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From start to finished

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Want to compete with your dog?  Here it is; twenty steps for any dog sport.  If you’re struggling with your training, you may find that your answer is in here too.

  1. Get a dog. Have that? Awesome. One down already.
  2. Get equipment. What do you need? A leash and collar, some very tasty treats, and a few things for your sport. Because we teach sport behaviors as a series of foundation skills, the kinds of things you are going to need are going to be pretty simple, and will probably cross sports. For example, you will probably want a platform, a disk, something for your dog to retrieve, something for your dog to touch, a cone to go around, etc. You may need some specific things for your sport too, like tug toys.
  3. Make a list of foundation behaviors that you will need for your sport by learning about each exercise is that is required. To get that list of exercises, try the website and rules for whatever your sport and organization might be, and go from there.  Take each exercise that you will need to teach and break it down into its component pieces.    For example, a recall requires a sit, a stay, a front, a finish, and a recall! Teach those things separately.   Don’t worry about stringing them together.   Consider putting all of your foundation behaviors in a chart. That will come in handy later on.
  4. Teach those foundation behaviors.  Learn how to handle the behaviors when they go right, and how to handle those behaviors when they go wrong.  
  5.  Get a personality.   It is absolutely critical that you learn how to interact with your dog in a way that is fun for both of you. Do not stand around staring at your dog like a tree.   Pay attention!   Get involved!
  6. Introduce the concept of proofing. Proofing just means adding distractions and complications to the work so that your dog can become stronger. Now, go back to one of those foundation behaviors you started, and add a little challenge to it. You are now proofing that behavior.     Add a column for proofing to your chart of foundation behaviors.   If a behavior is going well under proofing, you can check it off. If a behavior is weak, keep working on it, ideally in a new way.
  7. Introduce the concept of generalization. That means to take the show on the road. Consider the sorts of places that you might compete with your dog, and try to mimic the “feel” in your training.  For example, if you will always be in a training building, then you might want to focus your energy on indoor spaces. If you will always be outdoors, then you might want to head to local parks, etc. What you do at those locations does not matter nearly as much as the fact that your dog is exposed to them. Add another column to your chart for generalization.
  8.   Watch your dog. About now is when you might’ve started to notice that your dog has some weird behaviors. Overly enthusiastic with new people in public, or fearful, or with attention problems, or whatever. This is a good time to figure out what they are, and set up a plan to deal with them.
  9. Mix it all up! Spend some of your time working on skills, some of your time on proofing, and occasionally get out and about.   Don’t forget to bring your personality with you.
  10. Create some behavior chains. To do that, take those foundation behaviors that you have proofed and generalized, and string them all together. Those are your exercises.  How do they look?  If good – yay!  If weak, figure out what piece is weak (the foundation behavior) and fix it.
  11. Start reducing those reinforcers.   There are different ways to do this. Most people back chain or forward chain to some extent.  At the end of a chain, give a more substantial reward. When working one’s foundation skills (which you will never stop doing) give less substantial rewards; cheerios vs. steak.
  12. Now mix it all up again!  You’re going to take your behavior chains on the road, with less reinforcement. Not all at once of course. In little bits and pieces. And only change one big thing at a time!  If it’s a new place then let that be your change; don’t start adding formality or reducing reinforcers at the same time.  
  13.  Add in some testing. Testing is different than training. It means a more formal demeanor. It means checking how your dog does when you continue an exercise even when something goes wrong. For example, your dog goes wide in heel position. Ignore it and continue. What happens next? Better to discover that now than in a trial. While testing is not something you want to do a lot of, you need to do it occasionally just to see what will happen next. That will set your training path for the next week or so.   Then test again. Eventually, you will test entire run-throughs.
  14. Start looking for events.  Go and observe. Leave your dog home.   Your job will be to notice how it all runs. Where do the dogs stay? If they are crated, can your dog do that comfortably? Do people tend to have their dogs out with them or away? Are they crated in cars are on in the working area? How close are the crates and dogs to each other? These are all things you will train for, as needed. Does anything make you nervous?  This is the time to take a hard look at your dog and decide if in person venues are appropriate for you, or if you might want to explore on-line trialing options instead.
  15. At the event, take some time to notice how the process works. Is there a table where you check in? Then what do you do? Each sport is a little different, so simply ask. People are always helpful.  If you come across a grump simply move on.  The next person will be nice.
  16. Go to another event. This time bring your dog along if it’s allowed. Observe your dog’s behavior. Is it going okay? If so, maybe you’re on your way! If it’s allowed, do a little practice on the side. Before you do that, make sure you ask if it’s okay. Are you happy with your dog’s behavior in this space?  If not, create a plan to address it.
  17. While you are there, ask about how you will enter the event. Somebody will explain it to you. If it requires an online entry form, go to the place where the entry form is, and take a look. Do you know the answers to the questions?
  18.   Do you know anyone in your sport? Either through online interaction or through in person training? Find out if they are going to go to any events, and try to go to the same one. It’s always easier and more fun when your first event has a familiar face.
  19. Enter.  Attend. Compete.  Go home.  Evaluate.
  20. If you did not develop your sense of humor somewhere between #1 and #19, go ahead and do that now. Because your team will probably fail. A lot. That is part of the game, and part of the learning process. It’s also part of the joy when your dog gets it all right. Figure out what went wrong in the above 19 steps, address it, and try again.

Good luck!  Fenzi Dog Sports Academy offers classes for pretty much all of these – check out our schedule or send me a note through the instructor’s link if you’re stuck, and I will give you some direction. Registration closes on the 15th, so don’t wait much longer – classes started on the 1st.

Leadership: Management Training!

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For my first post in this series on Leadership, I talked about the importance of reacting when things are happening around you, whether talking about a dog or a child. Few things scream lack of leadership like an absence of human direction, so avoid that!

In the second in the series, I talked about handling a situation where your dog is behaving badly, and neither the dog nor the human has any training. Regardless of the cause, my advice was the same: get out of there one way or the other.

Next, I considered a slightly more sophisticated situation; a handler that happens to be carrying cookies with her.

And now?  Now let’s talk about a handler who is aware that their dog may react badly to something and who wants to be prepared should a bad situation arise.

Note that we are still talking about the concept of leadership; the difference this time is that we have a pro-active handler who is willing to put in training time in advance, should they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

Let’s start with the goal. The goal is to get out of a situation with your dog as a willing participant, rather than having to physically remove your dog from the situation, or rely on a cookie that you’re probably not holding anyway.

And to reach that goal, we are going to teach the dog to orient to you and move in your direction.   Not a recall with the dog on a 6-foot leash facing you (whenever might you need that?) and not a recall where the dog runs to you from across the yard (though that is useful).  There will be no stationary handler, no stationary dog, and no distance,  because right now, we don’t need any of that.

What we need is a dog that orients to you, regardless of what else is happening, on a specific cue, like the dog’s name.

Here are a few steps to get you started.  Note that the more proofing (distractions over time) that you add to this exercise and the more effort you put into it, the more useful this skill will be – not only for for management in public but also for teaching a more traditional recall – when you want the dog to come to you in spite of the amazing things that are happening in the world.

You will need:  a dog, the most amazing food you can possibly come up with and space behind you to back up. That’s it.

Here is what you will do.

  1. When your dog is looking away from you (this is important), you will reach in front of your dog’s nose, wiggle that amazing food, and back up quickly at least 10 feet while your dog chases you and the food.  Give the dog the food.  I chatter cheerfully during this training, but that’s your choice.
  2. When that is solid (which should take a matter of minutes;  all your dog is doing is chasing food while you back up – no talent required), you will repeat that step, except this time you will wait until your dog is actually doing something else.  For example, sniffing a spot on the ground.   Put that cookie right under your dog’s nose, wiggle it, and back up at least ten feet before handing it over.
  3.  When your dog is already turning around when he sees you coming up behind him and before you have a chance to show him the cookie, add your cue (I use chatter as my cue) – back up immediately with that cookie, wiggling away!
  4. When your dog responds instantly to that verbal cue, start practicing when your dog is doing more interesting things.
  5. When that is going well, repeat all of the steps WITHOUT a cookie in your hand – as you are backing up you will be reaching into your pocket to get one.  However, you will still do a mousy move with your hand – that is going to become your visual signal to your dog.

This video attempts to show the basic idea.  In the first two repetitions, I am holding/wiggling a cookie in front of his nose.  For the final repetition there is no cookie in the hand, but note that my behavior still mimics the first two repetitions, as if I were holding a cookie:

Training for Reactivity Management

The goal is that your dog will respond instantly to your cue and turn away from whatever it is out there. The more you work on this, the more likely it is to become a reflex for the dog. So rather than thinking about whether or not they want to respond, often in a time when they are no longer able to think, they will simply respond to the words (in my video example, my chatter of “pup pup pup”.) It is not at all unusual for dogs to be able to respond almost reflexively to a cue or noise that is extremely well-known, even if they can’t respond to much else.

Now take your dog into the big wide world. Remember that you are paying attention, because you are the leader, and you are responsible for your team. You notice your dog start to react to something, hopefully at the “looking” stage rather than the slathering, screaming, lunging phase. You are behind your dog and he is looking away, so this should feel very familiar to both of you. You instantly work to get your dog oriented to you, start backing up and making chatter (wiggling your hand all the while), and backup as far as necessary to get out of the situation. At that point, get out a cookie and give it to your dog and then congratulate both of you for your excellent training and management!

But…what if it doesn’t work? What if you waited too long? What if your dog didn’t respond as expected? What if retraining had not progressed far enough to get to this level of distraction?

In spite of the fact that I just asked it, I am not going to answer that question. Read through the past blogs and see if you can figure it out for yourself.  If you can’t, keep reading those prior blogs until it is obvious to you.  Believe me – it’s there in spades.

And when the event is over, what will you do? Contact a trainer, your mentor, or a sophisticated dog-friend, and asked for help dealing with your dog’s problem with reactivity.

I can almost guarantee that your reactivity training will go much better now because you’ve put some time into showing your dog that you are paying attention and that you are trustworthy to solve problems – you are showing leadership. You have taught your dog that you can get him out of situations where he should not be. You have stepped up instantly, rather than passively watching as situations spiraled out of control.

That’s leadership. And it is, hands down, the hardest thing I teach people.

If you would like to learn how to teach your dog a rock solid recall (a godsend for a reactive dog and quite useful for all dogs), go ahead and check out our recall class at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for the August 1st term.   Chrissi Schranz will take you through six weeks of step-by-step recall training.  And if you’d like some help working through your dog’s reactivity issues rather than simply managing them, check out Dr. Amy Cook’s class, Dealing with the Bogeyman.

Good luck!

Leadership: A little bit of knowledge!

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This blog is a continuation of my leadership series of posts.   Please see the last two to “catch up” if necessary.

In my first blog of this series, I talked about the importance of reacting when things are happening around you, whether talking about a dog or a child. Nothing screams lack of leadership like an absence of human direction, so avoid that. I also suggested that exactly what you did to intervene mattered less than the fact that you intervened.

In my last blog, the second in the series, I talked about handling a situation where your dog is behaving badly, and neither the dog nor the human have any training. Your average dog owner got caught flat-footed.   Regardless of the cause, my advice was the same: get out of there one way or the other. First, manage the event; the training will come later.

Now let’s consider a slightly more sophisticated situation. In this case, the handler has some minimal training,  and as a result, she is inclined to be carrying cookies with her. It is also possible that she has had one or more bad experiences in the past, so is “on notice” that things could go wrong.

Ok; here we go again.  For whatever reason, your dog starts misbehaving. Possibly growling, barking, lunging etc. What should the handler, who happens to have food on her, do in a case like this?

As soon as she realizes her dog is in a bad spot, she should take a cookie, wiggle it like a little mouse in front of her dog’s nose, and redirect her dog 180° away from whatever has his attention.  The goal is to magnetize the dog to the coookie while moving away.   After that, the advice is the same:

Get out of there!

The “get out of there” process should happen as soon as the handler recognizes a problem, because the longer the situation goes on, or the closer the handler gets before she realizes there is an issue, the more likely it is that her cookies are not going to attract her dog. The dog may be aware of them but too over-aroused by the situation to really care at that moment.

So let’s run with that for a second. Let’s say that the handler tries the cookies, and the dog ignores them!

Then get out of there however you will. Review the last blog for more ideas on this.

The notable thing for the cookie in hand technique to work is that the handler has to 1)  be paying attention and 2) have a cookie in her hand very very quickly.

So here’s a question for you. If the handler gets into a bad spot and the dog is acting up noticeably, should the handler stand there and fish around in her pocket until she finds a cookie, or should she revert to the no cookie approach?

This isn’t necessarily a black-and-white answer but in general, I would suggest reverting to the no cookie approach. The reality is, the longer you stand there doing nothing, the less likely the dog is going to want it anyway.  That’s because a little over-arousal has a way of becoming big over-arousal when nothing intervenes to stop that process.

So let’s say that happens.   The handler gets into a bad spot.   The handler is not paying attention, so the dog is pretty high by the time she recognizes the need to intervene. She is holding the leash, but struggling to get a cookie out of their bag because the dog is pulling.

Forget the cookie and act like you don’t have any on you. Get out of there one way or the other. Use your voice or physically interrupt the dog’s behavior, and get as far away as you need.

There is a silver lining here, however. If the handler has cookies on her body, whether or not she was able to use them to get out of the situation, she should absolutely use them once they are further away, because food will help to calm the dog down. In that case, the order would look like this:

The dog and the handler approach. The dog becomes agitated. The handler doesn’t notice. The dog starts to act out noticeably. The handler claps or taps the dog physically or blocks the dog, or whatever, and gets the dog out of the situation. The handlers is then able to get the dog further away and the dog is no longer looking in the problem direction. The handler then feeds the dog’s cookies until calm – (both of them, since the handler is probably a wreck by now too.)

And now that all is calm and you have some free time, call your mentor, friend, or dog trainer, and set up a training plan to make things better for the future.

Is this the best possible handling/managing of a situation?  No, it’s not. In this case, you had a handler with some training and a dog with little or none. So what can you do in a situation where the dog has more training, or the handler is possibly on notice that their dog has an issue and really wants to fix it?

Next, we’ll consider bare bones management for a bad situation where the handler is somewhat sophisticated and has taken the time to train their dog, at least a little, in advance. We’ll call that “training for management”.


Leadership; Entry level Management

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In my last blog, I talked about leadership. The importance of reacting when things are happening around you, whether talking about a dog or a child. Nothing screams lack of leadership like an absence of behavior or direction, so that is to be avoided. I also suggested that exactly what you did to intervene mattered less than the fact that you intervened.

Now, I don’t exactly believe that 100%. I do think it matters how you intervene, but I am also pragmatic.  Some dogs (and handlers) have absolutely no training so my preferred forms of intervention won’t apply (because they require some prior training). I consider the damage done with a dog misbehaving and receiving no human feedback against the damage done of a handler dragging a dog away by the collar.  In my mind, lack of feedback is the greater sin.  Not to mention – the one being yelled at has some rights too, and deserves relief.

So let’s call these worst-case scenarios; something has to happen, and neither the dog nor the handler know what that might be. In the name of leadership, I’m expecting the human to step up. To handle the matter one way or the other. This is going to be a one-size-fits-all approach.  Remember, no training, and the dog and the handler are equally naïve. Now what?

First I need to point out that in last blog on leadership, I sort of asked a trick question. I gave a number of scenarios with a child who was struggling, and I suggested that we might want to look at each one and decide how we would handle it. If you did that, did the reason for the child’s misbehavior matter to you?

How I handle behavior IN THE MOMENT has very little to do with what caused it; I take a one-size-fits-all approach.  I’m going to handle it exactly the same no matter what caused the behavior because I’m in management mode. Training is a whole ‘nother story, but right now we are not talking about training, were talking about what to do when misbehavior is in progress.

So here’s the answer:

Get out of the situation however comes to your mind first. It’s that simple. I don’t care if your child or dog is yelling because they are afraid, or angry, or jealous, or pretty much anything else. It does not matter. What does matter is that the more an individual practices a behavior and experiences the related emotions, and the more time you stand around acting like you haven’t got a clue, the more likely you are to see that behavior again. That’s bad.

So you need to get out of the situation.

How does one get out of the situation?

Well, anything you do that inputs into your dog senses is going to influence your dog’s behavior. If your dog hears your voice, you’re interrupting what is happening in front of them. So if your cheerful talking interrupts your dog’s behavior, great! When the dog looks at you, backup as fast as you can and get out of there, so it doesn’t start up again.   But what if your cheerful voice does not interrupt your dog? Fine. Try your not cheerful voice. You’re irritated hey what are you doing now? Voice. And when your dog looks at you? Get out of there.

And if that doesn’t work, because your dog is not influenced by your voice or is too far gone? Fine. physically touch or pick up your dog, or physically block your dog from whatever they are looking at.  You tap your dog on his rear end, and it causes your dog to turn to you? Great! Talk cheerfully to your dog and start backing up – talking and moving the whole while. And if that doesn’t work? Get in front of your dog and block him from whatever it is that is upsetting him. If he can’t see it, it’s going to be a lot harder for him to be yelling at it. So shorten up your leash, hold him back, and get it front of your dog’s face. If that doesn’t make your dog look up at you, walk into his space until he looks up because now you are his problem. He looks up at you? Great! Now get out of there, back away from the situation and bring him with you. If your dog looks back? Block your dog and repeat this. Get out of there!  There is no reason why this will ever take more than five seconds if you were paying some sort of attention in the first place.

Notice that in none of these examples did I mention putting a cookie in front of your dog’s face. Considering that would actually be my preferred relative novice answer, that’s sort of a strange thing. Why didn’t I mention that?

Because your average newbie handler does not have a handful of cookies at the ready, and if they did, then that’s not a naïve dog and handler team; that’s a dog with some training and a handler with the foresight to have a pile of cookies. We’ll get to that in the next blog.

All I want to do now is instantly stop the behavior that is taking place, so that the dog is not rehearsing it, and I want to communicate to the dog that the handler is paying attention. That’s all.

And when I say get out of there, what does that mean? Exactly that.  Get out of there.  How far you have to get out will be determined by the dog’s behavior – maybe 100 feet will do the trick or maybe you’ll be back in the car.  Where your dog is looking is the key to the correct distance. If your dog is still looking continuously in the bad direction, you’re not far enough.  Go back more.

What you decide to do next is not within the realm of management; that would be training so we won’t discuss that here because “it depends”.  Now you have the luxury of time to develop your training plan – call that friend or mentor or dog trainer and see about that.  For now – just get out of there.

In the next blog, I’ll consider a dog that is naïve, but with a handler that has a little bit more knowledge and awareness. What can we do for those people?


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What is a leader?

For my purposes as a dog trainer, it means the one who provides direction; the one who takes responsibility for making “it” happen; the one who takes care of the emotional well-being of the other.

Unlike dominance, there is nothing unpleasant about leadership or being led;
indeed, most of us are more than willing to accept the direction of a good leader. Our dogs are no different.

For the purposes of this discussion, leadership has two components; handling events in the moment and making decisions for the future.

On its most basic level, as I am presenting it here, how might we use this concept to help us become better dog trainers and owners? To make better decisions for our dogs when there is no time to consult a book or call our mentor?

Let’s start by considering leadership as it relates to a parent-child relationship. In this case, visualize a child who is just becoming verbal. An older toddler; two or three years of age.

You take your child into a situation and something happens that you would prefer not to see again. What do you do?

You go to the park and he tries to take a toy from a smaller child. What do you do?

You go to the park and he starts yelling at, or trying to hit, another child (who threatened to hit him the day before). What do you do?

You go to the park and he starts yelling at, or trying to hit, another child (for no obvious reason at all). What do you do?

You take your toddler to a local talent contest and he freezes up and does nothing. What do you do?

Really think about each example. Don’t worry about the fact that you might not put your child into any particular situation or that you may not spend time with children at all; simply think about it as if it is happening, and now you need to react.  What do you do RIGHT NOW?

Do you stand around, watch, and see what happens next? Go catatonic because you’re not sure what the “right” answer is? Hope for the best and smile pleasantly when your child looks to you for direction? Are you silent? Are you paying enough attention to even be aware of what is happening? Hand over a snack and continue to stand in the same spot?

At this time, I am not going to answer these questions for you. To a large extent, how you handle any of these situations is a function of what you believe about parenting. Depending on your philosophy, that response might vary from taking the child further away, to distracting him, to having a quiet conversation, to smacking him.  But in all cases, one presumes that you understand that whatever happens now cannot undo what happened; you’re reacting – damage control.

What you do next, after you get through the initial event, will also vary. You might decide to try again with very close supervision or assistance. You might decide to avoid the situation. You might decide the situation cannot be handled at this time and the best thing to do is go home. But whatever you do next, you will have reacted in some manner and then made a follow-up decision. Hopefully, with an eye to preventing a recurrence.

I would like to believe that no parent would simply stand around, hoping for the best, paralyzed with indecision because they cannot remember exactly what the correct steps are, smiling and nodding at their child while doing nothing at all. Any of those decisions would scream lack of leadership, and if you did parent in that manner then soon enough your child would stop looking to you for help at all.  At the ripe old age of three, your child would figure out that they were on their own…good luck with intelligent decision making at that age.  Your child may become a bully, they may become a victim or they may turn out just fine! But odds that your young child can make the right decisions without intervention aren’t very good – which is why we supervise and provide leadership for them.

The most important thing that a leader does is get involved when needed; when the “other” is being controlled by emotion, then a leader with a clear head needs to step up – right now. Whether you decide to stand quietly coaching your child or yelling at them for their behavior after the fact, you don’t disengage. You don’t leave them on their own. You don’t act helpless like you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t stand and watch with curiosity, fascination or horror – doing nothing. You don’t whine and complain about how good all of the other children are, and your child is the only one who can’t behave, while watching the misbehavior escalate.

That is because responsible parents lead their children; they take responsibility for setting a direction in situations beyond the child’s capacity, and then they make it happen. As a leader, you might make a good choice or a poor one, but you do something.

Your dog is the same. Be a leader.  You might make a good decision in the moment or not, but make sure your dog knows that you’re paying attention. Better yet make sure your dog knows that he can count on you for support while he learns how he is expected to behave.  In the moment, what should you do?


If you do this, your dog will learn to look to you faster and faster over time when they are unsure about what to do.  Get involved.

And then, after you’re out of the moment (management), then we try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  That’s training – for both children and pets.  That is when we can ask trusted friends for input.

If people are interested in this, we can look at each of the above topics in future blogs, and consider our options.  You will discover that making good decisions for your dog is actually not that complicated when you consider your behavior as a function of leadership (decisions in the moment) followed up by training (to set up success into the future).


Broad Jump Training

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The broad jump is not one of my favorite exercises to teach.  However, I’m approaching it a little differently these days, having some success, and now I’m liking it better.

Funny how that works.

With Brito I shaped the broad jump, much as many people shape the high jump.  I worked on that shaped jump from a standstill so that I could be convinced that he understood the expectation.

When the dog is taught the broad jump by running with the dog, it’s pretty easy for the dog to think that jumping the jump is contingent on handler movement and speed.   That can be really frustrating when the handler has to stand still, and all of a sudden the dog has no idea how to perform independently.

Teaching the dog to jump from a standstill while the handler is not moving gets around this issue.  You can shape that easily enough.

Here’s a short video that should give you a pretty clear idea of the various steps that I went through with Brito.

Obviously, the exercise is not finished but all of the basic pieces are there.   I would still have to lengthen the jump, and work on the front at the end of the exercise.   But because he already knows how to go out of his way to take the jump, and that completing the jump is the task at hand, the odds of corner cutting go way down.

Obviously, there is proofing and generalization to consider as well but that’s a story for another day.

This method will work both to teach the exercise and to re-train dogs that are not clear on the exercise.

Note how I handle errors near the end of the video; I praise his effort! Keep your dog in the game. It’s also worth noting that this session is much too long for this dog. I should have worked for a minute or two and then let it go for the day.

Brito’s Story and….Barking!

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I did a Facebook live yesterday; below is a Youtube link to the conversation.

The first 18:30 is a story out of Brito’s book – it’s basically how he ended up in my home. Go ahead and show it to your kids or enjoy a story for yourself.

The rest is a discussion of barking – why it happens and what we can do about it:


If you enjoy “listening” instead of (or in addition to) reading, you may also want to check out the FDSA podcast.  We release these once a week.  There are currently seventeen episodes for your enjoyment!  You can subscribe or watch them directly off the site.  We also provide a transcript for each podcast on that site.