanding in wisely utilizing negative punishment is the key that is missing in so-called “positive” trainers’ programs. Positive reinforcement alone does not have a good track record for success. But when trainers understand how to complement it with a sprinkling of negative punishment, then I think there will be real progress in dog training.

and for the record, 18 yrs in Schutzhund, 5 HOT dogs with an average score of 289, a perfect 100 in the FH2. 5 yrs in agility with the #2 ranked GSD in the country. 1 year in AKC obedience with HIT at our first trial. I’ve been around all of it :)

Lee Baragona

Posted by Lee Baragona on December 18, 2011

The various positions have been stated, and I’ve turned off all comments now. Thanks for your thoughts!

Posted by dfenzi on December 18, 2011

[…] Denise Fenzi, What is Possible […]

Posted by On Dialouge « Lehrhund on January 22, 2012

“Yes, I’ve done schutzhund with R+, but i’m only one person. It takes more than single examples of people who are successful to change tradition.”

But you made them move the goal posts again.

Posted by Raegan Walter on December 17, 2011

“The words that come out of our mouths frame the reality in our heads. Close your mind to new possibilities and you are right, it will not happen for you.’

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have been telling my OH that a long time, and this is another great example of how that works. Great blog, thank you! :)

Posted by Sam Tatters (https://pawsitivelytraining.wordpress.com) on December 18, 2011

“Your treat and praise or tug and praise is worth an 8, chasing a squirrel is a 10, the dog is going to chase the squirrel.”

Curtis, you have obviously never trained with Susan Garrett. :-) It’s actually pretty simple to make rewards that you, the trainer, can offer, more enticing than squirrels. I previously didn’t believe it was possible to do this without corrections/punishment, but it is. Trainers who use physical and verbal corrections do so only because they haven’t discovered how to do it without them. Violence begins where knowledge ends.

Posted by Laura on December 17, 2011

I do not think it’s easy to train a dog well and thoroughly without compulsion, in particular in sports where you do not always control or have access to the motivators (schutzhund, field, etc). I also don’t think it’s easy with compulsion, which is why the quality of the trainer is so relevant, regardless of method. My essay asked the question, “what is possible,” not what is easy. If you find value in the idea of working with a dog as a partner rather than as a subject, then the topic (and finding a route) will appeal to you. If you do not see value in removing compulsion wherever possible, then it’s a non issue. I find the process of looking for new ways to communicate and “get my way” without causing mental or physical discomfort to be rather fascinating and worthwhile for it’s own sake.

Posted by dfenzi on December 17, 2011

I am not a top competition obedience (or any other sport) trainer, but I’ve been training dogs for 30+ years now, starting with Koehler, later folding into the traditional and still commonly used competition obedience training, and later yet into clicker and drive training. I don’t know how many titles I’ve put on dogs; quite a few in a pretty wide variety of sports, often with pretty darned decent scores; I’ve had Nationally ranked dogs in 2 breeds and 2 sports.

My training goals have evolved tremendously, but are now two-fold. First and foremost, my dog must enjoy the sport and the training in the sport. If my dog is miserable or stressed, I am doing something wrong. If I can’t find a way for my dog to begin to love the process and the sport, then I do not do that sport.

Second, I will no longer deliberately or systematically cause my dog physical pain in pursuit of a sport score. To me that is a totally unacceptable reason to hurt a dog. You hurt your dog so you could get a 200 or stand on a podium and get a trophy? Really? Why would anyone feel good about that?

We have our dogs for a very short period of time. Our training of them for sport should not just be about us, but about them. Their joy is as important as ours. It really boggles my mind that I used to think it was okay to hurt a dog because I wanted a title or a score. I will never go back to that kind of training.

Posted by Robinjn on December 17, 2011

Bob Bailey trained dolphins to perform in the open ocean (with LOTS of live fish available for the taking) for well over 10 minutes. What was the reward? A dead fish at the end of the routine. Oh, and NO compulsion. It takes a lot of time and excellent training, but is NOT impossible

Posted by Beth Bishop on December 17, 2011

Thanks Beth, I was going to mention that specific example, but ended up deleting it because it was getting way too long! :-)

Posted by Laura on December 17, 2011

when I say “tradition”, I mean what is considered “required” now – which varies quite a bit by sport. I simply want people to consider that what we know today is not the end of our knowledge; we’ll have more to work with in a few years. The challenge, from my point of view, is that incremental change only takes us so far…new tools in the toolbox is different than a whole new mindset. In my mind, a new mindset is required for obedience to evolve. But hell, I found my way incrementally, so maybe that’s not a bad thing at all. If change means better quality of life for the dogs we work with and having more fun with them, then I’d argue it’s a good thing.

Posted by dfenzi on December 16, 2011

I’m a newbie to obedience and I only started training two years ago. Next month, I’m competining in rally novice A with my eight month old shih tzu. I intend to compete in formal obedience with her. I would never have started this journey, not in a million years, if it wasn’t for R+ training. In 2000, I had intended to learn to compete with my shih tzu after watching obedience for hours at a dog show. I was so excited because I had just gotten my dog. I signed up for basic obedience, watched the trainer jerk my dog around when she wouldn’t heel, and I never returned. It took me a decade to find my way back. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that as long as my dog is having fun, I can go in the ring with her. We will do our best. I’m not nervous about my dog at all, but I need to develop a thicker skin. People seem so opinionated about breeds and how to train. I’m already tired of that.

Posted by Sarah on December 17, 2011

Give it more time! Without the help and support of the experienced people in the sports, really we can’t EXPECT to be winning top scores at the trials YET. First we’ve gotta figure it all out from the ground up, on our own, with what little information and undrestanding we can scrape up. But it’s only a matter of time…

Posted by Heather Staas on December 17, 2011

Do you want your dog to be a partner or a prisoner? I prefer partner. I prefer a dog who willingly complies with my commands because there are pleasant consequences not because he is scared he will feel pain if he doesn’t comply. Which scenario would you rather live YOUR life in?

We all know timing is very important in training a behavior. Get the timing wrong with punishment and you probably just punished your dog for, what to him, was no apparent reason or worse yet, for a behavior he thought he had done correctly! You have now confused and frightened your dog and caused him to no longer trust you to be fair and clear in your communication with him.

Get the timing wrong with a reward and your dog just got an extra cookie.

Punishment also has to be the exact right amount to fit the crime. Too little and it won’t have the desired effect. Too much and it’s just abuse. Sorry, I don’t know ANYONE who knows what every individual dog thinks is the exact right amount of punishment for a given crime.

With rewards, give too good of a reward and you’ve just strengthened the behavior rewarded. Give too little of a reward and the behavior isn’t strengthened right then or, your dog will work harder for a better reward next time.

Lastly, and most basic, I’m always amazed that anyone would want to purposely inflict pain, or allow anyone else to inflict pain, on the very dog they supposedly love.

Posted by Kathleen on December 16, 2011

One of the most successful trainers on this continent or even the world, Susan Garrett, trains ONLY with positive reinforcement. She proves it is totally possible to get rid of negatives altogether…..

Posted by Kathleen on December 16, 2011

Kathleen, while I do happen to agree with you, I’d like to suggest that training for agility is not exactly the same as training for some of the other sports – in agility I think it is well established that pain compliance is not required to get what we want. If positive trainers want to affect the performance events as a whole, it has to be across sports, and with a range of breeds. Obviously I hope it happens, but I see the need for “generalization” as opposed to holding up singular examples.

Posted by dfenzi on December 16, 2011

Vicki, I thought about deleting this comment for the reason you mentioned – it’s depressing. But I decided to let it stand because it perfectly illustrates every point I made in the article.

Posted by dfenzi on December 16, 2011

Very good point Denise. It is possible and can be done. I have trained under some very successful service dog trainers and DOD dog trainers. Dogs need to think for themsleves for these jobs quite often. shaping behaviors rather than training patterns or training via avoidance does not work for these dogs. these trainers have 30+ years experience and choose to use reward based training.

Posted by Terry on December 16, 2011

Ha…so you’re saying trainer who train with “traditional” methods and I quote “sabotage” people like you out of the sport? I doubt the judges knew your name before they read it on a piece of paper, nor did they know how you train, nor do they care. It’s a merit based system, if your dog does well, you place high…if your dog doesn’t do well, you place low. That simple.

And as usual, R+ people always insult other trainers…“Because YOU aren’t skilled enough to train a dog without compulsion no one can?”…you can’t train a dog without compulsion either. You can TEACH a dog without compulsion. You can teach him everything you want him to do with R+. But that is NOT training. A dog who’s well learned believes in other options. When you give a command, he wants to do what you ask, so he does it, and you reward him. But, if he ever decides to not to what you ask? He won’t do it, and he knows at the worst, you’ll be a bit upset and he’ll get no reward. A dog trained with compulsion knows, if I don’t comply, I miss out on a reward…but even if I value the distraction higher than any reward my handler has, my handler can make a correction infinitely negative, that balances out the equation. Your treat and praise or tug and praise is worth an 8, chasing a squirrel is a 10, the dog is going to chase the squirrel. If your treat is an 8, chasing the squirrel is 10, but the dog knows he’ll be getting a correction worth -11 AND no treat…heck of course he’ll comply. By obeying he avoids a correction that is higher in negative value than the squirrel and on top of it, he gets rewarded to boot if he complies! No brainer, he’ll choose obeying every time.

Last point I want to bring up…if you think Schutzhund etc is the same as THIRTY years ago you’re simply proving you haven’t been in the sport 30 years and to top it off are completely uneducated on the training methods of 30 years ago. 30 years ago was the Koehler era…where dogs were stressed before knowing commands to teach them the commands. This type of training actually works better than yours, because: Yours doesn’t work, yours teaches, it doesn’t train, as I said before. With Koehler, the dog always obeys, he knows he must, he’s not being asked, and there is no reward, only stress…of course he complies. BUT the problem with that is weaker dogs can’t handle the stress, and I think of myself as a fair person, correcting a dog who doesn’t know what you want is unfair. Methods in place TODAY, use marker training to shape and teach behavior, and once the dog fully understands what commands mean, what’s being asked of him, we then, and only then add compulsion to teach the dog “Hey, we’re not asking, we’re giving commands…you know what stay means, you will stay until I release you, or you will be corrected”. That’s the same way our society works. Sure if you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid, that’s similar to your dogs, R+ dogs…they want to get paid so they go to work. BUT, in the end you go to work to get paid so you don’t starve because you can’t afford food, or so you don’t freeze because you can’t afford heat and a roof over your head. You’re rewarded for your work, but you also have very severe consequences for not working. With an R+ dog, you will feed him in about 3 hours, he knows it…so if he doesn’t work for his pay right now, guess what? Still got a roof, warm bed, good food…life is still grand. Without consequence…consequence more substantial than no treat or no tug, a dog is only learned, not trained. That’s the reason somebody like Mike Ellis who trains with markers, but enforces with compulsion won the Mondio 3 championships a few years ago and not an R+ dog, that’s why R+ dogs have never won a nationals level championship in any working dog discipline and never will unless we all convert to it, and our competition are all using training of lesser effect, like R+ only. You can blame judges who never saw you, and trainers who win more than you, but the fact is, our dogs perform better, that’s why they get wins. The days of Koehler are over, we use both markers and compulsion. like Koehler your method of training is flawed because it’s extreme. His methods were extreme in that they were too harsh, yours extreme in that they have no consequences whatsoever other than missing out on a cookie. The Golden Middle often wins the day. And it does win the day in dog training. Do you think you guys are new? That R+ in dogs is new? LOL, R+ was how Schutzhund dogs were originally trained, it didn’t work! So Koehler stepped in and had a better, yes, BETTER product in that it was 100% reliable. Don’t you remember the quotes by Max von Stephanitz about NOT using force with GSDs? People tried that, it didn’t work, Koehler worked, but it limited which dogs could be worked to only the hardest animals, now marker + compulsion is opening us up to being able to get near 100% compliance, AND working weaker dogs who would’ve been washed out or destroyed if you were using Koehler Method.o uses marker training to te

Posted by Curtis on December 16, 2011

Living things aren’t 100% reliable. Please don’t think that using compulsion will guarantee 100% reliability. I think it is so sad that people are willing to do almost anything to get “100% compliance” and win titles and ribbons that only you, the human cares about with little concern or respect for the animal. Why not just take what your dog gives you with training that doesn’t hurt him? This post went from uplifting to depressing.

Posted by Vicki on December 16, 2011

To be fair, there are also very determined “positive” trainers who only see their methods as correct. Anything else, from saying “No, No” to gently touching your dog is wrong. I’m seeing followers, who exclusively use these methods, struggle or even fail.

I absolutely agree, that being open minded to many possibilities, is the right answer and growing as a trainer. I’m finding the truth for me and my dogs is somewhere in the middle; finding the balance. That is where the performance sweet spot will be.

I find nuggets of training gold from many sources. Even the “positive” trainers, listed above have nuggets, which are helping. It is about building the relationship with my dogs, building my training toolbox, and working to get better.

You are right. It is about the journey and that is exciting.

Posted by mobcmom on December 16, 2011

I personally feel that when the goal of winning overtakes the goal of hard work and being the best that you can be, the end result doesn’t make you feel as good about the process and sometimes comes out worse for the wear too. For example, breeding for lighter bones in racehorses…they run fast and make lots of money (goal of winning), but by the time they are 5 the legs don’t hold up (animal looses in the long run even if they are lucky enough to be used for breeding vs the slaughter house). Performance enhancers in athletes…they will risk permanent damage to their own body, public embarassment, ect in the name of winning. Is a victory of a dog that willingly works without fear of consequences a real victory?…I think so. I don’t mean to discredit the hard work that compulsion trainers use either. To get a different species to work with you, that takes alot of hard work regardless of method. I just feel better about myself and my dog knowing that we did it together because it was fun for us both. I am a newbie to the competitive world with my own dogs. I value our working relationship over a ribbon. I also happen to feel like that value will help us get to that ribbon. Many of these top competitive trainers will only compete with a dog bred from a long line of competitors…what about most of us out here who want to compete with what we have now…with all of the issues, the lack of pedigree, and whatever other little quirks our dogs have. Most compulsion training competitors wouldn’t touch that challenge with a ten foot pole.

Posted by Leanne on December 16, 2011

Well I am not sure what people mean sometimes by traditional training. Sure, many people will use positive punishment at times but that does not mean there is no innovation. I personally try to remain open-minded to all types of training and I incorporate or change things to get them to work for me. As the poster talked about the close-minded 13 year old I see many trainers are guilty of this. They hate the clicker or they hate the ecollar. They cannot value or appreciate the skill it takes to operate them. Too bad…we could learn a lot from each other.

Posted by landers26 on December 16, 2011

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