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Sweeping Changes to AKC Obedience?

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If you’re vested in the sport of obedience, then you may already know that MAJOR changes are being proposed for AKC obedience.  

I’m not thrilled with all of the proposed changes, but I would say that the vast majority are designed to make the sport friendlier, safer, and more attractive to a range of competitors with a variety of personal goals.  

The proposed revisions were offered after soliciting input from the public, and apparently a sizable number of people did take the opportunity to offer their thoughts, so kudos to each of you who gave your opinions!  Clearly the committee listened, and these suggested revisions go well beyond what I had expected.  Once again the exhibitors are being asked to provide input – this time on the proposed changes.  

This is your chance!  Read through the PDF and then speak up and let them know how you feel.

Before you do so, you might wish to keep the following points in mind:

1) Thinking, feeling, human beings worked on this committee. I’d guess that these people gave hundreds of hours of their own time to try and improve the troubled sport that they love.   Their suggestions came from public input and may or may not reflect their personal opinions.  When you make your comments, remember that this was a labor of love. These people did their best; now treat them with respect.  You can be honest in a manner that expresses yourself clearly without mistreating the recommending committee.

2) Before you resist any changes to what you know and love, take a good look at our sport.  Look at the numbers, in particular Novice A.  Look at the average age of the competitors.   Are we really in a position to to freak out over the possibility of change, if those changes might bring new people in to our sport?  If you’re saying  that you’d rather quit than see the sport “dumbed down”, then you may well get your way – when the sport disappears from underneath you.  

As I said earlier, I do not agree with all of the proposed changes, and I expressed that to the committee.  But I’m also aware that it’s not all about me and my personal situation; it’s about the sport as a whole.  

Let’s make sure the committee hears from us.  And if change comes around, support the sport! Train your dog!  Enter trials!  Volunteer to help others who are just now learning the ropes!

Free E-book on Behavior Chains

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Like free stuff?  I’ve got free stuff.

I’ve added a link on my Dog Athlete website for free downloads.  There I just added an edited version of the behavior chains series that I wrote for this blog.  Now it’s all nice and tidy in a 35 page PDF.

If you’d like to have this resource, go ahead and follow this link:

From there, select “free downloads” from the left hand menu.

And help yourself.

Like to pay for stuff too?

You can buy  classes at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FSDA) and they’re quite awesome, if I do say so myself.

Class registration opens July 22nd and classes begin August 1st.  We have TWENTY classes running – it’s insane.   If you need some help selecting a class you can contact me through the “people” link on the academy website and I’ll help you narrow it down.

Here’s the direct link to the schedule for the August 1st lineup:


Three seconds of work

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I frequently talk about the importance of scaling back on duration without compromising criteria when you are training in environments that are challenging for your dog.

For example, I have suggested that if your young, distractible, or novice dog is not ready to heel for twenty steps in public then scale back on duration – expect excellence but only for three steps.  The importance of this approach was discussed extensively in the Behavior Chains series, so I won’t revisit that issue here.

I’ve created a list of criteria and behaviors that give me the best chance of success when the environment is challenging:


1) generally completed in three seconds or less. 

2) performed primarily facing the handler

3) performed on leash.

4) move my dogs towards some future performance goal


The first two criteria allow the dog to succeed more frequently and the third is for safely  - when working young or distractible dogs in new locations, I’ll use a leash to make sure my dog remains safe if they do decide to head off in another direction.  And the final one is strictly for me; it makes me happy to see my dog demonstrating skills that I’ll eventually use in the performance of finished behavior chains.

Here is my list for Brito:


Bounce to a position (sit, down, back up, front position, side position)

Bounce to heel position



Place (between legs)

Obedience finish (left or thru)

Fetch to front – facing me (glove or dumbbell)

pivot in heel position – all directions including sideways and backwards

pivot on a disc

platform – send no more than a few feet or recall onto the platform


Find front

Heel – starts, left turns, right turns, about turns, forward to halt

If I’m paying attention, I can do many of these behaviors in a few minutes.  Then I switch dogs and Lyra gets her turn.  Lyra’s list is pretty much the same, except I substitute “touch” for bounce.  I usually work each dog two or three times, and then we’re done for that outing.   Remember, I’m not teaching a behavior; I’m teaching an attitude and a habit about working in public – a CER (Conditioned Emotional Response). 

At home these dogs are in radically different training places.  Lyra can complete most of the exercises she’ll need for AKC competition while Brito continues to learn bits and pieces.  But in public Brito is actually more advanced than Lyra, in spite of the fact that he is slightly over a year and she is three years old.  Lyra has behavior issues to work through and that takes time.  Train the dog you have.

Brito has grown to the point where he can work for longer than three seconds and he doesn’t always need to face me, but in brand new or very complicated locations, this is my current “go to” list of options.  

In this video, Brito is on his second turn.  We are working on a horse trail, which is challenging because of the range of smells.  Note that I do not accept poor quality work (remember your behavior chains!), and while he always has the option to leave, if he leaves and then returns, he still must do another “3 second nugget” before receiving reinforcement.  Simply returning is no longer reinforced because I believe he is beyond that stage.  I am very happy with him here and I think most of my choices were good.

As a bonus, if you pay careful attention to your dog’s behavior, you’ll also begin to learn if your dog gives you his best work when he first arrives and is fresh or after a round or two of warm up.  This information will serve you well when you are considering a pre-trial routine 



Giving a Video Critique

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With the advent of  simple video cameras and free Youtube, video review has become a common and popular way to learn more about training dogs.  Rather than relying on words we can show exactly what is happening via short video clips.  Videos make misunderstanding less common and allows the reviewer a much more thorough understanding of the issue under consideration.

Where I see an ongoing challenge is in the abilities of those providing the review to communicate in a way that is palatable, supportive, and attainable by the subject.   Some people seem to come by this ability naturally and others have to learn it.

I do a fair amount of video review; on average I’ll critique about two hundred videos every month, and like most skills which we practice, I’m getting better at it. I put together some guidelines to help my students who also wish to do video review, and I’m sharing them here for anyone else who might find these ideas useful. While I will refer specifically to video review, the same principles apply to most any teacher-student coaching relationship.

I usually watch the entire video first to get an overall impression of what is happening, and then I take a moment to make friends with the person. If you liked the way they hugged their dog at the end then tell them! It helps the “critiquee” feel like a human being rather than a subject.  Never assume that a person will be happy to hear what you have to say, just because they asked for your advice. In all honesty most of us are quite sensitive about our abilities, so if the teacher’s goal is to create change rather than to demonstrate superior knowledge, then take care with the other person. Small things can make a big difference in a student’s willingness to listen to you. I have yet to watch a video where I couldn’t find something positive to say about a team. You do not have to do this in every video with the same person, but I’d suggest it as a starting point when you are first developing a relationship. Once the student knows that you have their best interest at heart then it’s less important.

While watching the video, find the “moments of brilliance” to create your starting point and then identify the deviations from those moments of brilliance.  What would the trainer have to do to “pull” those deviations up to the same standard of excellence? For example, for two seconds in a 60 second video, a dog heeled perfectly because the handler walked with authority and kept their hand in exactly the right position, whereas the rest of the time they induced a lag by looking back over their shoulder. Talk with the handler about what they did in that brilliant two seconds and how they can replicate that. The message the person should hold is “when my shoulders face forward and I move with authority my dog looks lovely!” rather than “don’t look back over your shoulder because you’re causing a lag”.  Concentrate your efforts on pulling the student towards the behaviors you want rather than away from the ones that you don’t want.  By focusing on the moments of success, the person will become aware that they really can do it because they already have!  Mention what is wrong, but spend your energy on what is right.

Limit your areas for improvement to, at most, three skills that need attention, and ignore the rest.  Going on for pages about all of a person’s errors may demonstrate your extensive knowledge but it won’t help the person you are critiquing to improve.  When you provide a laundry list of “areas for improvement,” students often become demoralized and want to give up.  And the reverse is also true, if you liked what you saw from start to finish, then say so. There is no point in digging if you really don’t see anything; instead, let your student “win” and  you can celebrate together!

The point of a critique is to help your student improve so focus on that.  You can demonstrate your more sophisticated skills when a student shows up with a near perfect performance; that’s your chance to identify the most minute details.

Be realistic. It’s obvious to most of us that if a person is on crutches, it’s not helpful to tell them that they need to run more. What is less obvious is that it is equally unrealistic to tell a withdrawn person to get excited and run around with their dog.  Yes, it might help and it might be exactly what you would do, but this person is not you.   Sometimes, the hardest thing for an instructor to do is to come up with clever problem solving approaches that are doable by the student, even if they are not your first choice.  “Try harder” is not a solution. Maybe you can break the pieces down even smaller so that they will want to try.  For example, “At 53 seconds, I saw your dog wag his tail when you smiled at him.  What happens if you clap; does he like that?”  That is concrete advice that a person can try, whereas “be more exciting!” is not.  And sometimes, the best thing is simply to tell the student that you’re stumped.  Instructors are human; it’s ok if you don’t have all of the answers.

I love teaching with video as the primary mode of communication. I find it challenging, rewarding, and occasionally frustrating but also truly gratifying when a student improves their skills and their self confidence at the same time.  Keep in mind that success is often sweeter when the road has been hard, so don’t give up too easily!  

Goodbye, Cisu

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Cisu is dying. Now she is resting quietly with as much pain medication as she needs.  If she begins to suffer then I will help her go.

Cisu is a dog and I am a human so I cannot tell her the things I want to say.  I can only lay on the floor next to her, hold her head, and tell her she is so very loved. She will remain home with her family until she is ready to leave forever.  We are not ready, but no one asked our opinion.

Once she leaves us, maybe she’ll go to a place where she can understand what I want to say to her, so I’m going to write it down now while I still have her with me as I type. Maybe she can even understand some of it right now.

Cisu, are you listening?

When you were a small puppy, I didn’t think too much of you.  You were independent and not so easy to train; I often said that you had many interests, and I was only one of them.  You weren’t born playing ball and tug, and you sure didn’t look much like the breed standard.   But you were sweet and the whole family loved your affectionate nature.  

It took me a long time to realize what an incredible dog you were.  I’m sorry for being slow to understand.  I guess I blamed you for my shortcomings as a trainer.  Really, you always gave me exactly what I trained for, and as as the years went by you went even further; you worked just to make me happy.  So few dogs can do that.  You’re amazing, you know?  I can see in your twitching feet that you’re still dreaming.  Do you dream about our past adventures together?

I regret that I didn’t know you were sick earlier.  If I had known, I would have let you swim every time you asked.  I would have taken you on a new adventure every day.  I would have played ball and tug and trained you as much as you wanted. I would have let you sleep in late every morning, right in the middle of our bed.

I couldn’t believe it when you asked to go swimming; I thought maybe you weren’t so sick after all, and after thinking hard for a few minutes, I decided to let you swim.  Why not; I could stand right there with you and help if you needed me.  I think you enjoyed yourself, at least for a few minutes.  I’m glad you asked.  Let me know if you want to do it again.

I’m not sure when you’ll decide to leave but I see that you’re much weaker today.  I’m not ready but  I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.  Please, just wait until your family can come home and say good bye; they’re driving back right now to be with you.  But after that, you can go when you’re ready.

Are you in pain?  I know you’re a pretty tough girl, but right now it’s better if you let me know because I can take the pain away.  I’ll be right here until the very very end, and you won’t suffer.  I promise you that.

I don’t know what your next life will look like but I know what I’d like it to be.  Let me tell you what I want for you.

You’ll sleep on a big bed with a fluffy comforter, and you’ll have company in that big bed.You’ll sleep in late every morning. I know you’re not much of a morning dog.

Then you’ll get up and eat twice your usual breakfast and no one will ever tell you that you’re getting fat.  Breakfast will be warmed up, and most mornings it will be lamb or pork.  No more fish – ever.  You never thought much of fish.

After breakfast you’ll have a nice nap. Then it’s time for a swim.  You’ll have other dogs to race to the toy, but you’ll always be faster so they can’t take your bumper. The weather will be warm, so after your swim, you can lay out on a lawn chair until you’re dried off.Then it’s time for a mid day snack.  Maybe meatballs with a side of pasta.

Work comes next.  You can do bite work because your arthritis will be gone.  Then off to tracking and no crows will steal the food.  Ever.

Dinner will be whatever your family might be eating.  At the table.  Off a plate.

In the evening you’ll have a long massage, with extra attention for your ears. And at night it’s back to the big bed with your new family, whoever they might be.

From the day you arrive they’ll know that you’re extra special, so you’ll be treated like the amazing dog that you are, right from the start.  I imagine they are so excited that you’re coming!

I wish all these things for you, and I hope that you know you changed the course of my life.  Actually, I think you do know that. But stay here just a little longer.  Because really, I’m just not ready yet.  

Cisu, beautiful girl.  Wherever you are, let it be everything that you deserve and a little more.  11/2/2002 – 7/1/2014      

Trial Readiness Part 8 – Return for the Group Stays?

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This is the final blog in the series on Trial Readiness.  We’ve covered a lot of territory, including the possibility of failure and your options when it occurs during the individual exercises.  Today we’ll consider what you should do if your dog has not qualified on the individual exercises, yet the judge has invited you to return for groups.

Should you finish the class and return for the group exercises?

The rules say that you do not have to finish the class; you may simply let the judge know that you will not be returning for sits and downs. Yes, you can do that, and no, it’s not poor sportsmanship.  Indeed, most of the experienced exhibitors in my area have been doing it for several years.

But…should you?

Recently I attended a show where almost all of the non-qualifying Novice exhibitors returned to the ring for sits and downs, which suggests that either they were unaware that they did not need to return, or they had a desire to be there.

On that day, three dogs out of approximately fifteen left their spot and were asked to leave before the long down, and a a couple of other dogs changed their position.  In every case, these dogs had already  Non-qualified (NQ’d) on the individual exercises.  I decided to ask a few of the exhibitors afterwards why they made the choice to return for groups.  I got four answers:

1) For the ring experience

2) To see how it would go

3) I paid for the class

4) I  have to finish the whole class


Here are my thoughts:

1.  Return for the ring experience:

Yes, all of those dogs got ring experience, and each learned a valuable lesson.  Those dogs learned that in a ring, you can pretty much do what you want on sits and downs and nothing will happen.  You can wander, sniff and explore until someone catches you.  You can check out that dog you’ve been eying but couldn’t get to earlier.  You can change positions and make yourself more comfortable while your handler glares at you from 40 feet away but does nothing.  Or you can perform correctly with no response for that either. While learning has taken place, it is not the the kind of learning that most trainers want to see.  Unless you’re still qualifying, your additional ring experience can run from neutral to negative – that’s about it.

2. Return to “see how it would go”

You cannot train at a show, you can only observe.   If you are at a dog show, you should KNOW what your dog is going to do, and be surprised if it goes a different way.  A dog show isn’t a very good place to “see” what is going to happen for the reasons mentioned above – there is nothing you can do if your dog fails to perform.

The purpose of matches, run throughs and training classes is to see how your dog is going to do and then address issues immediately if you don’t like the result.  Then your dog can have a positive learning experience.

3. I paid for the class

You paid for the entire experience and a chance to qualify, which didn’t go so well.  I have yet to meet any person or dog who actively enjoys sits and downs; you just stare at your dog for minutes or stand behind a screen, wondering what is happening out there.  That’s not much fun for most of us but if you truly enjoy that, then I guess it makes sense to return for the groups (and hope for the best).

4.  I have to finish the whole class

Once upon a time you did have to return and those days have passed.  At this point you do not have to return to the ring, and you will in no way negatively affect anyone else or the points, rankings, etc.

Note that all of the above reasons are really about you and your dog.  And while I cannot think of one good training reason why you would want to return, I would be remiss not to turn my attention away from you for a moment and consider your fellow competitors, because there is one overwhelming reason why you should not return to the ring, and it is not about you.

Because you are going back into the group ring with dogs who are still qualifying.  That means that until this point, they have demonstrated enough skill and training to be there, which you and your dog have not done.  Like you, they have also paid their entry fee, and they would like to maximize their chances of getting through this part too. Unfortunately, there appears to be a correlation between dogs that are insufficiently trained on the individual exercises and dogs that are insufficiently trained for the group stays.

If I haven’t been clear enough, I will try one last time.  Your choice to return creates risk for others if your dog fails or makes mischief.  That mischief might be as mild as changing position or staring at another dog, or as great as an all out attack but regardless, you do not need to be there, possibly creating a negative outcome for your fellow competitor.

Over the years I have been loud and vocal about sits and downs – I think they suck.  I have no interest in leaving my dogs on a stay with groups of unknown dogs with variable degrees of training – not because I do not trust my dogs and their training but because I have no reason to trust your dogs and your training, especially in the Novice class where I probably do not know you.  In the group exercises, my training and my dog’s welfare is very much affected by your training.

For whatever reason it appears that AKC is wedded to the group stays, so the next best option is obvious – only dogs who have qualified on the individual exercises should return to the ring.

Judges have the option of doing that right now by making  LIBERAL use of the new rules regarding which dogs are invited back to complete the class.  If you are a judge, it’s worth considering how you might feel if there is a bad event in your ring and the dogs involved did not need to be there.    You’ll also find that exhibitors like me will seek you out once we learn that you are committed to maximizing safety in your ring.

I hope I’ve given someone food for thought.  If you decide you are going to return to the ring for the stay exercise, take a moment to check your reasoning; hopefully it’s more substantial than “because you’ve always done it that way” or a stubborn refusal to even consider the issue carefully because “no one is going to tell you what to do.”  And if you are an instructor, take a moment to talk with your students about these issues too.


Teaching Direction of Travel

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In the Utility class of obedience, your dog must be able to follow a direction of travel for both the directed jumping and the directed retrieve exercises. Taking a line of travel as directed by the handler is a basic foundation skill, and can be taught completely independent of the retrieve (for the directed retrieve) or the jumping portion of directed jumping.

To start, your dog will need to understand how to go to a place.  You can do this with a foot target, a nose target, a mat, platform, cones, etc.   I tend to teach a variety of options, depending on the tendencies of the dog and what trial conditions I am most likely to encounter.

This blog will start with the assumption that your dog can “go”away at least eight or ten feet on cue to a place. In the first video, you’ll see that I’ve set up three foot targets – two are 180 degrees away from each other, and the final target is down a hallway.  In this manner, I can stand in one spot and pivot to any of the options, but Brito cannot see a “wrong” option when he is facing the correct option.  This makes it extremely likely that he will have plenty of success while he learns what I am looking for.   Then I start making it slightly harder by starting his send closer to an incorrect target.  I finish by sending him to the target down the hall behind the line of the other two targets – so he can see them both on his way to the correct ones. This video was taken on the third or fourth day of these lessons and includes our errors:

After you’ve mastered the basic exercise (pivoting and sending in different directions), you’ll want to begin proofing the work by making it more and more possible to select an incorrect target.  Initially, make sure that the correct one is much closer than the incorrect one to set your dog up for success.  With time, you’ll want to reverse that so that your dog has to go past the incorrect choice while heading to the correct one.  Cheerfully call your dog back from incorrect choices and stay silent with correct ones. Remember, silence tells the dog that he is correct.  (Watch for that in this video; there are several errors included):

If your interest is the go-out for directed jumping then the next step is to significantly lengthen the distance that your dog needs to go in order to reach one target – ignoring other visible targets on the way. Eventually those other visible targets will become jumps.  If your interest in the glove exercise, then replace targets, one at at time, with gloves.   You can alternate doing sends to targets with sends to retrieve gloves. When your dog is ready, take the show on the road.  Bring only one target and work in close.  When your dog is confident, go ahead and add your additional targets.

 Use your imagination as you added incrementally more interesting challenges for your dog to ignore on his way to the platform. Have fun with this – you’ll find many uses for this exercise if you give it some thought and even the youngest puppy can master this in a short period of time.    


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