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I’ve become convinced that a solid plan for engagement is truly critical if you have a dog that was not born with a lot of working drive, who has who a lot of notable alternative interests,  or who has a strong “show me the money” set of behaviors.   Your dog must 1) start the work by indicating with his behavior that he truly wants to do so, 2) be willing to work without knowing what you might have to offer for reinforcement, and 3) be able to flip back and forth between work and engagement, accepting play or physical interaction for some breaks from the work. If your dog does not accept this naturally and leans away when you try to use physical interaction (common!) , then go ahead and teach it!  The stronger your dog’s natural working drive or desire for classic motivators, the less critical this is because you can emphasize a final reward outside the ring.

Here is a video with Brito.


The first 1:50 seconds is acclimation.  This piece is critical for Brito.  Even though I am not training I want you to see what acclimation looks like.  Not much!  I am allowing him to wander around and explore on his own while I set up.  This is his free time and he can do what he wants, short of running off.  If running off were a strong possibility then I would have held his leash and walked with him but I didn’t think it was a concern on this day.  You can see that Brito mostly follows me around, so I know that he’s really more interested in working for me than in making mischief – today anyway.

Acclimation allows Brito to fully weigh his options – working with me or finding other things to do.  It is critical that you select working areas where your dog will choose you over the environment within a few minutes.  It has taken two years for Brito to begin to consistently choose me over the environment in this training area because there is a healthy squirrel population in the trees and lizards on the ground.  We worked up to practicing here – until now we have learned a lot in the house.  Start acclimation and engagement where you can win, not where you will have huge competition with the environment!  Acclimation and a dog that chooses the handler should be a baseline expectation for all handlers in all sports.

I have him on leash because I want him to make the association between work starting on leash – then removing the leash – and then continuing with work.  This will give me a much easier entry into the competition ring than what I have done in the past when my dogs were almost never on leash.  The leash also allows me to acclimate him in areas where it would be unwise or unsafe to let him be free.

From 1:50 to 2:15 I let him convince me that he would rather interact with me than find something better to do.  I have shown him no classic reinforcers – no food or toys, though he knows from experience that I have access.  He must engage with me personally and willingly to start work.  From there, his experience can only get better and better as I add classic motivators to the options.

I remove his leash at 2:15 and I continue with more active engagement until 2:25, at which point I allow him to work.  His energy is good and I like what I see.

At 2:30 I use a bit of opposition reflex – he accepts this as a game and continues to work with me on heeling until 2:35.

His reward for good heeling is a chance to earn his first classic reinforcer – at 2:50 he gets a high value cookie. Note that I back up that cookie with my voice.

At 2:55 he gets the ball for the first time.  Now he knows what reinforcers are on the table and we go into training mode.  Note that I am constantly backing up the cookies and toys with praise and personality.  That is what I have in competition so I’m beginning to think that way in training.

At 3:10 we do a bit of proofing.  This was not a planned part of the session.  Note that I do not get upset with him for going for the cookie – he really doesn’t know better since it is on his target.  He’ll learn and I work hard to keep his energy and confidence up as we work through it, using blocking and a form of cheerful interrupter/engagement to redirect him.  With most dogs I would block the dog from the cookie but I wanted to build Brito’s energy and connection so I tried something different.  It worked.

3:35 more active engagement.

From here forwards we blend engagement and classic rewards along with work.

My goal is to seamlessly blend these options – food, toys, engagement and work, so that eventually he can’t even tell anymore what he is working for.  If I can do that, then we can compete effectively.  I need to get that engagement/work up to five or ten minutes before competition is possible.

For those of you who benefit from a bit of hands on help with topics like Engagement and Focus, take a look at the class schedule for instruction beginning June 2nd at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  I am teaching a class on Engagement in August, and the “Get Focused” class with Deb Jones would be an excellent course to take first.  Our schedule can be found here.  Registration starts May 22nd and many classes fill extremely quickly: