Downeast Dog News

Training Your Performance Dog

Agility, Obedience, Tracking
By Carolyn Fuhrer | May 01, 2019

Obedience – What You Really Need is a Partner

Basic obedience exercises are not hard to teach to your dog. The trick is having a dog who is a willing partner. So what makes a dog willing to work with you? Cookies, praise, physical affection, toys, fun? The answer is all of the above. If your relationship is only cookie dependent, you will never be able to move beyond very basic levels of performance in a few secluded venues.


Food is a convenient, portable motivation that most dogs like and can be eaten quickly, so it generally makes a great reward. One of the problems comes in where the food has been kept in the “lure” stage too long. If the dog doesn’t see the food, the dog will not work The dog does not understand that the food (the reward) is payment for work. This has not been made clear to the dog.


Another problem comes in with the dog who in life basically is not required to do anything, but is lavished with exotic treats, food, toys, beds, freedom, praise and petting. This dog has no reason to work unless the spirit moves him, so sometimes he will be great and other days he can’t be bothered. The work in that particular venue has not been properly tied to the reward. Unless the activity itself is self-rewarding to the dog, the dog sees no reason to work “every time”.


Another problem comes in when the handler “lets the food do all the work”. The handler does not relate the food with praise, petting, play, release, or whatever else the dog finds enjoyable. Food is just continuously given to the dog with no building of the relationship and the value of the work. When the food is no longer given, there is no inherent value in the work.


In training, we need to be creative and use ourselves and what we can offer the dog to let him know we are happy and he is on the right track to getting paid for their efforts.


When a dog is stressed or confused or would rather sniff or leave than engage in work, the handler has not set out a path to success that the dog can understand. Sometimes we progress too quickly in difficulty of exercises or sequences in agility or tracking, We have not built up enough value for the activity, and when the task is harder, the dog will not try and would rather avoid the situation.


Sometimes just by changing a location, this will prove too difficult for some dogs, and we need to go back to baby steps and build confidence. Sometimes we “proof” or test situations before the dog is really ready because he does not truly understand what behavior is required. Sometimes we stop variably rewarding behaviors we have taught and after a while the dog assumes these behaviors are no longer valuable because they never pay.


Good training involves planning and thinking through exercises, not just repetitions. Good training involves understanding where more confidence needs to be built and uses all your personal resources of relationship to put value into work.



Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 100 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 2 Champion Tracker titles. She has recently become an AKC Tracking Judge.


Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 25 years. You can contact her with questions, suggestions and ideas for her column by e-mailing