“Engagement” is the most interesting concept that I have explored in some time.  Not in the generic sense of the word (Being engaged with another) but my use of the word….a dog that works hard to get YOU to pay attention to HIM.  Interesting stuff.

I’ve written quite a bit about the topic on this blog.  If you search the word “Engagement” here, you should be able to grasp enough detail that you can create a plan for your own dog and start serious Engagement training.  But if you prefer a more structured approach, then you can join me online on August 1st for a six week class on the topic of Engagement.  Registration is now open and will cost $65 at bronze, as do all of our courses.  All sports and breeds of dogs are welcome.  Here is my promotional video for this course:

Here is the “Welcome” lecture for this class to give you a sense of what we’ll talk about for six weeks.  For those of you who have taken other Fenzi Dog Sports Academy courses such as Get Focused, Relationship Building, or Bridging the Gap – you’ll see how all of those concepts are strongly incorporated into this class.

Hope to see many of you there!

Lecture #1:  How is engagement different than focus?  What is offered focus?


There is no way to truly ferret out the topics of Engagement and Focus because they are so tightly intertwined.

Focus requires internal effort – same as engagement.  Focus is heavily dependent on a comfortable dog in a comfortable environment – same as engagement.  Focus can be trained and developed over time – same as engagement.  And in this class, I will often use the words focus and engagement almost (but not quite) interchangeably.  So how are they different?

One way to think about it is this:  all active engagement requires focus, but not all focus requires active engagement. For this class, I will be looking for enthusiastic and focused MOVEMENT towards the handler – I call this active engagement.  I will be looking for a full body reaction to the exercises; eye contact, ears forward, and an engaged brain won’t be enough. I want to see the dog on his feet with an actively wagging tail.  I want to see the dog actively pushing the trainer (mentally, but also somewhat physically) to begin work.

In addition, for this class, I want to see the dog facing the handler because the tasks will always be handler focused rather than task focused. It’s always about getting back to the handler; to celebrate what you are doing together!

In other words, I want the qualities of play, praise, handler interaction, classic rewards, focus, and energy to become so tightly bound together that they cannot be differentiated.

To successfully complete obstacles in agility or to do obedience exercises that do not rely on the handler, the dog must be able to switch focus from the handler to the obstacle or exercise.  This class will not address this until relatively late in this class when we introduce the idea of work.  Instead, we will look at the enthusiasm that occurs when the dog-handler interaction feeds the entire process of working together.  THAT engagement can be used to spill over into a more traditional definition of focus where the dog moves away from the handler – but for this class, the dog will be focused in the direction of the handler almost at all times.

Both focus and engagement must be internally generated!  Teaching a dog to orient his eyes in your direction is a waste of time – you need the brain, not the eyes!  Have you ever seen a dog in the obedience ring who was clearly looking in the direction of the handler but not following any cues?  The dog was looking straight ahead, but the ears were not forward, there was no tension in the body, and the entire demeanor of the dog screamed a lack of interest in the task at hand? That is disengagement!  Teaching mindless eye contact is a waste of time if the brain does not follow, and this is true for both focus and engagement.

Dogs can be successful in a variety of dog sports without engagement, but these dogs do not show the joyous, excited picture of teamwork that we strive for here at Fenzi Academy.   Dogs can certainly learn to “go through the motions”, especially if they come with a stable genetic package and a lot of pattern training. That is enough for many handlers, but if you are looking for a dog who wants to be there as much as you want to be there, then you need to approach your foundation training differently – and engagement is a part of that training.

Some dogs do not require engagement training because of their genetic temperament – those dogs teach the handlers how to engage rather than the reverse.  And other handlers inadvertently teach engagement as part of their overall training, simply as a function of how they naturally approach all of their training.  That works too!  But if you need a bit of help getting engagement, then you can address it systematically as a separate concept to be taught rather than simply picking it up as you progress through your skills training.

Here are two videos; one shows focus, and the other shows engagement and focus.

In the first video with my older dog Raika, you’ll see plenty of focus.  She is waiting to either work or to get her toy.  But she cannot interact with me directly because I didn’t train her that way. In fact, she will get agitated if I try to interact with her without a toy or work as an intermediary.   (You can see that I put my hands on her but she shows no reaction.)  Raika shows excellent focus but she lacks engagement with me – it’s all about the toy.  As a result, we struggled during periods of her show career because she figured out that there would be no toy reward in the ring.  We worked through that, but her lack of basic engagement training made it much harder than it needed to be!


Now here’s a video of Lyra.  Because Lyra struggles to connect in public and her drives for toys and food are quite moderate compared to other dogs, I have focused extensively on personal play and engagement.  Notice how she interacts with me easily and directly, even before I show her that I have a toy. You’ll also see that she maintains her connection with me, even after I give her the toy.


Why the emphasis on movement? Imagine for a moment how you feel when you play a card game vs. how you feel when you engage in a physical sport such as walking, running, soccer, or even fast paced dog training.  Both require focus and are highly enjoyable, but the activities that require movement bring out a completely different level of adrenaline.  Movement sharpens your reflexes and makes you highly aware of small changes that are relevant to your engagement in the game. On the other hand, while a game of chess sharpens your mental focus, it may actually dull your physical reflexes.

In this class, we want to emphasize movement because ALL dog sports require movement – that’s why we call them sports!  While some dog sports do have passive components (such as the long stay exercises in obedience), this is not the primary emphasis of any dog sport. Movement is the primary emphasis.

Of course, when you are teaching a particular exercise, you may not want a lot of movement!  You may want a calm, thinking dog who is well focused on a task, for example, learning how to do scent articles. But when you are planning to work on known exercises where you want maximum speed and enthusiasm, or if you want to train a particular exercise with maximum drive, or if you want to start reducing reinforcers (which is not discussed in this class but is very much a part of engagement training), then you want as much movement coming from the dog as possible.  A dog who goes from bouncing in front directly into heeling is going to bring a lot more speed, power, and enthusiasm to the work than a dog who sets up in a sit and then steps out calmly into the first step.

Because engagement is both acquired AND trained through the process of building a positive attitude towards work, it is a foundation skill that should be taught right along with skill building exercises for your specific sport.  So, in one session you might be working quietly on a nose touch with your young agility prospect (requiring focus, but not high levels of handler engagement), while in another session you might be working on encouraging your dog to bounce around you with enthusiasm for 30 seconds in a pure engagement training session, and in a final session, you might be working on a fast run across a board on the ground.  In this third session, you’d use your engagement training to build useful energy, and then you’d transfer that energy to the running contact training. In a case like this, you could easily have three training sessions of only a few minutes each in one day – a skill building session (nose touch), an engagement session (bouncing towards handler), and a blended engagement/work session (bouncing towards handler and then running across a board on the ground).

Engagement training has many qualities in common with toy training, and it is often used in the same places. While food tends to engage calm focus, toys or active engagement with handler training tend to engage energetic focus.  And like toy training, we always build the dog’s interest in the activity in its pure form first. You don’t train with a toy that your dog is not excited about, and you won’t use engagement to start an active training session if your dog doesn’t care about engaging with you!

In this class, engagement training will be reinforced with food and toys as much as needed, which creates an interesting question: is the engagement reinforcing in and of itself, or is the dog simply trained to do it as an activity that is rewarded?  In other words, is engagement a primary or secondary reinforcer?

The answer is… it depends.  Dogs, unlike chickens, almost always find engagement with a human reinforcing whether toys and food are involved or not. If you doubt this, then ask yourself how your dog responds when you come through the door after an absence.  Is your dog happy to see you?  Does he show energy and a happy demeanor?  This is engagement!  The dog has chosen to put out the energy to get off the couch and come to greet you!

But in the big, wide world, it’s not so simple.  When your dog engages you at the front door, there are probably no other interesting alternatives – no fresh grass to smell, no birds to watch, and furthermore, there are no strings attached.  The dog did not have to work first – you simply had a pure interaction.

The strength of this natural tendency to engage with humans matters!  Some dogs would show that same level of enthusiasm for greeting their owners regardless of the alternatives. They would much rather greet you at the door than eat a snack or play with a toy!  They would rather greet you at the door than dart out into the yard and check out the squirrels in the trees!  But other dogs have less natural engagement.  They are happy to engage – as long as there is nothing better to do, and no strings (work requirements) are attached.  If you were to ask one of these dogs to sit before you pet them, they would prefer to simply walk away rather than offer a simple sit to get your attention.  Dogs of this type are lower in natural engagement.

As a result, we will “reinforce” our dog’s choices to engage with food and toys as needed – but only to the extent needed.  If your dog is simply thrilled to have your attention for the sake of your attention, then you will not need to reinforce it very much at all.  Instead, you can ask for engagement and not use classic reinforcers until you begin true work.  But other dogs (most dogs, actually) will require classic reinforcers to back up engagement once we enter the big, wide world because engagement tends to be a poor reinforcer in training when alternative possibilities exist.   Once engagement is understood, THEN we will consistently ask for engagement AND work before a classic reinforcer.

If your dog can learn to offer active engagement to earn a toy or cookie, then you can use engagement to earn work (which is then reinforced with a classic motivator). At that point, you need just one more step to give you an excellent tool in competition! This final step is where your dog engages with you, works with you, and then, rather than giving him a toy or cookie, you ask for another round of engagement!

If you enter a competition ring with a dog who is willing to engage with you without looking at a cookie or a toy, then you start off on a much better foot!  If you’re learned to engage your dog in whatever ways work best for your dog, then moving around between exercises in the competition ring will be much much easier.

The first two steps to get there, teaching your dog to choose to engage for a period of time for a classic reward (food or toy) and then getting your dog to choose to engage for a chance to work, will be covered in this class.

The next step after that would be for your dog to choose to engage, then work with you, and then request more engagement as a reward. Lather, rinse, repeat, until a final classic reward outside of the ring.  In the obedience ring you can “play” your way between exercises if your dog will willingly engage and if you have built up your dog’s enthusiasm for multiple rounds of engagement.  In agility, you would have one round of engagement to get you to the start line – work (the course), re-engage as you attach the leash – and then party with classic reinforcers outside the ring!

Can you see how valuable that cycle can be when the work starts and stops repeatedly, and ends with a final reward that is given OUTSIDE the ring? And can you see how a dog who values the engagement itself will have an enormous advantage over dogs who only engage to get the final reward?  The dogs in the first category are being rewarded in the ring!  In my mind, this is a factor of temperament (high natural levels of engagement), human training (do you play in a way that your dog finds reinforcing?), and skill building (have you trained your dog to complete several rounds of the engagement/work cycle before receiving a final classic reward?).

Upcoming lectures will introduce the stages of engagement, and all of your work will be based on these stages of engagement.  After your dog can work through these basic steps comfortably at home, then we take it on the road and add complexity in the form of proofing.  We will ask questions like, Can your dog engage in your backyard with food on your body?  Can your dog engage in the backyard with food off your body?  Can your dog engage in the backyard with food off your body and a squirrel in the tree?

This might be a good place to bring up an apparent contradiction between how Deb Jones and Judy Keller teach Focus and how I will teach Engagement here.  Deb and Judy have not allowed dogs to switch from acclimation into focus, nor have they allowed dogs to switch from focus into acclimation.  In this class I will be raising criteria – that means I will expect/allow dogs to learn how to move back and forth between these ideas with a distinct break (like a crate) between them.  So if your initial reaction is “but Deb and Judy said never to allow a dog to go back and forth”, please recognize that this class is a bigger step and we will allow it.  Your dog can learn the difference.  Just work with me and we’ll get there.

That is what we will do in this class for six weeks – engagement.  We will not make any real attempt to incorporate work, but if your dog is doing excellent work with engagement then you may certainly incorporate work appropriate for your sport. The lectures will address the various factors that will make this process easier or harder for you, so hopefully each day’s reading will help you make better decisions with each engagement training session that you set up.   Stay tuned, and welcome to class!