When many dog owners view highly-trained dogs, especially dogs competing in the obedience ring, they see a picture of strict formality. The handler stands straight as an arrow and verbal commands are often brisk and firm. There is no talking to the dog during a training exercise and only limited praise afterwards. The dogs are not performing for rewards; the handlers are not carrying rewards. Everything is as tight and polished as a military drill.
I think this gives people the idea that in order to get their dogs to look like those highly-trained ones, they should look and act just like the handlers in the ring. If that’s what high-end training looks like, the assumption is, then that’s how we should work with our dogs.
This is definitely incorrect! Those highly formal dogs you see were trained the formality, the same way they were trained everything else. It’s just another layer on top of all their other training.
If you would like to add some formality to your dogs training, then first work on fading out all extra cues and minimizing your movements, and standing up straight and tall as you give commands. So many people get into the habit of saying “Down,” as they lean down and point at the ground. Stand up straight and say “Down” in a crisp, clear voice, and if your dog doesn’t lie down right away then you can go ahead and give a quick hand signal clarification, and then reward. After enough practice he should be lying down on just your verbal cue.
If your dog seems worried or concerned when you move and act formally, or if he just doesn’t read it as being interactive and wanders away, you can take an extra step to help him realize that it’s a good thing when you look this way, and it predicts fun and interaction. Move into a formal posture, hold it for a moment, and then produce a toy or treat. Do this several times, and soon he will excitedly engage with you when you look like you’re going to be working.
It can be helpful to go to an obedience competition and watch competitors before and after they’re in the ring. Most handlers will warm up very informally, with a lot of rewards and play. Gradually their handling will formalize, until they’re ready to walk into the ring, and the performance will be formal. After they leave the ring, there will be an explosion back into informality, likely again involving a lot of rewards and play.
If you like the look of a high level of formality in training, then go ahead and train for it! And if you prefer to just be informal, then that’s fine too!