Competitive Obedience, Coaching by Steve Courtney

I have a lot of people come to me for Dog Sport training, whether it be just to overcome a small problem or to train from puppy to podium, I have the programs to make it happen, but it won’t be about running drill after drill, I don’t think that is the way at all.

First I would like to cover what I think a dog needs to have to make it big in the ring.


The rules of ANKC obedience were written when drive wasn’t a thing, so you won’t get points for drive, but to me (at least) dogs going through the motions and remaining consistent isn’t enough. I want attitude, grunt and sheer force coming from the dog.


Having all the drive in the world is useless without focus, I want to see this highly driven dog with hard eye contact at the handler, looking for that next cue.


Get in a fast car like a Ferrari or Porsche and look at the level of control, with more power and no extra control, you are out of control.


There are a thousand dogs that remain in the heel position and plod along, I love animated, prancy heel work with a hint of flamboyant movement, a more stylised heelwork in motion.


I want to see those turns smooth, fluid like floating rear end awareness that looks flawless.


When the recall is given a dog that trots back to the owner isn’t in drive. Listen to the crowd when a dog belts toward the owner pulling up within millimetres of the handler with a perfect front.

When these attributes come out in the rings of Australia heads turn, look at the ring sports of the world and see that we need to lift our game in Australia. I am not saying we don’t have dogs like I describe here, I know we do, I train quite a few like this, but it isn’t the standard or anywhere near it.

Wisdom heelwork 1

The above pic is our Malinois Wisdom being trained and handled by Bec Chin, she is a young dog and by no means finished as yet, but the picture above depicts all of the attributes I try and train into a competitive dog, if you like this picture, this is what my goal is.

Dogs are still being taught repetitious and arduous heel patterns that don’t display the dogs natural movement and excitement and this may be trading titles for progress.

Instead of training the positions first I focus on drive development, this is I must admit a tough way to start, you might spend days or weeks (even months) with some dogs “developing drive” into a system that can be used to teach, train and polish behaviours. In this time you won’t teach anything formal and there is a very good reason why not.

Stand in front of a new dog with a food lure, try to get that dog to sit. You will likely be repeating the sit cue over and over again whilst withholding the food. What does this say to your dog?

This new sit word is something that signals to your dog that you will tease me with food, get frustrated and not give me the food. Although in the end you will teach sit, the cue “sit” can be damaged and may take many repetitions to be clean in its meaning again. It is commonly trained this way as you have no reward history to call on and no way to engage your dog unless you show it a reward.


My Training in Drive program does not work on showing the dog any rewards, luring or tricking the dog, drive development gives the handler the power to have the dog reward seeking on a cue and then you can either free shape, shape, guide, place and show or pretty much anything else without the “teaching system” being compromised by the “reward system“.

In other methods, some dogs could be lured onto say a platform with food and when they are on the platform you would give them the food. The dog may be so focused on the food it may not even be aware that it has gotten onto the platform, the presence of the reward can totally distract the dog from learning!

Whilst the Drive Development phase of training is not teaching the target behaviours, it is fun for both you and the dog. It gets you off the dogs case and lets both dog and handler ease up on schooling each other and allows you both to focus on the one thing, the reward experience. This is the first step of my program: getting the dog and handler focused on the one outcome!

Paddy heel 1Once I build drive that can be triggered by the handler anywhere, any time (even just for a moment) I carefully build this duration without breaking it. I have had clients be running as little as one and two heel steps and being told by others their dog would never reach a full pattern.

I believe in multiplying perfection by time, not multiplying average work and hoping for better.

Long heel patterns and by long I may even mean 6 steps can really kill the dogs drive, so there are some basic rules to get heelwork looking nice and consistent that I use to help my clients understand how not to break it!

Teaching a dog focus in my opinion isn’t about the dog looking at your face as it thinks that food comes from there, I want to communicate with my dog so that looking at me to learn and follow language is the dogs goal.

I want the dogs I train to look at me without me needing to lure it or come up with a tricky target, eye contact is a natural behaviour of a dog seeking guidance, Training in drive helps makeKelly this natural behaviour a vehicle for the dog to better communicate with the handler. They are happy when looking into the handlers eyes as they are drive conscious and they are predicting a rewarding outcome, there is no fear of conflict or challenge.

The Training in Drive for the Dog Sport Competitor program is focused on motivating the dog to perform with accuracy, reliability and with attitude.

People universally come to me looking for ways to push their dog harder, when in fact it is more about teaching their dog to work with them and more importantly teaching them to work with their dog.

If you are just walking up and down a paddock hoping for the best, maybe it is worthwhile seeing what Training in Drive can do for your training. Check it out here.

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  1. Can’t wait to meet you in Oct Steve, great post. I am sick of going through the motions with Beau at the local obedience club and both of us being bored out if of minds… Just disappointed it takes so long to get it to see you…

  2. So very true you have drive and a dog who wants to work and the rest is piece of cake to train – once the foundations are good to go the rest is easy :).

    • Well Sally I wish is were that easy, but as we all know drive is a motivational force that sure helps training, but there are other elements too.

      • Sorry what I should have said is “drive” plus all the other elements mentioned in the blog as “package”. If the dog has all of those then it certainly makes it much easier to train anything new and very quickly.

  3. I think we are going to have to go back to the beginning! I cant wait to be under the guidance of this smart man!!
    See you in Perth, Steve!

  4. Awesome blog and so true. Having watched a couple of trials in the last few months I could not believe the lack of drive in both handlers and dogs. Sure, they were doing the excercises and some getting good results but was definitely not pretty to watch.

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