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Book Review
Playtraining Your Dog
by Patricia Gail Burnham

Review by: Kate Connick, Aug. 2005

I can remember, many years ago, when I first read Patricia Gail Burnham's Playtraining Your Dog. A true classic, it presents the author's philosophy and techniques for training competition obedience exercises. Twenty-five years after its original publication, this book still remains a must-read for any dog trainer or obedience competitor.

Competing with greyhounds at AKC obedience trials is not the easiest endeavor. Heavier-handed, more regimented styles of training were not sufficient for the author to achieve her goals. One consistent theme throughout the book is Burnham's insistence that, "Anything that does not work for a particular dog... should be rejected, and the trainer should keep searching for a method that works for his own dog." Playtraining, as she terms it, is what works for Burnham and her dogs.

While acknowledging that tougher dogs might thrive on tougher methods, Burnham's primary frame of reference is a sensitive, independent, prey-oriented breed. And while more coercive methods might be adequately serviceable at teaching the more control-related novice obedience exercises, Burnham found that they placed her dogs at a disadvantage when doing more advanced work where a dog needs to perform more independently.

As a result, she cultivated a style of training that minimizes corrections and judiciously employs tug games, food treats, and occasional social deprivation to facilitate enthusiastic compliance. She stresses the importance of avoiding boredom with brief sessions and minimal repetition. Her aim is to set the dog up to perform correctly so that it can be rewarded with praise, mock prey, or sporadic food treats. The intention is to keep things fun for dog and handler, and it is obvious that Burnham delights in her dogs' learning process.

That being said, Burnham recognizes the utility of corrections in helping to regain a dog's attention and get him back on task. Her methods are motivational; they are not "purely positive." Those who approach this book from an entirely reward-centered perspective may find it too "traditional" for their tastes. Those who have been exposed to more traditional methods will recognize it as a tremendous leap in the direction of trying to induce cooperation rather than compel it.

Burnham's thought process is often more valuable than the specifics of her method. She favors the use of an ear pinch to reinforce retrieving, for example. While many - myself included - find ear pinches distasteful, her reasoning and application have been thoughtfully considered. She stresses the need to have a solid foundation of "pretraining," as well as impeccable timing. She finds that the technique is efficient, effective, and humane in practice, if done properly. Whether one agrees or disagrees, she presents a well-reasoned argument and concedes the potential for harm if the ear pinch is improperly exercised.

Throughout, Burnham emphasizes the importance of analyzing failures - i.e., the fact that the dog did something wrong is less significant than investigating why it happened that way. She highlights three important sources of failure: boredom, physical discomfort, and handler error. To illustrate, she recounts numerous stories of her own dogs' mistakes and how ultimately they all made sense and increased her awareness and skill as a trainer. Burnham astutely remarks that, "The ultimate goal of training is the education and skill development of the trainer, a process that never ends."

Just as she offers very practical tips on competing, she also offers almost poetic observations of the dog-owner bond and maintaining one's perspective about titles and competition. Presented in a humble, conversational style that is full of humorous observations and anecdotes, the book is as entertaining as it is informative. The many black and white photos of greyhounds are a special treat for the sighthound fancier.

Although Burnham insists that, "It is the learning that matters, not what is being learned," the book is undeniably directed towards obedience trial preparation. As such, the average pet owner may not relate to the content. Alternatively, one might be inspired to compete after reading this book. Either way, if someone is struggling with mundane matters of basic household etiquette, this book will not be especially helpful.

Some information may be dated or open to dispute. I could nitpick, but the overall effect is balanced and sensible. One walks away from this book liking the author and appreciating her wisdom and experience. Her comfortable writing style and sense of humor make the book engaging and quick reading.

Any dog trainer or aspiring obedience competitor would welcome this book on his bookshelf, not only for the historical value but for the timeless bits of information that maintain their relevance. In truth, this book holds a special place in my heart, because it's one of those books that inspired me to become a dog trainer. I'll always be grateful for Burnham's optimism and playful approach to teaching a "less trainable" breed.

Playtraining Your Dog, by Patricia Gail Burnham.
Published by St. Martin's Press, 1980. ISBN: 0312616910

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