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Heeling Games – Horizontal Movement

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If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know I’m a big advocate of finding ways to make work enjoyable for both members of the team.  Heeling, while much loved by some handlers, is often not the preferred obedience activity for the dog.

“Heeling games” are a series of things that I do with my dogs to make heeling fun; maybe you’ll want to think about them too!

Starting April 1st at the Fenzi Academy, I’ll be teaching a six week course on this topic.  If this intrigues you, I’d love to have you join at the Bronze level ($65), or  ask for a scholarship if this is a hardship.  You can check out the Heeling Games class here:

I’m also teaching Bridging the Gap; a very popular class designed to help you reduce your use of reinforcers, generalize your dog’s behaviors to new locations and introduce proofing to your ring ready work in order to make your dog stronger!  This is a special 12 week long class, so if you decide to go forward you’ll want to get settled in.  This is the class for you if you get nervous at the idea of competing without a cookie in your pocket:

If on-line study doesn’t appeal to you, then go ahead and design your own heeling games!

To see the first lecture and watch the associated videos with the Heeling Games class, keep reading since I’ve uploaded the entire first lecture here.  You’ll get plenty of ideas to get started designing your own Heeling Games plan.  Have fun!



By definition, heeling is a highly precise activity.  In their efforts to be precisely where you want them to be, your dog must give a good deal of focus, energy and body awareness at all times.  To free a dog up, we need to give them permission to leave heel position as often as necessary so that they may stretch their bodies and their minds.  After these mini “movement” breaks, preferably with the dog at a run, we also need our dogs to come back under precise control almost immediately.  This tension on/tension off creates a balance that gives you beautiful, relaxed heeling without losing precision.

Allowing your dog to leave heeling – and return with energy – will be fundamental to your success in this class.  ALMOST EVERY EXERCISE WE DO IN THE CLASS WILL INVOLVE THIS TENSION ON/TENSION OFF METHOD.  The following exercises which are introduced here are the core of the heeling games.  Teaching your dog to have fun with movement is everything!  Heeling is simply one more form of movement – albeit with a lot of rules.

To create movement, we start by giving our dog permission to leave heel position on cue.  To do this, use a tunnel, an object to circle, jumps, hand touches (vertical movement) or even your own legs!   I call this approach to training obedience “games” because it blends the requirements of precision with the movement and freedom of play.

To help you grasp this idea, here is one of Lyra’s earliest lessons in Obedience games.  Note that I use movement – jumping, running around an object, and high hand touches, to try and build her interest in heeling:  

To teach obedience games:

At a minimum, your dog needs to be able to move away from you on cue.  For most dogs and handlers, circling an object such as a cone or a folded stanchion works very well – both are highly transportable and easily acquired.


To help you teach this skill, here is a video of Cisu’s First lesson in “Fly” (Fly simply means to circle an object and return) 

By using “fly” liberally in the middle of heeling, your dog may run away (moving their bodies) and then pull back into precise heeling when they return.  This creates the basis of the “tension on/tension off” between drive and control which was referenced earlier.

In this video, you can see two different ways that I get Cisu away from me so she can drive back into heel position.  One is ”fly” and the other is a food toss.   In both examples, she then catches back up to me and resumes heeling:   (cisu)

In this video, I’ve taken “fly” one step further.  In addition to sending her out and away, I asked for a ‘down’ next to the object before allowing her to return to me.  This is appropriate for very high drive dogs that need as much control in their work as possible.  Do not overuse this or you will lose your dog’s drive and energy, thereby negating the value of the game!  In this case, very occasionally adding a down or stop command, I guarantee that Cisu pays attention even at a distance; she cannot assume that she is always “flying” back to me:   (cisu)

In this video, I’m using “fly” only to increase energy into heel position.  Note that even though Cisu comes back into heel position, I quickly turn on a right circle to continue the forward momentum.  Maximum fun for the dog!  Also, note that I throw the toy straight ahead so she not only flies back and circles, she flies right by!  If your dog struggles with control this is not the best possible exercise for you – focus on getting the dog to drive up into heel position first and show some understanding of holding in position for a few seconds – and then reward in heel position rather than straight ahead.   Remember, all training should be geared to your dog’s unique needs:   (cisu)

There is no reason to start heeling with formal set-ups, or with the dog at a sit in heel position.  Try using “fly” instead of a setup, and see where it takes you!  Just enter your training area, send your dog off and around, and when your dog returns you can begin your formal work.

THRU/leg weaving:

In addition to “fly” you can add a second obstacle to create continuous motion – one of the easiest is to use is your own legs!  I call this “thru”

Here is an early lesson for Cisu in “thru”.  I start by luring with a toy, but quickly move to my hand as a target, with the toy as a reward.   You could certainly perform the same movements with a cookie (indeed it would be easier).  Just remember to get off the cookie lure as soon as possible, and use your hand as a target instead.  Cisu’s lesson uses a toy lure followed by a hard target:   (Cisu).

Here is a BIG dog and a LITTLE person learning “thru”: 

I’m teaching Lyra to continue on “thru” to both sides, which creates “leg weaving”.   Whenever you want, you can go back and forth between leg weaving and thru.  you can also alternate leg weaving to a reward with leg weaving right back into heeling.  Here’s Lyra learning leg weaving:    (Lrya).

If your dog wants to come around your legs rather than going through, watch this video.  This problem is so common I’d say 80% of handlers will run into it, so remember:  It’s important that your hand go behind your back and then down rather than wrapping around your leg where your dog will see it and want to follow!:   (no dog)

Conclusion: The purpose of this lecture is to show you ways to create movement and energy in your heeling.  Note that I never ‘set up’ to begin heeling – I simply allow it to happen.  ‘setting up’ is an important skill that your dog must learn to master precision in heeling, but the majority of the time it’s perfectly ok to start heeling without a formal start – or a formal stop!

Homework:  Teach your dog  “fly” and “thru”.  You won’t’ master it this week but let’s get started and see what we can do with it.  Send me a video of your progress (or your pleas for help)J.  If your dog “gets it” and you want to add some heeling upon the return, go right ahead.  If you struggle to regain control, offer the “pocket hand” from the precision heeling class just long enough to bring your dog into control; then back to regular heeling until you decide to throw in another game.

Rewarding Errors

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Obedience and agility require different behaviors, but both sports share some basic challenges that create grief for handlers.

Both sports require focus and impulse control without a leash and with significant distractions present.  Agility competitors struggle to maintain connection when the dog is working at a distance under speed, often with a good deal of excitement going on in the rings around them.  Obedience competitors struggle to maintain connection when the dog is working under the pressure of silence and formality for long stretches of time.  And both sports require a balance between handler connection and exercise (or object) focus.

Yet, the culture of the two sports is quite different in a fundamental way.  Agility handlers are trained to take responsibility for their dog’s failures (they are directed to change THEIR behavior), and obedience handlers generally hold the dog responsible (they are directed to change THE DOG’s behavior).  Which is not to say that you won’t find significant exceptions to both of these philosophies, especially at the lower or middle levels of competition, but if you pick up a book,  magazine, or online chat, you’ll understand what I mean.

Here’s a classic example:

Agility – “If the handler makes an error, reward the dog!  He did what he believed was correct!  If the dog makes an error, reward the dog!  He did what you trained him to do!”

Obedience – “If the handler makes an error, try again!  The dog has to earn those cookies!  If the dog makes an error, withhold reinforcement or fix it!”  How you fix it depends on your approach to training.  But reinforcement for errors? I don’t know anyone in obedience who actively proposes that solution, yet it is very common in agility.  A consolation prize, of sorts.  The “screw up” cookie.

It’s not that agility people are morally superior, or nicer, or like their dogs better;  it’s that the sport of agility requires a highly confident dog who has no fear of making an error, because worry impacts speed.  When the winner is usually much less than a second faster than the next dog in line, it’s critically important that the dogs believe they are absolutely correct.  Indeed, you will often hear agility instructors tell their students never to let their dogs know when they have made an error.  Simply continue on.

Obedience?  Not so much.

People say the two sports are different so cannot be compared, but these are issues of training specific behaviors, not of competition.   One dog doing an obedience directed jump for Utility and another dog learning an agility sequence are practicing the same skill; take the jump you are directed to.  Yet even in exercises with the same base behavior, errors are approached differently.  If you do some reading on email lists or magazines you’ll quickly get what I’m talking about.

There are exceptions in both sports and I represent an exception in obedience.  For a long time now, I have rewarded dogs for my handler errors in training because I see what happens to the self confidence of dogs that are held responsible for handler error.  They deflate, especially the less driven ones.

But I have not rewarded dogs for making errors when I believed I handled or trained correctly.  And now I am re-thinking that.

Here’s why.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog on rewarding a dog who was wrong when working scent articles.  You can see it here.

And I saw more response to that training blog than I have seen in months!  People tried it and dogs that have had long standing issues with scent articles turned around almost instantly.  Which doesn’t mean they didn’t continue to make errors, but now they were still in the game!  Willing to try!  If a dog is in the game then you can train through problems, but when a dog opts out, you’ve got a much bigger problem.  Dogs that give up simply cannot be trained using positive methods, and what fun is it to make a dog do things that they do not want to do?  And how well does that approach to training hold up in the ring with a dog that is totally disengaged and lower drive to begin with?

But this reality brings up more questions than answers for me.  For a long time I have used a Cheerful Interrupter (CI) to address errors.  The point of the CI is to interrupt the dog’s behavior while maintaining their enthusiasm and willingness to perform the task within behavior chains.  CI’s have worked extremely well for me, and as a result I have almost completely removed No Reward Markers (NRM’s) from my training because I place such a high value on a motivated, enthusiastic and fully engaged partner.

But what if I take that one step further?  What if I not only interrupt, but add a cookie to it?  How will that affect the dog’s willingness to withstand pressure? And what happens if I do not interrupt the chain at all?  What happens if I allow the dog to finish, reward and then set up the exercise in a manner that makes success more likely on the next attempt?

In agility it works. Consistently.  If the dog goes over the wrong jump then the handler throws out a toy, works to understand the error in either handling or training comprehension, and then the team either tries again with a better plan or returns to more basic behaviors to find the weak link.  So how about when my dog takes the wrong jump in Directed jumping?  Could that work for me as well?  Something makes me think…yes.

So where does this approach come into play?  Not in the shaping phase – dogs learn the basic component behaviors by marking correct behavior with classic reinforcement (cookie or toy) and incorrect behaviors by waiting.  Same in agility.

How about the next phase, where dogs are performing their known behaviors under distraction (proofing).  Can you reward if the dog fails to perform correctly?  Does it matter if the dog fails multiple times in a row? I don’t know but I have some guesses.

How about the next phase, where the dog is experiencing stress during the work, possibly as a result of the environment, or simply by virtue of being very sensitive?  I think that is  a place where dogs might be rewarded for error.  But all dogs or only some dogs?  I don’t know.

How about in the behavior chain phase – if you interrupt the chain where the dog makes an error, give a reinforcer and then start over, what happens?  How about if you allow the dog to finish, reward, and then change the exercise to create a better chance of success? I don’t know.

What are the relevant factors to consider?  Should the Consolation Prize Reinforcer (CPR) be of a significantly lower value?  For example, a cheerio vs a piece of chicken?  I don’t know.

Should the CPR be offered with a significantly different emotional response from the handler?  A piece of chicken and a party for a correct repetition vs. a piece of chicken and a chance to do it again for an error?  Should the CPR be one piece of chicken whereas the reinforcer for correct work is several pieces of chicken?

And how much do each of these factors vary by the given dog and their stage of training?

I don’t know those things either.  Of course, I have a lot of guesses about all of this, and I have two fine subject dogs to try stuff out on.   So we’ll see what happens.

If my part of training is to communicate expectations, and if his part is limited only to learning what I teach, what are the possibilities?

I’d like to find out.

And on an unrelated note:  Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has a new term starting on April 1st!  Registration starts March 22nd; some classes fill very fast so be ready to register at the correct time for your course.

This term I’m teaching Heeling Games and Bridging the Gap between Training and Competition.  You can see the full schedule and read more about your choices here: 




Mildly Nervous

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I took Lyra to do a little work in public today.  Specifically I wanted to work on her signals at a distance.  My goal was 50 – 100 feet, using a treat and train next to her for reward. (if you’re not sure what a treat and train is, make a quick search of google or watch the video).

I placed Lyra next to the treat and train and use the remote to reward her for any eye contact – so far so good.  She’s done a lot of this so nothing new here.  Lyra succeeds reliably at this task up to about 100 feet at home and up to about 50 feet in this new location.

But then something interesting happens.  After about a minute and when I am about 70 feet away, she leaves the treat and train to come in towards me.  Repeatedly.  When she arrives, I reassure her for a moment and then send her back out to her treat and train.  She goes happily enough, but then again, she leaves her treat and train to come in to me.  I make a point of activating it as she starts to come in to see if the sound will keep her there.  She hears the food drop into the bowl, but she continues towards me.

That means that food dropping into a bowl behind her is not enough to keep her there.  What would be the explanation for this?  She likes the food and I’m not offering anything when she comes in.

She is nervous.

I do not know why she is nervous.  She performs this task perfectly at home.  She performs perfectly up to about 50 – 70 feet away in this new location.  But after that distance – not so happy.

Interesting fact two – once she starts to leave the treat and train at 70 feet, she continues to leave it even as I move in up to 40 –  50 feet, even though she was fine at that distance before.

Now she has been sensitized and is developing a habit of leaving the treat dispenser.

That is bad – it means training is going in the wrong direction, but it’s also common.  It’s the opposite of good desensitization – instead of gradually making her more comfortable at slowly increasing distances, I’m making her gradually LESS comfortable at shorter distances.

Recognizing what is happening is critical.  Lyra is uncomfortable and is becoming sensitized rather than desensitized.

Here’s my plan:

1) Increase her acclimation period.  On this day I gave her about five minutes in this location.  I will increase that to about ten minutes.

2) Spend a couple of days working at a much shorter distance to develop a habit of staying with the treat and train.  No more than about 35 or 40 feet coming in regularly, regardless of her success.  It’s important to me that she not come back in since that is a habit I really don’t want to see.  I may or may not ask for signals at a distance, depending on her behavior.

3) Shorten the length of the “focus” lesson dramatically.  Once behavior modification is on the table, it’s important that training increments be extremely tiny and low stress. We’ll play our attention game for no more than a minute or so. At that point I’ll go get her, switch activities to something she can do easily and close in (heeling, retrieves, play, etc), and then return to my distance work after another minute or so.

4) Increase the distance as she shows competence and comfort over a week or two.

5) Work this exercise at very great distances, high expectations, and with a variety of proofs in her “normal” training space, so anything else seems trivial by comparison

6) Evaluate our progress after a week and make adjustments as necessary.

I’m convinced that 95% of the problems that I see in the obedience rings are the result of a dog who would prefer to be anywhere else than there.  When your dog performs perfectly at home without reinforcement and then fails to perform in the ring, take a moment to ask yourself what would explain that.

Here’s Lyra’s first “revised” lesson away from home.  She never leaves the treat and train, so I feel that we were successful:




Scent Articles

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Few things frustrate trainers more than problems with scent articles, possibly because it can be quite hard to reconcile the fact that dogs have incredible noses with the inability to select one correct option from eight wrong ones.  Regardless, scent article training gives some handlers regular grief, and all handlers will encounter issues of one type or another as they go forward with their training, so let’s look at it.

A friend recently asked me how I would handle this scenario:

“My dog is usually excellent at scent articles.  She can work a full pile perfectly even under distraction, but if she makes an error and brings me the wrong one, then she will consistently fail after that error  She won’t even try!   She’ll check a couple, grab whatever is closest and return – slowly and with a poor attitude.   Until now, when she brings me the wrong one, I’ve simply sent her back to try again yet this is the result!   I was thinking about  taking it from her without treats or praise and moving on to something else.  What do you think?”

As I read that, the things that stand out for me are: 1) The dog knows how to do the work and is consistently reliable and 2) after failure, the dog won’t even try, in spite of the availability of cookies for success and the lack of any harshness from the handler.

In combination, that suggests a dog that 1) understands the work, 2) has relatively mild drive for the reinforcers, and 3) shows very little ability to withstand “being wrong”. In other words, a more fragile performance dog.

I will maintain a dog’s confidence, sureness and love of working above all else, especially if a dog has less drive for either the classic reinforcers or for the work itself.  So in the case of this dog – I’d reward her wrong choice.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I would stand quietly, take the article in a formal fashion and reward.  This one time.

Then I’d go find something else to do.  Anything, but not the articles.

In a few minutes I’d try again.  Set up a full pile and work the exercise.  What happens now?

If the dog generally works correctly and with confidence then she will do what she has been rewarded for doing hundreds or thousands of times; she will bring back the correct article with a good attitude and we all get on with our lives.  There’s no reason to make a problem when there isn’t one.  Mistakes happen, to people too!  And some dogs (like some people) experience a lot of anxiety and pressure when they make an error.  Since being able to breathe through your nose and relax is part of doing any scent work, the last thing you want to do is send a stressed dog back to the pile again.

By giving the dog a cookie, you erase any doubt that she might be having about her abilities.  No problem.  Just reward and move on.

And if after your short break she goes out and gets the wrong article again?  That’s an odd thing in a dog that understands the exercise and is well trained – to fail twice.  So you have two choices:

1) reward the dog (yes again) and do not repeat the exercise for a few days.  I am aware that some of you might have to give the articles to a neighbor to ensure YOUR cooperation, so do what you need to do, but do not repeat this exercise for a few days.  If there is a minor medical issue such as a cold causing the challenge or simply some weird brain confusion that we’ll never understand, then that gives the dog a bit of time to move past it.


2) break the scent article exercise out of it’s formal mode and go back to working on it at a foundation level.  What you do would really depend on how it was trained in the first place.  For me, that would mean returning to my bedroom and sitting on the floor next to the pile of articles, working quickly and rapidly to get in a bunch of repetitions in a short time.

And then go out and try it again in another week or so.  As you read above, the dog is a reliable worker under most circumstances, so a bit of specific practice away from formal ring training will reinforce for her what “correct” is.  You’d be amazed how effective this is.

SO…why did I give the dog a cookie for being wrong?  Why not just silently move on?

Because if you with hold your approval from a fragile dog then your dog will develop a crack in their self confidence.  And the next time your dog is returning from the pile to you standing formally (as you will in the ring) they will begin to worry.  Have they done it right?  Are you pleased?  Are they wrong? Should they go back and double check?   It doesn’t even matter if they are holding the correct choice in their mouth; if your dog is fragile then they will worry, because that is what fragile dogs do.  Worry.

If you have hundreds or thousands of repetitions of correct work then a couple of free cookies simply does not matter; it won’t even register.  Behaviors are taught over days, weeks and months but confidence in a fragile dog?  That takes years to develop and minutes to shatter.  Don’t mess with it.

And what if you have a sturdy dog?  Or a higher drive dog that truly works for that cookie and will stay in the game to get it?  The ‘un-worrier’ dog?

Then do whatever you want.  Dogs that don’t worry or sweat over their errors are not the focus on this blog.  Those dogs can be sent back to the pile without allowing them to finish or you can take the article and send them back directly.  It won’t matter.

Train the dog in front of you.  My personal choice is to maintain self confidence and love of work, because I want to enter the ring with a dog that thinks I love them always and that they can do no wrong.  I find that if the dog thinks I believe that, then they will work hard to show me how right I am.






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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