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Routine Training

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I have heard that watching how a trainer trains – the good, the bad, and the ugly, is highly beneficial to some people, so here is a full training session from start to finish.  Here are my goals in the first minute:

1) See how Brito reacts to a brand new training space where he has never been, without allowing him to acclimate to the ring.  Obviously this is the “trial reality,” so I need to look at that once in a while.

2) See how Brito handles a longer stretch of formal work before receiving his first reinforcer.  We do this routinely at home, but not necessarily in a new space where he has not worked before, so this is a shift in criteria (new location).

After that, we moved into a routine training session with a high rate of reinforcement.

Finally, we finished off with another stretch of formal heeling to see how he was holding up after working for about ten minutes.

I was pleased with most of his work.  I can see where I need to improve my handling and where his precision suffers but on balance, we’re heading in the right direction.

Over the next few months we will continue to work on basic skill building for Open and Utility at home, and I will add more ring formality in public spaces.  For example, I will work more often with a judge calling a pattern, longer stretches without reinforcement, removing reinforcement from my body, and no acclimating inside the ring itself.

On an unrelated note, if you’d like to enter a contest to win a free bronze spot in my Engagement class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (new term starts December 1st), go ahead and enter the contest here. Your email will not be used for anything else; just the contest: Contest for Engagement class

I’m also teaching heeling games if you’d like to bring a bit more life to your dog’s work . Check out the entire schedule if you think you’d like to learn something new!:  Fenzi Academy December Schedule

Brito return over high jump – video evaluation

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In the evaluation video that I submitted two weeks ago, Brito returned with his dumbbell around the high jump.  The following video shows the steps that I am taking to develop his understanding that I want him to jump in both directions.

I start by throwing a cookie out over the high jump.  For the return direction I either throw a second cookie or throw a ball – for Brito the ball is higher value in this context, so it’s a nice option.

Then I add off center cookie throws.  I help him verbally and with my body if I believe he is going to make an error (he doesn’t here).

I click as he returns over the jump.

After several cookie tosses, I test him with the dumbbell.  Even though he successfully works with the dumbbell, I will still continue to do primarily cookie tosses over the jump for the near future.

After working on this for two weeks – both for cookie/ball tosses and with the dumbbell, he has become quite good at finding his way back to the jump, even with distinctly off center throws.  Soon it will become a habit.

When we practice away from home, we’ll warm up with more cookie tosses, so that he understands that the rules are the same in all locations and with all jumps.

Brito forging in figure eight – Video evaluation

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See last week’s blog to give you the context for this one.

If your dog’s heeling style is to “follow” along with their weight evenly distributed front to rear, then it’s not likely that you’ll see forging in the figure eight.  But since I teach my dogs to drive from the rear in heeling, forging in turns is always a risk.

The challenge is alerting the dog to the change of direction in time for them to hold back and pull their rear end in behind you again – heading in the new direction.  On the figure eight, a dog who pushes from the rear has to do several things at once:

  1. push forwards from the rear to maintain momentum – but less than in a straight line.
  2. stay close in the front – the last thing you want is a dog that moves their front end away from you to avoid your leg.
  3. pull their butt in behind exactly enough to manage the new angle.  And in the figure eight, that’s no easy feat since that angle is constantly changing.

Where Brito is stuck is on the rear end momentum – he continues pushing too much even when we get to the corner.  To his credit, he keeps his front end close and he pulls his rear in. Now what?

Here’s a video of the steps I’m working through with him.  Note that I run them all together so you can see it, but ideally I should master each step before continuing.

Up to 8 seconds – forwards and then pull right.  Pulling right is incompatible with driving forwards, so it reminds him to stay with me.  It also keeps his rear end engaged and his body parallel so it’s a useful fix for all forging.  Note that my hand drops down to help him keep his head next to my leg.  With a more advanced dog that will not be necessary.

Up to 35 seconds – same but with the addition of a left pivot/halt combination.  Again, this reinforces not forging and correct head placement at my side.  I’m also moving my hand back up to my waist and letting Brito try it with less support.

Up to 45 seconds – add a quick pivot/circle to the right.  This is to prevent him from getting lazy and disengaging his rear propulsion.  That would lead to a “following” style of heeling through the figure eight, which is fine if that’s ok with you, but it’s not ok with me.  Also, he would likely start to lag because temperamentally he’s not a driven dog, and lots of pulls right with pivots left is a high pressure movement that can quickly lead to lagging.

Up to 53 seconds -same thing with the addition of a cone so you can see how this will transfer to the figure eight. Personally I wouldn’t bother with the cone in training; if the dog knows the movements then the post is irrelevant.

Up to 1:12 – testing him.  I really don’t like what I see; I have to use way too much shoulder and hand help to get him around the second part of that inside corner.  I throw in another pull to the right to help him be successful.  He is engaged so I praise.  I never withhold praise from an engaged dog, and I never train a disengaged dog, therefore he is always praised in work.

Up to 2:00 I revert to the easier work which is more representative of where he should be practicing for his current skill set.  I want to maintain confidence.

2:06 – backup correction for forging.  Not terribly effective – I should have combined it with hand help.

Up to 2:20- trying again with sideways pulls and shoulder help (not ideal!)

To the end – more the way I really train when not videotaping.  I put in fast right circles so he can move out and have fun rather than focusing on more drills.  I work on pulling him to the right, pivoting left, circling right, etc. – fun and relaxed.

I won’t harp on this skill now that I have the tape for you.  Just a little bit here and a little bit there until I’m happy with the picture.  No more than a minute or so at a time.

Next week I’ll look at his lack of retrieve over the high jump in his evaluation video.




Evaluating your training session

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I’m a pretty big fan of videotaping a portion of your training sessions so that you can use those tapes to help improve your training.

Here’s the first half of a training session for Brito; it’s about six minutes long:

First 1:05 I’m happy with his directed jumping – he appears comfortable with a send out of about 15 feet and he takes his directions consistently.

1:06 – He confuses my request for a glove retrieve with a foot target.  We work through it lightly but I need to revisit that issue.

2:10 Worked on a new type of leather articles and he makes no errors.

3:10 retrieve over high jump – returns around the jump when the dumbbell lands off center.

4:20 – a one minute stretch of formal heeling. He’s forging on left turns and some halts; also forging on the inside corner of the figure eight.

Obviously I could have stopped work and addressed the issues as they came up, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do for this session.  I just wanted to work on a variety of exercises and have some relaxed fun. “Flow” training.  See what we have.

After watching the tape, I see that I need to make a plan to address the three issues that emerged in the above session: 1. retrieve vs. target 2.  return around the high jump and 3. forging in heeling.

My next blog will address one of the issues.

In real life, I rarely sit down and “make a plan.” I’ve been training long enough that I normally have a good idea of how to approach a challenge with any given dog.  But if you are a more novice trainer, you might want to get in the habit of ignoring problems when they happen and just move on.  Evaluate your options later on when you have a little time to think it through.

If you have an opinion about which issue I discuss from the above three options, let me know in the comments!  I’ll pick one for my next training blog, based on your responses.

What Have My Dogs Given Me?

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I’ve been musing over my dog training past, which got me thinking about each of the dogs that I’ve trained over the past twenty five years or so. I will skip the Shelties that came earlier; they may have gotten me into the sport of obedience, but I wasn’t a conscious trainer back then; I did what I was told and each dog was trained the same way, with greater or lesser success in competition.

But I’ve grown a lot since those days, so it’s  worth thinking about. What have my dogs given me?

Justin gave me an appreciation for stability and a clear head (thinking under pressure).  Justin taught me how flexible and accommodating some dogs can be, regardless of how good or how poor my choices were.  Justin was a “good” dog.

Makai came soon after that, and gave me an appreciation for energy and will to please. I learned that poor positive reinforcement training and shaping does not work. Unfortunately for Makai, I came to the conclusion that the technique was the problem rather than the ability of the handler to execute it correctly.  

Cinder was a female Belgian Tervuren. A rescue from a bad situation, she was, to put it mildly, a shut down mess.  I learned nothing from her.  Not through any fault of hers, but because I was not ready to learn about handling a dog’s emotional state as opposed to training behaviors.  I wish I could have a do-over with Cinder.

What stands out for me with those early dogs is how little I learned when I actually had them and could have made changes. Looking back, I can see how I created problems where none needed to exist.  If the dog I had at that moment happened to fit the method of training that I was using, then we progressed.  If not, then we stagnated or failed altogether.

When Soja showed up, I had started making the connections between my choices, my methods and the temperament of the dog in front of me.  My skills started to improve as a result. Soja started the process of teaching me the difference between frantic behavior and drive.  I learned what it meant to balance precision with enthusiasm.  Due to her incredible will to please, she was the first dog where I had to acknowledge that her errors were my fault; she either didn’t understand what I wanted or she was over threshold and unable to function correctly; indeed, Soja is the dog where I learned what a “threshold” was.  With Soja, I learned that I had the intelligence to problem solve for myself, and that failure was not a reason to give up. I learned that I had the strength to advocate for my dog, even in the face of intense pressure and ridicule, and even when I failed publicly.  What a gift!

Cisu gave me an understanding of strength of temperament, independent thought, and competence.  In short, Cisu didn’t need me, so if we were to become a competition team, I had better learn how to develop a relationship.  Cisu was probably the first dog where I finally put it all together (alas, late in her career): drives, temperament, relationship, emotional connection, and preparing for competition. Cisu was my all time favorite dog to take into the ring.

Raika was another female Belgian Tervuren, two years younger than Cisu.  Raika gave me love of work, extreme intelligence, and natural focus.  Her nervous and somewhat neurotic temperament taught me early on why being “more interesting than the environment” was a Really Bad Idea for an obedience competition dog.

Lyra came when Raika was seven years old, and she is now giving me the gift of experimentation with the outer bounds of possibility….what is possible?  This is beyond the scope of this blog, but my work with her will likely play heavily into my future training.

Brito came shortly after Lyra; he’s a small  Westie Terrier/Chihuahua type mix.  Brito is teaching me to understand choice, control, and to prioritize emotions over behavior.  Brito does not “fill in the gaps” where I leave holes, and therefore he has also forced my technical skills to a level of “tiny pieces” that I did not know was possible.   Brito is the teacher while I am the student.  Sometimes I am a slow learner, so he’s also teaching me Patience and Faith.  He’s young, two years old, so he has lots of time to work with me.

As I reflect on my past dogs, I realize they have given me so much!  I can now cheerfully explore options with no fear of failure, accept behavior as a function of emotion rather than as independent events, and advocate for relationship at all times, which means digging many fewer holes in the first place.  I’ve also developed pretty good mechanical skills, but that’s not very important to me.  I can teach mechanical skills; the rest comes from inside the trainer as a function of personal growth and understanding and that is, indeed, quite hard to teach.

I’ve competed with “good” dogs, “average” dogs, and frankly, training “complicated” dogs holds more appeal right now.  So I guess I’ve also learned that competition as an end goal gives me little joy; I have the heart of a trainer, and apparently that does not involve enthusiastically leaving my family at 4 am and driving to yet another show.  Do I expect to compete in the future?  Yes, I do.  Is that reality driving my behavior or choices?  No, it is not. Competition is my testing ground where I can take different types of dogs and see how my ideas hold up.  When I have tested to my satisfaction, then I’m done.

Maybe the most important thing my dogs have given me is a completely different outlook on life.  All of my dogs, and all of my experiences, in combination, have taught me that how I treat my dogs can change who I am and how I interact with the world as a whole. When I train and play with a dog, I feel good. When I coach someone else to train their dog and I see their mutual joy, I feel good.  When I see how I can change someone’s day for the better, I feel good.  When I am kind and warm to another person or another dog, then my day is better too.  That is why I train; because training dogs makes me a kinder, better, and happier person.  It is the most important thing that I have learned, and it is why I will continue to train.

What have each of your dogs given to you?  Did you learn to apply those lessons in real time, or did you learn in hindsight?  How have those lessons changed who you are, both as a trainer and as a person?  And what might that mean for your future choices?

Building Confidence with Scent Articles

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For some dogs, scent articles are really challenging.  We teach them what we want (select the one that smells like me), they select correctly (yay!) and then…

They stare at you. Standing at the pile.  Failing to bring it back.

Waiting for a sign.  Something.  Anything.  A twitch from you, to let them know that they have selected the right one and should bring it in.

If you’re in the ring, you stand helplessly waiting.  If you’re in training, you’re conflicted.  One side of you wants to call the dog in and tell them “yes, you are right!”  But the other side of you knows that this is simply exacerbating the problem; your dog is not confident about completing the entire exercise.

What can you do?

Once your dog knows scent articles and is selecting the correct article the vast majority of the time, then it’s time to let your dog take responsibility for the entire process – from the selection to the return.

In the following video, Brito is being asked to select the correct article and return…but I am no longer in his line of sight, so there is no way for him to use my body language, facial expressions, or extra cues to give him feedback. I am simply not there, so he needs to make a  choice and execute it – from start to finish.

This is the first time that I’ve done this exercise with Brito, so we start as normal, and then I leave the room after he is warmed up.  In the final send I expect a formal front.  In the future I’ll be out of sight from the first send.  And eventually, when I want to make this into a game, then I’ll start hiding after I send him.  At that point, after finding the correct article, he’ll have to find me as well.  My older dogs loved that game!

I’ve cut this video down to only a few repetitions; in the full session I sent him around ten times.  Note that there are only four articles -that is because I want to build his confidence and ensure success!  If he picks up his courage and brings me an article, I will accept it – right or wrong!  If you punish your dog (whatever that means to you) for bringing you the wrong one, then you will defeat the purpose of this exercise; this exercise is to get your dog to make a choice and carry it through.

The message to the dog should be: select an article.  Pick it up.  Bring it back.  I’m not available to help you.

If your dog is bringing you the wrong articles, then do not proceed.  Reward your dog for bringing you the wrong one, and then go back to training the scenting behavior to find the weakness in your training.  You do not have a “confidence with the return” problem – you have a “finding the right one” problem.

This is polishing training; not scent discrimination.  It’s designed to give your dog sureness and confidence in their abilities.  If you use it with a dog that is not confident about the actual scenting portion then you will make matters worse.

Good luck!

Collateral Damage

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Recently I watched part of a training video on youtube; the subject was someone working through their drop on recall in the presence of a guest instructor.  The dog was not performing the drop portion quickly enough.  The solution involved dropping things on the dog to induce a drop, and when the dogs stopped coming at all, jerks on a prong collar were added to get the dog to move again.  If I hadn’t checked the upload date, it could have been made thirty years ago.

By the time I stopped watching, the instructor’s solutions had taken a dog that started out happy, bouncy and willing, and replaced it with a dog that appeared bewildered, shut down and desperate to escape.

I have no idea if the dog eventually figured out what he was supposed to do.  I stopped watching when the dog’s drop on recall problem became a failure to recall problem.

What has since stuck with me is not whether this was an intelligent problem solving strategy. What I think about now is the potential effect of this training seminar on the dog’s future as a competition dog, and also how this approach to training was likely to be perceived by the new trainers in the room.

This was quite possibly a new building for this dog.  Ring gates were set up and an audience was watching.  The handler and the instructor were alone in the ring, and presumably the handler was nervous.

Even if the dog rebounds nicely from the actual training, what happens when the dog goes into his next dog show, looks around, and recognizes the context?  A single stranger standing in front of his nervous handler? Baby gates?  A quiet audience?  That seminar looked and felt a lot like a dog show, and the dog did not have a good time at that seminar.

Here’s what can happen at the next show:  The dog starts to get anxious because he learned in the seminar that dog show settings are unsafe.  He shuts down and fails to work even close to his owner’s expectations.  The exercise that would be most likely to fall apart?  Drop on Recall.

The handler, on the other hand,  has completely forgotten about the seminar from months earlier, and has no idea why their normally happy dog is shutting down.

But there is a second bit of fallout that should be considered from that seminar.  Let’s turn our attention away from the dog and to the audience in that room.

As I observed the people in the audience who appeared comfortable with what they were watching, I wondered how many others had just made a decision to find a different dog sport.

If you are a competitor or a dog club, you might want to take a moment and think about how you can affect the future of obedience.  Think about who your limited training dollars support when options become available.  Think about how your training methods and club trainers are being perceived by the general public.  Are you smiling, engaged and enjoying your chosen dog sport?  Are the dogs enthusiastic and eager to work?   Or are you and others seemingly angry or causing pain because a dog failed to fetch an object or sit straight?  Would an outsider perceive your priorities as rational?  Would they want to join you?

Your individual and club level choices about what sort of training to support are likely to have a heavy influence on whether or not our sport is able to survive into the future.  Keep in mind that we live in times when people engage in dog sports to develop a richer relationship with their dogsWhile many performance dog sports are thriving, obedience is not.  Our choices can help to change that.


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