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The Rational Participant

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How does one train a dog?

You just cued your dog to “sit” and your dog did nothing.  Stared at you, and nothing happened.  What should you do?

If you throw your dog a cookie while he lies there not responding at all, are you teaching your dog to stay down when you signal a sit?

95% of dog trainers will say that feeding a dog for failure to perform is bad training.  To “reward” an incorrect response goes against the laws of learning!  Dogs do more of what works for them, so if ignoring your cue gets a cookie, then the dog will ignore you more!  The right answer would be to either ignore the behavior or punish it, depending on your philosophy.

And they would be wrong as often as not,  because operant conditioning presumes a conscious and rational participant that is striving to maximize his or her well being at that moment in time, and a very high percentage of the time, our dogs are not behaving in an operant fashion at all!   Operant conditioning can only work if the dog is 1) aware that his behavior matters at that time 2) knows how to adapt his behavior to get the best possible outcome and 3) cares about the result – at that moment in time.

Here’s an example:

Your dog is in a glass room behind a soundproof wall.  He cannot hear you.  You cue a sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, he can’t hear you!  So should you march in that room and correct him into a sit?  Of course not.  If he can’t hear the cue, then he can’t operate in his own best interest – he is not conscious of that fact that training is taking place, let alone that his behavior matters.

How about if your dog is in a training building with a dog lunging on his leash behind your training area, which is causing your dog a good deal of distress?  You cue your dog to sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, you gave the cue!  Should you march over there and correct him into a sit?  No!  Because at that moment in time, your dog is not participating in your training game!  His rational instinct is to preserve his safety and as long as he perceives that the lunging dog is a threat to his safety, then he is not in a place to do anything with your training.  You cannot use operant conditioning at that moment in time, because his best interest is not to attend to you. So while his behavior is certainly rational in the greater scheme of things, it’s not focused on you or learning your games, so no training can take place at that time.

But what if that lunging dog is on leash and cannot get to your dog?  Your dog has nothing to fear!

That’s irrelevant because that conclusion is from your point of view and it’s the dog’s opinion that matters. If your dog thinks that other dog is a threat to his safety then your perspective is not relevant.  And anyway, fear is rarely logical.  Even if the dog can recognize that the dog cannot get to him, that doesn’t mean he’ll just move on.

So what should you do?  You’ve given your dog a sit cue and nothing has happened.  What now?

The question to ask yourself is this; if my dog’s emotional state is not in a place to respond to operant conditioning, what can I do to make him feel better so that he WILL be in a place to respond to me?

Switch to classical conditioning.

It may well be time to stop training altogether while you puzzle out your solution.  While your dog might not be receptive to operant conditioning when he’s feeling stressed or fearful, he is always a participant in classical conditioning, so the best thing that you can do in a case like this is try and make him feel better.  Train his emotions through classical conditioning rather than his conscious behaviors.

It doesn’t matter much if your dog is not participating because he’s bored, tired, scared, doesn’t care about your consequences, doesn’t hear you or doesn’t understand you. If he hasn’t engaged in the learning process, then the only option you have is to either switch to classical conditioning or change the parameters of your operant conditioning; train when he’s not bored, not tired, not scared, change the consequences, clarify your cues, or train him to understand what you want.  And all the while, give some thought to how you can modify your overall training plan so that he’s a whole lot more excited about training, regardless of the specifics of the day, so that he begins to opt in all or most of the time, rather than opting out.

This is so hard for us trainers!

Your dog is not manipulating his way through every moment of life!  “giving it away” goes against everything many of us have been taught to believe about dog training. The phrase ‘the dog is always learning’ has come to mean that every moment of our dog’s life needs to be seen as their attempt to get more, as if they are constantly thinking about what they can get and how to avoid what they don’t like. And that is simply not true. Most of life just happens – it’s an emotional reality -not a conscious manipulative one.

If you come to accept this reality, then you can stop feeling like you have to manipulate your dog every moment as well.  The rest just falls into place.



Play – 8 days worth

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I recently puppy sat for my friend – I had her dog for eight days.

And if a puppy is in my house, then it’s going to get trained.  Either to entertain me or to entertain the puppy.  In this case, it was a little of both.

At the request of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Alumni list on FaceBook, I recorded, live, half of her training sessions, usually in the morning  At the end of each session, I answered their questions.

The end result was eight days of unedited training and question/answer – which I then pulled together into a continuous youtube video for those who are not Fenzi Academy students.

If you’d like to learn about play – here it is.

What you should take from this video – train the dog you have.  The puppy I was working with showed all the qualities of an interactive and talented player – I just needed to be available.  Maybe with another dog you’d approach it differently, which I discuss at length in these segments.  Figuring out  what makes  sense for your dog is what makes training so very interesting.

Here’s the youtube link to the video:

If you want to learn more about play, sign up for my online class, Relationship Building Through Play at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA).  We cover a lot of territory.   Class started a week ago, so now you’ll be playing catch up.  Enrollment will close on the 15th.

In the meantime, enjoy this 2.5 hour long free video.

Train the dog in front of you: Heeling

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I recently discovered “Facebook live”.  So fun!!!!

Anyway, I asked for something to talk about, and the most popular topic was “Train the Dog in Front of You”  and how that might apply to Heeling.  I spoke for a while and then answered questions as they came in.

Here’s that video live feed.  It’s about 38 minutes long and addresses the topic of tailoring training to the individual dog.

I’ll be teaching heeling games at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy starting October 1st so if you’re interested, go ahead and get registered.  It will cost you $65, and you’ll probably learn quite a bit.

If you “follow” me on Facebook you’ll be able to catch live feeds here and there, and submit questions if you have any.  I have also done a large number of live feeds on the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Alumni Group on Facebook, so if you’re a student of FDSA make sure you ask to join the alumni group!


Definition of Insanity

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What is the Definition of Insanity?

We all know this one.

“Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” – Albert Einstein

I’m thinking about this, because a person I know, who clearly loves her dog and thinks she is doing right by him, is giving me pause to reflect on what makes us stick to training methods that are perceived as “tried and true” when the method of choice has been most obviously tried and yet is certainly not true.  At least not for this dog.

In short – it’s not working.

She’s a nice lady; I like her a lot.  She also has a nice dog – anxious, but nice.  And her dog leaves her in training.  Runs amuck!  For three years this has been happening.  Three years!

She sees conscious disobedience, and thirty years of “experience” has taught her exactly one way to handle disobedience – set him up and then correct him for failure.  Thirty years of focusing on conscious behavior has also made her totally unable to see that the real issue has nothing to do with conscious behavior at all – but that’s not the point of this post.

When is it time to make a change?  When is it time to acknowledge that what you’re doing is not working?  When is it time to step back and look at the problem from a new angle?

If what you’re doing causes no harm to you, the dog, or others,  but adds no value, then…whatever. If it were one of my dogs and I really cared about creating change, I’d sure be looking at my technique, but if you don’t and if you and the dog have reached a happy enough place, then that’s your choice.

If what you are doing DOES cause harm to either you, your dog or to others, but your choices are not improving your situation, then explain this to me: Why do you have so little regard for your well being or the well being of others?  Is your dog scaring you?  Scaring other people or dogs?   A risk that others feel the need to go out of their way to avoid?

Is your solution scaring or hurting your dog?  Shouldn’t your dog’s opinion matter?  It’s not like he volunteered for your choice of training methods.

It doesn’t matter if you’re “working on it;” if you’re not progressing over a significant period of time and you’re causing harm, then it’s time to change something, or maybe even…give up!  Your choices are to change your strategy or to walk away, not to subject others, possibly including your dog but possibly not, to your good  intentions.

At some point, you need to take stock!  Ask yourself – might there be another way to solve this challenge?  Might I be reading the situation all wrong?  Can my dog do better?  And if not, is there anything that I can do to help the situation?

It’s ok to get it wrong.  But it’s equally important to take stock of your situation on occasion.  So; what you’re doing is not working.  What do you plan to do now?

I think Albert Einstein was simply wrong.  Doing the same thing over and over is human nature; not the definition of insanity.  We are loathe to change, especially if a method has worked in the past on other dogs.  But as humans, we also have the option to reflect on our choices, take stock, and make different decisions.

Admittedly, new decisions might feel totally foreign and uncomfortable.  Then again…what you’re doing is not working.

If you think I just described you, then why not make today the day you take stock?   Stop hurting your dog. Or stop letting your dog hurt you.  Or stop letting your dog hurt someone else.  Or stop wasting your time if you’re not hurting anyone but making no progress at all.

Three years.  Three years and no change to the dog’s behavior.  Three years, no change to the dog’s behavior, and no change to the handler’s choice of method.

Mind boggling.

On another note, registration has begun for the October 1st term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  29 classes to choose from; take a look and join us!  Only $65 for a bronze subscription.  I’m teaching heeling games and relationship building through play, and would love to have you!

Could your dog be sick?

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Raika has come out of retirement to train for the new TEAM titles.

She’s extremely happy about this new development, because few things make her happier than work.  She loves her long “old lady” walks as well, but it’s still not training.  Training is her passion.

Raika is twelve years old and she needed some changes to her training to accommodate her age.  I rarely throw her ball; instead we play tug and I’m careful about it.  I’ve noticed that after about five to ten minutes of work and play, she’s really quite tired, so I try hard to monitor her behavior more closely than I might with a younger dog.

Recently I taped Raika’s TEAM2 submission.  She passed but….she felt ‘off’ to me.  I put it down to the heat and we carried on.  But as I reviewed the tape, I took another look at her.  This wasn’t right.  She’s panting too much and her rear appears weak.

The next day she didn’t eat her breakfast and she had a temperature.  She’s fine now but….there’s still a critical lesson in there.

It’s my job to monitor my dog’s well being, and because we cannot ask the dog what is causing their behavior, it’s imperative that we give our dogs the benefit of the doubt.  Don’t assume that your dog knows what you want and is simply being obstinate; dogs don’t think that way.  Don’t assume that your dog is taking advantage of you – they don’t think that way either.

Dogs are just dogs; doing what makes sense for them, based on their physical and emotional needs or desires.

If your dog is hot, tired, bored, sick, unclear on what you want, etc. – treat them all the same.  Just stop training.  If it continues over time, then you have a pattern and you’ll want to identify the root issue, is possible.  Accept that you’re working with another being – one who has very limited skills of communication – and it’s just wrong to push through when you may be missing something overwhelming and significant to the dog.

Raika is harder than most dogs to read, because she’s extremely unlikely to opt out, even if she’s not feeling well. As a result, “willingness to work” is just not enough.  I have to go further – is she slower than usual?  Is her head carriage not quite right?  Is she less energetic with her toy?

It’s a painful thing to realize you’ve worked your dog when they’re sick.  It’s worse if you mistreated your dog in any way.

It’s also worth pointing out that a good deal of pain or sickness is not going to be identified by a routine trip to your veterinarian either, because much of pain and sickness is invisible. Can you or a doctor look at me and know that I have a migraine headache?  No – not unless I tell you, or you watch me for very subtle signs, like a lack of “normal” enthusiasm for things that I normally like to do.

Err on the side of caution and give your dog the benefit of the doubt.  If anything seems wrong then just stop.  You can try again tomorrow.


Five Years

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Five years ago today, I started a blog. You can read the very first post here.  At that time, I had taken stock of my life, considered where I was, and then mused about where I might want to go.

And to a large extent, I went!  But not necessarily in the direction I had expected.

At that time, my stated goals were to learn—to improve my skills and to explore new ideas.

And I’d say that didn’t happen.  I’m not saying I haven’t done those things or met those goals because I have—in spades.  Indeed, I’ve probably been in one of the biggest growth spurts of my dog training career, thanks in large part to the community of exceptionally talented trainers around me; when one is constantly exposed to excellent training, thoughtful dialogue, respectful problem solving and a variety of challenges to address in a wide range of dog sports, one cannot help but become a more skilled trainer.

But what I mean is that’s not where life took me; I didn’t just become a better trainer.

Life took me somewhere else altogether, in the typical meandering and unpredictable fashion of all things interesting.

What have I been doing all this time?

Lots of things.

I started the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  Developing FDSA fit my goal of making competition dog training a kinder, warmer and more cooperative place for dog sport teams, and the journey has been nothing short of miraculous.  Daily I am amazed by the strength, intelligence, and compassionate caring nature of the community that has developed!

I have seen the effect that FDSA has had on dog sports and I am so proud to be able to say that I started that organization.  Can a single individual make choices that can change a well-established culture?  Yes.  A single individual with a clear vision can do quite a lot.

I have become a writer.  From that first book, with the express goal of becoming published, I found that once again, the goal was no longer the reason for the activity.  Now I write because I cannot stop writing.  The ideas bubble up in my head, looking for an audience, and out they come!  Sometimes they come in short bursts, and those thoughts go here in this blog.  Indeed, I have written hundreds of blog posts on an enormous range of topics.

But other times those thoughts come in big packages; chunks that I must consider and digest, and those thoughts become books.  Sometimes I write them with Deb Jones and other times I write them alone.  I am exceptionally proud of every single book that has my name on it, not because I can write books, but because I have found direction and a receptive audience for my need to communicate my dog training passion.  Currently, there are six published books available, a few free e-books available online, and more percolating in my mind.   There’s always more.

I have started the TEAM titling program.  TEAM offers trainers a way to demonstrate their mastery of excellent training and obedience.  The program is laid out as a series of progressively more challenging exercises that build upon one another in a logical fashion.  Precision, proofing, reducing reinforcement, cue discrimination and generalizing behaviors are all integral parts of the program.   I am proud of this program, because I believe it has the potential to bring the logic of modern training methods to a titling program that is equally logical.

I have opened up my world—my life—in a very public manner.  I decided that it’s ok to be a human being, that my need to be interactive and honest with people is an acceptable style of professionalism, regardless of what might have been acceptable in the past.  And while I tend to keep this blog focused on dogs and dog training, I have not contained myself in the same manner in other public forums.  If you follow me on Facebook, then you are well acquainted with my life.

The fact is, I am more than a dog trainer.  I am a person!  I’m raising a real family, struggle with real aging parents and have real experiences while I live my real life.  Why separate out my humanness in the name of professionalism?

On an emotional level, I have changed as well.  I have learned to surround myself with kind and respectful people, participate in like-minded groups, and flow wherever the tides of life take me.  And with this, I have become a little bit wiser, potentially more influential and surely, a whole lot happier. I hope others have found this in their lives as well.

So yes, I’ve certainly become a better trainer in the past five years.  But more than that, I’ve become a better person.  I cannot imagine anyone living a more fulfilling life than the one I am blessed to live every single day.

Today, I am a writer, a business owner, a dog trainer, a story teller and a presenter, in no particular order.  I am all of those things and I am very grateful.

For those of you who have allowed me to succeed through your support, thank you, because without you, none of this would have mattered at all.

Good training: Break it down; build it up

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Here’s a session with Lyra; she’s training for a variety of TEAM skills.  (AKC folks might want to pay attention; lots of precision tips in here for you to consider)

It’s good training.  Maybe not great training but that’s ok; chasing after perfection just makes me neurotic so I do my best, am proud of what I do, improve over time and focus on what is going right!

The basic rhythm is this:

Ask for a behavior.  If I get it, super!  Reward.  Maybe do it again. Maybe not.

Ask for a behavior.  If I don’t get it, super!  We have something to work on!  I’ll probably reward the behavior anyway.  Break out the issue.  Work on it with a high rate of reinforcement and support.  And then try it again in a more formal manner.

Is it good?  We did it!  Not so good?  Try another route, or shelf it for another day.

I want a behavior chain.  Do I think I can get it?  Yes?  Great – go for it!

I want a behavior chain.  Do I think I can get it?  No?  Then first practice the pieces of the chain and then string them together when the pieces look right.

The following session is about 10 minutes and is fairly typical.  We work straight fronts from angles, pivots from front and side position, getting on her disc, listening (“in” does not mean get on disc; “around” does not mean meander somewhere near heel position until you remember what you’re doing), fly (yes, you have to go AROUND the cone; not fake it!) Position changes (“sit” is so hard!), and play (so fun!).

We both had a good time; therefore it was a nice session: