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Not long ago I wrote a post about tolerating distractions; how to introduce distractions in small doses to help your dog function and succeed – a little bit at a time.  Let’s say you went home and thought about this.  You believed that you had done good distraction training, and you’re feeling pressure (from inside or from others) to progress further in your distraction training.

Let’s go there for a bit.

This blog is going to make some people uncomfortable.  That’s because we’ll be talking about positive punishment; adding an aversive (pressure) to decrease behavior (watching a distraction).  Not only talking about it, I’m going to show you how to do it.  And while this sort of training is a very small part of my overall training (less than 1%), it does come up with some dogs under some circumstances.

Before you add pressure, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Does your dog have some solid behaviors (like heeling/front position) that require attention to the handler to be performed successfully?

2) Does your dog have a motivator that is very important, like tasty treats or popular toys?

3) Is your dog well conditioned to love work; to understand that working with you is a fabulous opportunity?

4)  Do you have a distraction that you can control completely?

5) Do you strongly believe that your dog’s interest in the distraction is curiosity with no element of fear?

6) Is your dog relatively grown up and mature?

Here we go.

In the crate in the middle of my training area are three chickens.  Lyra is taken into the training area on leash and she finds them pretty darned quickly.  I allow her take a good look.  The leash is to prevent her from getting to the crate.  I want her to be attracted to them as a  curiosity; if she has no idea what it is that she sees and smells, then I risk creating fear.  So….let the dog see the distraction and make sure the dog’s interest in getting closer is fascination/curiousity rather than concern.  Lyra has been looking at chickens through a fence for a year; she is not afraid of them.

Do not use anything as an initial distraction that might show up in real life.  That way, if you inadvertently create fear you won’t have huge ramifications.

If your dog has a sit or down stay, that would be a good way to allow the dog to see the distraction from a distance.  Lyra’s stay is not strong enough for that, so I let her look on a tight leash.

After the dog knows what is out there and is somewhat acclimated, it’s time to ask for work.

The technique I’m going to use is pressure release.  If Lyra tries to look at the distraction then I will either step behind her (weak pressure); block her view (more pressure) or walk into her driving her backwards and away (greatest pressure).  Stepping behind her is pressure, because she knows that is how I start heeling and she is disregarding my clear cue – the pressure of expectation.  Blocking her view is pressure because it’s a clear indication from me that I don’t want her looking that way.  And walking into her is pressure because I am preventing what she wants and keeping up the pressure until she “gives” to me.

Video: This video shows good training and bad training.  Let’s look at it.

2 to 7 sec:  Lyra ignores me; I block her and circle away.

12 sec:  circling away is successful – I reward her.

28 sec:  Ask for the toy release facing away from the distraction to increase odds of success

24 sec:  mild pressure gets her back

43 sec;  verbal/ backing up gets her back

60 sec: backing up is not effective; blocking.  I’m losing her attitude here.

1:15:  backing up works; note I go to some length not to let the leash tighten.

1:21 backing up not effective; blocking is

1:25 sec;  Major struggle here;  she’s sniffing – possibly avoidance but more likely gathering information about the chickens

1:32 sec:  blocking does not work; walking into her does. Attitude stays pretty good.  I play a long time to reduce stress

1:50 sec: Note that again the release is facing away from the chickens; this is important!

1:56 sec:  light blocking brings her back.

For the next minute note the constant on and off of pressure, direction of travel and verbal reinforcement.  However, I’m working pretty hard.  If I had stopped at the 3:15 mark (where she was successful and heavily reinforced), that would have been ideal.  After that point, she was struggling more and more – her brain was full.

3:55sec – you can see from her expression that she has had enough.  She is no longer looking at the chickens with attraction and curiousity; she looks exhausted!

4:00 sec – I change  to a new location on the field.Sometimes that buys you another couple of minutes of good work, because it changes the perspective for the dog.  As you can see, this was not the case here.

4:30 sec – This is as much pressure as I am comfortable applying – it does not work.  You can see Im working hard, but at that point she wasn’t really capable of doing better.

5:15sec -Lyra is no longer accepting her toy as a reward.

The rest of the tape is an excellent illustration of poor training.  All I have left is pressure…she’s not interested in her toy and she’s no longer interested in work.  Lesson here….two or three minutes is enough!

Ideally, I would have several sessions of very easy work for a week or two, and then I would repeat a shortened version of this work at that time.

Now…for some general thoughts on using pressure.

In this tape, Lyra was “overfaced” for the sake of demonstration.  Asking her to work under these circumstances was more than she is trained to give, but I did it anyway because I believed there would be minimal harm and I see value in demonstrating what one can do when you run out of options, or when you cannot resist the pressure of other humans telling you to correct your dog.  It’s been a very long time since I applied a leash correction to a dog, either mine or anyone else’s.  If I’m going to correct, it will be personal – that’s why I use pressure.  It’s about me and the dog, not about a piece of equipment.  It also causes no physical pain, and (assuming there is no fear involved), it causes no mental suffering either. Pressure; yes.  Suffering, no.

I do not plan to repeat this pressure lesson with Lyra.  If I did do this again, the chickens would be much further away and my barometer of the correct distance would be how difficult it is to get her back – a few seconds is reasonable; a stretch of 15 seconds and a flattened demeanor is not.  I can get where I want to go simply by being patient and giving her more time.  I’m not in any real hurry, so no pressure on me to perform, but with my students I use pressure techniques when I think it makes sense.

If you are not comfortable with pressure release techniques, please don’t use them.  If you are comfortable using them, then review the above requirements to be sure you are doing it correctly.  If you cannot get the dog back using the most severe pressure technique (moving in to the dog and forcing them backwards) then you are almost certainly asking too much, or you have worked for too long.  If you find yourself doing them frequently, then you’re working in environments that are too difficult or you’re not very motivating to your dog.  I hope you won’t resort to the pinching and poking techniques that I’m seeing in some circles – too many dogs are being shut down from that sort of “irritation” training.

I accept comments on my blog.  However, if people misbehave and start attacking each other, I will block the comments.

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.

24 responses »

  1. I don’t mind using appropriate pressure with my dogs and their training… like you say, it has to be appropriate for the dog. And the circumstances. I think this is an excellent article. I don’t think being a purely positive trainer all the time really works… I think dogs need to know how to handle pressure, just to be able to deal with the world. There’s pressure in the world. There are negative things that happen. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of me or anything, but I think appropriate pressure can be a tool if used correctly. When my puppy barks when I’m training my other dogs… I can wait and ignore it until I’m blue in the face and he is NOT going to stop on his own. It’s too self reinforcing.

  2. this one is now in my top 5 DF blog posts, great illustration and description. the footage of ‘bad training’ showing lyra over threshold and really not in a good place is priceless. it’s all well and good to talk and write about this stuff but seeing it really brings the issues to focus, i think. Thanks for this post!

  3. Interesting approach. However, I really do not see any reward that the dog is receiving…..aside from the tugging… Which tends to rev her Up.

    Why not take the leash off and let her go to the crate of chickens After she does what you ask…..THEN reward her for looking Back at you and choosing to engage….. Small steps, but soon she might realize that this Distraction is HER OPPORTUNITY for reward!

    • Tugging is her primary reward; she would not take food in this situation – not because she’s necessarily over threshold but because she has no interest in food under most circumstances. when she went over threshold she no longer accepted the toy. I WANT my dog revved up – as long as it is not frantic behavior, and based on her body language (ears, eyes, tail, etc.) she was in drive and not frantic in the first minute or so. Lyra’s career is such that she will be required to work in places where there are distractions that she cannot ever visit. She will trial where squirrels are running up and down trees. she will trial next to dogs running and having fun – she cannot expect that she will be allowed to take a close look at those things regardless of how well she works for me. if I used direct exposure or premack, then she would be frustrated in those situations where she was not allowed to get what she wants after she did her part (good work) – I would be breaching our agreement. I work hard to be honest with my dogs – what you get in training is as close as possible to what you will get in trial. And if someone shows up with a crate of chickens at a trial, she will never be allowed to visit them. Learning how to work in the presence of distractions – good smells, interesting sights, etc.) is a reality for a competition dog.

  4. Thank you for sharing Denise! As I was watching the video, I saw Lyra’s attention and willingness to work decrease and I was like “ehhh… not sure I’d do that”… But I love the explanation you provided after the video and that made me feel more comfortable because you saw the same things! 🙂 Thanks for the analysis of the technique. Pretty sure I use a step back as a cue to heel, I didnt see it as punishment, but I will watch out a little more now.

  5. I am not a very advanced dog trainer for sure, but I am a little confused about what the purpose of this exercise is. Is it to teach the dog to ignore distractions or to try an make you something better to play with then the distraction or is it to get the dog used to that particular distraction. Wouldn’t it be easier to let the dog get totally used to the distraction so that it’s old hat and not a distraction any more?That is what I was taught was to expose to distractions so they are used to them and it isnt’ a distraction any more

    I must say, that I totally enjoy getting these blogs and videos etc. I am getting alot out of them for sure. Really wish I was closer to you Denise and could train with you, butit’s not an option when I livie in Ontario Canada . If you ever do a seminar or clinic up here or even in northern NY state, please let me know. Will be there in a hearbeat

    • it depends on the situation – Lyra would never get used to chickens in her training yard, no matter how much I let her look at them. She would also never get used to (bored with) chasing squirrels if I let her do that in her training yard. So sometimes, you get to the point where you want to convince the dog that 1) they won’t get to visit the distraction, and 2) that I actually have an opinion about their behavior. If a dog doesn’t realize that you care, then they may well check out all of the distractions and get to you and training when they are ready. But that’s not the reality of competetition – if you’re in the ring the dog needs to be able to recognize that when you are working,leaving to do something else won’t work – because I don’t allow dogs to leave work once it has begun, or once I have asked for attention.
      Do note, however, that I said this was not good training for Lyra because of how I did it. Because I’m a good trainer it is pretty likely that I can train with extremely little pressure, simply by systematically increasing her love of work with very small increases in environmental interest. but many trainers are working with dogs with relatively little interest in their rewards and a high interest in whatever is out and about. You cannot use pressure to make a dog work (or at leasst I wont) but you can use it to make it clear to the dog that the choice is between work or nothing – they cannot get to their alternative interest.

  6. I too have learned that relying ENTIRELY on Positive training has it’s drawbacks. This technique that you have well illustrated is a great example of thinking outside of a single method WITHOUT causing A)fear in the dog and B) ticking off the Positive Training Only crowd. Well done Denise…

  7. Denise, I’d love to reblog this on “German Shepherd Adventures” with your permission…

  8. Good article, as a positive trainer myself. I would not do this with some dogs, but as Denise said this was not a harmful exercise to her dog. Yes, the real world has pressure, and positive training works, ignoring bad behaviour and rewarding good. I have trained difficult and reactive dogs, and dogs that are young, you can train using positive methods alone. And yes, there is pressure in the real world, learning the techniques and understanding how the science works in the real world is the key. I think Denise does a good job with her blog, and If you are not convinced that positive is the way to go, then do more exploring about the techniques out there! I follow and frequently share her posts, there is more than one way to positively train a dog, and many dog sports out there.

  9. This is very interesting. Thank you for putting this topic out there, it’s something I feel isn’t addressed enough in positive circles, and so when people do get to a point that (for whatever reason) they feel the need to use aversives, they are not well educated in how to use them.

  10. Barb VanEseltine

    Denise — interesting post! I enjoyed it all but mostly as a “train the trainer” example. It was especially interesting (and easy to follow) because of how honest Lyra is in being distracted. When she is working/playing that is obvious; when she is not that is also obvious. I’m assuming that the foundation “love of work” is part of why these phases are so distinct.

    • that’s an interesting question and I think you are right. I have never allowed her to work with anything less than 100% attention, and I think it has become a habit – it’s the only way she knows to work. So, she’s either working or she’s not

  11. I’m working with a somewhat dog-reactive working tervuren and am curious. What if you are out on trails and you simply want the dog to ignore another dog? To be neutral and to pay attention to your commands? My dog is 100% fine around that type of distraction if I am working her in drive. But I don’t want to have to rev her up and need to do a tug session every single time we need to pass another dog.

  12. very interesting-I also noted the very clear distinction between working and being distracted.

    At certain points I couldn’t tell what you were praising-after you blocked her, it didn’t look like she was working, but perhaps giving you eye contact? I could tell the more obvious ones where she was actually heeling, but am curious about the not so obvious things that were praise-worthy.

  13. Loretta Mueller


  14. Great post! Pressure is one of the reasons I don’t like the whole “purely positive” label, or defining myself by quadrants. I am VERY into positive reinforcement, and provide a ton of it, but can also apply some pressure in certain situations, along with some other feedback that doesn’t fit strictly into being +R or -P. I have Border Collies, and pressure can be very meaningful feedback for them, but I do wonder if it works as well with non-herding breeds such as labs or goldens.

  15. The other day when I was training my training partner had a board and train stop by. My 7 month old german shepherd was really wanting to go see the other dog so i just stopped what I was doing and waited. When he made the slightest move away i marked and rewarded this went on for a few minutes till he realized that I was more interesting and more rewarding than going to see the other dog at this point I could have done some more work since he started to offer behaviors but I was satisfied with him ignoring the other dog and paying attention to me. At first all he did was strain on a tight leash afterwards the leash was loose and he was coming with me when I moved.

  16. Mary Lynn Marden

    I am wondering if this exercise would work for me and my Border collie. She tunes me out to focus on the agility obstacles at the start line. She is very slow to respond to me, won’t make eye contact, sit, etc. If I stepped in front of her, got eye contact and got her to relax in her sit, could we proceed? If not, could I step toward her, putting pressure on her to make eye contact, sit, etc.? I want her to be happy and willing to do obstacles, but as part of a team, not making up her own course!

  17. ooo! I want to comment! 🙂

    Living with 15 dogs in the city as we do, pressure is a fact of life. Blocking, getting big, pushing with handler movement, all are valid here. My goal is to reduce my hypocrisy. I’d say pressure is 5% of our handling. Add in verbal stuff (handler exasperation) and we’re getting an additional 5-10%. I’m not proud, but I’m also not ashamed. Pressure is a fact of life and is operant in creating behavior whether we want it to be or not.

    I really like your 6 keys for applying pressure. It’s nice to have a checklist like that I think.

    I don’t know much about Lyra’s reactivity level, but it looks to me as if you are offering work as a distraction, and in this case, using the “pressure of expectation” to force that distraction on the dog.

    Is this typically the way you work? Not the pressure part, but “Work as a distraction”? I use work as a distraction but I find it to be wanting for situations when the handler can’t or doesn’t want to work.

    I like to shape the release, reorientation and arrival on the handler.

    What I would do in this situation with a dog like Lyra would be to get her stable (she looked fairly stable at the beginning) and then reinforce her with the toy for the release of the heavy stare. Maybe a 1-3 second tug and then let her win. Cue Drop. Bite… repeat… Get the dog high on handler and then dismiss.

    I’d out (to the hand with 1 toy – drop with 2+ toys) and repeat the bite and quick tug as reinforcement, or if she were sufficiently engaged with me, I’d dismiss her,”Go do dog stuff…” and then repeat the capture of the release of the trigger stimulus.

    Reinforce on me, get the dog high on work, then dismiss. Create a competing interest against the trigger stimulus. As I build value on the release and make that value happen on the handler, I then dismiss for longer periods of time and look for greater performances of the release behavior. Once the release is happening regularly, I can then allow more latitude and capture ancillary good behavior – eye contact at a distance, the decision to not eat the chicken, etc.

    We call it DOC – Dismiss – Observe – Capture. It’s great for dogs who are highly motivated and know the drill. It takes the responsibility off the handler and allows you to shape environmental management.

    Hope I’m not busting your Pressure groove here. I use it. It’s a fact of life. I appreciate you putting this out there in it’s less than effective form.

    I’m just offering a non-pressure, non-standard positive training resolution from our perspective. Hope we can chat about it.


    • I think what you are describing is what I call my ‘take a break’ game. Dog chooses to reorient and is rewarded for doing so in a big way. That’s a very good method and definitely my preference. This particular blog was for demonstration purposes and not to get Lyra trained. I figure people are going to correct so might as well learn a sophisticated approach that most dogs understand intuitively.

      • That’s cool… so your preferred method would be to instill the decision making on the dog and you had this nagging distraction that would be good to apply pressure to as an exercise and lesson… got it.
        Sorry to distract from your lesson.

  18. Pingback: No One Can Train Without Pressure | The Crossover TrainerThe Crossover Trainer

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