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Heeling Change of Pace: Fast

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I can’t discuss the fast “pace” of heeling without also discussing the issue of “gait”.

Your gait, not the dog’s.

The human gait for walking is distinctly different than the human gait for running.  In most cases, the running gait is faster than a walking gait but it doesn’t have to be!  This is an important consideration when training your dog to understand a fast pace because you’ll want to separate out these two things – change of gait and change of pace, in order to train each one separately.

The following video is without a dog.  In the first 15 seconds, you can see that I change gait but I do not increase my pace and in the second 15 seconds, I start by changing my gait and then I also add an increase in speed by leaning forwards and extending my stride – I am exaggerating in the video so that you can see the distinction.  This is how I make my transition from normal to fast with a dog; one “up” stride to set the change in gait before I accelerate my speed.

Here you can see the effect that a change of gait has on a young dog.  I have not changed pace at all, yet Brito is all over the place!  I will not increase speed until he can handle this simple change of gait.  As you watch this video, can you see how it’s helpful to teach the change of gait separately from the change of pace?

When it’s time to bring the two criteria together, start by changing your gait and then increasing your speed. That is now your fast pace.  

Here is this approach with Raika. I warm her up with a change of gait separate from a change of pace, and when I do my first true fast, I have one “up” stride to set the change of gait before I accelerate forwards.  As a result, there is no surge when I change pace. Note that on this video I do not exaggerate as I do on the one above, so the transition step is harder to see – close to impossible actually. This is a ring acceptable fast pace.

When I transition to a fast pace, I will keep this distinction between a change of gait and a change of pace fresh in my dog’s mind for life.  It will do wonders for dogs that surge into the fast pace when they see you lean forwards because the first stride of your fast pace will only change your gait, not your pace.  And the same is true for dogs that lag into the fast.  By showing one stride of a changed gait before you change pace, your dog can prepare to accelerate with you  And for dogs that get excited by the “bounce” of the human gait, as shown in the Brito video, separating out the bounce from the increase in speed during training helps then settle.  Personally, I’m very comfortable “running” at a slow pace for minutes on end, until my young dogs stop over-reacting to my change of gait.

Go ahead and try it.  Train gait and speed separately, and then blend them together.

What does your dog know?

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What does your dog know? 

Does your dog know simple behaviors like sit and Down?  Does your dog know more complex behaviors like formal hand signals or scent articles?  If your dog knows a behavior in a familiar environment, does it logically follow that they always know that behavior, even when they are in a more unusual situation or environment? 

Trainers routinely assess what their dogs “know” without consideration for context. They reason that the dog either knows a behavior or does not know it, and therefore failure to perform a known behavior is a conscious choice.  While this black and white approach certainly simplifies training decisions, it ignores the fact that what one knows is really contextual.  To make this more clear, let’s consider a human example.

Let’s say your doorbell rings unexpectedly and you open the door to find a police officer standing there.  There has been a car accident and they believe that your child might have been in the car.  The officer needs specific information about your child like date of birth, height, weight, etc.  You are filled with fear. 

At that moment, it is quite likely that you will struggle to answer these simple questions without great effort, because fear changes the context of what one “knows.”  Fear severely impacts our ability to recall information that under more normal circumstances would be given with no effort at all.  The more urgent it is that we recall the information quickly, the more difficult it will be to do so.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit.  Instead of a knock on the door that makes you fearful, let’s say you just received a visit from the state lottery.  You have just won 10 million dollars!  You are not afraid; quite the opposite!  You are overwhelmed with excitement!  All you need to do is fill out some forms and provide basic identifying information.

Once again, under normal circumstances, you could answer their simple questions very easily because you know the information well and you have a lot of practice giving your social security number, street address, etc.  But when your brain is spinning with excitement, then all bets about what you really “know” are off.  Suddenly you will struggle to recall the simplest of things and focusing on the mundane will appear impossible.

And what if the questions required even more concentration and thought to answer?  If the police officer asked you to look at photos of similar shoes, could you tell the officers which ones belonged to your child? Exactly what time he left the house? What he was wearing?

If you were asked how you wanted your lottery winnings; all at once, monthly payouts, or a lifetime annuity, could you adequately concentrate on those decisions at that moment?

Probably not.  At that moment, you probably can’t even remember what an annuity is, let alone if you want one.

Most of us don’t think much about the relative nature of knowledge until your perpetually singing five year old child is struck mute when asked to perform for your holiday guests.  Is your child obstinate, spiteful, or simply overwhelmed with social pressure?  Most of us would sympathize with the child’s plight, even if we felt disappointment or frustration at the child’s inability to perform, because we understand. We are sympathetic because we’ve been there.  We know how it feels to be afraid.

When you take your dog to a new training building or trial setting, he must process all of the information around him, and while he is busy with his fear or excitement he must also attempt to perform as if he were in his own backyard.

Handlers often expect instant responsiveness and attention in their performance dogs once a behavior is known.  We feel confident about what our dogs know because we have seen them perform correctly many times before.  We are frustrated when our dogs do not rise to the occasion because we believe they know what we want, at least under pristine conditions, and we believe that if they just tried harder then the failures would go away.  Even when excited or stressed, and even under truly novel or overwhelming circumstances, we expect our dogs to recall their training.

“If he just tried harder.” “If he just focused.”  “If he cared more about pleasing me and not himself.”  “He knows this!” “He’s blowing me off!” “He’s doing this to get back at me!” “If he thinks he can get away with that he’s got another thing coming!”

If you just tried harder, could you recall the information that the police officer requested, instantly and correctly? If you just tried harder, could you provide the information requested by the Lottery?  If your child loved you more, could she sing for your dinner guests? 

Is it really about trying harder, or how much your child loves you, or who might be getting the upper hand?  Or is it about what we know at any given moment?

Give your dog the benefit of the doubt.  Because what you think your dog knows, and what your dog really knows, may not be the same thing at all.


I have THREE pieces of news!

Deb Jones and I wrote a book called Dog Sports Skills Book 2: Motivation.  You probably know that.  But did you know that we were just nominated for behavior and training book of the year by the Dog Writer’s of America? Yep, and we’re really excited about it!  Last year our first book in the Dog Sports Skills Series (Building Engagement and Relationship) WON that category, so we are hopeful for a repeat of that honor.  Wish us luck! You can purchase the book through my website:

The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is hosting our first Annual Conference in Colmar, PA from May 29th to June 1st, 2015; 3.5 days of obedience with SIX exceptional Fenzi academy instructors!  All of the working spots filled with “Super users” of the Fenzi Academy the first day that registration opened but there are auditing spots available, and for $219 the learning opportunity is truly unbeatable.  To learn more and register before the conference fills, please follow this link:

and…last but not least…today is the last day of the term to register for a class at the academy.  If you’d like to join us, we have 26 classes to consider.  Class has already been in session for two weeks so you’ll be playing catchup. You’ll have access to instructor’s materials for one year.  Here’s the link to the schedule:

“Less than perfect” training?

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Recently I wrote a blog on “perfection paralysis” where I described the importance of allowing a young dog a bit of breathing room and freedom to make errors as they weave their way towards beautiful heeling.  I suggested the following:

“Get moving!  Play!  Throw food and toys! Give tons of hand, body and verbal help in the learning phases or when your dog is confused, and worry about getting rid of it later!  Take on responsibility for making it possible for your dog to win!  Once your dog is excited and happy and relaxed, see what happens. “

Not surprisingly, I was asked to be more specific about what that might look like.  Since I’m just entering this phase with Brito, I thought I better videotape him quickly before he progresses much more and ends up looking like a “trained” dog.

Brito’s heeling route was precision heeling, followed by a more relaxed shaping approach.  While shaping, I used a lot of food throwing straight ahead to get him moving, since lagging and heeling wide are his innate tendencies.  After a year of this, I have a dog who has a pretty good idea about most of the elements of precise heeling.

If I use food.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve also spent a lot of time and energy building up his drive and enthusiasm for toys.  Until now, his drive for toys hasn’t been sufficient to use them as a motivator for work.  Remember, it’s not a motivator if your dog doesn’t want it.  (If you’re not convinced of this please buy the second book that I wrote with Deb Jones on “Motivation”)

Now, a year later, I think  have it – sufficient drive for toys to use them within training.  He loves his ball and tugs enough that he will work for them.  Unfortunately, all of that precise heeling is pretty much gone when I bring out a toy.  That is both logical and expected, since the toy makes him much more excited and it’s hard for him to think and concentrate on his job.  Yes, he can heel with precision for a cookie, but with a toy his brain gets so overwhelmed and excited that he can’t really think.

So we start over – this time teaching precision heeling for a toy.  Here’s a video – unedited, of a training session so you can see what that means in practice.

Someday, when we’re working in public under a high arousal situation, it’s quite likely that we’ll have to do this training yet again, or it will all fall apart.  Finally, somewhere and somehow, Brito will generalize the concept of heeling as an exact place that he needs to be, regardless of the motivator available or his excitement level or the specific environment.

If we get there then I’ll have a nice little competition dog.

Here are things to watch for.  Note that my hand moves up and down and back and forth within heeling.  He will follow my hand if I use it, so I bring it out as an aid, but only if I think he needs it.  When I reward, he may or may not be dead accurate.  That’s just not so important right now.  What he needs is to win.  A lot.  Convincing him that he needs to give a bit more accuracy to get the toy will not be hard, once he’s sure that he can win.  Note that I use both verbal encouragement and vocabulary that he is familiar with. I am “steering” him into being correct with my voice, my choice of movements, my hands, and whatever else I might have.  And every once in awhile, I’m seeing the moments of brilliance that I strive for with him. Over time, I’ll look for more of those moments of brilliance to reward.

You might also note the proportion of work to play.  Lots of play….with a little work.  Can he tell the difference?

I hope not.

Marketing note:  Late registration closes at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy on Monday – get signed up if you want to join us!  Here’s the schedule: 


Broad jump Training

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Brito believed that boards on the ground were meant for climbing.  That’s a problem since a broad jump looks a lot like boards sitting on the ground, especially in the grass.

If the broad jump board was “on edge” then Brito was fine since it looked like a high jump, which he understands.  One broad jump board flat on the ground with a bar over it was also fine.  Two broad jump boards with a bar was too big an increase in criteria and he’d climb on the board.  I also tried one broad jump on edge with the other flat as normal, but Brito’s seemed to be convinced that the flat one was put there as a springboard, just for him.

Hannah Branigan shapes her broad jump.  Guess I’ll try that.

First I sat on the ground with one board on edge, between my legs.  I shaped Brito to jump back and forth.  This was quite easy since he already knows this exercise from bar jump training.

Next I changed the angle of the board between my legs so that it started dropping to horizontal rather than vertical.  If he touched the board, no cookie.  If he jumps, cookie!  If he tried to climb over it more than a few times in a row then I’d re-orient the board so that it would be more vertical again, making him less likely to fail repeatedly.  Within a day, he was offering to jump one board – good dog.  Here’s our second lesson on the first day:

Then I repeated this process standing up straight with the board between my feet.  That step went very fast.  I worked on this until I knew he would jump even when he was standing right next to the board and with no running start.  I wanted him to understand his job; jump the boards even when it is easier to walk over them.  Not because the boards are unpleasant but because that is my criteria.

Finally I added a second board. In Brito’s case, I started with the boards overlapping.  Then I put one on edge and one flat, and finally both boards flat.  I’m using a high jump board along with a broad jump board to make sure the message is very clear – jump even when it is easier to walk.

The only step left is to spread the boards out a few more inches so that he is jumping his final distance.

That is as far as I’ll go for now. These steps took about four days and now Brito has an excellent foundation for this exercise – indeed it is much better and faster than any other method that I have used, so I will use this again in the future even with larger dogs.

How you choose to finish off the exercise will vary by your dog’s foundation skills but the most challenging part is now done!


Early Moving Stand Training

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I’m about to start teaching Brito the “stop” portion of the moving stand, and I’d like to make this behavior very strong right from the start.  The exam training is completely separate and won’t be discussed here.

In this case, I’m asking myself, “what is more stop than stop?”.  The answer is “reverse”

To train your stop from the moving stand in this way, you’ll need some heeling.  You’ll need to be able to move both forwards and backwards, ideally with good position.  You’ll also need some type of a “stay” cue.

I begin with normal heeling in a forwards direction. Now, in the middle of heeling forwards, I slow down and reverse in a relatively smooth fashion so that we’re now heeling backwards.  I go backwards slowly!   Then I switch again to forwards heeling.  The idea is that Brito can heel forwards and then reverse his body to moving backwards.  Since Brito understands a pocket hand, I use it as needed to keep his rear end in while we move backwards. (That is why my left hand drops down.  That is a pocket hand and it supports his rear and keeps it in).

So far so good.

Next, I show Brito my “stand” signal immediately before I reverse to backwards heeling.  I use my right hand across my body with my palm facing Brito. Soon,that signal begins to mean, “we’re about to heel backwards”.

So the order becomes: 1) heel forwards, 2) offer your stand signal, and 3) go into reverse heeling.

You can see this here – it’s Brito’s first day seeing the stand signal:

Within a session or two, Brito began to anticipate backwards heeling when he sees the stand signal.

Now we’re ready for the next step; adding a “stay” cue with the same hand so that I can move forwards without him.

For Brito, the stand and stay will become a fluid combination – eventually I will give him the hand signal up high and he’ll both stand and stay, but in the following video you’ll see that I drop my hand down to his level to give extra support in these early attempts.

In the next video, I warm up with a few forwards/backwards heeling combinations.

At 17 seconds, I offer a “stay”cue at his height – and I reward that.

At 30 seconds you’ll see I offer my ‘back up” signal and reward that after we reverse together.

At 41 seconds we do our first moving stand. Good boy!

At 51 seconds it is pronounced that he has stopped moving on my “back up”signal  Soon that will become his moving stand.

At 1 minute, I offer a moving stand, keep moving, and then back up to him to give him a reward.  He understands and holds the stay.

To keep him sharp with stopping, I will frequently combine the heeling backwards with the stand signal.


Heeling – Halts

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This one is easy!

I have no formal footwork for halts but I do have a rule.

Here it is.

Write it down and make sure that your feet are listening when you read it back.  Are you ready? ok.  Here it is:


It’s that simple.  It doesn’t matter if you stop on your left foot, your right foot, off a long stride or a short one.  If I cannot hear your feet, then you are smooth and quiet.  If I hear your feet when you halt, then you smacked some part of your foot into the ground.  That’s bad. Quiet feet are good feet, and good feet make good dogs.  Good dogs make happy dogs and happy dogs make happy handlers.

Honestly, what else could you want?

In this video I start by working alone.  Then I follow it up with every one of my dogs.  Lyra – she’s climbing up my leg and wants to heel too close.  I stop quietly.  (I really need to do something about her heeling, don’t I?).  Raika – she’s heeling a little wide.  I stop quietly.  And Brito.  He’s just about right.

Always….I halt quietly.  Or at least that’s my goal.  Sometimes I’m more successful than other times.

I haven’t worked halts with any of these dogs in a very long while and that shows in their positioning – but they can follow quiet feet.  (crooked is a different issue – I’ll work on that separately).

You cannot hear my feet. Now admittedly, you won’t be able to hear that on a video, so get up from your computer, walk around your house, and practice your halts without a dog.  Practice stopping on either foot.  Practice near walls.  Practice after your turns. And never, ever let your feet make a sound.  Now add a dog.

See?  Quiet feet are good feet.

Perfection Paralysis

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I recently watched a video of a dog learning to heel.  The dog and handler both showed excellent skills but the handler really wanted a specific head position, which meant the team never progressed more than about six steps before failure occurred.  Rather than quickly ditching the method, the handler persevered with an approach that was not working for her dog because she was afraid of losing precision.  Let’s call that “perfection paralysis”.

For quick background, there are two basic methods for achieving excellent heeling and head position.  One is that each possible heeling behavior is trained and then these perfect ‘bits’ are strung together into a chain called heeling – that is the “precision” method.  The other method uses shaping and the dog is allowed significant variability in heel position with the handler marking and rewarding the best bits, over time tightening up criteria and stretching out endurance.

The advantage of the first method is that the dog never practices anything wrong so they are less likely to offer deviations over the long run, for example under stressful situations.  The advantage of the second method is that the activity itself is more fun for the dog, because the method creates energy and movement initially, with precision coming over time. The potential downside of too much of the precision method is that you risk a “careful” worker – accurate but nothing interesting to watch.  And if you do too much of the shaping method you risk undesirable variability.  There are solutions to both of these dilemmas, but at a basic level, you still have to pick your poison.

Some of us blend these two methods, with an emphasis on one or the other, depending on the dog’s stage of training and  what we prioritize in our final picture (energy or perfection).  I start with the precision method initially, but once I begin moving with the dog, all bets are off and it’s completely dependent on the individual team.  The more driven, focused and clear headed the dog, the more likely I am to require perfection with each step, but for less driven or more environmental dogs, or for dogs that tend to become frantic when contained, I allow more variability.

In this case, the handler opted for the first method – perfection in each step of heeling, which was a good choice based on the dog’s temperament and the handler’s goals.  The problem arose when the handler become so focused on a perfect behavior chain that she did not recognize that the “perfection” method wasn’t working for the dog.  The dog would move several steps correctly, then deviate, and the handler would apply an NRM or a cheerful interrupter and start over.  Yet the dog did not improve.  As a result the dog was enduring endless NRM’s or Cheerful Interrupters.

There are two possible paths for resolving the issue.  The first is to stop working on heeling chains, and find a way to bridge the gap in the dog’s knowledge so that she can understand and succeed.  The second option is to change methods and go with the shaping approach and accept that you will see “less than perfect” while the dog learns.

When something isn’t working for you, change it.  Change it, even if you are well versed on issues like behavior chains, matching law, etc, and you are afraid of creating new problems – there is art to training as well as science.  Change it, because you do not want your dog to develop a poor attitude about working with you.  Change it, because setting a goal of perfection isn’t sufficient to create that perfection.

Training must be fun for both of you!  If you are using “failure” (NRM’s or Cheerful Interrupters which withhold reinforcement) to train your dog rather than success, then you risk demoralizing your dog, and demoralized or stressed dogs do not think and learn effectively.  Dog that show perfect work because they are afraid of being wrong are not enjoying the training process.

If you care what your dog’s final picture looks like – if you want flashy feet, a gleam in the eye, and a relaxed demeanor,  the dog must be allowed to make mistakes in their work so that they learn that errors happen and are nothing to get anxious about.  Handlers must also learn that mistakes will happen and they aren’t the end of the world!  Indeed, sometimes they are just the ticket to allow you to become a working team, each partner with their own flaws.  Train and have fun! The rest will come.

Allow for less than perfection.  Get moving!  Play!  Throw food and toys! Give tons of hand, body and verbal help in the learning phases or when your dog is confused, and worry about getting rid of it later!  Take on responsibility for making it possible for your dog to win!  Once your dog is excited and happy and relaxed, see what happens.  You might be surprised.

Marketing note:  If you’d like to start your dog in heeling or clean up a sloppy worker, take a look at my precision heeling class which begins on Dec 1st.  At $65 for a bronze level, it’s a very good deal.  And when you’re ready to let your dog free up a little in movement, then check out my heeling games course which starts in February!  The heeling classes run in a series ending with Advanced heeling in April – that is where we get into the nitty gritty little details, but that class makes a lot more sense if you start the series with precision work.  You can read the description and syllabus here: 


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