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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:



What’s the REAL problem?

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Question:  My dog heels perfectly at home – 40 points!  In the ring it all falls apart; he starts lagging and looking around.  How can I fix his heeling?  Should I teach him to forge in practice so that in the ring he’ll end up just right?

Answer:  If your dog knows how to heel perfectly at home then you don’t have a heeling problem, and teaching “bad” heeling at home in the hopes of getting “good” heeling in the ring is a questionable (and rarely effective) strategy.  You might have a ring stress problem.  You might have a dog show stress problem.  You might have a judge problem, or  a strange dogs around problem,  or a fading target problem or a loss of reinforcement problem – but a heeling problem?  If you’re getting perfect heeling at home then no, you don’t have a heeling problem.

Figure out what your root problem is and then address that!  Isolate each possible variable; what do you think?

Is it ring stress?  If the problem is ring stress, then your dog is a happy camper at the show, is comfortable with dogs and judges, and falls apart when you’re about to enter the ring.  Has your dog developed a bad association with the ring?  There could be numerous possible causes if this is the case, and rarely do those causes involve anything that a human can point to as an enormous trauma.  Fix your ring stress and you’ll fix your heeling.

Is it dog show stress?  If the problem is the dog show, then your dog is already showing that he’s “off” when you arrive at the show grounds.  Maybe he’s afraid of the dogs, people, stuff, your nerves, etc.  Fix your dog show stress and you’ll fix your heeling.

Is it a judge problem?  If your dog is lovely at the show and in the ring until the judge approaches, then you have a judge problem.  Fix your judge problem and you’ll fix your heeling.

Is it a strange dog problem?  If your dog loves people, places and things just fine, could care less about the loss of reinforcement, but visibly melts around new dogs,then you have a strange dog problem.  Fix your strange dog problem and you’ll fix your heeling.

Is it a reinforcement problem?  If your dog expects frequent rewards for heeling or you carry them on your body when you train, and then you remove them and go into the ring expecting the same quality of work, then you have a problem but again…it’s not a heeling problem.  It’s about training your dog to work for delayed reinforcement, or reinforcers off the body.  Fix that and you’ll fix your heeling.

Now, if your dog literally stares at a cookie in your hand then you may well have a heeling problem!  Your dog hasn’t learned to heel; he’s learned to stare at a cookie.  And when the lure goes away in competition, so does your heeling.  If this is your scenario, then you do have a heeling problem, but it’s not about lagging or looking around.  Your dog simply doesn’t know what to do.  Teach your dog to heel without staring at a cookie and that will solve the lagging and looking around problem.

In all but one scenario, there is no heeling problem, so training more and better heeling isn’t going to help much.

This approach to problem solving goes much further than heeling.  For example, I often hear people say they have a “start line” problem, but when I watch the dog I don’t see a start line problem.  I see a stress problem.  I see an impulse control problem.  I see a disconnected handler problem.   But the start line?  That’s only one symptom of the bigger issues – and it happens to be the one that the handler is focused on, but it’s not the problem.  It’s the symptom.  Fix the real issue and you’ll be amazed at how many other areas of training were being affected -without you even knowing it.

Obviously I haven’t told you how to address the issues, though if you search through this blog I’ve certainly touched on most or all of them at one time or another.  Regardless, the first step to a solution is to correctly identify the underlying problem, not the symptom.  Go from there.

Good luck!

Pivots – Better!

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I’ve made two changes to my training since my last “pivoting” blog in order to improve Raika’s pivots; I’ve stabilized my left foot (no more walking in circles!) and I’ve moved my target hand slightly further back, to give her more time to adapt to my choice of direction.  Further forwards is always a bit harder on left turns and left pivots.

To see clearly, place your curser on my left toe – as much as possible I do not want to move from that spot for this exercise.  Note that at 9-10 sec  and  1:05-1:06 sec she “jumps” back to stay in position – I don’t want that! To get rid of it I ignore it and only reward smooth movement.  I’m also more tolerant of jumping if it only happens on the first step – like a kick back stand, than if she does it continuously.  Jumping shows lack of physical control and coordination, and speed (dog or handler) masks errors; both are a problem for me.  I want smooth, slow, controlled, parallel movement.  If I have that then I can teach any heeling maneuver that might require a pivot, sideways, or backwards for any competition.

Here I’m also doing a bit of work to the right, mostly to prevent her from strictly anticipating work to the left and also to demonstrate that she “wraps” her body more around mine in that direction.  That works ok for me; I’m not nearly as picky about going to the right as I am to the left.

My primary reason for teaching pivots is to reinforce excellent heel position.  No matter what I do or what direction I travel (sideways, forwards, backwards, fast slow, left, etc.) I want my dog to keep her head in exactly one spot by my side and move her rear end smoothly and parallel to me.  If I take a videotape and run it in slow motion – I want to see parallel throughout; not only at the start and finish.  



Shape or Lure?

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Those of you who train or take online classes with me probably know that I don’t really have a method of training.  Instead, the question I ask is “What is the most expedient and logical way to train THIS dog with THIS hander at THIS time?”  I don’t care how people train their dogs as long as they are both physically and emotionally kind to the dog, and since no method is innately better than any other method, it’s irrelevant if another dog-handler team might progress more quickly using a different option.  For me, mastery of the target behavior means that, in the dog’s most comfortable environment and without a cookie in hand, the dog can perform the target behavior to criteria.   That mastery can be obtained through shaping, luring/targeting, capturing, etc.   Train the team in front of you and that mastery will happen.

This term I’m teaching Precision Heeling online.  I’ve taught it several times now.  The first time I taught the class, almost none of the students had a clue about what platforms or discs were, let alone how to use them, so we started at the beginning and we used a ton of luring.  And this time; three years later?  Almost every working team has come into class with skills that include a basic level of comfort with training aids like discs and platforms.  In addition, I’ve also noticed that the overall comfort level with shaping behaviors is much much higher.

I could have taught the first class with shaping, but why?  They didn’t sign up for a class on shaping, they signed up for a class on heeling.  If I have a perfectly good method that uses luring, I might as well use it.  Heck, all of my current dogs got plenty of luring in their initial heeling training, and by my definition (perform the target behavior  in their most comfortable environment without a motivator on my body), they learned it fine.

But this time, I find myself incorporating a good deal more shaping with some of the teams, right from the start, which brings me to this blog:  How does a trainer decide if a dog-handler team is a better candidate for luring, shaping, or a blend of the two?  Let’s look at it:

  1.  The preference of the handler.  This is the most important consideration because the chances that a person will successfully train their dog go way up if they have bought in to what you want them to do.  If a person has a preference then you might as run with it.  Over time, that person might change their preference; they might want to branch out to something new, or they might want to stay with their current methods – and neither of those is my concern.  If the handler expresses a preference, I’ll honor it.
  2. The preference of the dog.  Yes, dogs have preferences.  Some dogs have very clear, calm and thinking brains.  They enjoy puzzles and don’t go over the top with frustration for the desired motivator when they are learning.  These dogs are prime shaping candidates.  I avoid shaping target behaviors with frantic dogs.
  3. The skill level of the hander.  Even dogs that tend to be frantic and not clear headed can do just fine with shaping if the handler is quick and experienced.  So if the handler has expressed a preference for shaping and they can make it work for their dog without emotionally abusing them with frustration, then that’s fine too.
  4. The target behavior.  With a skill like Precision Heeling, it’s easy to use shaping for some behaviors, luring for others, and a blend of the two for others still – as often as not a session or two of luring will make the process of shaping future (related) behaviors go extremely quickly.  Other behaviors don’t lend themselves as easily to as much variety.  For example, I almost always shape a formal retrieve.
  5. The dog’s learning history.  I find that dogs that have a strong shaping history are extremely quick and easy to train in this manner, so I’ll go there first.  Likewise, if a dog has a heavy history of luring I’ll tend to continue on that path unless the handler has expressed a different interest.  Remember, the student signed up to teach their dog precision heeling, not to learn a new training technique, so honor that if you can.

The “right” training technique is the one that minimizes frustration and moves the team to  mastery of their goal behaviors.

In some circumstances, such a tailored approach is not possible, so maybe I should add two additional criteria; the comfort level of the trainer and the circumstances at hand!  If you really only know or like one way to train a behavior, or if you are in a class environment where tailored training is difficult to achieve, then do what makes sense for your situation.

On another note:  Monday the 15th of August is the last day to sign up for a class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  With 34 classes to choose from, there’s a lot of opportunity to learn, whether your interest is skill building for a particular sport, learning to play or engage your dog,  or helping your nervous dog handle the world a bit better.  I’m teaching Precision Heeling and Engagement.  Check out the schedule here!: