Leave the Wildflowers alone

By Charlotte Schwartz

First printed “Off Lead” February 1979



I found them the day before along the roadside. So young, delicate, and lovely. A whisper of butterfly blue amid the browns and greens. I wanted them to be mine, so I brought them home. The next morning they were dead.

Now, months later, as the elements of winter forced me indoors for most of the day, I remembered them. Wild asters. I saw a picture of them in my wildflower book and it made me sad to think I had killed them when all I wanted to do was enjoy them longer.

Later that same day, in open class, I saw several handlers trying to kill the wildflowers in their dogs. I stopped the class and told them the story of my wild asters. I cautioned, “Train your dogs to each dog’s fullest potential, but leave the wildflowers alone”.


Let me explain.


Each breed was originally bred for a specific purpose…some to work, some to hunt, some to retrieve, some to burrow. When we forget the original intent for our dog’s very existence and attempt to train out those behaviours, which are unique to that particular breed, we frustrate the animal.


Frustrate the dog enough and he begins to substitute other behaviours, usually undesirable, in their place. This in turn, upsets the handler and he becomes angry. The problem grows.


Take one frustrated dog and one frustrated handler and we destroy the proper atmosphere for learning. All we do is condition the dog to act in an uncooperative manner and the handler to be hostile towards the dog.


The next step follows very naturally. The dog hates the learning process and the person responsible for creating the hostile atmosphere. The handler hates teaching and the student he started out loving in the first place.


Let’s look at some specific wildflowers in the dogs we see in obedience classes in the United States. Take scent hounds, for example; Beagles, Bassets, and Dachshunds. They’ve been bred to use their noses to hunt. It seems perfectly natural to them, I suspect, to walk with head lowered, taking in the smells of those who have passed ahead of them.

Yet how many times do we hear scent hound handlers reprimand, “No sniff!” and give a quick jerk on the collar? Wouldn’t it be better to work the dogs in short, lively sessions with a favourite toy or treat held in the left hand? The dogs would have something interesting to watch as they heeled along and quite soon they’d be conditioned to picking up their heads when they hear the command “Heel”.


Two of my students, Roxanne and Linda, have proven this theory beautifully. Roxanne has handled a lovable Basset named Cleo to a High in Trial. Linda has trained two Beagles, Lucy and Junie, to work with head held high, eyes on her and tails wagging. The wildflowers are still there in each dog, and both girls did it with positive reinforcement.


A Komondor named Daphne has learned from her handler, Debbie, to be gentle and polite in class and when out in public. Yet Daphne assumes a very protective nature when at home. Carol, Dorothy and Nancy, all handle large, serious working dogs; A Doberman pinscher, a Rottweiler and a German Shepherd Dog. Yet each handler has taught her dog, through positive methods, that obedience class and trials are places where dogs must accept attention from other people without exhibiting aggressive behaviour.


Training a dog to pay attention to his handler, execute certain obedience exercises and, generally, assume his share of the responsibility for the team’s performance is a very achievable goal. But to realize that goal and leave the dog’s basic breed instinct intact takes a little bit of thoughtful planning.

Instead of correcting him for behaviours, which are hereditary to him, substitute.

That’s the key word.


As I mentioned earlier, give a scent hound something to look at. Don’t correct of sniffing…praise for paying attention.


Take the serious breeds and create happy atmospheres for them in which to learn. Dogs are, in many ways, like children. When they feel a friendly, cheerful air exists in the class and at trials, most love to join the celebration. Yet, when they’re home or feel their owners safety is jeopardized, they quickly sense the impending peril and act protectively.


Let a sight hound be just that. He can learn to heel and sit and come on command. But allow him time to run in an open area several times a week. Encourage him to race and chase and be proud that he is what he is. And praise heartily for positive responses to obedience commands.


When a terrier digs a hole or challenges another dog, don’t think he’s trying to destroy your yard or kill the other dog. He’s just being a terrier. Go out and admire his hole and tell him how beautiful it is. Then give him a digging area in the yard and teach him to use it. He can learn to do his digging in one place if taught with a positive approach.


As for the fighting, distract him. Correcting him with a sharp snap on the lead simply serves to psyche him up even more. Instead, call him to you in an excited tone of voice and get his mind on a favourite toy or game. Be so inviting with your enthusiasm for the game, he’ll forget his canine challenge and join you. Then praise.


Train sporting dogs, Setters, Spaniel and Retrievers, to be good, obedient companions, both in and out of the ring. But never let them lose the love of life and will to run which has been their birthright since their breeds began. Take them for long walks. Let them swim and retrieve just for fun. They too, need to keep their wildflowers alive.


When you think about it, owners usually buy dogs of specific breeds because they found something they liked within that breed that was a unique, breed characteristic. Somehow, when they get into obedience training they lose sight of that quality and try to train it out of them, thus destroying the thing that turned them on to the breed in the first place. (Very possibly, that’s where a lot of the bad publicity about obedience training originates. We’ve all heard breed fanciers say obedience destroys the dog’s spirit!)


In short - Don’t pick the wildflowers. Look to your heart’s content, but leave them along the side of the road to bloom another day. That way, you’ll always have them to enjoy.






Copyright © 2003 [Camnusch]. All rights reserved.
 Revised: 03/06/04