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The Happy Emotions – A Party for Two

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There is a school of thought that suggests dog training is a purely scientific endeavor that relies 100% on a trainer’s mechanical skills – a good trainer should be able to take any random dog and create behaviors, whether or not they have any real relationship with that dog.  Within this school of thought, emotional or verbal interactions from the trainer are perceived as distractions.  A verbal “yeah!” is frowned upon.  Celebration? Downright unprofessional.  Good training is sterile.

Somehow, that sterility has been called a “benefit” because it leads to the faster acquisition of behaviors.  True enough; taking the time to genuinely interact with your dog will interfere with the flow of training.  It’s even possible that it might distract the dog from their task, thereby losing some of your forward momentum.

The fact is, this clinical method of dog training works quite well to GET behaviors – indeed, I think it is the fastest way to obtain them.  But dog training is not a race.  The dog who acquires behaviors slowly because of  joyful personal interactions during training has a real long term advantage over the dog who acquires behaviors quickly, but sees the trainer as a food dispenser rather than an engaging partner.

If you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably interested in not only getting behaviors, but also in maintaining them.  You want reliability under conditions where the dog has figured out that no food and toys will be forthcoming.  Dogs can be tricked into believing that the reward is coming during a trial for awhile, but one day, your dog WILL figure out that the traditional rewards simply do not happen in the ring.  The question then becomes….what’s left?

If you plan to compete at the higher levels of obedience, you might want to think about how you train your dog NOW so that she stays in the game when the food and the toys do not materialize later.  That’s when your emotions – your genuine and enthusiastic interactions with your dog – can get you through…  but only if you’ve trained that way.  Whipping out the party in the ring will only confuse your dog if you haven’t conditioned that as a normal reward in practice.

If you’re having fun (and I certainly hope you are, though at times I’ve watched others training and wondered), then why not share that joy with another being, a being who is genetically hardwired to pay attention to your emotions?  Yes, dogs read our emotions….very well, in fact.  The more externally you express your happy emotions, the more your dog will learn to look for them.  If you can get your dog addicted to your happy emotions, then your dog will work to elicit them. Teach your dog to work you, not just for food and toys, but for your emotional reactions.

The more expressive you are as a person, the easier this will be.  But if you’re a person who internalizes feelings, that’s okay, because what your dog will notice is a change in your overall emotional state.  Dogs get used to you however you are; you don’t have to imitate my style to show joy to your dog, but you do need to change where you are on your personal register.  The very external and exuberant person will need to go higher than an internal person.

Now we’ll try it.

Get your dog and start a training session.  Identify a point when you’d normally toss out a cookie, but before you give it, show a true expression of joy or a play-based behavior to your dog.  Remember, for some of you, that will just be a genuine smile.  For others, it will be a full out whooping, leaping, free for all.  The cookie is now rewarding your interaction rather than the behavior that precedes it.

Now refine it a little; think in terms of “degrees.”  Small accomplishments will elicit a reaction, but not the same reaction as a major breakthrough would.  If a smile is good, a smile and a pat are better.  A smile, pat and hug are better still.  And then there are the moments where you’ll practically break out into song…running around and cheering and offering your best play-based behaviors.

This approach to training isn’t hard, but you will need to give yourself permission to show on the outside what you’re already feeling on the inside.  Once you get the hang of it, you’ll love it.  It feels good to play with your dog and soon, your dog will start to smile right back at you!  Then it’s almost impossible to stop training because you’ll get addicted to that happy feeling.

It astonishes me to hear well regarded trainers say that dogs require a paycheck to perform, and then imply that food is the only paycheck that really matters.  Yes, the dog requires a paycheck, but don’t assume food is the only currency.

A high percentage of dogs will work to play and interact, but only if you build and maintain that interest.  If you train as if you have no more value than a food dispenser, then you will remove your dog’s love of interaction, but when you celebrate with your dog, you take advantage of a unique and powerful aspect of dogs: they CARE what you think about them.  When you talk to your dog, they wag their tails because they like to hear your sincere and enthusiastic praise.  When you run around and act silly with your dog, they will join you, especially if you start when they are young and you work to build and maintain that interest.

If you show genuine expressions of joyful emotion, you’ll be surprised how much you can reduce your food and toy rewards.  If you’ve been shoveling out food for years then you’ll struggle with this concept, because now it’s a matter of food deprivation rather than attractive alternatives.  But if you’ve naturally blended the existence of classic rewards (food and toy) with interactive rewards (play and praise) then the issue of deprivation does not arise.  It’s simply varied reinforcement.

Surely you feel joy and excitement when your dog accomplishes some goals?  Why restrict yourself to a private party when you can invite your dog?  This is a party that deserves a guest, so make it a party of two!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

19 responses »

  1. This is why my neighbors think I’m crazy. Also, I meant to tell you that fruit loops appear to work even better than goldfish, but it may just be that they are new and different. Popcorn dusted with rabbit scent is still the best for tracking though.

  2. When we started training for SAR, my trainer, a big burly cop told me if I didn’t feel like a fool with my expression of happiness I wasn’t doing it right. Now it is the absolute same overwhelming expression of “HAPPY” with whatever he brings me and some of it is not really pleasant, dirty old gitch someone left in the bush or old tp someone left behind. HAPPY Happy and HAPPIER still. Good dog, yuck!!!

  3. With my previous competitive dog we had a very good relationship and had a tremendous amount of fun while training. We’d go to the local park and easily spend an hour training and playing. I’ve always claimed that Gita was brilliant she learned new things very quickly and really learned them. We worked on a new behavior at a training camp, then three months later (with no additional practice) tried the exercise again and she still remembered it.
    With my current group of dogs, for what ever reason, I stopped doing a lot of the fun/play behaviors. And I’ve noticed, I don’t train as often, nor as long. It’s no longer fun for me or the dogs. I also found myself complaining that either I’m not a good trainer or my current dogs aren’t as smart.
    This really is an eye opener. Obviously I’ve stopped having fun while training –and it shows.

  4. In the end though, it does come back to science. You’ve successfully conditioned praise/play/excitement to mean there may be a cookie coming. If there’s not, that’s okay, because maybe next time there will be, or the time after that, or the time after that. I really don’t know how long it can go on without a primary reinforcer, though. Even if you reward one in 20 repetitions, chances are the dog will still perform the behavior, holding out for the cookie, accepting the praise and fun and play in its place. I’m guessing you didn’t mean never reinforcing with food, though, right?

    I did enjoy this post, though, and have been working on conditioning praise and play with my own dog lately for the same reason you’ve pointed out. I do have tons more fun when we’re not using food exclusively, that’s for sure.

    • I believe you are wrong. Praise/play IS a primary reinforcer for dogs. To assume that praise/play only has value if it is paired with food goes against everything that people know intuitively about dogs. My dogs wag their tails and interact with me when I smile at them and praise them in my house, and that NEVER predicts food. They wag and smile because they enjoy the interaction for the sake of the interaction. They play with each other because they enjoy play – not because one dog feeds the other. My adult dogs rarely receive toys or food in training. If I train for five days, it would be unusual for me to bring out either food or toy for more than one of those, and normally it is because I am either teaching something new, or am trying to fix/refine a current behavior. When I go to a show, I don’t even bother to bring the food and toys along, because my dogs know I cannot give it to them in the ring, and I hate to make the time outside of the ring better than the time inside the ring.

      • Scientifically, praise/play/interaction is not a primary reinforcer. Only food, water, sex, and air are primaries. However, that doesn’t mean that these secondary reinforcers can’t be more powerful than a primary reinforcer. Secondary reinforcers aren’t lower value reinforcers, they’re just things that aren’t necessary for survival.

        My dog vastly prefers play to food, and if there’s a hot dog on the ground on one end of the training ring and I’m having a party on the other end, 9 times out of 10 he’s going to choose me over the hot dog (and that 10th time, he’ll probably grab the hot dog and book it back to me so he can eat it with my company).

        Primary, secondary, and tertiary reinforcers refer to scientific definitions, not to a “best to worst” rating system. My goal is to have my dog’s response to tertiary reinforcers (cues) be every bit as joyful as his response to primary (food) and secondary (tug or play with mama). All of this is possible with positive, relationship-based training.

      • Several months ago I researched the issue you bring up, because it was not “sitting right” with me that only food, water, sex and air were considered primary reinforcers FOR DOGS. As a result, I ended up in an e-mail correspondence with Ken Ramirez, a well recognized expert in the field of animal training and behavior. Ken gave me permission to share, so here complete response follows. I believe your definition covers animal behavior in general, but within a species there can be several more that are not normally mentioned in generic definitions.

        Hi Denise,

        In reference to your question regarding secondary and primary reinforcers, one of the areas of great interest and specialization for me is the use of non-food reinforcers and the desire to help trainers understand them better and use them more effectively. The definitions that I use in my workshops and classes are not based on my opinion but direct quotes from several scientific sources.

        Primary Reinforcer – Something that satisfies a biological need; something that is inherently reinforcing

        Secondary Reinforcer – A reinforcer that has acquired its value through association with a primary reinforcer.

        These are widely accepted definitions. Food is one of the more common primary reinforcers. However, there are many others including social interaction and play – which are often used in animal training as well. However, one of the challenges that young trainers have is that they frequently underestimate the importance of establishing reinforcers and the need to build relationships. Inexperienced trainers will often see a dog that appears to love having his belly rubbed and assume that all dogs will find a belly rub reinforcing. Yet, when they use belly rubbing in their training program, they may find that behavior breaks down; often because they did not have the experience to recognize that their particular dog did not find a belly rub as reinforcing as they had assumed.

        Likewise, many experienced trainers will demonstrate the value of toys (balls, tug toys, squeaky toys, etc.) as reinforcers and young trainers sometimes mistakenly walk away with the impression that any toy will serve to reinforce any dog – which is certainly not true. The other mistake is that people often will refer to toys as primary reinforcers. Toys are learned reinforcers, they are conditioned reinforcers. The primary reinforcer is what they get to do with the toy – chewing, chasing, tugging – these are primary reinforcers not the toy itself. Imagine a dog that loves to play tug with its owner, if you toss the tug toy in front of the dog as a reinforcer, it will not be very reinforcing unless you are holding the other end and playing the game. The primary reinforcement comes from the game of tugging and the social interaction with you the owner. To use tugging as a reinforcer in a training session requires training on your part to get the dog to release it. The tug toy itself is a learned reinforcer (secondary reinforcer) which is maintained by pairing it with primary reinforcers (tugging and social interaction). I hope that makes sense.

        I work with scent detection dogs and search and rescue dogs and we frequently use tennis balls as a reinforcer. We never use food in the field. However, the ball is a secondary or learned reinforcer that gets its value from being paired with the primary reinforcer of chasing and/or chewing. To make the ball into a high value reinforcer, we play games with the ball and help teach the dog how much fun a tennis ball can really be. The value of the ball gets higher and higher the more we play with it. Trainers frequently make the mistake of calling the ball a primary reinforcer – it is not – it is a secondary reinforcer that has been paired frequently with primary reinforcement. But the primary reinforcement is not food, it is playing, chasing, and chewing.

        Most experienced trainers know how to recognize reinforcers that motivate their dog without thinking too much about whether or not what they are using is a primary or a secondary reinforcer. As practical trainers, what matters most is what it is that motivates our animals. However when a novice trainer is on the path to becoming a professional trainer, I find it helpful if they learn the distinctions between primary and secondary reinforcers. It often prevents them from making the mistake of making an assumption about what an animal finds reinforcing.

        This e-mail is already too long. But I hope my descriptions make sense. If not, please e-mail me further questions and I will try to clarify.


        Ken Ramirez

  5. Denise, I couldn’t agree more. The relationship between a dog and a human can be so much more than a cookie, and we limit and shortchange ourselves AND our dogs if we focus solely on food as a primary reinforcer. I naturally tend to be extroverted in my training, but your post still really made me think about how I can do things better and make training more rewarding and enjoyable for my dogs – using me, myself, and I 🙂 Thanks for all your posts!

  6. I have to agree with Denise on this, Kaptain has been raised with 1 primary goal in mind, “Not to be a food hound”, we successfully validated Kaptain in wilderness search at 2 years of age without the use of any food rewards. Absolutely none of his behaviors have been shaped by anything other than praise and play. He could careless about cookies or treats, maybe a big hunk of meat, smile at him, play tug or even a good atta boy and he is on. He strives to make me happy and I in turn strive to make him happy, not to have a “cookie” dog

  7. I have been enjoying your blog ever since you got Lyra and began blogging about her! Felt your pain, laughed at your frustration, rejoiced in the happiness and delight. Today’s post really said a lot about how I train, and I thought you would like to see a fun video I downloaded a few days ago.

    I have 2 Rough Collies, and we participate in all sorts of venues including breed, obedience, herding, agility, rally, therapy…..HOWever, our most Fun activity is Canine Freestyle Dance, and the boyz and I have achieved several national awards and titles, making us the “highest level of Rough Collies in the World Canine Freestyle Org.” Sounds a bit “pompous,” but actually this is so dang fun that it completely overrides everything else we do. The training for this is pure joy and allows for lots of creative input from the dog. The result, of course, is a Learning Machine who wants to “work” all the time. Therefore, I am always looking for new “stuff” to show them. Hence the “dog cookie jar.” Have a look.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog! Toni Bailey, Tahlequah OK

  8. I admire your patience and what you are able to build with your dogs; such incredible insight for us all. You are gifted, Ms. Fenzi. I hope others out there can find the courage to give as much of themselves to their dogs, too. I know I will work harder to share a genuine connection not centered on tangibles outside my own enthusiasm for the moment.

  9. I love this post!

    I attended a seminar today and at the end people were asking questions and the instructor was sharing her opinion that a “house dog” or “family dog” uses so much drive and energy in living with us that they would never be successful in the upper levels in competitions. I found this quite sad and I disagree. There are several successful partnerships out there at world class level that also enjoy their dogs as family pets. I’m glad to see others working their dog not just for the medals but for the joy of working with your partner.

  10. sigh. i really miss training with you. your enthusiasm is infectious. i still have “big parties’ when Loki or Juno does a GREAT find (of a hidden object) in the house that hide for them. If it was really a hard search, they get a big party from me then it rains treats. To me, showing your enthusiasm and having fun is the best part of training! in fact, i’m pretty sloppy trainer, i’m not as fast at marking behaviors for clean or tightness. but boy do we have fun. and that’s all i ever really want from them. I get a lot of neighbors on my street, cautious of big dogs (because there are two very people and dog aggressive fence fighter dogs who live near us), who just adore these two (even the little sweet old lady stops and pets them when we’re out) and i truly believe it’s because of the relationship i have with them. they think they are the most well-behaved dogs ever (ha! we all know better, right?) but the fact is, they’re happy dogs and that’s what makes them look so good!

  11. Love this post! It’s all about the joy. I think one thing dogs and humans have in common is the capacity to play their whole lives. Training is the perfect place to celebrate that.

  12. I’m so glad I found this post! It totally backs up what I’ve recently discovered with my dog. That having FUN together creates better, stronger behaviors than simply click/treat. I sort of just fell upon it trying to make heeling more fun and create a more focused dog in the ring. Through input from Susan Garrett (transfer of value) and Michele Pouliot (you always bring yourself in the ring), I started using vigorous petting and games to reward the behaviors I wanted. As a result, she was much more focused on me in our last competition and we had a heck of a lot more fun training to that level. I only wish I’d discovered such things sooner!

  13. I love this post!! I am a crossover trainer and am learning how to have fun now while training! I used to be so serious and strict, but I am realizing how much fun it can be. I am learning how to be insync with my dog on a happier more possitive level! Check out my blog at

  14. Connie Kaplan

    I only started following your blog a few months ago and am now going through the most viewed ones. This was a wonderful post and I’m so glad to have met your acquaintance in person and through this blog. I look forward to being at another workshop or making it to NCal for a lesson.

  15. Pingback: Internal Motivation – do we value it? | Denise Fenzi

  16. Mary Ellen Sheedy

    This is such a wonderful post! I guess I’m a little late in reading this. I am planning to sign up for an online class for the Oct 1st and Dec 1st session. This was such a revelation to me. I know my terrier sees me as a food dispenser..need to work on this!


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