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Simplophile or Complexophile?

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(Note: This topic was published on my pet blog earlier in the year, but is being re-published here by request.)

These two words were recently added to my vocabulary by a fellow dog trainer.  In a nutshell, the idea is that people have a natural tendency to make topics either simple or complex as a personality trait.

I am a complexophilephobic.  My third newest word!

And I have friends who are theoretical complexophiles with applied simplophile tendencies.

How long did it take you to read those words, break them into pieces, and then process what I was trying to say?  Was it intuitive and obvious or are you still puzzling them out?

I hope you laughed, because if I were actually trying to educate you, it would have made more sense to say “I am afraid of complex explanations” or “I have friends who like to think about challenging ideas but who use simple ideas in practical applications.”

Which brings us to the point of this blog post:

All other things being equal, simplophiles are more successful educators than complexophiles.

If you cannot find a way to communicate effectively with those who you wish to influence, then they will disengage from the conversation, even while they look right at you.  They may not disengage immediately because maybe they really want to learn!  But most confused people will not ask for clarification; eventually they’ll simply stop listening and smile politely instead. Obviously we want to avoid that.

Animals, including humans, can only process a limited number of new words or concepts at a time without becoming mentally saturated, so focus on teaching critical concepts, not vocabulary.  Just because a person can parrot back the definition of a word doesn’t mean they understand the underlying concept. I truly do not care if a student can define terms like “positive punishment” and “negative reinforcement,” but I care very much if they learn how to get their dog trained in a humane manner.

Of course, as in all things, there may be a tradeoff.  As training becomes more complex, it really does matter if people share a common vocabulary so that we can communicate with each other on a very precise level.  That’s fine!  The complexity of your communication can easily increase as your learner’s capacity increases or when you are speaking with a different audience.  But a newbie to positive reinforcement training?  Keep it simple and relevant.

When I wrote the book “Beyond the Backyard; Train Your Dog To Listen Anytime, Anywhere!” I went to a good deal of trouble to use words that would be familiar to the reader. For example, I  alternated the words “cue” and “command” even though the word “command” makes me cringe.  That was a conscious choice; I wanted to keep the book accessible.  If I ever wrote a follow up book then I would drop the word “command” altogether, because repeated exposure to the word “cue” throughout this first book would have made it familiar. My readers would be ready!

Remember, I can’t get people to read a more advanced book if they gave up on the first one because they found it overwhelming!

What can you do to simplify dog training to a level that is most easily understood by your entry level audience?

Try analogies!  For example, dogs and children show similar body language and calming signals when stressed, afraid, excited, engaged, etc.  Point that out and watch your students blossom with understanding and excitement – they will get it!  Now they will be asking YOU for clarification of what they are seeing.

Offer sentences over words!  Explaining the four quadrants of learning theory might seem like a good starting point to you, but step back for a moment and ask yourself…is that the best use of your learner’s capacity to process new information?  Does it really matter if the person knows that “positive” is something that we add and that “punishment” decreases behavior? If you start by explaining the four quadrants, your student will be so busy puzzling out the phrase that the part you actually cared about – why positive punishment should be avoided, is likely to be missed altogether.

How about saying, “Your dog will enjoy training more if you train with cookies instead of corrections.  Dogs that enjoy training are like children who beg you to learn to read – they make it easy!  If you spend your energy correcting your dog then they won’t be very interested in working with you and your teaching job will be harder.  Instead we’ll focus on giving our dogs things that they want like cookies, toys and attention in exchange for the commands that we want them to learn.

A few sentences takes longer for you to say, but remember, if you spit out an unfamiliar word and move on to your next topic, they’re still stuck on the new word and they’ll miss whatever you say next.  If you use a full sentence to explain a concept then your audience is more likely to stick with you, so skip the scientific terms altogether.

When you communicate as a simplophile, people will stick with you. Over time they will learn your preferred words – a little bit at a time.  And then one day, they will realize just how much you know and what they have learned from you.

In the meantime, strive to be understood.


On another note; registration is in full swing at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for our term beginning August 1st.  I’m teaching two classes this time, Precision Heeling and Engagement.   If you’d like to read more about precision heeling, click this blog link and study the first few skills.  If you want to see the first lecture from the engagement class, click the blog link here.  Both classes are full at Gold, but bronze space is unlimited and costs only $65.  I hope to see there.  On-line learning is extremely effective and reviews on both of these classes are consistently top notch!  If you’ve taken either of these classes, feel free to comment on your experience!







The Dog Will Tell You

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How do you use video review to improve your performance?

You’ve got options.  You can watch your timing, your delivery, the length of your session, compare your dog’s fluency over time, etc.  All excellent and appropriate uses of a videocamera and applied review!

Another option is to watch your dog.

Your dog will tell you, second by second, how you’re doing.  It really can be that simple.

Your dog is leaping along, happy as a clam, ears up, tail wagging and fully engaged?  Well, whatever you’re doing right then is working.

And then a few seconds later you notice a change.  It comes fast, is quick and subtle and is gone almost as fast as it showed up.  You saw the ears go back with indecision, the speed and bounce dropped, and…it’s didn’t feel the same.   Your dog’s behavior has spoken.

What did you do in the seconds before that happened?  How did that vary from earlier in your session?  Did you correct your dog?  Ask for a larger increase in criteria than your dog was ready for?  Or did you approach a brand new exercise and your dog’s style is to “learn slowly and gain speed with time?”

What changes you make, if any, are up to you.  It depends on your goals, how you view training, and what is “normal” for your dog. Regardless, if you’re watching your dog, you’re getting a constant and perfectly accurate stream of information on the quality of your training – for that dog, on that day, and at that moment in time.

Or maybe you’re noticing that your session started out strong and then your dog’s “happy” deteriorated over time.

What did you do over the course of that session that might have build up cumulative concern in your dog?  Did you train for too long?  Drill one behavior endlessly?  Nag your dog?  Change your choice of reinforcers?

When I watch my training sessions via video, I normally watch very casually and I concentrate on the dog.  The dog tells me how I’m doing so I don’t normally work much harder than that.

This approach works both for issues of “happy” and for specific skill building.

Here’s an example that focuses on developing Brito’s skill with the dumbbell hold (skill building).

What is Brito Telling Me?

The most obvious thing is that he tilts his head to the left because I carry the treats in my left pocket.  How do I know this?  He is staring at my left pocket.  If I do not like that picture/head tilt, how must I change my training?

Take away the reason for him to stare at my left pocket.

I can try putting the treats in my right pocket or just take them off of my body altogether.  In this case, I switch them to a shelf on the right side – and then reward with my right hand.  In a few days I’ll look at his behavior again, and go from there. Of course, the longer it’s been going on, the longer it may take to change it.

I don’t have to watch my technique in the video to see if I am rewarding correctly – he’s made it pretty clear with his behavior what I am doing wrong.

I try to approach training the same way without a video camera, but often it’s hard to get a sense of flow and progression without it.  The fact is, the camera won’t lie.

Watching this video has reminded me that I need to do a lot more video training.

Your dog’s behavior is a reflection of what you are doing in training.  Watch with care and you’ll become a better and more efficient trainer.

Have you had moments in training where you watched your dog on video and then realized for yourself where you had gone wrong?  Tell me about it in the comments!


How much time for training?

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How much time should you spend training a specific behavior?  Does it matter if you’re problem solving or working on foundation skills?

Not really.

Most good training is a few minutes of targeted work, at the outside.  Sometimes your best sessions will take place with less than a minute of actual dog training.

A ten minute stretch should cover most skill building sessions, and then some.  Three minutes to think about what you want to do and to set it up, three minutes to work with your dog, two minutes to stop and reconsider and two more to apply your changes.

Ten minutes right there.  No more.  Time to stop.  If you want to continue training then work on something new.  Better yet, work for a total of fifteen minutes and cover a few skills by rotating through them.

Yeah, I know.  You’re not done.  You’re excited now.  Things are happening and damn it, you’re gonna keep going.  Which is fine for you, but your dog is the one doing the learning, and ten minutes is about it for a single skill.

I recently taught a series of 10 minute heeling sessions at FDSA dog sports camp.  Three minutes to discuss the issue and offer a plan, three minutes to try it out, two minutes to reconsider, and two more minutes to either adapt or test.  Perfect.

I also did a series of 15 minute private lessons on any topic the participant wanted.  That was perfect too, because the additional five minutes allowed time to give the handler a plan for moving forwards. In that 15 minutes, most of the teams were able to work on two or three different skills.

If you think that’s too short, then you’re not structuring your sessions very well.  Go ahead and videotape your session.  How are you using your time?  Did you really just do the same shaping behavior thirty times?  Yes.  Yes you did.  Stop it; you’re stressing your dog.

Reign yourself in.  Ten cookies in your pocket – use those up.  Now move to something else.  Or just stop and quit.  That’s good too.

A training session is not a marathon.  Make good use of your time and you’ll be amazed at what you can do with almost no time at all.

Simple “bits” vs. Full “chains”

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I just returned from The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy 3.5 day training camp.  (that’s a whole ‘nother story, but if you can get to one – do it.  You’ll learn a lot and have a great time.  Next year it’s in Oregon at the Linn Fairgrounds).

I overheard a comment at camp that stayed with me.  The person commented that all of the skills labs, where students learn how to create the AKC exercise chains, seemed “simple”.

What she meant was that the dogs weren’t showing the full behaviors from start to finish.

For example, in the drop on recall lab,  she didn’t see dogs attempting the full exercise from start to finish.

Which is exactly the point of excellent training.

In excellent training, you do not need to work full exercises.  You need to be aware of your dog’s weaknesses, tendencies, and strengths – and from there train the appropriate pieces.

For example, if your dog is slow to drop on the drop portion of the exercise, then doing a zillion drop on recalls isn’t going to help you.  You do not have a “sit, stay, walk away, call dog, drop dog, wait, call dog, front, and finish” problem

You have a speed of response to the drop cue problem.  Working the entire chain is a good way to develop new problems like:

“dog avoids the sit to avoid a stressful exercise, dog refuses to stay, either out of stress or because you are going to call anyway, dog recalls before being called or refuses to come at all – to avoid the drop, dog recalls part way and drops before you request it or…dog drops slowly (the original complaint), dog doesn’t hold the second part of the drop – since you always call, dog gives progressively worse fronts out of boredom or stress, dog anticipates the finish”.

So – which problem would you prefer – a slow drop or an entire chain of possible issues?

If you have a weak area and you know it, then work on that weak area.  Isolate it from the chain.  Do not put it back until you are thrilled with it on it’s own!

Can your dog drop from a standstill in front of you without creeping?  How about on a platform?  How about on a platform at a short distance?  A long distance?  With no platform at a short distance and a long one?  Can your dog drop when you sit on the floor?  When you have your back to your dog?  When he’s moving away from you?  There is no reason to put the exercise together again until your dog is managing all of those tiny bits.

Now add your drop back into the chain; I bet it looks pretty good!  And you haven’t created new problems in the process.

The urge to “just see where I’m at” is strong.  Resist!  Why not hold yourself to one formal exercise for each training session, just “to see,” and spend the rest of the session working on “the bits?”  It’s good training.  It’s fun for the dog.  And it avoids creating problems where none existed before.



Learning Human

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In the dog world, we call the language of Human “cues”

Cues.  Cues are so hard for Brito. He is struggling to become fluent in Human and I’m struggling to teach him.

But not always, which is even more frustrating.  If he’s relaxed and simply responding out of muscle memory, then he’s pretty fluent. But add several cues in a row where he has to choose the right option, or add a little environmental stress, or change the context just a bit and….he falls apart.  He looks right at me and nothing happens.  He does not understand Human on that day, or at least at that moment.

Why are cues so hard for him? HE SHOULD KNOW THIS.  But he doesn’t.  How is that possible?  The same words and signals that he has seen literally thousands of times.  How can he not be fluent?

I’m learning Spanish – I have a computer program that guides me along.

Like Brito, I was doing so well.  I was practicing every day  and amassing a sizable vocabulary.  I spent plenty of time reviewing lessons and holding myself to a high standard.  I want to become fluent.

And then, for three days straight, I started failing all of my reviews.  For no particular reason, except that once my brain froze up, my accuracy went from about 80% to 30%. Same words; same lessons.

The harder I tried the worse I performed.  I started dreading the “buzz” sound, and even the happy “bings” started to feel more like a respite from being wrong than something to feel good about.

I’m back to reviewing the earliest lessons and I don’t know if it will work.  I have never had an affinity for foreign language.  I’d imagine that those who learn foreign languages easily must think I’m just not trying very hard.

The fact is, all of this failure is depressing, which not only takes the joy out of learning, it makes my brain feel foggy.  And the more I fail, the worse I feel about it.  I don’t even want to try anymore.

My sympathy for the efforts of little Brito have gone through the roof.

He is struggling to learn Human and I am struggling to learn Spanish.  I get it. I really do.

Fenzi Dog Sports Academy

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Registration for the June 1st session is currently in full swing at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA).  We’ve got about 25 classes gearing up right now; from obedience to rally to nosework to fitness training for sport dogs and the humans that handle them!

Since we have a contest running, I’m adding a link here for anyone who may wish to enter. This contest is for brand new students only.  You can win a free spot for a friend as well, but for that you’ll need a Facebook wall and you’ll need to share this contest there.

You do not have to sign up for the newsletter – if you choose not to, then we’ll never contact you again.

And since free is free and you don’t have to sign up for anything….you really have nothing to lose.

Bored? Short of time?

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Here’s a simple set-up.  I call this “working the clock”.

The basic idea is that you set up a variety of options around the edges of a clock and you stand in the middle.

Here we are working on Utility skills with the addition of cue discrimination (listen to me; don’t follow a pattern!) and proofing (cookie behind go-out marker).

I could have easily substituted a jump for a cone and then done directed jumping.  I could have substituted a glove for the send out marker or the articles.  Or, if I were feeling ambitious, I could have filled many more”spaces” on the clock (up to 12 of them) and put out all of the possibilities that would cover Open and Utility.  And if I really wanted to make it interesting, I could have put out additional proofing options on the clock, likes bowls with food or toys – occasionally sending to those as the reward.  And if you feel the need to heel in every training session, then heel towards or around your obstacles.

If your dog lacks a retrieve, you can substitute cones for gloves.  You can also place a cone behind your high jump and teach the retrieve over jump exercise without a dumbbell. (I’ll show that at some point in the near future with a fun variation.)

Have fun with this!  The goal is to get your dog thinking and to remove the patterns that are the staple of many obedience organizations.

This video is unedited.




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