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About Turns

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More footwork.  I’m on a roll.

An about turn is a right turn that keeps going – your speed through the turn and the direction of your gaze tell your dog where it will end.  You can turn 90 degrees to make a right turn, 120 degrees for a #1 glove, 180 degrees for a formal about-turn or #2 glove, 235 degrees for a #3 glove from the right, or rotate a full 360 degrees to continue moving in the original direction.

So…what matters?

If you’ve trained your dog to respond to very small changes in your behavior, then not a whole lot.  Can your dog follow you?  Small changes in your upper body and where you are looking will tell your dog whatever they might need to know.   Are your feet directly under your body as much as possible?  The closer your feet are to each other, the easier it is for your dog to stick with you without getting kicked or pushed out by a wayward toe or heel.

When pivoting and practicing continuous motion, it shouldn’t matter if you make your turn into your dog (to the left) or away (to the right) – if you are turning on a spot and if you’re upper body remains aligned with your feet then your dog will respond accordingly.  When working into the dog (left), I turn much more slowly to allow the dog time to back up and pull their rear end in.

Once again, success with my footwork assumes that your dog follows some part of your upper body and knows how to control their rear end.  No footwork will matter if your dog is not responsive to what you are doing.

Ideally, you should be able to “change your mind” at any point in the middle of a turn, and your dog should be ok with that.  For example, if you start an about turn and change your mind – completing a full 360 degree turn, can your dog work with that?  If they stay aligned at each step of the turn they will be able to succeed.

I see no benefit to pre-cuing so that my dog knows what direction I plan to travel next.  If my dog is following me continuously, then they will be successful, and they will be less likely to anticipate and lose points for surging through the turns.

Let’s look:

In this video up to 20 seconds, I demonstrate some footwork without a dog.  Note that I show you a right turn, an about turn, and an ‘endless’ turn – both to the left and to the right.  I try to keep my feet under my body and my shoulders aligned with my feet.  I do look slightly in the direction that am planning to turn, and I also look straight ahead again when I plan to continue on forward.  This head cue should be so subtle as to be almost unobservable on a video.  I will also move more quickly to the right and possibly slightly faster for an about turn than a right turn – but not necessarily.  Sometimes it helps if people look at their right foot when making right turns or about turns, and their left foot when turning towards the dog.  If you look towards your dog (on the left) when you plan to turn to the right, you’re providing very confusing signals to your dog and it’s very likely that your upper body is signaling a left turn when your feet are going right.  That’s a problem.

Next I add Lyra to the picture and I work right turns, right about turns and endless right turns.  Note that after working to the right without balancing it with work to the left, her butt starts to come out a bit at 27 seconds.  As a result, I would not normally do a heeling pattern of this type with Lyra; she needs plenty of left turns, left pivots, and various other moves that ‘pull’ her rear end in to maintain balance.  After I add in a left about turn, you can see that she remembers that she has a rear end (from 35 to 41 seconds).  To reinforce “butt in” I send her to her toy after a spin to the left.

To cement a dog’s flexibility, I suggest training your dog to be able to change direction mid-turn.  This gives the dog a lot more to think about than trying to outguess the handler.  You can see how I train that from 45 seconds to about 1:10 – note that I start with simple pivots left and right.  When I combine them, switching back and forth from a left pivot to a right one and back again, I choose when to change direction according to the dog’s behavior – if she begins to forge to the right then that is the moment I will change to a left pivot. If she begins to lag to the left then I’ll switch to working to the right.  And if she is close to perfect, then I work more to the right, because it is more fun for her to push through a right turn than to pull back on a left turn.   Great left turns are really quite difficult so I tend to minimize how much I ask there.  Eventually, your dog will stop anticipating what you plan to do and will simply follow you,  paying careful attention.  For the life of the dog, you will maintain balance by working in this manner when heeling.

Finally, I end with Brito.  Brito can do right turns reasonably well.  His about turns are a bit weak because he sometimes swings wide.  To fix that, I’ll use the footwork that I showed you in the video on right turns – I’ll complete some percentage of a turn to the right, and then I’ll pull one step to the right before going back onto a straight line.  I make the choice to “pull” according to his behavior; the moment I think he might go wide is where I add my pull.  Brito is not ready for change of direction mid pivot, so you’ll see that I do more of a serpentine move with him so that he can begin to learn what I’m looking for.  You can see this from 1:31 to to 1:38.  Note how I am also teaching him my left turn footwork with the “pull” in the center of the serpentine.  When he can consistently complete a serpentine with his rear end tucked in and driving forwards to the right without forging, then I’ll combine those into the left/right pivot combination.

Have fun!  Next blog will move away from footwork for a bit and when I come back to it we’ll talk about halts.








Right Turns

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In my last blog I mentioned that I don’t do much with footwork, but then several people mentioned that they are struggling with their turns, which then causes their dog to make errors.  So let’s take a look at right turns.

This video has six parts:

The first 13 seconds illustrates a box made up of four right turns.  I do not have a dog here and I’m wearing bright pink socks to make it fairly obvious what I’m doing.  I’m working in a small space so I’m moving more slowly and with a shorter stride on the straight portions than I normally would.  Note that I keep my feet relatively close together on the corner – that will prevent you from kicking your dog (especially small ones) on the corner.

From 14 to 28 seconds I add Lyra to the picture and I repeat the same right box.  Note that Lyra is crowding me a bit – under normal training circumstances I would break off from right turns and I would address the crowding behavior.

From 28 to 38 seconds you can see Brito performing the box.  He is also crowding a bit.

From 38 to 49 seconds I show the footwork that I use to train a dog to stay close and tight on the right turn, since moving wide seems to be the most common complaint.  This is ideal “maintenance” footwork for a dog prone to wide right turns.  I did this footwork almost exclusively with both Brito and Lyra for months before adding a regular right turn, because both would prefer to heel wide, though as a result of training you can no longer see those tendencies in their current work.  This footwork assumes that your dog knows to pull in close to you when you sidestep to the right.   If you don’t have that behavior, train it first and then add it to a slow pace of heeling before you incorporate it into your right turns.

From 50 seconds to 1:03 I add Lyra with the training footwork.  Note that I’m pulling my shoulder back somewhat.  That was poor handling on my part because Lyra needs to  learn to follow my shoulder, correctly aligned over my feet, in the final behavior.  Leave that part out!

and from 1:04 to the end, I show the training footwork with Brito.  Here I use slight shoulder help and also  hand help because he is younger and needs more support.  The hand help makes sense; the shoulder help needs to stop.

This training footwork will also help a dog that tends to leave their butt out (crabbing) on right turns, again assuming that the dog is trained to pull in to you when you move sideways.   Just keep your shoulders level, even if I don’t!


Left Turns

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I’m not a huge fan of any particular footwork for obedience; just make sure that you’re smooth and that your dog can follow you at all times.  But there is one exception to this general statement.  I try hard to teach my dogs very specific footwork on their left turns.  The goal is to teach the dog to move their rear end in completely before we proceed in the new direction.

You can use my footwork with any dog, but it’s most effective with dogs that show excellent rear end awareness and a very strong understanding of heel position.   The basic idea is that the left foot starts the turn by turning left on your line of travel (NOT in your dog’s lane), then the right food points in the new direction (mostly you are straightening out your hips), then the left foot crosses over the right foot in the new direction (single tracking), and from there you proceed normally. The reason this footwork works is that I never enter my dog’s “lane” – I do not round the corner. I do not head in the new direction until my dog is totally pulled into heel position.  And since that description is much too cryptic to actually understand, here is a video demonstration without a dog:

Here is a video of Lyra working on a simple drill to help her learn this footwork. This drill uses the footwork shown above, but with a halt on each corner. This drill has two goals: First, to show Lyra that after a left turn I may not go anywhere, making forging much less likely coming out of the turn and second, to teach Lyra to pull her rear end all the way in after we turn to help prevent crabbing:

Some dogs “read” the left turn but fail to pull their rear after the turn. While this is not likely to be scored, it’s not as pretty as a dog who moves all the way in. In addition to the foot cues I described above, practice having your dog do a spin to the left and then complete the left turn. The dog begins to associate these two activities, and soon they get ready to pull their rear in as they see your shoulders starting to turn in the new direction (note that my hand cue for spin also pulls my left shoulder back – same as for a left turn):

And finally, here is the end result using a small dog.  Brito is still mastering his left turns, so I will help him as needed both verbally and body help.  You can see he is very successful on some and less so on others.  This video shows some of the turns at about 90% of what I would do in competition.  You’ll see I still slow down slightly to help him succeed on most of them:






Basic Engagement

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“Engagement” is a popular word lately and it’s one I’m rather fond of.  Indeed, so fond that it is in the title of the first book I wrote with Deb Jones; Book 1 Developing Engagement and Relationship.

So…what does it mean?

In a nutshell, engagement is “focused intent” on you, your motivators, and whatever activities you have in mind.  The definition is the easy part.  Now let’s talk about what I might do if I have it.  Or don’t have it!

The following video is long (15 minutes) so I will not go through all of it in detail but look for the following things:

Note how I give plenty of cuddle time to allow him to come back to work stronger.  During these moments I usually sit on the floor and simply scratch him and talk nicely to him.  This is his break; his chance to look around and feel safe.  You’ll see him use this opportunity.

Notice the process of rewarding engagement with work.  When I think he’s ready, I ask for energy.  If he gives me energy, I ask for work.  And we go from there.

Here is the order of engagement:  1) dog feels safe (quiet cuddles and looking around). 2) Ask for energy.  3) Ask for work.

Let’s look:

2:34 I feel like I don’t have as much dog so I stop with training and go back to a period of engagement before returning to work.

3:34:  Here he looks over at the people.  I can feel that he has “softened” in his engagement with me but I ignore it.  By 3:43 it becomes obvious that I should not have ignored it.  We stop and go back to relaxing.  I want him to look around and feel comfortable so I’m keeping this interaction low key.  This is cuddle time.

4:10 I switch from cuddle time to re-engaging his energy so we can go back to work. We then move back into work, alternating with fun engagement type interactions.

6:00 Bringing in the platform is  risky because I put it in front of the people – I am “testing” to see how much dog I have.  I lose!  He goes for the people on the first attempt but he gets it right after that.  I’m glad I made the attempt; sometimes you won’t progress if you don’t take risks.

7:00 Another dog in the area breaks his concentration – no problem!  I bring him back for more cuddle time and a rest.  Then back to work!

8:44 Brito is worried about a dog but it’s brief.  I’m aware but we head back to work.  When it happens again at 9:00 I stop and go back to cuddle time – he needs a mental break.

We look together in the “scary” direction.  I’m not trying to engage him for work – I’m trying to let him know I’m here with him and we’re safe! I WANT him to look at what bothers him until he is comfortable.  Slowly I re-engage and then we work.

11:00 He’s not tired yet and I think I have enough dog so we switch over to articles.  You can see several dogs walk by and he’s comfortable!  Those breaks are paying off for me now.  Indeed, my patience with him for the past twelve months is starting to pay off in all of his work.

13:30 When he starts missing his signals I know it’s about time to stop.  He’s mentally tired.  We end with super light work and easy engagement, and then we’re done.

Note that he is dragging a long line for safety but it has no role in either engagement or work.

I was very happy with this session overall.

To recap:  the order of priority is emotional comfort (cuddles or acclimation), engagement (Dog focuses intently on you or starts offering behaviors to push you into training), and work (you comply with your dog’s request – work begins and you drive the direction).


Brito and Platforms

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A few days ago I started using platforms to increase Brito’s ability to move away from me without getting derailed by the world.  By sending him from platform to platform, he stays on track.  I can then take these multiple platforms “on the road” so we can work this skill away from home at ever increasing distances.  Eventually this will serve us well for the Utility “directed jumping” exercise.

We’ve just started this game so there is understandable confusion for Brito.  He’s not sure if he should stop on every platform or keep going.  I’d like him to keep going until I call his name.

I try to  send him from the last platform to the stanchion/pole at the end as a final behavior.  That stanchion or pole will become the final target since both poles and stanchions are likely scenarios in competition in my area.

Here’s the video, complete with plenty of errors so you can see how I handle them.   Some of the mistakes he makes are to miss platforms on the way out, not stop when I call his name, or stop when I do not call his name.  These errors all make sense to me – he’s just learning what I want!  I use as many verbal cues and hand signals as necessary to help him understand.

The next step would be to space out the platforms until they are quite far apart (50 feet) – and then continue them on BEYOND the end of the ring so he believes a platform might be there too.  That should prevent too much loss of speed as he gets to the end of the ring.  I’ll add that piece soon enough.

Finally, I’ll remove them altogether and just send him to the gate itself.  He already does that well at shorter distances.

For sure we’ll run into challenges along the way.  When they arise, I’ll do what I can to help him perform correctly without making an issue of the errors.

Can you see how if you reverse the direction you have a nice way to work on your drop on recall?

Here’s the video:


Is Your Class Working for You?

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I recently chatted with someone who was thinking about pulling out of her agility class.  The dog was struggling to pay attention in a group and the overall experience was creating misery for the owner.  To stay in class or not; that is the question!

Let’s start by asking ourselves why you are in class and go from there.  Here are some possibilities that come to mind:

You are there to learn how to train your dog (human skill building)

You are there to teach your dog skills that you know how to teach. (dog skill building)

You are there to teach your dog to perform in public. (generalization)

You are there to use equipment or space.

You are there for the human social environment.

Most likely it’s a combination of all of these factors, so let’s consider them.

1)  You are there to learn the skills.

This is a tough one, since the tradition in dog sports is to train the human and the dog at the same time in a public group setting.  With a very patient dog or a quick handler, this might work but more often than not this creates an incredibly steep learning curve for everyone.  The blind are leading the blind, and most of the time the dog gets the short end of the stick.

I’d suggest that you leave your dog in the car and learn what you need to know in class – alone. Take notes and practice your footwork.  Work hard to understand what is being asked.  Watch others practice and try to understand what does (or does not) appear to work.  Then go home and videotape; start alone and then add your dog.  When you have a skill mastered at home, bring your dog to class and get the instructor’s feedback since there is no point in practicing wrong!

I’m also a big advocate of private lessons.  Crate your dog while you work with your trainer, and do not add your dog to the picture until you are very confident about what you will do if things go right and also have a plan if your training goes less well.  If finances are a consideration, keep in mind that private lessons are often a better use of your limited resources.  My experience is that you will learn more in one well structured private lesson than in a month of group classes.

As many of you know, I run an online dog training school. In the same manner as private lessons, this allows the handler to review and learn new skills in a low stress environment, first alone and then with the dog.  It works incredibly well – and the price is right!  So keep an eye on that option.

2)  You already know the skills and how to teach them, but now you are working with a new dog.

I’d strongly suggest that you do not need a class for this.  Practice at home where it is quiet and an optimum learning environment for your dog.  When your dog has mastered the skills being asked for, then a class might make sense for other reasons.

3) You are in a class for generalization.

Great!  But…remember that generalization has two components; ignoring the environment to focus on you (engagement) and working specific skills in public.

The order should always be engagement first and then worry about skills.  If you do not have sufficient engagement for the work being requested, then trying to get specific behaviors is going to create misery for both of you.  Stop.  Regroup.

Work on focus (moving and static),  three second behaviors ( see this blog for ideas: play with food and toys in public (engagement), and alternating work with crate time (dogs wear out!).  When your dog shows you these abilities, then identify the skill from class that you really want to practice and figure out if it fits within the parameters of your dog’s ability.

4) You are there to use equipment or space.

Consider renting the space or ask if you can join a class and work “on the sides”.  If your dog is obviously trained to the exercises, is not disruptive, and you’re paying for the class, then most instructors are comfortable with this option.

5) You are there for the social environment.

Make good use of your crate!  There is no reason why your dog needs to be out with you while you chat with your friends.  Simply put your dog away.  When you want to train your dog, give 100% focus on that.

If you follow these guidelines, you will progress much faster OVER THE LONG RUN.  If you push, pull, and cajole your dog to work in a class over their abilities, you will pay the price.  Your irritation will be transmitted to your dog – who will begin to avoid you and develop an unhappy attitude towards you in particular and training in general.  Further, your dog will learn to perform with only half a brain – leading to poor quality work and lifelong attention issues.  You will find yourself with shaky foundation behaviors.  And if you think it’s irritating to teach a one year old  dog to perform simple and reliable behaviors for a few seconds in public, wait till you’re doing those same exercises with a three year old dog that has developed 2.5 years of habit ignoring or actively avoiding you.

The process is always the same.  Teach high quality behaviors in a comfortable environment that is conducive to learning and excellent attention.  Add distractions and challenges within that environment to help your dog develop fluency.  And then take those behaviors on the road, where the environment will provide the next level of distraction.  At this point – where you have a well focused dog who needs to practice their skills in public – a class environment might start to make sense.

Good luck!

Cheerful Interrupter in Heeling

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For those of you who have purchased the second book I wrote with Deb Jones (Dog Sports Skills Book 2: Motivation), you’ll recall that we talked extensively about the cheerful interrupter.

To make that concept even more clear, today’s blog will demonstrate the cheerful interrupter technique with Brito.  In this case, it’s not to help him learn the skill; it’s to help him build motivation to heel correctly from start to finish (a behavior chain of heeling)

Brito knows how to heel reasonably well and indeed, I’m starting to see moments of brilliance in his heeling, even in the front yard when squirrels are about.  But his heeling is not always correct.  A few specific things seem to derail us, so I’ll show them to you in this video, along with my reactions:

When we first start working, Brito is more likely to be distracted by both sights and smells.  So while his first 10 seconds of heeling here are relatively nice, you’ll see that after I throw a cookie I lose him mentally.   Instead of calling him back I probably should have released him to take a break. 

Brito recovers well enough and works nicely until the 30 second mark.  I’m talking to him a fair amount because I feel like he needs the support.

On our next start (30 seconds) he drops his head relatively quickly (31 seconds) so I back up, show him the cookie as a cheerful interrupter and restart him.

37 seconds – again he begins by dropping his head and I restart him.

When we get to our third failure in a row – I tell him to “take a break”.  That means – you’re free. You can be a dog or let me know when you’re willing to try harder.  I only use this cue if I’m pretty sure that Brito really will return to work, but needs a moment to realize that what I’m offering is better than what is out there.

48 seconds – his choice to sit and stare at me tells me it’s time to try again.

53 seconds – he stops to sneeze.  Fine.  Another break.  (by the way, he often sneezes a minute into training.  I think it is caused by either the first few pieces of food creating saliva in his mouth or going from a darker house into a bright outdoor space)

1:00 much better effort!  I acknowledge this both verbally and with a generous reward.

Brito then works nicely until 1:25, at which point he lags slightly (hard to see on the video so take my word for it).  I use a cheerful interrupter and we restart at 1:29.  Again he does not put out maximum effort so I restart him at 1:32.  His lack of drive forward to the cookie tells me that he’s just not completely in there.

That’s ok.  I offer him a chance to take a break.

We restart at 1:40 and I’m happy with his work up to about 2:05 at which point he is SLIGHTLY slow on the about turn.  Not enough that I want to interrupt our flow, but enough that I make a point of trying it again.  he does a better job with the repetition starting at 2:09.  We finish this up with nice work and move on to different exercises.

It’s a bit of an art to know when to use a cheerful interrupter, when to verbally encourage, when to take a break and when to simply end altogether.  Just remember that your goal is to have success very soon after failure so that your dog can identify the difference.

This method will only work if your dog values what you have and working with you – if not your dog will cheerfully opt out of training so make sure you have that foundation first.  Your dog must want what you have and be willing to work hard to get it!





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