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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:








Bits and Pieces

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Brito’s left turns are not ideal in his heeling.  He’s fine if I give him hand help to keep him back in position; otherwise he tends to forge through the corner.

I’m in no hurry to deal with forging with him, so I mostly ignore the errors and help him when training in flow (I will discuss this idea of “flow” later), but at some point he has to learn to make the corner without help, and this seemed like a fine time to start looking at it!

Here’s what I’m doing:

1) Hand help to keep him in position when working in flow where I don’t want to mess with training details.

2) Separate from my flow training, I’m working on left turns as a drill, where I reward every attempt with a cookie.  I’m doing a pile in a row to create a pattern and a habit of staying in position.  In particular I’m watching for Brito to pull his rear end in, and I work hard not to stop moving until I believe he’ll be correct.   Note that within drills, my hand position is “correct” and I’m not helping him.  Instead I will use body movements (such as pulling sideways, or making more than a 90 degree turn or backing up with a left turn) to get him thinking about his butt.

3) I return those left turns to the chain of work and see what we have.  This is the testing phase.

This pattern of training looks like this:

First I do some basic engagement to get him into a training frame of mind.  Then at 11 seconds and 17 seconds you can see how I change my hand position to help him stay back and make it around the corner without forging.  I do that because we are doing heeling in flow here and I don’t want to disrupt that.

To help the precision issue, we work from 29 seconds to 50 seconds on drills that remind him about his rear end.  I try not to stop moving my feet until I’m pretty sure he will sit straight, which works reasonably well.

At 53 seconds we try heeling again.  He loses attention on the corner at 56 seconds so I re-engage him and we try another time.  He does reasonably well on his left turn at 1:14.  Then we play a bit more with drills from about 1:30 to 1:42.  Then I re-engage and we try another turn within a heeling chain.  I’m happy with his left turn at 1:52 and even more happy with his turn at 2:02.  and…we’re done!


Handling Punishment – examples

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This video is clipped out of a 15 minute long session with Brito.

You can see two errors that I handle in two different ways; one with punishment (-P) and the other with additional training assistance.

20 sec:  The first error takes place at the retrieve over high jump; Brito anticipates the exercise before I have a chance to send him.  I choose to let him complete the exercise and since we’ve been struggling with taking the high jump on the return, I do reward the incorrect chain.  I repeat the exercise at 55 seconds and he anticipates again.  Two errors in a row?  We have a training problem.  Stop testing and start training.

To work on it, I take the problem area away from the high jump altogether and work the anticipation issue (2:15 seconds).  To make it clearer for him, I step out of heel position to throw the dumbbell.  This is setting up training for success.

I choose not to attempt the exercise over the high jump again during this session because I need to address the anticipation issue more thoroughly before returning it to the retrieve over high jump.

Handled in this manner, I did not punish the retrieve over high jump at all – indeed I chose to reward the first incorrect retrieve over high jump because on many occasions he does not send at all when I cue him, and I’d rather have anticipation than any more loss of enthusiasm for work.

The second error takes place in heeling.  Brito loses attention as he approaches the about turn at 1:45 seconds

The error is caused by our movement towards an edge – “Squirrel territory”.  I choose to use a cheerful interrupter (a reset) and I stop the chain (-P) because ending the chain (however cheerfully I may do it) also ends his chance for reinforcement.  Breaking the flow of training is a punishment that he understands.

I “cheerfully” back up several steps after a bit of engagement and we repeat exactly the same sequence again at 1:55 seconds.  This time he succeeds.  I verbally praise him as he completes the challenging portion and I give him a cookie soon thereafter.

I handled these two errors differently because he is at different stages of training with these two exercises.  Alternating anticipation with missing his first cue to send over the high jump is a common issue and suggests a general issue with lack of attention and enthusiasm for the task – under those circumstances any punishment at all, no matter how minor, is likely to make the matter worse.

I handle the heeling error with a cheerful interrupter.  I felt that he was strong enough in this training session to tolerate the punishment (-P) and the cheerful interrupter reaffirms that we’re still having fun together, gives him a reset so he can try again, and keeps his attitude up.

Thoughts on Punishment

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Punishment is used in training to change behavior.  It is a consequence the dog wishes to avoid.

Let’s use crooked sits as an example.  If your dog performs a crooked sit in heel position, you’ll want to make that behavior less likely next time. How might you use punishment?

You can with-hold (-) something that the dog wants like cookies, toys or praise when your dog sits crooked. You are using -P.

Or you can add (+) some sort of physical discomfort technique for the same purpose (collar correction or other physical manipulation).  Your dog won’t want you to do that in the future so straight sits become more likely (+P).  Or you can verbally harass the dog (mental force) to make him uncomfortable, so next time he will try to avoid that by sitting straight (also +P),

If it makes you feel better you can actually straighten the dog (maybe give a hand signal/cue or pull on the collar to make the dog “fix it”) but that’s not training – the dog already did the behavior wrong (coming into a crooked sit out of heeling), so it’s somewhat irrelevant.  Go ahead and fix your dog if you want, but recognize that at best you’re teaching your dog how to correct a crooked sit (useless in the ring) and at worst you’re teaching your dog not to want to sit near you at all.

I’m not a fan of punishment in either the + or – form, so I try to avoid it.  Instead I prefer to isolate problem areas when they crop up and work on them away from my “flow” training.  More often than not I don’t say much to the dog to let them know when they’ve made an error, and if I do punish I normally use a cheerful interrupter along with withholding reinforcement (-P). Whether I continue with an incorrectly performed chain depends on the dog.  I consider temperament, hardness, experience level, and what I think caused the error.  Lack of attention or effort is treated differently than a startle, which is treated differently than a proofing exercise that I set up on purpose, and each of those is considered within the context of the dog’s temperament.

I don’t dwell too much on quadrants – they make my head hurt. I just ask myself if the dog likes what I’m doing or does not like what I am doing.  I try to do things that my dog likes so that he wants to be working with me and I try to avoid things that my dog does not like so he won’t find training stressful or unpleasant.

What happens if you punish a dog for an error, and you attempt the behavior again with no additional training?

It will depend on your dog’s understanding of the exercise.  If they understood the punishment and are capable of performing correctly, then hopefully they will change their ways.  You would then want to “mark” this correct attempt in some manner to cement their understanding; possibly using praise, a reward, or the continuation of the chain.

What if your dog fails again?

Two in a row suggests a training problem; your dog does not know how to win.   And since training problems are your responsibility….

Stop testing and start training.

If you insist on allowing your dog to fail while you continue to punish, one of three things will happen.

1.  Nothing.  If your dog is generally stable and doesn’t care too much about what you’re doing, he’ll just stick it out and maybe figure it out or maybe not (dogs often learn in spite of us, not because of us).  In this case your dog compensated for you – super!  Stick with stable, easily motivated, clear headed dogs and you have a lifetime strategy, but somewhere in your head tuck away the fact that your dog is doing more than his fair share of the thinking.

2.  Your dog will become distressed.  What your dog does next is a function of temperament.  Low energy or lower drive dogs tend to give up – they don’t know how to win so they opt out.  That might look like wondering or sniffing or just working so slowly that you can’t stand it anymore.  High energy or higher drive dogs that aren’t winning show frantic or frustration behaviors, such as whining or barking in work, or showing hectic, hyper, or zooming energy. Sometimes those behaviors are misunderstood, so I want to be clear; those hyped up behaviors are not your happy dog delighted to try harder after being punished (that’s not logical), that’s how your dog looks when agitated from either +P or -P.  Like the first group, these dogs may or may not figure out what you want, but if you manage to condition your dog to either stressing down or stressing up in work or under unsureness, you’re going to have a heck of a time getting rid of that reaction any time your dog realizes that work is going to be hard or stressful.  If you create an unpleasant CER to work (even if it looks “happy”), you’ll pay the price in competition when your dog’s brain freezes up, and it can be a very hard problem to solve. Been there, done that.

3.  Your dog will become careful and methodical.  If this is the case, you may well get very good scores in competition, but then you’ll want to know why your dog shows so little energy in work.  Because they can’t; they might make an error and it’s just not worth the punishment.  So they will give you exactly what you have trained for and not an ounce more.

Here’s a better plan.

If your dog fails, pull the behavior out of any flow training or chains that you might be working on.  Whether you tell your dog that they have made an error and how you communicate that is up to you – depends on the dog.

I don’t even bother to work on the error at that moment if I don’t want to – I just make a mental note to work on it at some point.

Now figure out a way to communicate what you want so that your dog can practice perfect.  This is the hard part because you might have to do some creative thinking to find another way to explain what you want that is more clear to your dog.  Sometimes that even involves teaching the same exercise many ways until you find one that makes sense.

Now, at some point put it back in a chain or flow training and see what you have.  Don’t be in any hurry – the more you focus on a problem area the more you’ll sensitize your dog, and soon they really will be neurotic.  Just add it in a bit here and a bit there….

Looks good?  Great!  Reward it at the end of a very short chain a couple of times to make your dog even more enthusiastic about their competence and then reintroduce it into your regular training behavior chains.

I try hard not use intentional punishment very often because there are side effects.  This includes punishment that is withholding an expected reinforcer or withdrawing my attention (-P) as well as punishment that is adding an unpleasant physical or mental correction (+P).  In all cases punishers work because the dog wants to avoid them – that is the definition of punishment.  The more things your dog finds that they want to avoid, the less fun they’re going to have in training and dogs that aren’t having much fun with the training experience have a way of running into endless challenges as a result of their low confidence levels.

I do use punishment in the form of -P but I try to make it minimal, and I consider the specific dog.  I minimize the effects of punishment through the use of cheerful interrupters (see earlier blogs) so that I can separate out loss of reinforcement from loss of interaction.  It is also extremely rare that I withdraw my personal attention (a form of -P) because I place ultimate value on keeping my dog’s attitude up, and withholding both a classic reinforcers (cookie/toy) AND my personality is simply too great a punishment for the majority of dogs.

I’ll post a blog soon to show this approach in action.


Observable behavior

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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.

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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

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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!




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