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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!




The formal Finish

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In AKC obedience, every exercise that includes a front will also include a formal finish.  In the higher level classes you’ll be seeing a lot of finishes, so to get a nice score it makes sense to put some time them.  You’ll also want to consider how your decisions about your finish might affect the straightness of your fronts.

Brito is learning three finishes as shown in the following video; Thru, Left and Right (place)

1) Thru ( 3 second mark) – between my legs and to the left.  The movement of my left leg is his cue to go thru and to the left.  I will not use this in the ring but it is the finish I use most often in training because it reinforces a straight front.  Dogs naturally prepare their bodies to move in whatever direction they anticipate will be next.  If “next” is straight ahead then your fronts  will almost always improve with no other intervention.  My big dogs also do this finish the majority of the time to reinforce straight fronts.

2) Left finish (11 second mark) – moves to the left and rotates 180 degrees to end up in a (hopefully) straight sit.  This is the finish I will probably use with Brito in the ring, because he is small and usually lines up nicely under my hand at heel position.   I don’t normally use this with my bigger dogs in competition.

3) Right finish (25 second mark) – moves to the right and ends up in a straight sit on the left.  As you see in the video, this finish is still in progress.  Right now I’m only working on the tight wrap and sit – I lure him around the right leg and have him land between my legs in “place” position.  With practice, he will develop the habit of both a close wrap and a straight/tight sit, so I put some time into this.  Eventually I’ll teach him to go all the way around if my legs are together.

at 32 seconds, I’m teaching him to go from “place” to heel position (my cue is “in”).  If you do enough of that most dogs find the left finish easy by comparison (what’s more 180 degree finish than 180 degrees?  360 degrees).

Note that the place to heel behavior wasn’t very good – he was slow and uninspired.  I withheld the cookie, and worked on his speed from 37 to 41.  By doing some fast inside about turns in place, he can “remember” the body memory of a fast inside turn.  I didn’t reward these because I wanted him motivated for his next attempt.

His next attempt at a left finish at 47 seconds is improved, which suggests that my choice of correction was appropriate.  Watching the video he may have been slightly crooked.  Oh well.  When I realized it, I did a couple of pulls to the right to remind him of his butt.

Until now I have used a lot of body, hand and verbal cues to get a finish.  Now I’m in the process of formalizing these finishes, so now I’ll offer less and less assistance as he shows the capacity to manage on his own.









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I recently asked for blog post suggestions and several of my facebook friends suggested exploring the topic of ‘play’.

Great topic!  Important!  Teachable!  But way too big to attempt in a blog post, so if you’re really interested in developing your understanding of Play (with toys, food or just your charming self), then you’ll need to pony up $65 and take a class that I teach on-line.

This class is designed for all sports – agility, obedience, flyball, etc.  Actually, it’s designed for anyone who wants to have a more playful relationship with their dog, whether they compete in dog sports or not.  We’ll explore possibilities for playing with a variety of “types” of dogs, and hopefully you’ll leave the class with a much greater arsenal of options than you started with.    This class won’t spend much time talking about applying your play skills to performance – it’s about using play to develop a relationship with your dog, hence, the rather dull title, “Building Relationship Through Play”.   Remind me to work on that.

You can read more about the play class here:

I’m also teaching a class just for little dogs.  It’s called, “I’m just little!”.  Which suggests that I can come up with catchy titles if I’m in the right frame of mind.

As I hope you know, a dog is a dog – size does not affect how a dog learns but there are challenges specific to the trainers of small dogs.  If you need help building up confidence in your pint-sized pup, want to learn how modify your play style so that your diminutive dog is more comfortable, or are looking for the secrets to making distance work easier for your itty bitty, then this class may well be for you.  We spend time on play in this class as well – just like the play class but with modifications for the littles, and I’ll also give you a variety of foundation behaviors to work through.  To be honest, you’ll learn quite a bit of useful stuff that can be applied to dogs of all sizes, but the focus will be on the smaller or less confident set.

So…that’s it for this blog.  Shameless advertising.  And if neither of those classes gets your pupils dilating, check out the rest of the schedule; we’re offering more than twenty classes this term.

The school has a clear mission; to support kind and respectful dog sports training.  From there, you can design a route that works for your team.  There aren’t a lot of rules.

Hope to see some of you there!

A Tale of Three Dogs

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My last blog explored the phrase “It depends on the dog”, and discussed this concept within the context of problem solving.

Today we’ll consider the same topic but I’d like to discuss how one might approach teaching a new behavior  (as opposed to problem solving) with different dogs.  To illustrate this, I’ll use the three dogs that live in my house as examples.  Each dog is going to learn the same behavior and none have any experience with it.   What they do have is different temperaments and training histories, which in turn drive my decisions.  Let’s look.

The behavior that I want to teach is a simple jumping exercise.  In a nutshell, I want to teach each dog to jump back and forth while I kneel on the side of a jump with a treat held low near the base of the jump.

Dog #1:  Lyra.   Lyra is a great dog for shaping.  She has a calm head and doesn’t get stuck or frantic with behaviors.  She is quick to identify what causes the reward and eliminates incorrect options with minimal stress.  In Lyra’s case, I started with the final behavior except that I set the bar somewhat low (approximately 8″), knelt by the side of the jump and simply waited.  Because she has a background with jumps and jumping, she offered a jump within a short period of time.  At the end of a few minutes she was relatively proficient at the exercise.  Within three sessions, she had eliminated all of the alternatives (down, backing up, pawing at the jump) and was consistently offering only the correct behavior.  She took the easy route for both of us!

This is what it looks like with Lyra after a few days – we pretty much started the same way it looks here:

Dog #2:  Brito.  Brito is also a good dog for shaping, but if he gets frustrated he’s quick to leave the lesson, and since he finds alternative interests very quickly, it was important to me that he “find” the correct answer quickly.  In Brito’s case, I started with no bar at all on the jump.  I knelt by the side of the jump, but I also rocked my body back and forth to encourage him to cross the ground bar and also to cause mild engagement based on my movement.  I was also close enough to the jump that coming between me and the upright was not a likely choice.  Once he was crossing back and forth easily, I added the bar and raised it to his current height of 6″ for this exercise.  Approached in this manner, Brito also learned the final behavior rather painlessly within a few sessions.

This is what Brito’s process looked like.  As you can see, if I stop engaging him for more than a second or two he finds other things to do, so I had to keep him busy (some days I really wish I had an indoor training facility!):

Dog #3:  Raika.  Raika is an older dog with a good deal of lure based training in her background.  Almost all of her shaping was done more than eight years ago, and most of it was structured shaping (errorless learning) as opposed to free shaping (more guessing with less guidance).

At first I tried free shaping this exercise and Raika offered a huge range of options. These included standing on the bar, down, sit, back up, bark, bite the bar, bite the jump, drag the jump several inches, use her nose to  shovel underneath the jump (knocking the entire thing over), crawling under the 6″ bar, etc.  After two minutes of that, she left me altogether and started making frustration based mischief in the training yard.  Because I prefer to avoid excessive frustration in training, that was a pretty clear signal to try something else.  Enough is enough.

Raika knows how to jump on cue, so my first “fix” was to simply cue her to jump.  She didn’t understand – I’ve never kneeled on the side and asked her to jump.  Next I tried standing next to the jump and cueing a jump but by this time she had offered so many behaviors in the prior session that she was shutting down.  So I started over.

I placed Raika away from the jump in “broad jump” position and cued a jump, simultaneously throwing a cookie forwards.  She understood what I wanted and asking for this familiar behavior “unstuck” her.  From there I tossed the cookies closer and closer to where I wanted her to start landing (next to the jump) and I started lowering my body posture to the kneeling position.  The last thing I added was holding the treat in my hand down low by the upright. Here is the progression that made sense for Raika:

Raika’s process took twice as long as that of the first two dogs because rather than figuring it out for herself, I had to provide a good deal of direction.  That’s ok.  There is no race, and at the end of the day all three dogs are able to perform.

The moral of this blog post….train the dog in front of you.  If you are kind, take your mutual training history and your dog’s temperament into account, and change course when you realize you are going in the wrong direction, then you’ll get where you want to go.

It Depends on the Dog

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I recently asked my Facebook friends for some blog topics and I got a wide variety of possibilities in response.  Some were foundation training specific, others related to problem solving and yet others were more general in terms of training philosophy.

As a rule, I can only write about training philosophy if that topic is bouncing around in my head when I sit down to write, so I eliminated those.  Then I went through and looked at each of the training oriented suggestions one at a time, and I found myself dismissing most of  the problem solving ones with the mental note, “it depends on the dog”.

But, what does that mean?

What about the dog does it depend on?  Temperament?  Sports specific?  Exercise specific?  Is it fixed for life?  Why is it that when someone asks me how to solve a specific challenge the most common thoughts that comes to my mind are not a series of solutions but a series of questions?

Today I want to consider some of the questions – the things I will want to know about a dog that I do not know personally and cannot see- the invisible problem dog. Not because the problem is necessarily challenging but  because coming up with a solution without understanding the dog is quite challenging indeed.

To illustrate this, let’s consider a dog that is missing 25% of his scent articles in training.

What is the dog’s foundation?  The first step to solving a problem is finding the hole in the dog’s base behaviors.  If I know how you trained the base behaviors and which ones the dog has mastered, I am more able to offer you a solution that will make sense within your training system and which the dog can understand quickly.  If I learn that you used the tie down method with a retrieve instead of a shaping method with an indication, then I will go back to your foundation for some possible solutions.  It would make no sense to apply shaping based answers to a dog that doesn’t understand shaping unless the trainer had decided to retrain the entire exercise from scratch.  The opposite is also true – I would not suggest tying down articles for a dog that has a shaping foundation and who is comfortable indicating articles as a base behavior instead of always retrieving them.

What is the dog’s age, stage of training and rate of progression?  Some dogs do not have a problem at all; they simply haven’t had enough time or experience to cement their learning, so it “appears” that they have a problem.  A dog who misses 25% of their scent articles won’t cause me to bat an eye if they are in their first month of training, but if the dog hasn’t progressed at all over the past two months then we need to take a closer look.  And if it’s been a year then we probably need to consider changing methods altogether.

What is the dog’s source of motivation and how does it affect his behavior?  A dog working for toys vs. food is often in a very different mental state.  Knowing why the dog cares about work and how much the dog cares can give me clues to both the source of the issue and some possible solutions to explore.  Sometimes switching the source of motivation (either increasing or lowering the value of what you have to offer) will solve the current challenge.

What is the dog’s emotional state?  This is a big one because dog behavior is often misunderstood in the world of dogs sports.  For example, dogs that are grabbing articles are often seen as “driven”when in reality their speed is hectic (nervous) movement, and dogs that are excessively slow are labeled as “unmotivated” when they may simply be afraid of making an error.  If you can accurately recognize the cause of a dog’s behavior, you can select solutions that will place that individual in their best place for learning.  It is possible that changing the dog’s stress level around the exercise will allow for success, while separately you work through the issues causing the dog’s discomfort in the first place.

What is the dog’s base temperament?  Dogs are individuals, much as people are individuals.  The more closely aligned a dog’s interest is to the handlers and the more the dog wants to play our games, the more freedom you have with your problem solving options.  For example, a “sturdy” dog who is missing the correct scent article can cheerfully accept a no-reward marker (NRM) when returning with the wrong article whereas a “softer” dog prone to worry might shut down and leave training altogether for months after if you tried an NRM.  Understanding temperament is critical to allow for maximum success with minimal fallout

What is the handler’s basic temperament and skill level?  This matters more than some individuals may realize.  An excellent application of a mediocre technique will often work even if it is not elegant from the perspective of training excellence.  Less skilled handlers need to be given techniques that are easier to understand and to apply.  Personally, the tie down method of article training is not one of my preferred choices, but I might recommend that method to a handler who has no interest in the alternatives, and with a dog that has the temperament to accept it.

What makes training both an art and a science is often the interplay between a variety of factors including base temperament, motivation, and the dog and handler’s background, and each of these should be considered when working through a problem.

If this topic interests you, consider buying the book I wrote with Deb Jones titled “Dog Sports Skills; Book 2:  Motivation“.  We tackle this topic in depth, with two full chapters on case studies to make this concept as clear as possible.  Hopefully this blog has given you enough information to start thinking about the topic for your own training challenges.

Fronts, tuck sits, and “rabbit feet”

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At some time or another, most obedience competitors will struggle with straight fronts, back feet that stick out to the sides ( rabbit feet), dogs that are not able to “find front” from an angle, and rock back sits.

As a general rule, I try to work young dogs on small, tight platforms to help them develop muscle memory to prevent these issues.  While this does not teach a dog to think about being straight, it does create muscle memory, which can make the process faster and easier for the dog.

But eventually, I want to get rid of the platform for routine training, and a nice middle step is to teach a dog to stay between your legs.  If you are using this position to help the dog learn to keep their body straight and their head upright, then a sit is not required when you stop.  If you are using this position to teach a tuck sit with all four feet pulled in tightly, then expect (or ask for) a sit before reinforcing and possibly rotate between sit and stand.  If you are using this position to teach your dog to keep a straight body no matter how you pivot, then rotate as much as 360 degrees in both directions.  If you are using this position to teach backing in a straight line, then start with one step at a time and slide your feet straight backwards.

This exercise can also be done while holding a dumbbell or a glove, since some dogs only sit crooked when they are retrieving.  And since rocking back between your legs is pretty much impossible while holding a dumbbell, your dog will tuck sit.  Do enough repetitions and a tuck sit while “in front” will become a habit, giving you a chance to reinforce the ones you like.

As your dog becomes more competent, you can stand up straighter and reinforce only occasionally.

The following video is of Raika – we’re working on tuck sits/kick back stands, and pivots/keeping her body straight.  Raika is “trained” so she’ll stay in this position comfortably no matter what I do.  If you think about it, if she tried to rock back on a sit she would ‘disappear’ from between my legs – and away from the cookie.  She doesn’t want that so she tucks nicely.  Same with the stand position – she knows where the cookie is going to show up, so it’s easiest for her to hold her front feet still and move her rear.

And this video is of Brito – we’re using this position for his “rabbit feet”, to straighten his fronts, and soon I’ll use this position to practice his dumbbell hold.  He is not experienced with this position so I have to work a little harder to keep him there.

Notice that even though both dogs are very different in size, their back feet still come up between my feet and meet with their front feet.  If your dog can sit this way, then you can use this exercise effectively for all of these exercises.


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