RSS Feed

Observable behavior

Posted on

A recent conversation got me thinking about the basic training principle:  “address observable behavior”. In short, do not make assumptions about what a dog might be thinking or feeling; work with what is happening in front of you.

I know where this well meaning advice came from.  It’s a reaction to the human tendency to place their own feelings and emotions onto their dogs; often in an irrational manner and without basis.

For example, “He sniffed on the recall!  He was getting back at me for leaving him alone yesterday.”

So should we stop making assumptions about the emotional causes of dog behavior?

No! If you don’t take the time to understand the underlying emotions that might be causing your dog’s undesirable behaviors, then you’ll also struggle to find effective training solutions.  Both approaches (an unfounded application of emotions or an exclusive focus on behavior) are going to lead you to poor decisions.  Your assumptions about your dog’s emotions should be logical – based on information that you have about the dog and the situation.

Do dogs have emotions?  Do dogs think?  Can a dog’s emotions impact observable behavior?  


Dogs could not learn if they were unable to make emotional connections between their behavior and the events happening around them.  Like people, dogs work to avoid things that make them uncomfortable (avoiding the emotions of fear, stress and the feelings of pain) and towards things that make them happy or secure.  If dogs lacked basic emotions and the ability to alter their behaviors as a response, then they would be unable to survive in our world. 

If we want to be highly effective trainers, we have no choice but to make educated guesses about what a dog might be thinking and feeling at a given moment based on our interpretations of their behavior.  Understanding a dog’s emotions often provides the only route to explaining behavior, which in turn provides a solution to create change.

As an example, let’s take another look at that dog that sniffs and wanders instead of moving towards her handler on a recall.

What should we do to change the dog’s behavior?

If you believe that only observable behavior is relevant, what is your suggested solution?  Stop reading for a moment and consider what advice you might give someone.  (the dog is sniffing as he comes towards the handler on the recall).  Then continue on.

ok; now let’s look at it:

If the handler frequently drops food in the training area, then it is likely that the dog is sniffing in the hopes of finding some food.  His likely emotional state?  Curious or hopeful.   If this is the cause of the sniffing, then the solution lies in proofing.  This dog has to learn that even if food is on the floor that this food is not for the taking. (Note:  In my training, proofing is a positive event for the dog, but for the purpose of this example how you teach is not relevant – you would “proof” the dog for food on the floor however you know to do that).

But what if the handler does not drop food and the dog is not finding anything on the floor?  What if you discover that the dog has been doing recalls, one after the other, for five minutes, and now the dog has just begun sniffing?

I’d guess that the dog is simply bored and disengaging, doing the same exercise over and over.  Boredom is not curiosity – it is avoidance.   If this is the root issue, then first figure out what aspect of the recall is really the handler’s interest; why is the handler doing multiple recalls? (speed?  Fronts?  Finishes?).  Then work on that small piece outside of the formal recall while alternating with other activities.

What if you applied the “proofing” solution to a dog that was bored as opposed to curious?  You’ll likely make the problem even worse with the additional repetitions!

What if the handler had been working that recall repeatedly and has not been rewarding any of them?  Is that piece of information relevant?  Does it matter if this is the first or tenth recall?  Might those many repetitions affect the dog’s emotional state?

Yes, because now I’m going to begin to suspect that the sniffing may be an avoidance behavior that reflects the underlying emotion of anxiety (as opposed to boredom).  If a dog is asked to perform the same exercise repeatedly without adequate feedback, then displacement sniffing is a very common result.  Stop doing all of those unrewarded recalls and see if the problem goes away.

If you misread the dog’s displacement behavior and assumed curiosity sniffing and if you then applied a proofing solution, then you can expect to make that problem worse as well.  Your anxious dog will now be both anxious and unmotivated.  He might stop sniffing but don’t be surprised if he starts…scratching.  Yawning.  Lip licking.  Or staring off into the distance.  All are problematic if you value an enthusiastic and engaged working partner.

But what if the dog has always done wonderful recalls and has no objection to multiple drills, either with or without food?  Would it be relevant to know that this same dog had been lunged at the week prior by another dog in the same area?  Might your dog’s sniffing behavior actually be an reflection of nervousness caused by the emotion of fear?

If your dog has experienced an upsetting event, then you should be dealing with your dog’s fear issues and you shouldn’t be doing formal exercises at all.  Work through your dog’s worry or fear before continuing.

Ok; let’s say that none of that is relevant!  The dog is doing a first recall, with a cookie and without anything on the floor and there has been no trauma.  Is there anything else that might be relevant which is not a part of the presenting behavior of sniffing on the recall?

Could the dog be in pain?  If your dog is sore from the prior day’s hike in the woods, it can be painful to sit in front.  As a result, the dog avoids the front position altogether.

Could it be an issue of training technique?  What happens when the dog gets to the handler?  Does she reach out and correct the dog by the collar for sitting crooked?  Could that be part of the dog’s choice to sniff rather than to come to front position?  Of course it can.  In that case the handler needs to change HER behavior – all of the proofing, reinforcement and behavior work in the world won’t solve the issue unless the handler changes her training technique.

If you offered a solution to sniffing on the recall, and all you had access to was information about the dog’s specific behavior, do you still think that your solution was the right one for any of these scenarios?

Almost every observable behavior problem should be considered within the context of the dog’s prior training, experiences, temperament, and physical well being, because all of these affect the dog’s emotional state.  Ask yourself ; does the dog feel safe in the environment?  Is the handler pleasant? Is the work pleasant?  Does the dog know how to meet expectations?  Is the dog being inadvertently rewarded for incorrect choices? And…how might he feel about all of this?  Stressed?  Unsure?  Anxious? Hectic? Excited?

Can you see why it’s easier to come up with effective and workable solutions if you consider the dog’s emotions as part of the causes of behavior?

The more you practice thinking holistically with behavior as more than an observable event, the more quickly you’ll find yourself coming to accurate conclusions.  And when your first conclusion proves to be wrong, the more quickly you’ll be able to change direction and try a new path.

Creating lasting change in dog behavior requires more than the ability to accurately observe and describe what a dog is doing at a single moment in time.  Change requires the ability to identify and interpret the possible underlying causes of the dog’s behavior, often rooted in their emotions, and to select appropriate solutions that are logical for that specific challenge.   Because dogs cannot talk to us, interpreting their behavior in the language of underlying emotions is often the fastest way for a handler to come to a workable solution.  The risk, of course, is when we attribute emotions within the context of power dynamics and calculated behavior.  That will get you into trouble every time.

Fronts with an object. Oh dear.

Posted on

Why is it that dogs can nail fronts when they aren’t holding something – yet add an object to their mouth and it all goes away?

I have some theories so here we go:

1)  We do millions of fronts without objects in our dog’s mouths, so when they are not carrying something they perform on auto pilot.  But when you add an object, you change the dog’s feelings about the exercise – either to more or less enthusiastic, depending on the dog.  And when you change how the dog feels about an exercise, you change their muscle memory as well.  If a dog has learned to nail a front moving at one speed, and then holding a dumbbell they are working at a dramatically different speed, then they will have little to no practice performing correctly.  End result? cooked fronts.

Solution:  Practice just as many fronts WITH an object in the mouth as without, and use all of the same aids that you used in the first place.  If you work on teaching your dog to find front by running around a cone and then coming back – throw a dumbbell into the picture and give it a try.  If you practice fronts while pivoting on a spot, try that with a dumbbell too.

Here Raika is working a common ‘front’ exercise (pivots and lateral movement) while holding an object.  (If you’re curious about how I deliver food to her….Raika sometimes holds her head at an odd angle so food placement counteracts that and balances her.  It looks a bit odd but it works.)

2) Some dogs have to really concentrate to nail a front, and finding front while sitting, walking, or carrying an object at the same time is not easy for them!  The issue is one of multitasking, and they struggle to perform with precision.

Solution:  Time! Practice!  Eventually dogs can do both things without thinking about keeping their mouth closed and then they will have energy left over for thinking about body position.  You can make that happen more quickly by teaching your dog to perform a variety of exercises while carrying an object, since the issue isn’t so much the front as the act of carrying and “doing” all at once.  Instead of stressing your dog about trying to hold on to the dumbbell while nailing a perfect front, teach them to hold the dumbbell while going to a platform, or while doing signals.  What you do won’t matter as much as giving the dog practice with multitasking.

Here’a a video showing Brito’s first lesson carrying a dumbbell while working on other behaviors. He struggles!  He munches a bit!  None of that matters; he’ll work it out with the confidence that comes with time and practice. We worked on a variety of things including heeling, hand signals, go outs and platforms.  As a bonus, I left in the last 10 seconds of the video.  I figure someone out there needs to see it.

3)  Some dogs are in avoidance of their handlers.  To be blunt, they do not want to sit in front position when carrying an object because that experience has been made unpleasant.

Solution:  Make the object hold in front an incredibly pleasant experience.  If you have a habit of clamping your dog’s mouth shut to create a calm hold in front position you’ll create head tossing, sits that are too far away, or a dog that chews the dumbbell in front.  Stop doing that.  If you make your dog sit there for a long time while you stare at them, then you’ll create nervous munching. Stop doing that too.  Work stationary duration holds (if you think you need it – I don’t teach that) separate from your fronts.  The solution is simple – stop making front position unpleasant.

There are many additional reasons why dogs don’t sit straight in front with an object, but most of those are actually about the straight sit and not about the object at all – if a dog sits crooked without an object you’ll see the same issues when you add one to the equation, only magnified.






Rewarding Engagement and Effort

Posted on

So…what does it look like?  Rewarding errors?

I taped Brito’s scent articles today.  We have been able to progress from about four metal articles to seven in less than five sessions – simply by allowing him to make errors with support.  Support is a euphemism for a free cookie:).

For Brito, the trick appears to be not rewarding an error more than twice in a row because while it is true that he’s happy, it’s also true that he is not getting trained!  If he fails twice in a row then I need to do something to help him succeed – with articles I just pull most of them out of the pile and work up again.  It’s working for him.

I “mark” correct choices with a combination of personality and throwing the food.  I am much quieter when he makes an error but the actual cookie is the same.

I try to start so that he’ll be correct – whatever that might mean for your dog.  Most important – if errors begin to crop up then change something.

Here’s a video of a session with metal articles – errors and all:

(Note that on the last attempt, I accidentally clicked before he had actually picked up the article so he didn’t complete the retrieve – that’s not a problem.)

I started rewarding errors with leather articles too, but I quickly realized that Brito does not understand leather articles. I went back to two articles, placing them extremely close together (so that he can compare), removing incorrect choices (spit on) and….I do not reward errors.

Separately we are working with two metal articles far apart (2 feet) so that he can learn to find the correct option without comparing two choices side by side.  I do not reward errors there either, but I’ll simplify the game if needed.

So much interesting stuff!



The Problem with Perspective

Posted on

“Perspective” means the ability to see from another’s point of view; to recognize another’s feelings and experiences, and to acknowledge that they might differ from our own.  Perspective is an amazing quality!  It requires putting aside our interests as the sole consideration.  When exercising perspective, we take a moment to consider an alternative viewpoint and possibly, to alter our actions as a result.  That means that you might choose not to “get your way” because another interest wins.  Wow!

So what’s the problem?

Perspective adds ethics to your decision making.  Once you acknowledge that another point of view has validity, then your conscience becomes involved, and suddenly it’s not all about you. That leaves room for guilt or mental discomfort – cognitive dissonance.

Having the ability to take another’s perspective doesn’t necessarily mean we do so.  Some people do not choose to make perspective a part of their lives because it’s uncomfortable – it invades our happy bubble.  Others do not use perspective because they are are ignorant; they don’t know how to consider another point of view, especially if the “other” isn’t verbal or isn’t choosing to communicate.  And some people simply lack the maturity or social skills to make the leap.

Our desire to take another’s perspective tends to be in proportion to how closely our interests are aligned with the “other” under consideration.  When the gap is wide perspective seems to go away and rationalization takes it place, which is a basic human coping mechanism.  There is no guilt or mental discomfort if we never ask ourselves if what we are doing might be wrong or unkind from another’s point of view. And we like it that way!  Our happy bubble remains intact.

You want your child to play football because you love football yourself.  But your child is more of a chess player.  The more you wanted a  football player, the harder it is to accept your child’s cerebral interests.  But if you don’t care that much for contact sports, then suddenly your ability to identify with your child and take their perspective gets a lot easier, because it aligns with your own point of view.  Chess is awesome!  Shame on those parents that push their children into football!  But the parent who wants the football playing child?  Exercise is awesome!  It’s important to get out in the fresh air!  See?  Rationalization.  Same situation but different points of focus.  We all do it.  More happy bubble!

It’s not that you’re a better person than the hardcore football parent; you just don’t care as much so perspective is easier to come by.

And dog sports?  We can consider our dog’s perspective too, but we’ll have to make an effort since dogs are not verbal  We have to watch their behavior for clues.   I cannot count the number of times someone has said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to stop competing because he loves it so much!” Yet, nothing that I can see in the dog’s behavior supports their conclusion. Indeed, sometimes I see a dog that is bored to tears and going through the motions in a thoroughly mediocre fashion, because the handler is determined to train and compete with their dog.  The dog may be getting some exercise and fresh air, but having a good time?  Not so clear.

How might we keep perspective?

After your next training session or competition, ask yourself two questions:

1) Did your dog have a good time? What behaviors communicated this conclusion to you?  Did you go away from your session feeling even closer than before you started?  If you didn’t feel very good about your dog when you were done, why not?  How often does that happen?  Are you ok with that?  How about your dog – is she ok with that too?  And if you’ve decided that you really don’t care if your dog enjoys working (a valid possibility) – have you asked yourself how unhappy your dog can be before you will stand up and take notice?

Most of us do dog sports for fun.  If you’re trying to convert your chess player into a football player and progress seem slow to non existent, then take a moment to ask yourself how far are you willing to go with this activity if your dog is an unwilling participant.  The more vested you are in your point of view – your perspective – the less you’ll appreciate this question.  Which is fine.  Sit on it a bit.  Wrestle with yourself.  That’s normal.    It’s a bitter pill to swallow, when all of your hard work has been wasted on an unresponsive teammate.

Or maybe not.  Maybe you just need to reconsider your training plan and come up with a completely novel approach.  Maybe there is a way to change the training itself to make the training or competition more worthwhile to your dog

And here’s the second question:

2) Did you really ask the first question?  Take another look at you and your dog together.  Ask yourself one more time – does your dog’s behavior suggest enjoyment of your dog sports?  Or might you be rationalizing what you are seeing?

That’s perspective.  Not ignoring the question.  Not answering it without an honest evaluation of your situation.  Perspective requires taking a hard look and trying to put yourself in your dog’s shoes – and allowing yourself to face the reality that you you might not like what you see.

Maybe we need to check in with our dogs regularly and make it a habit.  Before trying a new training method, take a moment to think about how your dog might feel about that. Before pushing harder and harder, ask yourself….would you want to be your dog?

And if you don’t like the answer, can you come up with a plan for making it better?  And if you have no solution – then what?

Today I only have questions.

Now what will you do?

Heeling Games – Horizontal Movement

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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:





Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,274 other followers