Downeast Dog News

Training Your Performance Dog

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

Enjoy the Dog You Have

Performance sports require a lot of dedication and patience. Dogs, just like people, learn at different speeds, and one method does not work best with all dogs. A good handler works first for attitude: to create and keep a dog that wants to learn and seeks engagement. There must be something involved in training that the dog wants, but far beyond the reward, the dog must want to take part in whatever performance game you want to play.

It is up to the handler to design training sessions that are fun and interesting to the dog but that also have goals, so learning different tasks can be accomplished. Dogs have different styles of working and solving problems. They are individuals, and trying to force them into a preconceived style is not going to meet with success.

Take heeling as an example. There are many misconceptions about what the dog and handler should be doing. Yes, heeling requires attention, but this does not mean the dog must twist its neck to look up at the handler, and this also does not mean the handler should twist towards the dog and require eye contact. This concept is extremely awkward for both parties. If taught properly, dogs will develop their own natural style to follow the handler’s moves. The handler must be consistent and show the path, not stare at the dog. This sends a very mixed message. Heeling should be pretty and reflect two partners moving together, not something rigid and programmed. If allowed and taught correctly, dogs will find what is comfortable for them. Heeling with their handler should be a place dogs want to be, not a mold they must fit into.

Some dogs will naturally prance; some will look up; some, because of their structure, will not – but all can learn to be in sync with their partners and move in unison with them. The dog must be physically and mentally comfortable in heel position. It should be a place the dog wants to be, and there should be a circuitous flow of energy from dog to handler and handler to dog.

Heeling with attitude is a beautiful thing to watch. Yes, you need to show and teach your dog the mechanics of heeling, but allow your dog to develop his own comfortable style.

The same holds true in tracking. Some dogs will track with their noses right on the ground. Others will not, and they will hold their heads higher. Some of this can be attributed to structure, and some may be caused by sensitivity to the scent or conditions. To attempt to force the dog to keep its nose to the ground in all circumstances is one of the fastest ways to discourage a dog. Again, the dog needs to be both physically and mentally comfortable with what you are requiring; otherwise your chances of having a dog who really wants to engage and learn will be very slight.

So, let your dog develop its own style of performance and learning. Yes, you want to shape behaviors, but be flexible and understanding enough to listen to your dog and enjoy the dog you have.

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