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Munching the dumbbell

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Problems with dumbbells are common and there are A LOT of reasons why issues develop.  Some are a result of the training methods selected and others are related to the temperament of the dog.  Regardless, if you’ve developed an issue you’ll want it solved.

One of the most common handler complaints is chewing on the dumbbell. This can happen on the way back or in “front” position.  This blog will only consider dogs that chew in front but otherwise have a quiet hold while they are in motion.

Dogs often mouth the dumbbell in front position because they know you are going to take it.  This is logical – they clamp down in movement (coming in) to avoid dropping it.  But in the same way that you relax your hand when you are about to give something to someone, your dog will do the same thing.  Dogs that mouth in front position are usually anticipating the release.

A simple answer that works for most dogs is to stop taking the dumbbell in front position.  If the dog knows that a front will be followed by more movement, they are much less likely to munch.

Brito shows this here.  On the first retrieve, I allow him to come to front and sit – and then he is sent between my legs to heel position.  I take the dumbbell at heel position.  It is possible that he would begin to munch there but that is not concern to me since that does not come up in the ring.  Over time he has developed a habit of a quiet hold in front.

The second retrieve does not include a front at all – he goes straight through my legs to heel position.

If you try this, vary the amount of time that you hold your dog in front position before your finish (you can do a regular finish but between the legs will reinforce a straight sit in front).  I ignore any munching in front and let it go away on it’s own.  I slowly increase how long my dog is in front until they can sit quietly for about five seconds – that covers pretty much any ring situation that I can think up.

This is how I end my retrieves the majority of the time.


One Piece of Advice

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I was recently asked an interesting question.  “If you could give a beginner to dog sports one piece of advice, what would that be?”

I had to think about this for a bit, because interesting questions deserve well thought out answers.

So…here’s my one piece of advice:

Keep your dog in the game.

That must be your number one priority, regardless of your dog sport or what you might be working on.

As you start each training session you may want to ask yourself, “Am I having fun?  Is my dog having fun?” “Are we enjoying this sport that we are doing together?” Continue to ask yourself these questions throughout your training session, until it becomes second nature to check in on your mutual enthusiasm for the training process.  

All experienced trainers will tell you that working with an excited and engaged partner makes training incredibly easy, whereas working with an unwilling, distracted or sullen partner is bound for failure.  Creating a wonderful training atmosphere is the handler’s responsibility; find that joy and take on that responsibility!  Make it a personal goal never to work with your dog when you’re not BOTH equally excited about the tasks in front of you.  As you try out each new training technique, check in with your dog.  If his eyes are bright and his tail is wagging then you’re on the right track;  keep going!  

If you ever have a doubt about your dog’s desire to work with you, stop what you are doing and re-group.  Some days that might mean ending training before you’ve barely begun, which can be quite frustrating for the handler.  Take that lost time to try and understand what might have happened to cause your dog to opt out of the training game.  Once you have some possible causes, it’s time to explore solutions.  

Other days your dog will be dragging you out of the car and onto the field; wonderful!  What caused that reaction?   How can you take advantage of that in the future?

At the end of the day, there are no “right” training techniques or “right” ways to do things.  There is only what works for you and your dog to create mutual happiness and whatever team you can create with each other.  Find what works for both of you by asking those same questions over and over, because one thing that should be non-negotiable in your training with your dog is mutual joy.  


Am I having fun?  Is my dog having fun?  Are we enjoying this sport that we are doing together?

Each time you answer “yes”, you will leave that session with a better friend than before you started, and you will begin to truly understand what dog trainers mean when they say they have a relationship with their dog.  

The scores and ribbons will follow.  Just remember that they are icing on the cake, not the cake itself.  If you follow my advice, you already had your cake even if you never step foot inside a competition ring.


Brito’s Mixed Article Pile

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Until about a week ago I worked Brito’s metal and leather articles separately.  Now I’m introducing the idea that the piles might be mixed together.

I’ve also increased the quantity of articles.

Next I will introduce even more challenges.  I will change locations to generalize his behavior, add the concept of a formal return, vary the number of articles that I put out, add distractions and novel requests, and change the objects that I use to have him search. I will also send him to a room to find his article where I cannot see what he is doing, so that I can be sure that I am not influencing his decisions.  Ideally these changes are introduced one at a time.

This unedited video shows a few of these changes.

I have significantly increased the number of articles that he had to choose from, so I placed  TWO scented articles in the pile to ensure that he could find the correct choice more quickly.  It is important that you not place those articles close to each other – your dog should not be able to smell one while he is fetching another, so I place them far apart.  After he picks up one correct option, I have the choice to either return it to the pile or to send him again so he can find the second one.

If I am sitting on the floor, I ignore it if he doesn’t get the article all the way into my hand.  That is not important right now as long as he is using his nose and selecting the correct option.  To demonstrate that point, I added in two “formal” sends to the pile at the end of the exercise.  He has never seen this before, so you’ll see his confusion.  I helped him work through it.  His knowledge of dumbbell and glove retrieves make the return and front fairly easy once he begins to understand what I want.

When he left he brought a toy from the bedroom off to the side.  No worries – I just took it, gave him a cookie, and sent him back to the pile.  I was pretty sure there were no more toys for him to find, and he’s never been asked to ignore toys while working articles.

Notice that his tail never stops wagging and he stays in the game continuously.  That is the most important quality that you can nurture in your dog, so make that your number one priority!  I would rather have him guess and get it wrong “with confidence” than shut down and refuse to play my game.








Cheerful Interrupter or Engagement?

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One of the great challenges of communicating dog training techniques to others is clarity.  It’s easy to tell another person what I “might do” in a specific situation.  Its a lot harder to ensure that they are hearing the relevant parts of the conversation, or that they have given me the pieces of information that I need to know in order to help them.

There appears to be some confusion between Cheerful Interrupters (CI’s) and Engagement.  In short, people are using CI’s to CREATE engagement, as opposed to maintaining engagement once it is already there, in the face of an error.

A Cheerful Interrupter is how I handle some errors in training.  In scientific terms, it is a “least reinforcing stimulus”.  I maintain verbal praise and interaction, but that is not as good as a cookie.  So it’s not a negative punishment but not the whole package either.  It is how I communicate to the dog – I still love you!  I will help you!  You are not alone!  And….I can’t give you a cookie just yet!  It is not a conditioned punisher because I use praise and verbal reinforcement both in cheerful interrupters and when all is well in the work, so that washes out. (Search this blog for the word “Cheerful Interrupters” to learn more.)

Engagement training is the process of moving responsibility for enthusiasm, focus and desire for work from the handler to the dog.  Because CI’s are always handler driven, they are a Level 1 form of engagement. (Please search the word “Engagement” on this blog to get information on that topic).

I do not use silence or turning away to communicate errors for two reasons.  One, I go to some trouble to ensure that my dogs LOVE silence and that it predicts rewards.  That is because in the sport of competition obedience, silence must mean that you are correct.  The worst thing that could happen is that I train my dog  to perceive my silence or withdrawing interaction as “wrong.”

The second reason I do not use silence to communicate that an error has been made is that for many dogs, silence is much more than withdrawing a classic reward (-P).  It is withdrawing personal approval and affection – a huge punisher for sensitive dogs who care if we are pleased with their efforts.  Imagine if you were working at a new job and you made an error.  Instead of saying, “No worries!  Let’s try again; learning is hard – you’ll get it soon”.  The person just….stared or turned away….from you.  And then, after a second of silence, they re-engaged.  Can you see how punishing that is?  If it happened very often you’d be afraid to make errors and you would avoid learning or, if the need for a paycheck made opting out not a viable option, you would develop a lot of stress around the learning process.  The worst thing that can happen is that my dog opt out of the learning game or stay in the game strictly for the classic reward – carefully avoiding mistakes to ensure it’s eventually delivery.

I’d rather have a dog make errors than worry about being wrong.  Being wrong is ok.  It is a normal part of the learning process.  My job is to help the dog become fluent in their work and to provide attainable challenges in order to build up the dog’s confidence under pressure.   The occasion No Reward Marker (NRM) for a highly engaged, confident and possibly overly enthusiastic (careless) dog?  No worries.  A regular diet of NRM’s or CI’s?  Big worries.

If I were 100% perfect at my job, there would be no need for CI’s or NRM’s, because I would only set the dog up for scenarios where they could succeed and my dog would always be fully engaged.  But I’m just not that good, so I will over-face (ask too much) my dog on occasion. I will select the wrong training environments, or changes will take place within that carefully selected environment that I cannot control.  I will push too hard and ask for too many repetitions. I will underestimate the dog’s level of fear or anxiety.  I will train when they aren’t really ready to work. I will assume a level of generalization or fluency that does not exist.

In short – I’m human.  Errors will happen.  LOTS of them.  Not because I don’t care or am not trying but because we are all learning together.  The dog is trying and I am trying.  We will both make mistakes and we both deserve some slack.

If you find that you are using CI’s to create the energy for training or the reason for the work, then you are doing it wrong.  Don’t ask a dog to work who is not in the game at the start because trying to pull a dog back from the environment by applying your human energy is counterproductive.  Stop working so hard!

If your dog is not bright eyed, happy and engaged BEFORE you start work it’s not going to get better by asking for behaviors and then using a CI to get the dog into the game – the dog was never there in the first place!  That is a case of confusing a need for Engagement with CI’s.

CI’s are not meant to be cheerleading for a dog that only works for rewards.  They are interrupters that allow a generally engaged dog to try again quickly and with minimal loss of enthusiasm.

Here is an example of confusing engagement with CI’s:

You start training your dog.  To get energy, you play with your dog with a toy.  You then flip into heeling.  Your dog leaves you to visit another person after a short period of time so you get super exciting to get the dog back, showing (but not giving) food or toys (CI) and then go back to work.

Your dog didn’t need a CI.  Your dog needed to learn to offer and sustain attention and engagement before you even started work.   Go back and work through the stages of engagement.  Using a CI on a dog that isn’t engaged in the first place is begging and eventually – since you are not giving a classic reward – your dog will tune you out and the CI’s will no longer be effective.  Then your CI will become a conditioned punisher rather than a least reinforcing stimulus.

Once you have solid engagement you can add work.  Then you can use CI’s to handle honest errors.  Do not use CI’s to create energy and engagement that was not there in the first place, because CI’s used in that manner are effectively Stage 1 engagement.

Stage 1 engagement is fine for a short period of time,  but SHORT is the operative word here.  If your dog is working at more advanced skills and you are still taking responsibility for getting/keeping your dog through a combination of classic rewards and CI’s then you’re doing it wrong.  Get the cookies out of your hands and teach your dog to take responsibility.   CI’s are not a substitute for focus and engagement; they address minor errors without harming your underlying relationship with your dog.

In summary.  Do not work with a dog that is not engaged.  When engagement is established and your dog makes an error, CI’s can be used judiciously to break the flow of training and to maintain attitude while you re-set and quickly try again.  If you use CI’s on a dog that is not engaged in the first place, you are using your CI to create engagement – that is level 1 engagement because the handler is causing it to happen.  Long term use of Stage 1 engagement will make ring preparation training extremely difficult because your dog will not function well without the handler driving the work. Further, you risk losing the positive value of the CI as a useful training tool.





Learning to Listen

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Like all animals, dogs are creatures of habit and routines.  If you show your dog the same training picture over and over, they will stop listening to your cues and simply perform the patterns that you have trained them to do.

If you want your dog to pay attention then give your dog a reason to bother!  As a nice bonus, you will solve a few problems:

First, dogs stop anticipating exercises.  Your dog cannot anticipate what they don’t know.

Second, dogs pay closer attention because they have no choice if they want to succeed.  If you train this way regularly you’ll find that your dog’s attention to you increases as a nice side effect.

Third, dogs LIKE to use their brains, just like people!  When you make work more interesting by varying your requests, they enjoy their work more because you have reduced or eliminated the boredom that is inherent in pattern training. And dogs that are having fun work better in the ring.

Here’s an unedited video of Brito working on a combination of broad jump, signals and recalls.   He makes mistakes!  That’s ok.  I simply help him out by offering additional cues (pointing, combining signals with verbals, etc.) to allow him to succeed.  As long as he’s trying, I’m happy to help him out.  We’re a team.


Advanced Heeling

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Heeling is the foundation of obedience. Fortunately I love heeling, so I’m very motivated to find ways to make it beautiful, accurate and engaging for me and my dog.I also enjoy teaching heeling to other handlers, probably more than any other obedience skill.  As a result, I’ve been teaching a series of classes at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy on this topic.

The first class was “Precision Heeling.”  The second class was “Heeling Games.”  And….this one is “Advanced Heeling and Problem Solving”.This is the class that considers those tiny, itty bitty details that cost you points or drive you a little crazy.  Over the six weeks of class, we’ll look at those details; all of the ways that we struggle in our heeling, and a very wide range of options for improving your skill.

The Gold level spots are full, but you are welcome to join the class at Bronze – and for $65, that’s something of a deal.  The prerequisites do not apply at the bronze level.  If you did not take the earlier heeling classes, then some of what is discussed will mystify you, but as long as you have something that passes for heeling then you’ll find plenty to keep you busy.  Indeed, I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll hear ideas, solutions and lectures here that you have not heard anywhere else.  And if you’re an experienced trainer that picks up a few new ideas, well….that’s a good thing.

This particular class is composed of both lecture and skill lists that target specific issues. All of the skill lists are released on the first day of class (June 2nd) and to ensure that you can get to work on your issues right away  I’ve placed the skill list for “about turns” below to give you an idea of how the class runs.  There are four concept lectures to help you learn to solve your own problems and also ten skill lists to give you specific solutions to various heeling issues.

The students who submit videos over the next six weeks will be the demo dogs for the class as a whole.  If you find a student to follow at Gold that has similar issues to your own, you’ll make excellent progress.  This class has a nice range of breeds and temperaments represented, from a small terrier to a Rhodesian Ridgeback – with everything in between.

I hope to see you here or in one of the other classes at the school.  Class starts June 2st and “late” registration ends on June 15th; send me a note through the “People” link at the academy if you need help selecting the right class for you.Anyway, regardless of whether you take the class, try out some of the ideas below if you have issues on your about turns. Good luck!


Forging on about turns

This can either be a generic forging problem (in which case you would want to look at the topic “Forging” from the first week’s lecture for solutions), or it an be an anticipation problem.

if it’s an anticipation problem, the basic issue is the same as for forging on right turns; the dog is making assumptions about what is going to happen next, and simply does it before you want them to.

If the handler signals a turn and then completes the about turn in a predictable fashion (180 degrees) then the dog stops paying attention and completes the turns before the handler.   Dogs can also forge out of temperament; pushier and more driven dogs often forge out of temperament; they think they know more than you do, so they just beat you to it.  You’ll need to show them that they don’t know as much as they think they do!

The solution is the same if the dog anticipates because the handler is predictable or because the dog is simply very temperamental and driven.  You’ll need to make the dog think on every step throughout the about turn.  Turn slowly so the dog is processing well and then test it by alternating slow, normal or fast about turns. Do not always turn the same amount; maybe it will be 30 degrees followed by a half or maybe 270 degrees followed by a fast pace. This is the same as forging through a right turn:

When training this way, make sure you are keeping your body very straight and correct so that your dog can follow you.

It’s not fair to make a fast about turn while your shoulder hangs back!  Practice stair step heeling so the dog can never get up any momentum towards the right about turn.  Make sure that your body stays straight over your feet!  This is a good exercise to practice without a dog first and then videotape – make sure your handling is the same with or without a dog.  Here’s Raika practicing stair steps – left, right, left, right, about turn, etc.  Never more than a few steps in any direction. You’ll see how she starts to smooth out.  (This video is a duplicate):

Finally, try performing about turns followed by an immediate halt before you go in the new direction – that gives your dog plenty to think about!  If you practice indoors, most dogs can show better self control, so it’s a good place to start.  Note that I still encourage her verbally to drive through the about turn – I don’t want her to start lagging!  You can also see how I handle “less than perfect”.  It’s no big deal but I don’t reward either:

All of these solutions are basically the same as recommended above for anticipating on right turns, which is why many of the videos are the same.  Make the dog think; not just drive forward!

Lagging on About turns:

Lagging on about turns can be an attitude problem – check out the section on lagging from week 1 skill list.  This is the most challenging situation because if the dog simply doesn’t care about the work, then no cure in the world will hold up when the rewards are not right there.

Lagging on about turns can be caused by footwork that “kicks” the dog as you complete the turn.  This is particularly common with small dogs – keep your feet together on the turn to decrease this issue!

Lagging on about turns can be caused by dogs that have been worked too much to the left – the dog gets lazier and lazier until there is nothing left when you work to the right.  It can also be caused by rewarding the dog behind correct heel position, or too many halts after the turn is completed. Finally, it can be caused by a dog that thinks too much – a dog that is very careful and is expecting a right turn – they’ll get left behind as the handler completes the full turn.

Take about turns out of heeling for awhile.  Start practicing the about turn separately as a 180 degree pivot to the right.  Reward every single one by throwing the cookie straight ahead.  .  At first, reward regardless of speed or effort.  Here you can see that I’m going to throw whether Brito is there or not.  Note that my shoulder stay over my feet and I throw the cookie straight ahead – no looking back!

When the dog is driving around with some improvement, switch to alternating the reward straight ahead or offered in heel position. It’s ok if the dog occasionally shoots out of heel position or sits crooked as a result of anticipating the cookie throw.  You can deal with that later when the overall picture is better.

In this video, you’ll see I lose Brito’s attention.  He is trying but he’s young and a bit fragile about heel position, so I give him some verbal help and I move the food down low to help draw him in,  but I do not look backwards or twist my shoulder backwards:

Be prepared to do this for weeks.  With my young terrier, he had a tendency to lag quite a lot and it took several weeks for him to understand to stay up in position and that food would be tossed straight ahead.  I did not offer cookies in position until the overall issue was resolved – I threw them straight ahead.  And I suspect that for maintenance I’ll be doing this for many more months until he’s a stronger worker overall.  Other dogs will figure it out very quickly and will develop an anticipation problem so…think balance!  Once the dog is more enthusiastic about the turn when it is isolated, you can return the about turn to regular training and see if you’ve gotten the desired improvement.  Here is Brito working on heeling – note that the reward comes for the about turn and the cookie is tossed:

In addition, take a good look at your own body language!  Lagging is often caused by letting your left shoulder hang back as you complete the turn.  Don’t look at your dog on the about turn if your dog lags; look where you are going!  I often focus on my right foot as I complete the turn.I’d strongly suggest practicing without your dog first and then add your dog.  Then videotape so that you can be sure that you are not contributing to the problem.  If your handling has contributed then the cure won’t be instant!  Your dog will have to adapt to your new behavior.  Be aware that it is common for dogs to cross behind you and end up on your right side when you first practice your new, correct handling.  Simply drop your left hand down to help them target around your body as they learn.  Note that in all of the above videos, I look where I am going, keep my feet together and keep my shoulders over my feet!

Wide on about turns

Dogs can choose to move wide on about turns for several reasons.  Sometimes it is simply an attention problem; if the dog isn’t paying attention and does not see the turn, then they will end up wide.  The solution is to increase your expectations for attention (see skill list week one for thoughts on attention).

Dogs also heel wide when their handlers struggle to hold a straight line; little dogs are at particular risk of getting stepped on or kicked and will quickly develop the habit of heeling wide on about turns.  While the about turn does not cause the wide heeling, it does make it particularly obvious.  See the skill list for week 1 to deal with generically wide heeling.

If you find that your dog is avoiding your feet, make a point of keeping your feet together on turns.  This makes it much less like that you’ll step on your dog.  In addition, be extremely careful about not drifting into your dog when moving and especially on turns.  Pick a line and stick to it!   It might help to put a line on the ground and make sure you are going out and back on the same line.   Outdoor tennis courts and basketball areas are great for practicing walking straight; just get on a line and use it!

If your dog makes a wide about turn and then quickly moves back into position, try adding a halt right on the corner after the turn is completed.  If your dog knows where they should be when you halt, they often begin to anticipate that and pull in closer on the corner itself

Finally, you can do some special footwork for training that makes your dog anticipate pulling in.  After completing the about turn, immediately pull to the right for a step or two before continuing back in a straight line.

and…more engagement

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Tired of this topic yet? Search this blog to better understand if this is a new idea for you.

I’ve become convinced that a solid plan for engagement is truly critical if you have a dog that was not born with a lot of working drive, who has who a lot of notable alternative interests,  or who has a strong “show me the money” set of behaviors.   Your dog must 1) start the work by indicating with his behavior that he truly wants to do so, 2) be willing to work without knowing what you might have to offer for reinforcement, and 3) be able to flip back and forth between work and engagement, accepting play or physical interaction for some breaks from the work. If your dog does not accept this naturally and leans away when you try to use physical interaction (common!) , then go ahead and teach it!  The stronger your dog’s natural working drive or desire for classic motivators, the less critical this is because you can emphasize a final reward outside the ring.

Here is a video with Brito.

The first 1:50 seconds is acclimation.  This piece is critical for Brito.  Even though I am not training I want you to see what acclimation looks like.  Not much!  I am allowing him to wander around and explore on his own while I set up.  This is his free time and he can do what he wants, short of running off.  If running off were a strong possibility then I would have held his leash and walked with him but I didn’t think it was a concern on this day.  You can see that Brito mostly follows me around, so I know that he’s really more interested in working for me than in making mischief – today anyway.

Acclimation allows Brito to fully weigh his options – working with me or finding other things to do.  It is critical that you select working areas where your dog will choose you over the environment within a few minutes.  It has taken two years for Brito to begin to consistently choose me over the environment in this training area because there is a healthy squirrel population in the trees and lizards on the ground.  We worked up to practicing here – until now we have learned a lot in the house.  Start acclimation and engagement where you can win, not where you will have huge competition with the environment!  Acclimation and a dog that chooses the handler should be a baseline expectation for all handlers in all sports.

I have him on leash because I want him to make the association between work starting on leash – then removing the leash – and then continuing with work.  This will give me a much easier entry into the competition ring than what I have done in the past when my dogs were almost never on leash.  The leash also allows me to acclimate him in areas where it would be unwise or unsafe to let him be free.

From 1:50 to 2:15 I let him convince me that he would rather interact with me than find something better to do.  I have shown him no classic reinforcers – no food or toys, though he knows from experience that I have access.  He must engage with me personally and willingly to start work.  From there, his experience can only get better and better as I add classic motivators to the options.

I remove his leash at 2:15 and I continue with more active engagement until 2:25, at which point I allow him to work.  His energy is good and I like what I see.

At 2:30 I use a bit of opposition reflex – he accepts this as a game and continues to work with me on heeling until 2:35.

His reward for good heeling is a chance to earn his first classic reinforcer – at 2:50 he gets a high value cookie. Note that I back up that cookie with my voice.

At 2:55 he gets the ball for the first time.  Now he knows what reinforcers are on the table and we go into training mode.  Note that I am constantly backing up the cookies and toys with praise and personality.  That is what I have in competition so I’m beginning to think that way in training.

At 3:10 we do a bit of proofing.  This was not a planned part of the session.  Note that I do not get upset with him for going for the cookie – he really doesn’t know better since it is on his target.  He’ll learn and I work hard to keep his energy and confidence up as we work through it, using blocking and a form of cheerful interrupter/engagement to redirect him.  With most dogs I would block the dog from the cookie but I wanted to build Brito’s energy and connection so I tried something different.  It worked.

3:35 more active engagement.

From here forwards we blend engagement and classic rewards along with work.

My goal is to seamlessly blend these options – food, toys, engagement and work, so that eventually he can’t even tell anymore what he is working for.  If I can do that, then we can compete effectively.  I need to get that engagement/work up to five or ten minutes before competition is possible.

For those of you who benefit from a bit of hands on help with topics like Engagement and Focus, take a look at the class schedule for instruction beginning June 2nd at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  I am teaching a class on Engagement in August, and the “Get Focused” class with Deb Jones would be an excellent course to take first.  Our schedule can be found here.  Registration starts May 22nd and many classes fill extremely quickly:









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