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Philosophy, Goals and Techniques

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A philosophy is a high level guide that sets your course, a goal is what you hope to accomplish, and a technique is a specific way to reach your goals.  In an excellent training program, one’s philosophy, goals and techniques must be in alignment.

As a dog trainer, I have a philosophy and goals that set my course, and then I have a range of techniques that allow me to work towards my goals. These techniques are the tools that I use to communicate with my dog.

I often hear talk of a “toolbox”.  The common thinking is that the more tools (techniques) you have, the better off you’ll be.  I disagree.  I only need tools that are aligned with my philosophy and goals; anything else undermines my direction.

In the dog training world there are many foundation philosophies such as “I believe that I must convince my dog that cooperation with training is not optional” or “I believe that I have a responsibility to make training pleasant for my dog.” Once you identify your philosophy, your techniques should fall in alignment with that philosophy.  If one person holds to the first philosophy and another to the second, then they will require different training techniques, even if they share the same goals.  Some examples of goals might include, ”I train so that I can enjoy the pleasure of a well trained pet,” “I train so that I can compete in dog shows,”  or “I train so that I can better understand how a dog’s mind works”.  In some cases techniques will overlap across trainers because they are consistent with a variety of philosophies and in other cases they will diverge, but at root, you’ll be going different routes to reflect your beliefs.  Why waste your limited time, emotional energy, money and effort on tools that won’t work for you?

My philosophy of training is: “I believe in training with affection and respect for both members of the team,” and my goals are “prepare for competition”, and “better understand how to train different temperaments of dogs” so my techniques and interests flow from there.  I do not wish to reach my goals at the expense of my dreams.

When I select a technique for a particular dog, I consider how the dog and I are going to feel about that particular option within my philosophy.  Will the dog perceive my choice as an outgrowth of my affection for them?  Am I respecting what they want or need from training with consideration for their unique temperament?  Am I respecting my interests too?  

I also consider my goals. If I can choose between two methods that both satisfy a performance interest, one that I know well and one that is new to me, I’ll choose the novel one. That helps me reach my goal of better understanding a variety of temperaments of dogs.

It is a waste of my resources to learn techniques that assume compulsion, physical manipulation, or deprivation, regardless of effectiveness, because these methods don’t fit my philosophy of training and make me uncomfortable, and therefore they are not relevant to me.  Because my philosophy accounts for respecting the human half of the team, I also cannot support individual trainers or methods that are not kind to the well being of the person learning how to train the dog. People require kindness and consideration too. If I have concerns, my resources are better spent elsewhere. 

I often hear the argument that all methods can be “adapted” but I have not found that to be the case.  Incremental change on top of traditional philosophy rarely produces anything unique.  While modern adaptations of traditional thinking may strive for excellence, they are unlikely to reach spectacular. I want to see something new; something I would not have seen fifteen years ago!

Whatever philosophy you choose your dog will internalize over time, and there is comfort is consistency, even if that consistency is, “every time you look away I will pop your collar.” Now if 1/4 the time you pop the collar and 1/4 the time you lure the dog’s head back with a cookie and 1/4 the time you wait the dog out and reward when he looks back and 1/4 the time you insist that he play with you regardless of his opinion then that causes unsureness and confusion.  Some dogs adapt – they forgive the inconsistency and progress in spite of their trainer, but other dogs do very poorly with these shades of grey.  Rather than a random patchwork of ideas, consider your philosophy and your goals.  What makes sense from there?

When you work from a philosophy then training and problem solving become much easier  because you have a framework to guide your choices.  It makes preparation for competition easier since this too flows from philosophy; if you believe that dogs have no choice about cooperating with training then you will approach proofing quite differently from someone who believes their dog can opt out at anytime.  There are 1000’s of techniques – some are currently known and others have yet to be created.  Check your philosophy, check your goals and get to work! The options for inventiveness are amazing if you stop relying on tradition for your inspiration.

I have changed my philosophy over time, and my techniques have changed along with them.  Initially I simply accepted the philosophy of those who trained around me; I didn’t choose at all.  Now I hold a philosophy of training that supports my greater philosophy of life as well as my beliefs about how dogs and humans learn best. For all I know I’ll change again but for now, there’s no point in going where I’ve already been, especially when I still have so much to figure out.

If you’d like to play along, leave a comment below. Start with the words, “I believe” and then finish the sentence with your philosophy.


The new term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA) starts February 1st, 2015 and registration is currently in full swing.  We are offering 29 classes this term; if you’d like to engage in some on-line learning, check out our schedule for your options!

Heeling – Forging and Crabbing

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I can’t believe I’m doing another post on heeling.

Well,  yes I can. I love heeling.  And since I made this video for an online student I might as well share it here as well.

Lyra’s tendency in heeling is to forge and crab.  I’ve been playing with her in agility so we haven’t done any training on heeling in months.  I expected her to be a mess.  To her credit, she was in good shape right from the beginning.

That’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that her heeling is improving in her sleep.  The bad news is that you don’t get to see the ‘before/after’ effect

No worries, if your dog forges and crabs, you can try it out on your own dog and see it for yourself.

Forging means the dog is too far forward.  Crabbing means the rear end is out and the dog is not tracking correctly.  These two tend to show up together so I’m addressing them as a pair.

Working left circles or left pivots does NOT solve the problem – it just makes the dog better and better at left circles and left pivots but as soon as you go straight, or to the right, the problems are still there.  That’s frustrating for the handler, and we want to avoid that.  Frustrated handlers make poor training decisions.

Instead of masking the problem by working to the left, induce the problem by working to the right, and at the first first hint of a forge/crab, sidestep right (I’m assuming your dog has learned to move their rear to the right when you sidestep – if not you need that piece first), and as soon as your dog is correctly aligned, either reinforce with a true left pivot or return directly to your right circle.  If your dog gives you more than the “typical” amount of correct steps to the right, reward.

In Lyra’s case, her reward is to play tug, but you can substitute a cookie.  It’s your choice about letting your dog carry the toy in work – I allow it because it creates better flow for Lyra and it removes the conflict over having to return the toy to me.

Most of your rewards should come when the dog works correctly to the right, not to the left.  You’ll see I reward both, but mostly…to the right.

Give it a try and see what you get.

Free! Free! Free!

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Free is nice. We all like free.

Courtesy of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, there is one more free thing in this world.

FDSA has created an app for dog trainers.  It’s called “Fenzi Random Reinforcement” and it’s available in the Apple store (sorry, Apple only at this time).  You can either go to itunes and search for it, or follow this link:

If you forget where you found it, I’ve also linked it to my sales website, under ‘Free downloads’, so you can get it there too.

Anyway, about the app.  This is what it can do:

This app can randomize:
1) frequency of reinforcement,
2) duration of reinforcement period, and
3) choice of motivators (food, toys or praise).

Used on the “motivational” setting, you can build motivation and enthusiasm in dogs, or help acclimate dogs when you are generalizing your work to new locations.

Used on the “routine” setting, you can ensure that you aren’t developing a habit of rewarding on a fixed schedule that the dog will come to expect.

Used on the “Trial” setting, you can test your dog’s readiness to compete with out completely removing reinforcement.

Used on the “custom” settings, you can help prepare your dog for competition by reducing reinforcement on a randomized (but decreasing) reinforcement schedule

If you’re striving to randomize your reinforcement choices, this app makes that easy! Simply select the percentage of time that you wish to use food, toys or praise as a reward!

This app is not appropriate for randomizing rates of reinforcement for behaviors that are still being acquired, since a 100% reinforcement schedule is recommended in the learning phase.

Have fun!  Share this with whoever you think might enjoy using it.

Heeling: The weird stuff

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Over the past few months I’ve written several blogs on the basics of footwork and handling for heeling, but none of these blogs would have been particularly helpful if you were trying to actually train your dog to heel.  Training and handling are two very different things and this series focused on handling over training.

When training heeling, I’d suggest that you add in many more movements beyond forward, halt, left, right, about turn and changes of pace.  I’d suggest that you include 270 and 360 degrees circles and spins in both directions.  I’d include a change of gait that does not represent a change of pace (explained in the fast pace blog)and I’d be thinking about concepts like fast, faster and fastest!  Straight lines should show up near the end of your heeling training and large, rhythmic right circles should be a mainstay of confidence and drive building work, punctuated with a variety of other possibilities.  When combining patterns, what are all of the options available to you?  How about fast to halt?  Fast to backwards (with a reasonable transition)?,  Backwards to 180 degree circle left and head quickly in the opposite direction? Left turn to fast?  About turn to halt?

The sky is the limit, but consider your interests when choosing your combinations.  If you’re trying to build motivation and drive, choose combinations that are intuitive and encourage your dog to drive forwards with little or no thought.  How about a fast, faster, right turn combination?  And if you have plenty of drive and enthusiasm and now you’d like to see a bit more precision and control, how about left turn to slow followed by fast to halt?  These combinations require a lot more thought and control than the ones suggested for building a dog’s enthusiasm.

Good heeling training rarely looks like what you’ll see within the competition ring, unless you are specifically working on the skill of trial readiness or preparation.  Good heeling is dynamic and your choices should be driven by the needs of the dog in front of you.

Regardless, you’ll need enough awareness of your footwork and body positioning that your dog can follow you as smoothly as possible, and that has been the purpose of this entire series; not to teach your dog to heel, but to ensure that your handling is smooth and rhythmic so that you and your dog can become a polished team!

Personally, I find fluid, dynamic, and engaged heeling with a dog one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring displays of teamwork possible between a dog and a person.   I hope this series has helped you on your journey towards this picture.  Good luck!

And on an unrelated note, if your non doggy friends cannot figure out why you are STILL training your dog (“isn’t he trained yet?”) show them this video.  It does a good job showing the joy, animation and team work that drives many of us who choose to train and compete in dog sports.  Produced by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Heeling Change of Pace: Slow

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My last blog considered the fast pace of heeling; now let’s talk about the slow pace.

One issue is enthusiastic dogs that take an extra stride before they decelerate, leading to momentary forging.

A second problem occurs for dogs at the end of the slow;these dogs are sluggish when returning to a normal pace, leading to a stride of lagging.

So we have two challenges.   Getting into a slow pace (for more enthusiastic dogs) and getting out again (for the sleepier ones).

The first issue can be helped with smooth handling. When transitioning into a slow pace, remind yourself to “close your body”  and bring your gaze in a little closer to your toes.  Remember to keep your feet very quiet – quiet feet are smooth feet.  The better your enthusiastic dog is able to read your posture, the more likely they are to slow down appropriately.

The second issue can be helped with good training that emphasizes the unpredictability of the slow pace.   On example of unpredictability is a game that I call “exploding tree”.

Smooth handling allows your dog to quietly transition down in pace.  I’m not spending any energy at all on the specific footwork and to demonstrate that I’ll show you a transition into a slow pace on either foot.  What you will notice is that I relax my gaze and “close” my posture as I slow down.  Lyra reads that, and responds accordingly.

Now, if your dog specializes in slowing down but then never perks up to move again, teach your dog the following game:

Go into your normal slow pace, ideally for slightly longer than you would normally heel.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere – explode forward into a run and have a party with your dog.  Don’t worry about the quality of the heeling at this point – just emphasize that slow heeling can lead to a huge explosion of energy.  Once your dog is paying more attention within the slow pace and shows more intensity, then you can worry about quality.

This video shows both a smooth down transition and an exploding tree.

Have fun with it!  slow is only boring if you make it boring:).

Heeling Change of Pace: Fast

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I can’t discuss the fast “pace” of heeling without also discussing the issue of “gait”.

Your gait, not the dog’s.

The human gait for walking is distinctly different than the human gait for running.  In most cases, the running gait is faster than a walking gait but it doesn’t have to be!  This is an important consideration when training your dog to understand a fast pace because you’ll want to separate out these two things – change of gait and change of pace, in order to train each one separately.

The following video is without a dog.  In the first 15 seconds, you can see that I change gait but I do not increase my pace and in the second 15 seconds, I start by changing my gait and then I also add an increase in speed by leaning forwards and extending my stride – I am exaggerating in the video so that you can see the distinction.  This is how I make my transition from normal to fast with a dog; one “up” stride to set the change in gait before I accelerate my speed.

Here you can see the effect that a change of gait has on a young dog.  I have not changed pace at all, yet Brito is all over the place!  I will not increase speed until he can handle this simple change of gait.  As you watch this video, can you see how it’s helpful to teach the change of gait separately from the change of pace?

When it’s time to bring the two criteria together, start by changing your gait and then increasing your speed. That is now your fast pace.  

Here is this approach with Raika. I warm her up with a change of gait separate from a change of pace, and when I do my first true fast, I have one “up” stride to set the change of gait before I accelerate forwards.  As a result, there is no surge when I change pace. Note that on this video I do not exaggerate as I do on the one above, so the transition step is harder to see – close to impossible actually. This is a ring acceptable fast pace.

When I transition to a fast pace, I will keep this distinction between a change of gait and a change of pace fresh in my dog’s mind for life.  It will do wonders for dogs that surge into the fast pace when they see you lean forwards because the first stride of your fast pace will only change your gait, not your pace.  And the same is true for dogs that lag into the fast.  By showing one stride of a changed gait before you change pace, your dog can prepare to accelerate with you  And for dogs that get excited by the “bounce” of the human gait, as shown in the Brito video, separating out the bounce from the increase in speed during training helps then settle.  Personally, I’m very comfortable “running” at a slow pace for minutes on end, until my young dogs stop over-reacting to my change of gait.

Go ahead and try it.  Train gait and speed separately, and then blend them together.

What does your dog know?

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What does your dog know? 

Does your dog know simple behaviors like sit and Down?  Does your dog know more complex behaviors like formal hand signals or scent articles?  If your dog knows a behavior in a familiar environment, does it logically follow that they always know that behavior, even when they are in a more unusual situation or environment? 

Trainers routinely assess what their dogs “know” without consideration for context. They reason that the dog either knows a behavior or does not know it, and therefore failure to perform a known behavior is a conscious choice.  While this black and white approach certainly simplifies training decisions, it ignores the fact that what one knows is really contextual.  To make this more clear, let’s consider a human example.

Let’s say your doorbell rings unexpectedly and you open the door to find a police officer standing there.  There has been a car accident and they believe that your child might have been in the car.  The officer needs specific information about your child like date of birth, height, weight, etc.  You are filled with fear. 

At that moment, it is quite likely that you will struggle to answer these simple questions without great effort, because fear changes the context of what one “knows.”  Fear severely impacts our ability to recall information that under more normal circumstances would be given with no effort at all.  The more urgent it is that we recall the information quickly, the more difficult it will be to do so.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit.  Instead of a knock on the door that makes you fearful, let’s say you just received a visit from the state lottery.  You have just won 10 million dollars!  You are not afraid; quite the opposite!  You are overwhelmed with excitement!  All you need to do is fill out some forms and provide basic identifying information.

Once again, under normal circumstances, you could answer their simple questions very easily because you know the information well and you have a lot of practice giving your social security number, street address, etc.  But when your brain is spinning with excitement, then all bets about what you really “know” are off.  Suddenly you will struggle to recall the simplest of things and focusing on the mundane will appear impossible.

And what if the questions required even more concentration and thought to answer?  If the police officer asked you to look at photos of similar shoes, could you tell the officers which ones belonged to your child? Exactly what time he left the house? What he was wearing?

If you were asked how you wanted your lottery winnings; all at once, monthly payouts, or a lifetime annuity, could you adequately concentrate on those decisions at that moment?

Probably not.  At that moment, you probably can’t even remember what an annuity is, let alone if you want one.

Most of us don’t think much about the relative nature of knowledge until your perpetually singing five year old child is struck mute when asked to perform for your holiday guests.  Is your child obstinate, spiteful, or simply overwhelmed with social pressure?  Most of us would sympathize with the child’s plight, even if we felt disappointment or frustration at the child’s inability to perform, because we understand. We are sympathetic because we’ve been there.  We know how it feels to be afraid.

When you take your dog to a new training building or trial setting, he must process all of the information around him, and while he is busy with his fear or excitement he must also attempt to perform as if he were in his own backyard.

Handlers often expect instant responsiveness and attention in their performance dogs once a behavior is known.  We feel confident about what our dogs know because we have seen them perform correctly many times before.  We are frustrated when our dogs do not rise to the occasion because we believe they know what we want, at least under pristine conditions, and we believe that if they just tried harder then the failures would go away.  Even when excited or stressed, and even under truly novel or overwhelming circumstances, we expect our dogs to recall their training.

“If he just tried harder.” “If he just focused.”  “If he cared more about pleasing me and not himself.”  “He knows this!” “He’s blowing me off!” “He’s doing this to get back at me!” “If he thinks he can get away with that he’s got another thing coming!”

If you just tried harder, could you recall the information that the police officer requested, instantly and correctly? If you just tried harder, could you provide the information requested by the Lottery?  If your child loved you more, could she sing for your dinner guests? 

Is it really about trying harder, or how much your child loves you, or who might be getting the upper hand?  Or is it about what we know at any given moment?

Give your dog the benefit of the doubt.  Because what you think your dog knows, and what your dog really knows, may not be the same thing at all.


I have THREE pieces of news!

Deb Jones and I wrote a book called Dog Sports Skills Book 2: Motivation.  You probably know that.  But did you know that we were just nominated for behavior and training book of the year by the Dog Writer’s of America? Yep, and we’re really excited about it!  Last year our first book in the Dog Sports Skills Series (Building Engagement and Relationship) WON that category, so we are hopeful for a repeat of that honor.  Wish us luck! You can purchase the book through my website:

The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is hosting our first Annual Conference in Colmar, PA from May 29th to June 1st, 2015; 3.5 days of obedience with SIX exceptional Fenzi academy instructors!  All of the working spots filled with “Super users” of the Fenzi Academy the first day that registration opened but there are auditing spots available, and for $219 the learning opportunity is truly unbeatable.  To learn more and register before the conference fills, please follow this link:

and…last but not least…today is the last day of the term to register for a class at the academy.  If you’d like to join us, we have 26 classes to consider.  Class has already been in session for two weeks so you’ll be playing catchup. You’ll have access to instructor’s materials for one year.  Here’s the link to the schedule:


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