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Dogs: Thinkers, not Machines

Sport dog rearing programmes and philosophies – yes there are many of them out there.


Many programmes centre on the concept of controlled resource allocation.  Heavy crate time, restrictive devices are generally called for, placing much responsibility on the human.

They will tell you that you need to control all access to reinforcement – All. The. Time.

The sell is seductive;  do all this, manipulate each tiny piece of your dog’s life until it centres on you.  Result:  you’ll have that dream sport dog you’ve always wanted.


By this logic, anyone could have success in their sport with any dog.  Whether that dog fits your lifestyle or training preferences is no longer in the forefront.

(Personally, I am not a fan of this line of thought)


What we forget is that we are not talking about machines.

Your dog is not your race car that you can keep in the garage. Your dog is not the thing you shine up, tune-up, replace tires, and then finally taking out on the track – No.

Colin and Ivor

Colin with his dog, Ivor competing in IPO in the Obedience discipline

Dogs have brains.

Dogs have minds.

Dogs have feelings, thoughts, wants, needs and a complex emotional life.


Our dogs are highly intelligent and acutely aware of the importance of things like food, water and social engagement.

So how do we get the upper hand? We keep them helpless to care for themselves in our world.

We never need to abuse that upper hand and the reasons stretch far beyond ethics.


Take this familiar story:

An agility or sports competitor decides he is ready for the next level with his new sport puppy.

He goes for a more intense breed this time, or perhaps a more intense type in her current breed.

He has been told that with this “upgrade” he is going to need to be more disciplined from the start. If not, his new mali-border-kelpie-whatever will take over his life and become one of those kamikaze dogs on the course.


So from the beginning, he plans his new pup’s day-to-day happenings. His pup is crated often, trained often, and is not allowed much free access to explore the world.

He is the star of the class, but life becomes difficult for him somewhere along the way.

Some things are too exciting, some things are too terrifying, and he is unable to function without being told what to do.

Brown Lab run up to Dock Diving

He is responsive to cues, but there are times when the world is much too loud for him to hear those cues.

Unfortunately, his emotions were not a part of the program and you never factored them in.


The competitor is now at a loss with his shiny new puppy. Frustrated, he is certain he must have gone wrong somewhere.

The trainers and books and websites said that if he followed the formula the puppy would be perfect, but he isn’t.

So the competitor falls victim to internal blame and external judgement. He figures that this dog was too much for him after all.


The danger:  now there are two imperfect beings (there is no perfect being) made to feel inadequate – when actually, it is the program that is inadequate.


ANY training program that disregards the dog’s emotional state or ability to think is incomplete and must be regarded as inadequate.


The reality: the above example is sadly very common.


It’s time that the culture in sport dog training shifts.


Perfection – an illusion that we mistakenly label as an achievable goal.

Achieving total control over another living creature is impossible without taking something from them;  their autonomy, their self-control, their freedom and the most important aspect of competing – their ability to think.

Exiting the Agility tunnel at speed!

Training of young dogs should always involve quite a bit of empowerment and freedom.


Reinforce your puppy’s choice to engage with you heavily – but be certain of actually giving your dog a choice.

Promote the good decision making of your puppy. Don’t take unexpected troubles in dog training as personal failures. Rather they are extra training opportunities to help your puppy in his decision making!


“I remember feeling paralyzed when Idgie was a baby. I wanted so badly for her to be perfect. I was desperate to have the fast, competitive, but well-controlled dog I had dreamed about. Every single time she found something reinforcing that was not me or related to me, I put it under the “Sarah screwed up” column. It took me too long to see that she could love me and agility and chasing squirrels/playing with other dogs/saying hello to her human friends.

I made a lot of mistakes that hurt us still, all in my quest to manipulate her into the dog I thought I wanted.

Finally I learned that connections can’t exist where control rules.

I decided connecting with my dog was more important than having power over her.

I surrendered and in that I found out how much more incredible she is than that imaginary dog I made up.”

~ Sarah Stremming B.Sc (Psy) – dog trainer, dog agility and obedience competitor and dog behavior consultant.


Behaviour is ever-changing.

Retrievers doing their thing!

It can be shaped and modified and reshaped.

Broken relationships are just that – broken.

A note to owners of new puppies:  any message of doom and gloom, a message containing “never” and “always,” should be replaced with this one:

No living being values anything above their own freedom.


You want your dog to think you’re important?

Good training is founded on a good relationship with your puppy.

  • Be his safe place.
  • Meet his needs.
  • Connect with him.
  • Give him choices.
  • Help him make good ones!

Know you will make mistakes but nothing is broken as long as that connection remains.  This is said confidently and from experience.  Your dog is your friend and partner – not a machine.

military working dog

Sgt. Evan White, 13th Military Police Detachment, 728th MP Battalion, 8th MP Brigade and his working dog Brutus emerge from under an obstacle during the endurance competition, part of the 2011 Hawaiian Islands Working Dog Competition, here, Sept. 30 2011. Seventeen Army and Air Force working dog teams from across the nation competed at the 2011 Hawaii Islands Working Dog Competition hosted by the 13th Military Police Detachment, 728th MP Battalion, 8th MP Brigade, here, testing their skills and building camaraderie among the dog handler community. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Marcus Fichtl)


The above article is based on a publication by Sarah Stremming B.Sc (Psy)

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