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“Less than perfect” training?

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Recently I wrote a blog on “perfection paralysis” where I described the importance of allowing a young dog a bit of breathing room and freedom to make errors as they weave their way towards beautiful heeling.  I suggested the following:

“Get moving!  Play!  Throw food and toys! Give tons of hand, body and verbal help in the learning phases or when your dog is confused, and worry about getting rid of it later!  Take on responsibility for making it possible for your dog to win!  Once your dog is excited and happy and relaxed, see what happens. ”

Not surprisingly, I was asked to be more specific about what that might look like.  Since I’m just entering this phase with Brito, I thought I better videotape him quickly before he progresses much more and ends up looking like a “trained” dog.

Brito’s heeling route was precision heeling, followed by a more relaxed shaping approach.  While shaping, I used a lot of food throwing straight ahead to get him moving, since lagging and heeling wide are his innate tendencies.  After a year of this, I have a dog who has a pretty good idea about most of the elements of precise heeling.

If I use food.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve also spent a lot of time and energy building up his drive and enthusiasm for toys.  Until now, his drive for toys hasn’t been sufficient to use them as a motivator for work.  Remember, it’s not a motivator if your dog doesn’t want it.  (If you’re not convinced of this please buy the second book that I wrote with Deb Jones on “Motivation”)

Now, a year later, I think  have it – sufficient drive for toys to use them within training.  He loves his ball and tugs enough that he will work for them.  Unfortunately, all of that precise heeling is pretty much gone when I bring out a toy.  That is both logical and expected, since the toy makes him much more excited and it’s hard for him to think and concentrate on his job.  Yes, he can heel with precision for a cookie, but with a toy his brain gets so overwhelmed and excited that he can’t really think.

So we start over – this time teaching precision heeling for a toy.  Here’s a video – unedited, of a training session so you can see what that means in practice.

Someday, when we’re working in public under a high arousal situation, it’s quite likely that we’ll have to do this training yet again, or it will all fall apart.  Finally, somewhere and somehow, Brito will generalize the concept of heeling as an exact place that he needs to be, regardless of the motivator available or his excitement level or the specific environment.

If we get there then I’ll have a nice little competition dog.

Here are things to watch for.  Note that my hand moves up and down and back and forth within heeling.  He will follow my hand if I use it, so I bring it out as an aid, but only if I think he needs it.  When I reward, he may or may not be dead accurate.  That’s just not so important right now.  What he needs is to win.  A lot.  Convincing him that he needs to give a bit more accuracy to get the toy will not be hard, once he’s sure that he can win.  Note that I use both verbal encouragement and vocabulary that he is familiar with. I am “steering” him into being correct with my voice, my choice of movements, my hands, and whatever else I might have.  And every once in awhile, I’m seeing the moments of brilliance that I strive for with him. Over time, I’ll look for more of those moments of brilliance to reward.

You might also note the proportion of work to play.  Lots of play….with a little work.  Can he tell the difference?

I hope not.

Marketing note:  Late registration closes at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy on Monday – get signed up if you want to join us!  Here’s the schedule: 


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.

One response »

  1. I love the way you train! Such joy and enthusiasm from Brito. Like many people, I struggle with an often less than excited dog. Your courses are helping us so much. I love your enthusiastic upbeat instructors – all jewels!! So many great courses, so little time!


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