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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!:


Pivots. More or Less

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When you teach a dog to pivot – either for heeling/left turns/180 left about turns, left finishes, utility gloves or articles, Fenzi Team Titles or whatever…your dog is expected to stay in heel position while you turn “on a spot”.  How hard can that be?

Kind of hard, actually, because people don’t normally turn on a spot.  And to do it correctly, your dog has to pull in sideways and move backwards – not always the easiest thing to accomplish.  If that doesn’t make sense, ask someone to “heel” you and you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve heard it said “stay on a dinner plate,” which is great advice.  Sadly, I’ve very carefully stayed on my dinner plate and then watched the video later.  Never seen a dinner plate THAT big before.  And it felt so correct at the time.

I teach dogs to pivot on a disc – that’s the first step but if you think about it, by virtue of walking around the disc you are not on a dinner plate – the dog is.  So when you take that disc away, you have to be conscious of holding your spot.  Try putting some masking tape on the floor and staying on it to help you learn how to pivot in a spot. Or hop up on that pivot disc yourself – that works too.

I also use a hand target over the dog’s head if they understand targets – it eases the transition from pivot disc to pivoting on the ground.

Here’s Raika working on her pivots.  First watch it casually – am I staying in one spot?  Next, place your curser on my feet and watch it again.  Not so much, really.

Videos are awesome.  Simply being aware of what I’m doing makes it very likely that I’ll do better next time.  With better handling and some practice, Raika will soon be doing perfect left pivots.  Then I’ll drop the hand help and go from there.  She needs this for her TEAM2 title – so I’d like to get it just right!





Fenzi TEAM titles?

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I’m working hard to stay calm but it’s quite a struggle because…

I’ve been busy!  Starting a new thing!  And I’m really really really excited about my new thing!

What is this new thing?  It’s this:  Fenzi Team Titles

TEAM is a brand new, online, video titling option for obedience. And it is very very cool🙂.

Registration began a few weeks ago, and we’re already seeing lots of excited people lining up to get started!

TEAM stands for Training Excellence Assessment Modules.  Each TEAM level builds upon the last level in a logical, progressive manner, so that your dog will end up extremely well trained, doing cool obedience things, and BOTH of you will have an excellent time doing it.

I could go on and on and on.  Instead, how about I show you a video?

This is Brito’s Level 1 TEAM+ submission.

He has to do 13 things, all off leash but…he can have cookies!  And props!  And no one exercise is too hard! Over time the exercises will become more complex, the quantity of cookies will fade, and the challenge level of the distractions will increase.

A little bit at a time, in a systematic way to allow both the dog and handler to succeed.

If a dog can finish TEAM6+, that team is in extremely good shape to compete anywhere in the world, under any system, simply by finishing off the behaviors into the chains required for that organization.

Curious?  Read about Team here

Want to see the levels?  See those here

Want to take an online class at FDSA to help you learn the TEAM skills?  Check out our schedule here; (two classes are well suited; Clockwork by Deb Jones for more advanced dogs and TEAM 1 and 2 with Laura Waudby for the basics).  It’s worth noting that you do NOT have to be an FDSA student to register a dog or compete in TEAM.

Want to see our map and find some local training buddies or classes?  See that here – go ahead and add yourself if you’d like!

Want to talk to other people who are also playing in TEAM?  Join our Facebook page, Fenzi Team Players, here!

I’m excited.  Trying to be calm but hey….I’m excited!  I see obedience as a fun, cool and engaging sport to do with your dog – and I see TEAM as a huge step towards bringing new people in to our sport.

Please share this blog post with anyone who think might be interested.  And then start training your dog!

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.


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