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Engagement Part 3

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At this point you probably have a pretty good idea of the basic stages of engagement.   I left you with a dog that will engage easily and voluntarily for a sustained period of time, offering both personal interaction and formal work before earning a classic reinforcer.

At the same time that I am working through those stages, I’m also practicing  from stage two with the cookies or toys away from my body.  At first they are close by – only a few feet away.  But eventually, they are very far away – possibly the distance that I might expect to work at a trial between the location of my dog’s crate (where I could keep the rewards) and the competition ring itself.

The important thing to remember is that variables are worked individually and that you start small! Sometimes you’ll have rewards on your body but you’ll choose a reward that happens to be on the ground or nearby, and other times you’ll have nothing on your body at all, but you’ll have access to rewards that your dog may or may not know about.

The trick is to work through the variables slowly and over time – blending personal interaction, play, toys, food and work – in a variety of combinations, to the point where your dog is no longer asking the question, “NOW do I get my reward?”  Instead, the package becomes the reward.  If you’re lucky and you do a good job with your personal play skills, you may get to the point where the interaction with you is reward enough to maintain high quality work in competition.

Some dogs will always focus more on the classic motivators than others, which is fine.  Create a path that works for you, but don’t give up too soon.  A truly engaged team takes months and years to create, and if you make a point of blending the possible rewards from the beginning, you’ll have a much easier time when you decide to enter a trial.

Here is a video with Lyra.  I ask her to engage and she accepts.  I ask her to work and she is willing and enthusiastic.  I then giver her a classic (food) reward that is close by but off my body. To be trial ready, those rewards would have to be 100 feet away, and she would need to be able to work for a much longer period of time for only personal engagement as middle steps.  And in Lyra’s case, it would always be a toy, since food is a relatively weak motivator for her.

(ignore Brito – he got out of the house and I left him in the area while I finished up with Lyra).

Engagement – A little more

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In my last blog I walked you through the basic Stages of Engagement, using Brito and cookies to illustrate with a video. Note that I show all of the stages for illustration, but in training with my dogs I do not go through all of the stages – I start at the point where it makes sense to me for a given dog, based on the challenge level of the environment and the experience level of the dog.

In this blog I’m showing the same basic process, but this time I’m using Lyra and I take my expectations further.

In the first 48 seconds we work through the first three stages of engagement.  First I create engagement with a toy.  Then I wait for eye contact before engaging with a toy.  And finally I wait for engagement and then sustained interaction before rewarding with a toy.

At 48 sec – note my posture.  Here I am “inviting” her to come and play with me.  So we’re back to where we started in stage 1 – I am starting the process, but this time I am asking her if she’d like to play without using any classic reinforcers to back it up.  Note that there is no toy present – my invitation is to engage, not to play with a classic motivator.  After we play, I ask her to set up in heel position.  Based on her expression and behavior, I think she would rather that we continue to play than set-up, but she is not distressed nor does she lose engagement with me.

As a result, I simply ask her again if she’d like to play (1:06 – 1:10).

Her set up continues to be a bit slow, but I’m not too concerned about it.  I can work on that away from engagement training.

We then go directly into work – her attitude is positive so I feel good about this.  I don’t ask a lot – she gets her toy reward by 1:29.

The next rep is more demanding.

At 1:29 I start the process of asking her if she’d like to play with me – my human play bow at 1:37 is accepted and we go back to play/work.

At 1:47 we work – I avoid the issue of setting up by going directly into heel position.

She works until 2:30, at which point she earns her toy.

If your dog will not play with you without food or a toy, that’s fine.  As long as you can get sustained, focused contact with your dog before you start work then you’ll be fine.  I have worked hard to get Lyra to play with me, and it’s a valuable barometer of “how much dog” I have in various environments, so it’s my choice to take her training this route.  It might not make sense for your dog depending on how you’ve trained and what kind of a play relationship you have established with your dog.

Stages of Engagement Part 1

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Engagement means your dog is “engaged” with you – paying attention and showing energy for whatever task you have in mind.

Simple word.  Complicated topic.

I take engagement training through several stages:

In the first phase, the human starts engagement by showing the dog a combination of personality and classic reinforcers.  I am doing all of the work and Brito really has no choice because I overwhelm the alternatives with what I have to offer. I cause the engagement from Brito; he is not offering it.  This is fine to get a young dog started, but if you keep it up over the long run you’ll set yourself up for a lifetime of working harder and harder to get and keep engagement, or you’ll resort to corrections to maintain attention when your dog is no longer a puppet being manipulated by your efforts.   Not to mention, you’ll make sensitive dogs downright neurotic with a long term application of this approach (a story for another day).

In the video you’ll see that the second I put Brito down I immediately work hard to keep him focused on me.  I put the cookie in front of his nose and keep him moving!  You’ll also see that I begin to overwhelm him and he starts to avoid – it’s subtle but he’s really not interested in my cookie.

The next stage of engagement occurs when you shift responsibility for starting training from the human to the dog.  This shift is critical, and allows you to assess the readiness to work and overall comfort level of your dog.  At this point, setting up an environment where you are likely to “win” is quite important.  Choosing a dull environment (maybe a 3 out of 10 on the curiosity scale), will cause your dog to get bored faster than choosing a doggy Disneyland, so set yourself up for success.

To work this stage, take your dog to a relatively uninteresting place (your home training area is fine), and simply wait – a short leash will make the process go a bit faster.  When your dog gets bored with the environment and checks in with you then that is the time to respond with your combination of food, toys and personality at whatever level best suits your dog.  He will soon learn that the route to reinforcement is making a choice to engage the handler.

What your dog does before engaging with you is not important; sniffing and sightseeing are just fine.  No food or toys should be visible until the dog checks in. If you are standing there while your puppy sniffs or lunges out at the world for an excessive period of time (maybe more than ten minutes after you’ve walked your puppy around for general acclimation) then you picked too difficult of an environment.   Either increase the acclimation period or better yet, choose an easier location.

In this second stage, the route to engagement from dog to handler is through one basic behavior – Brito offers eye contact and connection for about two seconds.  Now it’s time to ask for just a tiny bit more.

In the third stage, I want sustained contact from Brito before I come up with a classic motivator.  I wait for the dog to show a desire to interact but instead of coming up with food or toys immediately, I simply engage the dog with a combination of voice, movement and personality; whatever is most useful for your dog and brings out determination and energy.  After a short period of time (ranging from several seconds to a minute, depending on the experience level of the dog), I will come up with the classic motivators that the dog wants.  The goal here is to teach my dog sustained focus and engagement. If the dog checks out before I have a chance to reward, I start over again; possibly for a shorter period of time.  You will see both of these possibilities in the video; sometimes Brito engages and then disengages, but at the end he engages and stays with me to the point of receiving a cookie.

In the fourth stage of engagement training, I expect some kind of formal work before offering any classic motivators.  The ideal sequence would be that the dog will briefly explore the environment, choose to engage with me, stay engaged for a period of time, and then offer to work – all without knowing what motivator they are working for.  After performing a simple behavior such as a few steps of heeling – the classic reward shows up!  You can see this stage with Brito as well.

If you cannot get stage one, then either your environment is too difficult, your dog is nervous, or your dog is not interested in your motivator.  Change something.  If you watch carefully with Brito you’ll see that I have this problem; he is more interested in exploring than in my cookies.

If at any point after Stage two your dog opts to leave you for the environment rather than engage – that’s fine.  Simply release them back to the (limited) environment and when they re-engage, start the entire process over.  Which doesn’t mean they get to explore what they are curious about; it simply means you stop the engagement process.  For example, if your dog stopped working because he wants to greet a person who just entered the training area, that’s fine. Release your dog from formal work, but prevent your dog from visiting or, if off leash, ask the person to ignore your dog.  Better yet, ask them to leave. Then try again.

If your dog still cannot succeed, you either 1) chose too difficult of an environment/distraction, 2) never had the dog’s brain in the first place (you’re begging or rushing the stage), or 3) you moved through the above stages too quickly and your dog is unsure about how to win.  Adjust accordingly or end the session altogether.

Brito routinely trains in stages two, three and four, depending on the environment and how enthusiastic he is about working for me.  In very stimulating environments like a dog show I might move him back to stage two, but normally I just let him acclimate a bit longer.  Don’t rush!  Don’t accept lesser quality work (lowered criteria) just because the environment is more difficult!

No begging.  No bribing.  A simple and respectful way to engage with a dog.

When you are comfortably working in the fourth stage, you will slowly increase the number of behaviors you request before your party.  With a fully trained dog I might reward for a simple set up in heel position or I might ask for several minutes of work.

When you have worked through this entire chain, you may also choose to begin the process of work simply by saying your dog’s name or asking if they would like to work – let’s call that the “fifth” stage of engagement.  If you have done a good job on engagement training and if your dog is well prepared and comfortable in your current location, they’ll say yes, because working with you will have become extremely important; the highlight of their day.

Here is a video showing all four stages:


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What do we mean when we talk about proofing?

It simply means to make your dog stronger – fluent – by adding measured challenges to your behaviors.  The way to create fluency is by playing games that ask the question, Can you perform if…..

Then you fill in the blank.

“Prove” to me that you can perform this behavior under a range of circumstances, and then I will believe that you are fluent in the behavior.  And hopefully, closer to being competition ready!

Can you “sit” on cue if I am in a chair?  Can you sit if we are away from home?  Can you sit when I am far away? Behind a gate? On a ladder? With my back to you?  When I don’t have a cookie in my hand?  When a dog walks by?  When your treats are sitting next to you?

When you ask these questions and work through the myriad possibilities, you help your dog develop the ability to perform under a wide range of circumstances.  As a result, the dog show reality isn’t nearly as difficult or challenging for your dog, because they are already comfortable performing under adversity.

The good news about fluency is that it will eventually become a concept rather than a specific skill to be mastered.  What I mean is that if your dog can perform a “sit”cue under ten sets of circumstances, then odds are pretty good that when you introduce an eleventh, your dog will perform on the first attempt because he has generalized the behavior.  When you see this, your dog is likely to do just fine at the dog show when you ask for a sit, even if the specific distraction that you encounter at the show is different than the ones that you have trained for.

MondioRing is a protection sport that emphasizes fluency.  Each trial is unique and your dog will be asked to perform a set of exercises in truly novel circumstances. I competed in MondioRing a few years ago with Raika and we were definitely challenged!  I might be asked to show Raika’s position changes (sit, down, stand and come) while I sat on a hay bale.  The next day the judge might reverse that, with the dog sitting on the hay bale.  As a result of these trial expectations, Mondioring training is all about fluency – teaching the dog the behaviors and helping them understand their job regardless of the environment, distractions or handler behavior.

While Lyra lacks the temperament to perform Mondioring protection exercises, we can still use what we learned about fluency to make her obedience stronger!

Here is a video of Lyra working with surface distractions. This is the first time I’ve asked her to retrieve a toy and she fails the first time. Not a big deal. She also fails a sit cue and she offers to fetch her toy when I don’t send her. This video may give you some ideas for how you might want to handle errors when you encounter them in your training.

This was taken from a session that totaled about five minutes. I’ll train her again later today and we’ll work with no obvious distractions in a more familiar location and on a variable reinforcement schedule – the only challenge will be “time”. She enjoys training for fluency but I also believe it’s a little stressful for her, so in an effort to minimize that her next session will not be difficult.  When working fluency, your reward schedule should be very high – 100% the first time you attempt new challenges.

Can you see how training for fluency will make some skills such as retrieve over high jump, the drop on recall and signals much easier for her in competition?  What I am asking of here has significantly more challenge than what I am going to ask of her in a formal ring setting.

The pressure of “things”

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A current training challenge with Brito is generalized discomfort heeling toward things.  That thing can be ring gates, walls, people, barriers, plants etc.  Brito holds back and lags, or he tries to move behind me to avoid the pressure of the object. He does not want to heel close to barriers, which makes sense.  Who wants to run into a wall?

How can I change his perception of walls as something to welcome rather than as something to avoid?  What’s closer than close?

Here’s a video to show what I am doing.  First we heel towards an object and then I ask Brito to put his feet on it.  Now, instead of viewing the thing as something in his way, he surges towards it to perform a known behavior – in this case, feet up.  Now he has a reason to move towards the thing, so he welcomes the trained behavior rather than avoiding the pressure.

When he begins to exhibit a positive attitude towards the approach of barriers, I will add several additional possibilities as I approach – a halt, left turn, right turn, about turn or possibly….feet up.

In this unedited video I am on his third lesson, broken into two session a few minutes apart.  For the first 1:40seconds, I approach the objects and he puts his feet up.  From 1:40 – 2:34, I add in the idea that he needs to stay in heel position – so if he surges ahead to put feet up, then I bring him back and we try again, with lots of support!  Finally, from 2:35 to the end, I add in the possibility of a right turn at the barrier rather than a halt or feet up.

I’m really pleased with what I am seeing and I am confident that this will work for us.  I just started adding in people and he did great!






Philosophy, Goals and Techniques

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A philosophy is a high level guide that sets your course, a goal is what you hope to accomplish, and a technique is a specific way to reach your goals.  In an excellent training program, one’s philosophy, goals and techniques must be in alignment.

As a dog trainer, I have a philosophy and goals that set my course, and then I have a range of techniques that allow me to work towards my goals. These techniques are the tools that I use to communicate with my dog.

I often hear talk of a “toolbox”.  The common thinking is that the more tools (techniques) you have, the better off you’ll be.  I disagree.  I only need tools that are aligned with my philosophy and goals; anything else undermines my direction.

In the dog training world there are many foundation philosophies such as “I believe that I must convince my dog that cooperation with training is not optional” or “I believe that I have a responsibility to make training pleasant for my dog.” Once you identify your philosophy, your techniques should fall in alignment with that philosophy.  If one person holds to the first philosophy and another to the second, then they will require different training techniques, even if they share the same goals.  Some examples of goals might include, ”I train so that I can enjoy the pleasure of a well trained pet,” “I train so that I can compete in dog shows,”  or “I train so that I can better understand how a dog’s mind works”.  In some cases techniques will overlap across trainers because they are consistent with a variety of philosophies and in other cases they will diverge, but at root, you’ll be going different routes to reflect your beliefs.  Why waste your limited time, emotional energy, money and effort on tools that won’t work for you?

My philosophy of training is: “I believe in training with affection and respect for both members of the team,” and my goals are “prepare for competition”, and “better understand how to train different temperaments of dogs” so my techniques and interests flow from there.  I do not wish to reach my goals at the expense of my dreams.

When I select a technique for a particular dog, I consider how the dog and I are going to feel about that particular option within my philosophy.  Will the dog perceive my choice as an outgrowth of my affection for them?  Am I respecting what they want or need from training with consideration for their unique temperament?  Am I respecting my interests too?  

I also consider my goals. If I can choose between two methods that both satisfy a performance interest, one that I know well and one that is new to me, I’ll choose the novel one. That helps me reach my goal of better understanding a variety of temperaments of dogs.

It is a waste of my resources to learn techniques that assume compulsion, physical manipulation, or deprivation, regardless of effectiveness, because these methods don’t fit my philosophy of training and make me uncomfortable, and therefore they are not relevant to me.  Because my philosophy accounts for respecting the human half of the team, I also cannot support individual trainers or methods that are not kind to the well being of the person learning how to train the dog. People require kindness and consideration too. If I have concerns, my resources are better spent elsewhere. 

I often hear the argument that all methods can be “adapted” but I have not found that to be the case.  Incremental change on top of traditional philosophy rarely produces anything unique.  While modern adaptations of traditional thinking may strive for excellence, they are unlikely to reach spectacular. I want to see something new; something I would not have seen fifteen years ago!

Whatever philosophy you choose your dog will internalize over time, and there is comfort is consistency, even if that consistency is, “every time you look away I will pop your collar.” Now if 1/4 the time you pop the collar and 1/4 the time you lure the dog’s head back with a cookie and 1/4 the time you wait the dog out and reward when he looks back and 1/4 the time you insist that he play with you regardless of his opinion then that causes unsureness and confusion.  Some dogs adapt – they forgive the inconsistency and progress in spite of their trainer, but other dogs do very poorly with these shades of grey.  Rather than a random patchwork of ideas, consider your philosophy and your goals.  What makes sense from there?

When you work from a philosophy then training and problem solving become much easier  because you have a framework to guide your choices.  It makes preparation for competition easier since this too flows from philosophy; if you believe that dogs have no choice about cooperating with training then you will approach proofing quite differently from someone who believes their dog can opt out at anytime.  There are 1000’s of techniques – some are currently known and others have yet to be created.  Check your philosophy, check your goals and get to work! The options for inventiveness are amazing if you stop relying on tradition for your inspiration.

I have changed my philosophy over time, and my techniques have changed along with them.  Initially I simply accepted the philosophy of those who trained around me; I didn’t choose at all.  Now I hold a philosophy of training that supports my greater philosophy of life as well as my beliefs about how dogs and humans learn best. For all I know I’ll change again but for now, there’s no point in going where I’ve already been, especially when I still have so much to figure out.

If you’d like to play along, leave a comment below. Start with the words, “I believe” and then finish the sentence with your philosophy.


The new term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA) starts February 1st, 2015 and registration is currently in full swing.  We are offering 29 classes this term; if you’d like to engage in some on-line learning, check out our schedule for your options!

Heeling – Forging and Crabbing

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I can’t believe I’m doing another post on heeling.

Well,  yes I can. I love heeling.  And since I made this video for an online student I might as well share it here as well.

Lyra’s tendency in heeling is to forge and crab.  I’ve been playing with her in agility so we haven’t done any training on heeling in months.  I expected her to be a mess.  To her credit, she was in good shape right from the beginning.

That’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that her heeling is improving in her sleep.  The bad news is that you don’t get to see the ‘before/after’ effect

No worries, if your dog forges and crabs, you can try it out on your own dog and see it for yourself.

Forging means the dog is too far forward.  Crabbing means the rear end is out and the dog is not tracking correctly.  These two tend to show up together so I’m addressing them as a pair.

Working left circles or left pivots does NOT solve the problem – it just makes the dog better and better at left circles and left pivots but as soon as you go straight, or to the right, the problems are still there.  That’s frustrating for the handler, and we want to avoid that.  Frustrated handlers make poor training decisions.

Instead of masking the problem by working to the left, induce the problem by working to the right, and at the first first hint of a forge/crab, sidestep right (I’m assuming your dog has learned to move their rear to the right when you sidestep – if not you need that piece first), and as soon as your dog is correctly aligned, either reinforce with a true left pivot or return directly to your right circle.  If your dog gives you more than the “typical” amount of correct steps to the right, reward.

In Lyra’s case, her reward is to play tug, but you can substitute a cookie.  It’s your choice about letting your dog carry the toy in work – I allow it because it creates better flow for Lyra and it removes the conflict over having to return the toy to me.

Most of your rewards should come when the dog works correctly to the right, not to the left.  You’ll see I reward both, but mostly…to the right.

Give it a try and see what you get.


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