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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.



To Own a Dog

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Think about this for a minute. What it is to have a dog, another species, for a friend.  A companion who will be there with you, day after day, asking little more than something to eat and a safe place to live.

I can take my dog’s leash off and know that she’ll return to me. She will chase critters, smell good smells, snack on fresh grass or play ball, but always with an eye on me.  When she is done with her most current adventure, we’ll go home together.

I can ask her to come to me and remain by my side, and she will choose to respond because it’s our habit to cooperate with each other, even though she has freedom to choose otherwise.  Yes, I trained these things but she does not follow my requests out of obedience.  She follows because it works for both of us, to live in harmony together.

My friendship with this dog affects other people as well. Walkers, cyclists, and equestrians all smile as we pass by. My dog’s joyful leaping and running infects other people with her happiness; a reminder of the pleasure of being curious and free.  I am gratified to realize the power I have to make another living creature so joyful as she bounces and runs on our way out.  Alone, it’s just a walk, but with my dog it’s our shared exploration.

And then I see people smile when we return.  Now my dog walks quietly at my side, keeping me company. Everyone is happy to see our companionship. Things feel right in the world when a person is out with their dog, together with friendship.

There is no comparison between a person walking alone and a person walking with a dog. I have all of the benefits of solitude; time to think and breathe, but none of the disadvantages of being alone. I am not alone.

Not all dogs are so beautifully balanced, but a lot of dogs are, or have the potential to be. How amazing this is, a species that is not considered rare or valuable – just a dog that we take for granted, willingly staying in our homes and by our side. Dogs are widely available; many people can have one, which means that you can go out and adopt or buy a friend. Think about that. You can adopt or buy a friend. Doesn’t even matter if you’re a nice person – you can still have a friend.

I put in some time to get to friendship, but that wasn’t work.  As with all relationships, part of the pleasure was finding ways to have both of our needs met.  I enjoyed her youthful silliness as well as the training time that gently helped mold her maturity.  And now, as my dog approaches her twelfth birthday, I marvel at the connection we’ve built with little more than the natural capacity of our species to fall in love with each other.

I can pet her soft fur, share a snack, or we can walk. I can work on my computer and she’ll be found asleep under my desk.  And when I go to bed for the night, I know she’ll sleep nearby.  She is always there, waiting for me, for the price of her name.

In exchange for a few meals, the occasional walk, and a hand on her head when she asks for attention, I have a friend.  Day after day, that’s all it takes for my dog, a different species, to choose me.  An animal living contentedly in my home and giving back to me in ways to numerous to count.  A bit of a miracle, really.

If everyone had a dog for a friend – not because they thought they should get a dog, or to do dog sports, or to guard the house, or because families have dogs – if people got a dog for a friend, and then learned to treat that dog as a friend, the world would be a very different place.  A kinder, warmer and better place.



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