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Stages of Engagement Part 1

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Engagement means your dog is “engaged” with you – paying attention and showing energy for whatever task you have in mind.

Simple word.  Complicated topic.

I take engagement training through several stages:

In the first phase, the human starts engagement by showing the dog a combination of personality and classic reinforcers.  I am doing all of the work and Brito really has no choice because I overwhelm the alternatives with what I have to offer. I cause the engagement from Brito; he is not offering it.  This is fine to get a young dog started, but if you keep it up over the long run you’ll set yourself up for a lifetime of working harder and harder to get and keep engagement, or you’ll resort to corrections to maintain attention when your dog is no longer a puppet being manipulated by your efforts.   Not to mention, you’ll make sensitive dogs downright neurotic with a long term application of this approach (a story for another day).

In the video you’ll see that the second I put Brito down I immediately work hard to keep him focused on me.  I put the cookie in front of his nose and keep him moving!  You’ll also see that I begin to overwhelm him and he starts to avoid – it’s subtle but he’s really not interested in my cookie.

The next stage of engagement occurs when you shift responsibility for starting training from the human to the dog.  This shift is critical, and allows you to assess the readiness to work and overall comfort level of your dog.  At this point, setting up an environment where you are likely to “win” is quite important.  Choosing a dull environment (maybe a 3 out of 10 on the curiosity scale), will cause your dog to get bored faster than choosing a doggy Disneyland, so set yourself up for success.

To work this stage, take your dog to a relatively uninteresting place (your home training area is fine), and simply wait – a short leash will make the process go a bit faster.  When your dog gets bored with the environment and checks in with you then that is the time to respond with your combination of food, toys and personality at whatever level best suits your dog.  He will soon learn that the route to reinforcement is making a choice to engage the handler.

What your dog does before engaging with you is not important; sniffing and sightseeing are just fine.  No food or toys should be visible until the dog checks in. If you are standing there while your puppy sniffs or lunges out at the world for an excessive period of time (maybe more than ten minutes after you’ve walked your puppy around for general acclimation) then you picked too difficult of an environment.   Either increase the acclimation period or better yet, choose an easier location.

In this second stage, the route to engagement from dog to handler is through one basic behavior – Brito offers eye contact and connection for about two seconds.  Now it’s time to ask for just a tiny bit more.

In the third stage, I want sustained contact from Brito before I come up with a classic motivator.  I wait for the dog to show a desire to interact but instead of coming up with food or toys immediately, I simply engage the dog with a combination of voice, movement and personality; whatever is most useful for your dog and brings out determination and energy.  After a short period of time (ranging from several seconds to a minute, depending on the experience level of the dog), I will come up with the classic motivators that the dog wants.  The goal here is to teach my dog sustained focus and engagement. If the dog checks out before I have a chance to reward, I start over again; possibly for a shorter period of time.  You will see both of these possibilities in the video; sometimes Brito engages and then disengages, but at the end he engages and stays with me to the point of receiving a cookie.

In the fourth stage of engagement training, I expect some kind of formal work before offering any classic motivators.  The ideal sequence would be that the dog will briefly explore the environment, choose to engage with me, stay engaged for a period of time, and then offer to work – all without knowing what motivator they are working for.  After performing a simple behavior such as a few steps of heeling – the classic reward shows up!  You can see this stage with Brito as well.

If you cannot get stage one, then either your environment is too difficult, your dog is nervous, or your dog is not interested in your motivator.  Change something.  If you watch carefully with Brito you’ll see that I have this problem; he is more interested in exploring than in my cookies.

If at any point after Stage two your dog opts to leave you for the environment rather than engage – that’s fine.  Simply release them back to the (limited) environment and when they re-engage, start the entire process over.  Which doesn’t mean they get to explore what they are curious about; it simply means you stop the engagement process.  For example, if your dog stopped working because he wants to greet a person who just entered the training area, that’s fine. Release your dog from formal work, but prevent your dog from visiting or, if off leash, ask the person to ignore your dog.  Better yet, ask them to leave. Then try again.

If your dog still cannot succeed, you either 1) chose too difficult of an environment/distraction, 2) never had the dog’s brain in the first place (you’re begging or rushing the stage), or 3) you moved through the above stages too quickly and your dog is unsure about how to win.  Adjust accordingly or end the session altogether.

Brito routinely trains in stages two, three and four, depending on the environment and how enthusiastic he is about working for me.  In very stimulating environments like a dog show I might move him back to stage two, but normally I just let him acclimate a bit longer.  Don’t rush!  Don’t accept lesser quality work (lowered criteria) just because the environment is more difficult!

No begging.  No bribing.  A simple and respectful way to engage with a dog.

When you are comfortably working in the fourth stage, you will slowly increase the number of behaviors you request before your party.  With a fully trained dog I might reward for a simple set up in heel position or I might ask for several minutes of work.

When you have worked through this entire chain, you may also choose to begin the process of work simply by saying your dog’s name or asking if they would like to work – let’s call that the “fifth” stage of engagement.  If you have done a good job on engagement training and if your dog is well prepared and comfortable in your current location, they’ll say yes, because working with you will have become extremely important; the highlight of their day.

Here is a video showing all four stages:

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.

14 responses »

  1. That’s a priceless post! Thanks so much for breaking down the stages of engagement so clearly. The introduction of ‘engagement with personality’ between sustained focus and classical reinforcers is particularly important and a new idea to me. I’ll start incorporating it into my training with Kim, my border collie. Thanks again for your generosity in sharing this information!

  2. When you first mention stages I’m picturing like these are the stages over time, but it looks like you mean these are the stages within one training session. Do you this always start at stage one every time you train? Or only if you’re in a new environment? Thanks!

  3. I too thought this post was priceless. Something worth reading over and over.

    So after I read it some days ago, I copied and printed it. Perhaps that was wrong and against your policy, which is the norm. If so, I apologize. (I did include your “dfenzi” and it is for my use only.)

    I understand/assume you read these before posting. Please edit or don’t post or whatever – I’m mainly trying to contact you and apologize for the made copy. I should take notes instead.

    Thank you for this blog!!!!

  4. Denise – thank you so much!! I so wish I had your ability to define a concept. I have been struggling to get this idea across to a student with a easily distractable (read – smart) young dog. I took the loberty of sharing your post – and suggesting they look into at least bronze level on a few of your classes – and – my puppy is two weeks old, should be about ten weeks at Joan’s seminar!! Yippee!!!!

    • Look forward to meeting the baby.

      I am currently creating a class on this topic of “Engagement” so if a person is not comfortable working through it on their own, they can join the class. It will probably be ready for the August term.

  5. I am so thoroughly enjoying the videos and posts….I really feel this is one of the keys to what is missing with my doggie, and because she can disengage and leave….leave….I work harder and harder to be. Better Disneyland……whaaaaaa, I can not wait until August — until then thanks for all this great info

  6. Hi Denise. This a great post! I have the link saved and I was just looking at it again. I was wondering… Do you do the stages all in a row – like move from stage 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 without break or do you release the dog from work after each stage and wait for them to return to work (assuming that you are doing all 4 stages)? Usually I tell my dogs “all done” when I am finished working with them, but I wasn’t sure if that would be appropriate after each stage.

    • It would depend on how you train and what your words mean. I could do either – just depends on the dog and the environment. In your case, I would not say “all done” unless you really meant it – that would be confusing. But if you mean “ok” as in you are released and I am ready when you are, then that would be fine.

  7. Great post! I keep rereading it again and again. I can’t seem to come to an understanding of how to fit this into the training of a Service Dog. Specifically in terms of acclimation. An SD won’t be given the opportunity to explore her environment and decide when she’s ready, she needs to be ready to go right after exiting the car or whatever. So is it ok to allow this during training? If so, when to phase it out? Do you have any advice for working on Engagement for Service Dogs? Thanks!

    • I would think that the “base temperament” of a very good service dog candidate should be a relatively low interest in the environment to start with. Or the dog should need very little acclimating in familiar areas (which is certainly where most dogs work the vast majority of the time.). The stronger the dog’s overall working temperament, the less you’ll need acclimation.

  8. Wow. Thank you so much for this.

    I needed this info badly almost two decades ago when I was a newbie kid handler with a large dog who routinely blew me off at trials. Instructors at the club had no idea what to do or how to help us, and some of them actually straight up told me to replace my dog with a border collie (so rude and unhelpful). It got so bad I had to quit all dog sports.

    I also had an agility friend with the same attention problem with her dog. She could play the cheerleader, do cartwheels for the dog, but the dog wouldn’t give a darn. Agonizingly slow performance every time. It was all on the her to be excited, and at some point she just couldn’t be any more excited – it’s exhausting.

    I have a new dog now, years later, and I’m doing everything I can to do better for him this time. And no it’s not a border collie – they’re nice, but I live with dogs I can live with. 🙂


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