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Common Knowledge

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How old is your toolbox?   If it’s old, it probably has a lot of tools in it.  Indeed, you might find that it’s so full, you’ve switched to a truck  to carry your various props.  Some of your tools are surely tried and true.  You’ve met the goals you set out to meet using them and quite possibly reached some very nice success.  Success, security, knowledge, admiration from others – as humans we need these things.

Your toolbox likely carries physical props (treats, toys, special collars, sticks, etc.), information (solutions to specific problems), cutting edge options (highly adjustable e-collars, remote ball launchers). and “common knowledge” for your sport (“your dog MUST perform”, or “it’s always the handler’s fault”).

If you’ve been around awhile, odds are excellent that you’ve invested a good deal of time, money, and emotional energy building up your toolbox.  Odds are also good that you haven’t thought too deeply about what you have and why you have it.

If you’re getting queasy, you can relax.  I’m not going to question your beliefs about the need for a prong collar or how many cookies you use in a training session.  I’m not going to ask you to look at your  physical tools or choice of training techniques.   I’m going to start with a simpler and less threatening query – specifically, when was the last time you took a  good look at your “common knowledge” about dog training?  Not necessarily with an eye towards changing, but with an eye towards ensuring that your common knowledge is still compatible with your current training methodology.

I’m going to mention five pieces of common knowledge that I lived with for many years and that I have since thrown out.  Maybe you’d like to play along and see where you stand as well.

1) Do not feed your dog before a trial.

a)   My food driven dog gets frantic when she misses a meal, my “routine driven” dog vomits bile, and I know that for myself, my mental capacity is reduced when I’m distracted by hunger.  So why is it that my dogs did not eat before trialing for close to 20 years?  Because I never bothered to think about where I had received that information and whether or not it made sense in my circumstances; I simply did what I heard because it was standard practice – common knowledge.  Personally, I don’t  care if you feed your dog the morning of a trial, but you might want to consider what your practices are, and why.  What makes sense for you and your dogs?

2)  End training on success.

a)  My dogs live to train.  Love to train.  If I ended when they were doing it right, they’d be punished for figuring out what I want.  That’s silly.  Once upon a time this approach made sense, because training was quite unpleasant for the dog, so all the dog really wanted was to have the misery end.  But if your dog loves working and training, then “ending on a positive” just doesn’t  make much sense anymore. Personally, I tend to wait until my dog gets distracted or sniffs to end the session.  Now the mature dogs don’t normally make mistakes in training, so I end when I’ve had enough.   The days of escape/avoidance training are long gone for me.  What makes sense within your training system?

3)  Always precede a command with the dog’s name.

a) This made sense when dogs did not pay attention to their handlers.  It was a warning – “fido, heel”.  If Fido woke up on his name then he avoided a correction.  If not, then Fido paid the price.  Indeed, it was a kindness – a way of allowing the dog to avoid a correction.  But if your dog pays attention because it is impossible to perform correctly without attention, then why are you using their name? When you are directing another person, do you precede each request with their name?  Not only is it a waste of time but worse, it teaches your dog to simply ignore the first second of each cue you give.   Does it cause great harm to use the name?  No.  But consider why you do it – maybe you have a good reason, like training multiple dogs at the same time.  Just think about it.

4)  Don’t let your dog sniff.

a) Dogs like to sniff.  Personally, few things are more irritating than listening to a handler command “leave it! Leave it!’ every 20 seconds.  Why leave it?  Why do you care if your dog sniffs while you chat with your friend?  Sniffing is not the first step towards canine world domination, nor is it the first step towards sniffing during heeling in the ring.  For Pete’s sake; you’re not heeling; you’re standing around talking to your friend.  Dogs use their nose to examine their environment in order to feel safe and to be able to focus, much the same way humans use their eyes to take in a new environment.  Physically preventing your dog from sniffing doesn’t  make your dog not want to sniff.  It makes you an irritation that your dog will wish to get rid of – so he can sniff.  All of my dogs sniff, and not one time, not once, have I had a dog sniff in the competition ring.  That’s because sniffing is an incompatible behavior with working, and I focus on getting what I want, not what I don’t want.  Is it ok if your dog sniffs?  Think about it.

5)  Don’t let your dog get away with any failure to perform.

Seriously, who cares? So your dog failed to do something.  You’ll get a lot further in your training if you figure out why your dog would not or could not perform than if you focus your energy on the behavior that didn’t happen.  Sometimes my dogs don’t  want to do something.   Maybe they are experiencing physical pain.  Maybe they aren’t sure how to perform.  Maybe I’m a dead boring trainer and I cannot motivate them to care.  Regardless of the reason, “making” them perform probably doesn’t progress your training goals, and it certainly doesn’t progress your relationship. At most, it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but doing something and training your dog don’t have a lot in common.

The more I examine my beliefs, the less common knowledge seems to make sense for me.  As I shed my common knowledge, I find myself freed up to focus on what does matter – developing a training relationship that works for me and each specific dog, regardless of what my friends or fellow trainers might find works for them.

Anyway, give it some thought.

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.

27 responses »

  1. I would like to add a book to my toolbox.

  2. A few of the listed tools I have also removed; a few still remain. Your explanation of why you feel they are no longer valid was a lightbulb moment for me. The “don’t let your dog get away with not performing” I still hear in some of the seminars I go to. It could be one of THE major reasons for the relationship I do not have with my dog. Along with the sniffing . . . . “Don’t let him do that – he is self-rewarding avoiding you”. REALLY looking forward to your seminar in Colmar!!! We were also one of the lucky ones to get a private lesson; can you fix everything in 30 minutes?

  3. Another brilliant post Denise!

  4. Great post! Indeed, most of the common knowledge tems you mentioned were in my toolbox at one point, and I’m happy to say that to the extent that they still are is only based on specific circumstantial applicability. At one point, I was training and competing in agility with a hard-working border collie and a fun loving Kai ken mix. They were both lovely, willing, and cooperative partners with me, but you can guess which of them truly loved the activity the most 🙂 For her, (the BC, obviously) ending the training session or even our turn in the competition ring was extremely demotivatving – for the Kai mix, it was a clear signal that he had performed well! It took some time, but I did eventually figure out how to use this information to the best advantage for both dogs. I’m training a new dog now, a young Boston terrier mix. It will be interesting to see what his responses and motivations are. At least this time I will be paying close attention to him from the get-go and hopefully working with, not against his natural inclinations

  5. Oh, so true Denise. I also find hearing “Leave it” every 20 seconds so stupid and irritating. Let the poor dog sniff already!😄

  6. The only one listed here that I think I still need is the name. I have multiple dogs and often work simple things while they are together (so “sit” mean everybody sit and “Angel, come” means Angel come, but everyone else remain sitting). AND some of my cues have come to include the dog’s name in the cue. If I say “Down” Demon looks at me like he has no clue because HIS cue to down is “Demon, down”. Not a good thing or a bad thing, just what he learned the cue is.

    • Same here. I only have one dog, but I still use her name sometimes. The way I say ‘front’ is apparently too quick, and she acts like she thinks I *might* have said something, but OTOH maybe I’m trying to trick her LOL. So the cue is “Sienna, Front.” And that works great with no confusion. When I teach the turn-and-sit for go-outs, I’ll probably also use her name to get the ‘turn’ part. Other than that, though, I usually just use the cue w/o the name.

  7. My entire blog seems to be about what works and doesn’t work in dog training. Figuring out what your dog loves and rewarding them with that works great. Pain I’ve learned is not a good teacher and increases the dog’s stress level though you can use light correction, or just leash tension for a reminder for attention, but it has to be for something that doggy knows well.

    For heaven’s sake put it on cue and use it as a reward.

    “Do not feed your dog before a trial.”
    Ha. I have Corgis. If they miss a meal the are completely distracted and not in a mind to work.

    “Always proceed a command with the dogs name.”
    I’m like the agility folks. Doggy’s name is a recall.

    “Don’t let your dog get away with any failure to perform.”
    Please. If something isn’t working you need to stop and figure out what’s not working.

    “End training on success”
    I still try to do that. But it’s for me, not for doggy.

  8. Great post! Phoenix has dumped my common knowledge tool box upside down. Some things remain. Many do not. New things have been added. Love the freedom of being open to learning what my dog really needs from me, not relying on “carved in stone” beliefs from 25 years ago.

  9. I love anything that reads, “Seriously, who cares??”! In my dogs and babies work, there are tons of myths and “You must do this” prescriptions that are repeated over and over again as if they are fact. One of the things I introduce in the very beginning of class is: You are the parents now. Think for yourselves! Do what you want but at least know WHY you are choosing to do something and objectively evaluation how it is helping (or not).

  10. Those are all good ones.

    “1) Do not feed your dog before a trial.”

    I make the food come from me instead of a bowl to practice on focus.

    “2) End training on success.”

    I think that depends on every single training situation. I would say do what is best for the success of the team.

    “3) Always precede a command with the dog’s name.”

    I definitely see that overused and everybody seems to have their own ideas.

    “4) Don’t let your dog sniff.”

    If you don’t want an animal that sniffs, don’t have a dog. That is like asking a person to not speak words. They can’t do it and it would be unnatural and detrimental to their well-being.

    “5) Don’t let your dog get away with any failure to perform.”

    My dogs always have choices. If I want a specific outcome, it is my job to motivate them to do their best toward that outcome.

    I would like to add one that I abandoned a long time ago.
    “My dog just wants to please me.”

    I think this gets confused with a “people focused” dog, which is different. Not all dogs are people focused. Some are more dog focused, especially packs of hounds.

    I don’t think any of my dogs have done anything to attempt to please me, and I think that is a good thing. I am human. I make mistakes and I don’t always have the best ideas. I let my dogs know that I want to know about their ideas. Sometimes my dogs have very good ideas, and I want to give them the freedom to show me those.

    This is not the same as not being a leader. You can still be a leader and take your dogs’ opinions into consideration.

    My dogs’ job is not to please me. I believe that my job to make my dogs happy. When my dogs are happy, I am happy.

  11. Yet another fantastic post. I shared it with a bunch of my on-line dog training friends and they loved it too! I could not agree more. I find the more I “break with tradition” and follow my instincts, the better my relationships with my two dogs becomes. They’ve gone from really good to exceptionally awesome! 🙂 Thanks for sharing the wealth of your inspiring and validating thoughts.

  12. Denise, again you are right on target! I absolutely love reading your posts, and can’t agree more with you J I just don’t take the time often to send a comment, and figure there are probably many more just like me who receive and enjoy your blog. Best wishes for a wonderful 2013!

    Susan Flowers

    Susan and Ed Flowers

    Cocker Spaniels

    Dory’s Gentleman Jack, CD RAE MJP2 MJPB MXP OFP NAS NJS

    Skyrocket’s Hot Porsche Boxster RN AX MXJ NF

    At the Rainbow Bridge – Calico Miss Macavity Cat

  13. Excellent post! These and so many other phrases are ‘taken for granted’ in the dog world, when really they need to be examined more closely (as you have done).

    • Make sure you read further into this article… USDAA neglects to point out that the study went further and showed no difference in performance after 90 minutes post-meal. Also, the study only applies to dogs that eat a “normal” pet-type diet of Kibble, not for dogs that are on a high protein diet (ex. Raw).

      Great post Denise! I’m really going to have to think about #2 and figure out what is best for my dog, haven’t thought of that one before!

  14. Nice post. Love the implied attitude – relax, have fun and let your dog relax and be a dog. So many of the old training “rules” are better suited for training Marine recruits than playing with your pet and partner.

  15. Brilliant! Hope many handlers read and think about it.

  16. Brilliant! Hopefully many handlers read and thing about it. Life is about changes and questioning where I can improve (in any aspect of my life).

  17. For Vizsla…….great article containing many suggestions as to why the carbs need to be left out of the meal!! More fats please….so says your dog.

    For Denise……I, too, am waiting for the book!! Thanks and love your blog.

    Cort & Katie’s Mom

  18. Marcia in NorCal

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. I’m a hobbyist trainer, and maybe that’s an advantage, as I never was so serious about things that I was concerned about “the way everyone else does it.” I could never understand the “don’t feed your dog” thing for exactly the reason you stated: I know that I can’t concentrate if I’m starving, so how can I expect my dog to be focused if SHE is starving?

    And some of the other things you mentioned … have to agree 110%. It’s awfully nice to get affirmation that, in my ignorance of common knowledge, maybe I’ve been on the right track after all.

  19. The sniffing reminds me of another one I don’t get—not letting your dog mark. Now, I don’t mean letting the dog mark the neighbor’s garden, but honestly, if it’s just a tree (or a particularly enticing tuft of grass in my dog’s case), who cares? Your dog likes to mark, so why stop him (or her, since some females do it too). I often hear people say it means you stop less on the walk if you don’t let them but where is it that you’re going that it’s so important that you get there? I thought you were walking your dog, so doesn’t that mean the walk is FOR the dog? Why not let the dog have fun then? Mark the tree, sniff the grass, wander around aimlessly, etc. There are times when you need to be able to get things done, certainly, but I think it’s important to remember that we ask a lot of our dogs—don’t pee in the house, don’t jump on people even though you love them, etc—and that there are some parts of caring for them that should just be about making their lives fulfilling and happy by letting them do those harmless things that dogs love because they’re dogs.

  20. Great post. I feed my dogs before training or competing. I just want them to have some time to digest their food. I tend to use their names because that old habit dies hard. Ending on a high note carries over for me from when I rode horses. I think of it along the lines of don’t do another repetition if you are happy with something, because then something will go wrong. If we’ve been working on something difficult for us, we end that. Whether or not we end the session or switch to something else depends on the goals for the session. I go back to my horse background for the not let them get away with not performing; I will go waaaay back to something I know we can do successfully so that we can end with that positive experience.

    So far, all of the above have worked for me. And, I’m constantly digging through my toolbox to find the right thing for the dog.


  21. Awesome post, thank you for all your knowledge. I have followed you since we had the privilege to attend your seminar in New Brunswick, Canada, with my Malinois girl.

  22. Awesome post, wow that really made me think. I was at your seminar this weekend as an auditor and loved it, thank you. I have a rottweiler and always used the leave it comand because she is a major food hound and she thinks everyone and every little thing on the floor is food. She has actually left me in the ring more than once to see if that piece of hair on the floor is food. Very frustrating, but i am hoping with some more positive training and focus work we can overcome it. Diane B.


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