One of the evergreen topics in competition obedience discussion (at least for now — I remain hopeful that in another ten to fifteen years we’ll finally have killed this one off) is whether it is possible to achieve an AKC Obedience Trial Championship (OTCh) via force-free training.
The simple answer is “yes.” It has been done. It will be done again — in the very near future, probably, since I know of at least two prominent R+ trainers who are closing in on theirs.
The complicated answer is “yes, but.”
The truth is, nobody who asks this question — which is, in fact, not usually phrased as a question but as an assertion that “you can’t get an OTCh without using forcible compulsion” — really cares whether someone else has done it. If they actually cared, they would already know the answer. We live in the age of Google. The answer is not hard to find.
But the people who ask this question don’t want that answer. What they want is to confirm their own belief that it is necessary to use force in pursuit of those titles, or at least that it is necessary for their own personal circumstances. Instead of saying “this is what I choose to do,” many of them will say “this is what I have to do.” They don’t want it to be a choice. A choice implies moral agency. Not a lot of people have the honesty to admit that they chose to use pain compliance when another option was available.
That’s why you’ll see so much goalpost shifting: “okay, fine, so that one trainer did it, but she was only able to do it because she had herding dogs.” Or: “okay, she did it, but it took her a really long time.” Or: “okay, so she got an OTCh, but she didn’t win the National Obedience Championship.” The line has to be moved to wherever it might make force “necessary” again.
This problem is not limited to competition obedience, by the way. You’ll see the same pseudo-innocent question being asked about IPO titles and regional/national/international competitions. You’ll see it asked about field trials. In any area of seriously competitive dog sports where R+ training is not already the prevailing norm among top trainers (i.e., in any sport other than agility and canine musical freestyle), some version of this discussion will pop up.
And arguing with people who ask that question is a waste of time. It is a huge waste of time.
The reason it’s a huge waste of time is that naysayers do not actually want to be persuaded that it’s possible. As a result, they’re right. If you don’t want to do it — and you don’t want to do it badly enough to first develop the necessary skills and then put in the long, long hours of work on top of that, then hey, guess what? It’s not possible. Not for you. Correspondingly, saying that it’s possible for Person A does not mean that it’s possible for Person B. You can never prove that it’s possible for Person B until that person actually does it.
(Corollary: do not claim that you could do it unless you have done it. Just don’t. This is, thankfully, a rare occurrence, but it makes me gnash my teeth on the infrequent occasions that I see someone saying that it would be “easy” to achieve that level of training with R+ methods. Saying that just shows a profound ignorance of how difficult it actually is to achieve an OTCh. Getting that title is not easy. Not with any method. Claim otherwise and you will be dismissed as delusional, and rightly so.)
Crooky doing his best impression of an armchair OTCh. Reality behind the keyboard: he barely got an RL1 and his scores sucked.
Now, having noted that it is possible to get an OTCh with force-free training, the obvious follow-up question is “well then, why haven’t more people done it?”
That’s a fair question. It is also one that’s impossible to answer, because each person has their own reasons and unless you actually survey each and every one of them individually (and they all answer you honestly!), we’ll never know what they’d say.
But here’s my guess.
1. The structure of the championship favors longtime competitors.
To earn an OTCh, you must beat all the other teams in your field and finish in first place at least once in Utility B, once in Open B, and then a third time in either of those classes. On top of that, you must also earn 100 points by beating other dogs on a schedule that varies depending on the number of other dogs you’re competing against.
Your absolute score doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters for the OTCh is whether you beat the other teams in the class.
In my opinion this is a pretty sociopathic way to structure a championship in a dog sport, but the AKC didn’t ask me for any input, so that’s how it is. You beat other dogs and handlers, and you beat them a lot, or you go home empty-handed.
One of the effects of this championship structure is that somebody who’s been doing competition obedience for 30 years has a pretty sizable advantage over somebody who’s been doing it for 3 years. More experienced competitors tend to have more refined training skills, more ring experience, and often more carefully selected dogs. This translates to a considerable advantage in head-to-head competition, which is what the OTCh is all about.
Most R+ competitors I know of, and I definitely include myself in this number, are fairly new to the sport (or, at the very least, are new to doing it this way). Their training mechanics often aren’t that sophisticated, in large part because they haven’t been doing it long enough to develop their skills to that level. Most people who have been doing it for 30 years, meanwhile, have been doing so with some degree of force. They have had a long, long time to practice, hone, and perfect their skills. In a purely mechanical sense, setting aside all value judgments, they’re better trainers. Consequently — and unsurprisingly — they beat the pants off the newbies.
It doesn’t mean their methods are better. It means they’re better at using those methods.
If you look at a compulsion trainer and an R+ trainer who have the same amount of experience and the same skill level and the same dogs, my personal experience has been that the R+ trained dogs are not at all handicapped in their performances. In fact, what I have personally seen is that the R+ dogs tend to be better. But there are not that many trainers out there with 30 years of experience doing it this way, and that makes a big difference at the OTCh level.
2. It is often difficult to find extremely skilled R+ trainers in a sport where that is not the norm.
If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who uses compulsion-based methods, I’ve got my pick of two or three within decent driving distance of my home. If I lower the bar to UD/UDX handlers, I’ve got even more.
If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who trains force-free, I have to train online, because the one and only R+ OTCh handler who used to teach classes in my area retired and moved to another state last year. There are other R+ obedience instructors in my area, to be sure, but they’re not OTCh handlers. Only maybe one or two are at UD/UDX level, and those are about two hours away — too far to drive for regular instruction.
And this is in an area with a strong, solidly entrenched culture of R+ training for other sports (for example: if I want to train with world-class handlers in agility, I’ve got no end of awesome choices within 90 minutes of home). I can only imagine how much worse it is for people who live in regions where there isn’t such a vibrant R+ dog sport culture.
If you want to compete seriously in a sport, you have to learn from the best. R+ handlers who want to compete at the top levels in obedience and don’t have a force-free OTCh instructor nearby have a couple of choices: (1) learn from the most motivational and least forceful of the mixed-method trainers in their area, then try to invent their own solutions to problems that their teachers would normally solve with force; (2) learn on their own (or online) and, to some degree, make stuff up as they go; or (3) switch over to mixed methods.
Options #1 and #2 impose some real, practical disadvantages. The Fenzi Dog Sport Academy is starting to fill in the gaps and make #2 much more feasible (and it’s beginning to build an impressive record of student successes to prove it), but there are still some things that are best learned (or discovered) via in-person classes. Thus, people who stick to their guns regarding training methods will likely be at a disadvantage not because their methods are inherently flawed, but because they don’t have mentors who can help them through the inevitable bobbles and weak spots that will pop up during a dog’s sport career. They’re slowed down by having to constantly problem-solve along the way (with the trial and error that unavoidably entails), instead of just taking someone else’s established solutions and implementing them.
Option #3, therefore, may seem like the only viable choice for a Seriously Serious competitor who would like to be force-free, in a perfect world, but doesn’t know how to make that happen and isn’t willing to risk failing in public as they learn to invent their own solutions.
The net effect here is that some of the Seriously Serious competitors, believing that force is necessary to win as a practical matter even if they don’t like it and accept that it’s not theoretically necessary, switch to alternative camps. This leaves a disproportionate number of less serious competitors in the R+ bucket. These people, who may be perfectly happy to continue playing for fun and who never wanted to chase after OTChs in the first place, may then be perceived as the best possible outcomes with R+ methods, simply because they’re the only ones left trying to do it.
3. Some R+ handlers get driven out of the sport by a hostile environment.
I think this is changing in obedience — either because the sport culture is finally starting to shift or because obedience entries have dropped to the point where nobody wants to chase away interested newbies anymore — but it’s definitely very much still true in bitesports (and possibly in field training, although I don’t do gun dog stuff so I am 100% speculating on that front) that there is a lot of entrenched hostility toward “cookie trainers” in some quarters. And that is still at least a little bit of a Thing in competition obedience, too. I’ve gotten the snarky comments on the sidelines at trials myself (and I wasn’t even competing!).
Some of this is a self-created problem: waltzing in and blithely making idiot mistakes while lecturing everybody else about how they abuse their dogs is not going to win a whole lot of friends in any endeavor. Don’t add to the problem, I implore you, dear reader. If you go into a new sport where you don’t actually know anything and don’t have any accomplishments (or, really, even where you do), please please please do not pull that crap.
But even if you are polite and respectful and humble, there’s going to be some hostility. Some people are threatened by the idea that it’s possible to succeed without inflicting pain on their partners. Some people legitimately don’t believe that you’ll get anywhere and don’t care to have you waste their time while you figure this out. Not everyone is gentle in expressing those opinions.
And sometimes that makes R+ handlers give up on the sports that are most hostile to them, because pretty much all of us are doing this for fun as a hobby, and it is not actually a whole lot of fun to have people constantly being dicks in your face about not putting a prong collar on your dog. Dog sports are hard. There’s plenty of disaster and demoralization to go around without your fellow club members adding to your woes. Everybody needs encouragement and support sometimes, and the people who don’t get it are likely to drop out. In some sports, those people are primarily the “cookie trainers.”
So they leave, and the perception becomes “lol those guys can’t hack it,” and the myth lives on another day. The more you have to be a pioneer for unpopular and under-explored techniques in a given environment, the fewer people are going to have the fortitude to stick it out.
4. It’s a numbers game.
How many people who start out in competitive obedience go on to get an OTCh?
I have no idea what the actual number is, but let’s say the answer is 1 in 100. Let’s pretend that one person out of every hundred people who takes a basic competition obedience class will go on to compete, and will keep doing it long and successfully enough to get an OTCh.
The other 99 people drop out because they lose interest or life gets in the way or their dog doesn’t have the capacity or they don’t have the capacity. Or maybe their first-ever Novice A run is a disaster and they get all humiliated and demoralized and nobody bothers reaching out to pull them back into the game, so they quit on the spot and never go back. Whatever. Something happens and they don’t make it to the top.
Now, how many of those people train force-free? Let’s say that the number is 15% (again, I’m totally making this up out of thin air, but we’ll just pretend that’s the number and run with it). So 15 out of those 100 people are R+ handlers, and the other 85 are not.
What are the odds that the one person in a hundred who gets an OTCh is also going to be one of the 15 people who trains without force? Not great! Especially not great in light of all the other disadvantages we’ve talked about!
If the numbers were swapped, and it was 85% force-free and 15% not, then R+ OTChs would soon become so commonplace that they wouldn’t be remarkable anymore — which is more or less where agility already is. (When was the last time you heard anyone ask whether it was possible to get a MACH without a prong?)
But instead, in this sport, the non-compulsion handlers are the minority, and they’re also a minority made up disproportionately of newbies with dogs who weren’t specifically bred or chosen for success in this venue (crazy pound mutt holla!), and so, not surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of them getting OTChs or winning NOC. There are not a whole lot of people doing those things period.
If there are only 15 people trying to do X without compulsion, and it would be no surprise if a randomly selected group of 15 people with identical skill levels, experience, resources, and dogs would not be able to do X with compulsion, then that is not exactly a fair benchmark. The fact that none of the 15 R+ people succeeded might not tell you anything other than that it’s unlikely that any group of 15 similarly situated people would do it.
I could go on — I do think there are some other things that factor in here — but if you ask me, those four points cover most of the big reasons that you don’t see more force-free OTChs. As the requisite knowledge spreads, access to excellent instruction improves, the sport culture changes, and the numbers shift, I expect that R+ OTChs will start to seem less noteworthy. They’ll still be awesome, because any OTCh is awesome, but it’ll become unremarkable in the same way that an R+ MACH is unremarkable. It’s a great achievement for dog and trainer, but it’s not like throwing the first bomb in the revolution.
So what are you to do, if you are an advocate of force-free dog training and firmly believe that it’s possible to achieve the highest levels of obedience without compulsion?
Simple. Not easy, but simple. Prove it.
That’s it. That is the whole thing. Do the work. Develop the skills. Campaign your dog. Show people that it can be done, because talking about it convinces no one.
Even if you don’t make it to an OTCh — as Pongu and I will never make it, because after some 18 months of training in competition obedience I’ve finally been forced to admit that my fearful dog’s mental problems prevent us from ever approaching that level — it is worth making the attempt.
Pongu will never have an OTCh. He will probably never have a CD in AKC obedience, for that matter. He’s a scaredy dog. Obedience, or at least obedience with the scores I’d like to see, is just plain too hard for him. Admitting this caused me a fair amount of heartburn, because I wanted so badly to go out there and prove that we could do it, and it was a bitter pill to swallow that we couldn’t.
But I don’t regret the training, because I did learn the skills and I did show my dog to top levels of competition (albeit in Rally, not obedience), and I did at least get to demonstrate that this approach works to push a pathologically fearful dog far beyond what any other method could have done. A lot of dogs like Pongu never even get to live semi-normal pet lives. Pongu went far beyond that. So we did get a success story. Not exactly the one I was aiming for, but a success story nonetheless.
And I learned enough to convince myself that yes, this can be done. I might not have convinced anyone else. Yet. But I’ll keep on learning, and I’ll keep on practicing, and someday, it’ll happen.
Because that is what we have to do, all of us, if we want to change the world.