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Acclimation means allowing your dog to become familiar with an environment.  This takes place before any engagement or work starts.

How important is this to me?

It’s one of the three most important things that I’ve learned in the past ten years.  The other two are honoring a dog’s emotional state above all, and allowing for choice in work.

Combine knowledge of acclimation with teaching your dog to drive you to work and match your dog’s overall energy when you interact, and you may well find that your dog’s attention to you and ability to focus and learn SKYROCKETS.  Is that worth an additional ten minutes of your time?

I’m not exaggerating.  Let your dog breathe and you will be shocked at the return on your time investment.  That small courtesy is non-negotiable with a nervous dog or a dog with low working drives, and it’s just generally respectful with stable dogs or dogs that always try to work hard.

Can you imagine taking a human child-student to a new place, blocking their view of everything around them, and then aggressively insisting that they work on their spelling while we shoved food or dangled toys in front of their face to prevent them from looking around?  Or put them back in the car if they still tried to get around us?  Whatever gave us the idea that this makes sense with dogs?

Do not force your dog to interact with you; you’re making yourself a misery!  It doesn’t matter if your use of force involves a high value cookie in front of the nose, or a tug toy waving wildly around your dog’s face, or a collar correction, because the end result is the same – the dog is compelled to work without choice regardless of whether they are ready to be there.

Think about it.  The last time you decided to train, how much time did you give your dog to walk around, explore, sniff, sightsee, etc?  Without badgering?  Just letting your dog breathe, settle in, and enjoy the general working environment without interruption?

Historically, I have tried to be an “efficient” trainer because I am often training under time limitations.  That means I would set up my working space, get my dog, let them pee and look around for around one minute, and then I’d go to work regardless of the dog’s level of offered engagement.  That worked, sort of, but with some dogs I spent an awful lot of energy trying to keep them engaged.  I’ve learned that I was wrong to do that.  It made training much harder for both of us.  I’m done trying to be more “more interesting” than the environment.  I created a lot of unnecessary stress in some dogs and outright avoidance in others.

And now?  I fully expect to spend just as much time acclimating as I do actually training.  So…ten minutes of exploring.  Maybe even twenty minutes, depending on the dog.  And at the end of that time, guess what I have?  A dog that is excited, focused and eager to work for me.

And if after all that time that dog is still not interested in working with me?  In spite of the fact that I have classic motivators somewhere, know how to interact with my dog in an enjoyable manner, and provide interesting and fun activities?  What will happen if I start begging and bribing?  I’ll get the dog’s attention AS LONG AS I HAVE COOKIES OR CORRECTIONS FRONT AND CENTER.  How many competitions are allowing for that these days?

Wouldn’t it be smarter to blow off training at that time, and find places with more suitable conditions for training while you grow your dog’s love of work?  Then you can see what happens over time – your dog begins to internally generate the focus needed to work even when conditions are trying -because you have trained them to use their intrinsic interest instead of applying external motivators.

I didn’t even realize that my way of thinking was “unique” until the emails started showing up after I introduced this idea in my current online class.  Apparently, many people subscribe to the “force interaction instantly from the moment the crate door opens” philosophy, and if that doesn’t work, then “push harder!  Tug harder!  Get more intense!  Crate longer!”  In effect, if it’s not working then more must be better.

Since when in life is “more” of whatever is not working the right answer?

Since never.

The following video is three minutes long.  In the first two minutes there is NO indication that Brito wants to work.  When he’s ready, he lets me know.  This acclimation period is edited down from about ten minutes so be prepared to wait much longer than two minutes.  Note that Brito finally indicates a readiness to work without my showing a cookie or a toy.  I don’t need to beg with motivators because he understands the entire process from acclimation to engagement to work to a classic food or toy reward, or to more engagement in a more advanced version.

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.

32 responses »

  1. So my comment for you is going to be an obvious one. When you enter the ring, the dog needs to work with you immediately and doesn’t have the opportunity to sniff around because it’s a new environment. I think it’s too easy for them to think that “having their own time” is the normal routine.

    I have seen dogs that are routinely allowed to run around an agility field and play with other dogs at another training facility. Some of these dogs now believe that the first thing you do when you go somewhere and there is agility equipment is you run around for awhile and then start to work. The result is that the first run of the day at a trial is always a waste because the dog is running around all over the place instead of being ready to work. The second run the dog is ready to work and runs like he would in practice.

    I do want my dogs to want to work with me and I never force it on them. However, I also have worked to create a strong bond/history with them so that they want to work when we get to the training area or field. They have opportunities to run around the training area, but never in the context of starting a training session.

    Any comments?

    • I almost don’t know where to start. First, I don’t ever let my dog run around in a working space unless it’s home – I let them acclimate. That means walking around. Second, dogs can always acclimate at a trial – (see note above – no running around), third, if your dog does not choose you over the environment without bribery, you shouldn’t be at a trial – you wont’ have your bribes there either. Fourth – there are stages to all training. Just like we mostly start with tons of food to teach a new behavior and over time we change that, the same is true with acclimation and how one starts work – you get to the point where you can simply say the dog’s name and thats that and honestly, most dogs start taking less and less time to look around because they start loving their work so much. But you train for that, just like you train any competition behavior. I’m currently running a class online that talks about this process (Engagement) – but it’s a very dense class that can’t really smushed into a blog; it’s more of a book. I think you are confusing bad training that you see in the “real world” with what I have written. Take another look at what I have said. Good question.

      • I was thinking the same as Robin above when I first read this blog entry. But when I started thinking about it, it made sense the more new environments you expose your dog to, and the more you grow their love for the work, the easier it will be to get your dog to engage/focus. And then you posted this comment. There is so much win in this comment.

        I too used to think you had to get the dog focused/engaged straight away, and that the more the dog is allowed to focus on the environment, the more value they are building for focusing away from the handler. But I’m learning to be much more laid back about it, and it’s working really well 🙂

        I’m currently in the engagement class. Loving it so far 🙂

      • I’m loving that class too – I see a game changer for so many.

  2. I agree completely that we should work with dogs only if and when they themselves want to work. However, in a world where lots of us are having a hard enough time persuading owners to use treats as +R and as motivators in order to help form good human/canine working relationships, I’m bummed to see you putting a ‘cookie on the nose’ in the same class as +P. Please reconsider classing a bribe as ‘force’.

    • I don’t think you’ll find many pet people reading this blog – my target audience is performance people. And honesty, I do consider a cookie under the nose to force attention from an unwilling participant to be force. It’s mental rather than physical but at the end of the day the emotional reaction from the dog is the same – conflict with the handler and often, strong handler avoidance. Which doesn’t mean I won’t use a cookie on the nose for specific reasons – but surely not to train a competition dog to train or perform in a new place.

      If you are trying to convince a person to use +r methods, then keep in mind that one day they will take that cookie away and their dog will not longer perform – the dog will do what it always wanted to do – look around. Then they will blame +r training and go back to what they know – traditional punishment. Training must support our long term goals or human change will not occur. From day one – teach good training.

      • You are a training legend, and I’m a newbie, and it would be rude of me to argue with you, especially on your own page. But I can’t leave this without saying that the goal is to take the cookie away sooner rather than later (when it’s being used as a bribe), and then, actually, even in my newbie experience, the dog does continue to perform. Fading out the lure is something we learn early on. It would be cowardly of me to apologize for any use of ‘nose cookies’, although I don’t have your experience. My newbie status, in fact, allows me to be sure that ‘cookies’, used occasionally as bribes but always as +R, work easily and well. For you to make the use of food as +R the culprit in the supposedly inevitable degeneration of owners into the realm of +P is a disappointment. I know that that occasionally happens, but it seems to be the case when the owner/handler had no faith in ‘cookies’ from the start (and you’ve fed that here). Also, there’s really nothing inevitable about it. Many owners see no natural segue from, ‘failure of Milk Bones to inspire’, to, ‘slap on that prong collar’, thank goodness, and many of them have a natural disinclination to use any +P at all. I may not realize how different things are in the world of agility in general, because when I did agility with one of my dogs, our excellent teacher was a virtuoso at the use of cookies. And now I will go back to my world and be quiet.

      • If you are using cookies in an operant learning condition to create behaviors, then that is not the point of this blog. If you are using cookies to keep a distracted or worried dog with you – then I wish you luck. Been there and done that.

      • P.S. This is probably clear, but just in case, I completely agree that a dog should never be asked to choose between food and safety, so I’m not suggesting using a food lure to get a dog to do something he/she doesn’t want to do. From what you wrote, it sounds like you aren’t opposed to luring as a short cut to a behavior. So I simply wish that you had spoken less disparagingly, and more specifically, of food as a motivator. It might be enough just to point out that when a dog is in a new and distracting situation and might be feeling tense, anxious, ‘exploratory’, or any combo, trying to use food to get focus might be counterproductive, while acknowledging its effectiveness in other situations. Anyway, thanks for all you do in the world of dogs.

      • If you are having trouble convincing pet people that +R is the way to go, you know the first question they will ask is, so what happens when I don’t have a cookie? Engagement is what you are training for. I have used acclimation for years with my dogs.

  3. This is one of the most useful things I have ever read about dog training. Just awesome, Denise! I am shocked that your first comments were on the negative side, (but I guess not really surprised). A lot of people that profess to be R+ trainers are still control freaks and have that “you must do it cuz I’m the human” mindset lurking. It’s a journey. I think you are confident enough in your philosophy not to let the comments bother you too much, but we all need a little R+ so — cookies to you! I mostly train pet dogs and their people and I totally agree with you. I may use luring to get a dog to sit — not usually much problem there. But when teaching a dog to go into their crate I *never* lure it by throwing treats in, esp if a dog already has a negative feeling about crates. And I always get super strong crate behavior. Dogs aren’t stupid. They know when we are trying to *force* them to do something they may not be too thrilled about doing. Same for trying to get a fearful dog to “go say hi” to a scary person by holding out food. You put the dog into a state of conflict — want the cookie, don’t want to do that thing. And as for people we are trying to persuade to use R+, one of my favorite things is seeing the look of awe on owners’ faces when they see their dog willingly diving into their crate, and often staying in there even after the cookies have stopped! Nothing convinces them that R+ works like that does.

    • It appears that we are on the same page. I also, never hand a stranger cookies to get a dog to visit against their will. Bad training – risks dog bites…..bad idea…..

  4. This so fits my newest boy… He is different in his visual and prey drives from my other dogs… I have been giving him time to acclimate after attending one of your seminars, and it makes a world of difference in his ability to learn… He is not a “get out of the crate and go to work” dog… especially not if other dogs are being raised to a forced level of excitement by handlers who are struggling to get immediate engagement, and also focus… Love this line… “I’m done trying to be more ‘more interesting’ than the environment. I created a lot of unnecessary stress in some dogs and outright avoidance in others.” Thank you for being so insightful and reminding me to train the dog I have the way HE needs to be trained, and he will become my willing partner…

  5. My question has more to do with engagement than acclimation – hope it’s okay to post on this thread. My dog comes at me multiple times a day with a tug toy seeking my engagement with him, Since I believe work is play, and play is work, I almost always engage and turn it into a training session by working on our ‘out’, fast sit, Its Your Choice games, etc. and try to end the tug session with him still engaged. However, I tend to stop general training sessions when he disengages/starts losing interest. I believe traditional trainers would say don’t let the dog decide, ‘when you start and when you stop engagement.’ What are your thoughts on this? Thanks!

    • I would do what you do – ideally shorten your sessions. I suppose the question to ask a traditional trainer is, “how do you keep them in the game when they don’t want to be there anymore?”

  6. I LOVE that you are putting this out there!! This has been a big thing for me in my work with my dogs, and I have found that the more my dogs are able to acclimate to a new environment, the higher quality their work is.

    I do have tools that can help speed acclimation along – for an experienced dog under normal circumstances. And so much of it is tied to knowing the individual dog and knowing what his or her needs are.

    I have one dog I can literally take anywhere on earth and if Agility equipment is set up, she will run a course, no questions asked. But my young boy seriously needs to acclimate or he can’t function in the ring!

    I will be sharing this post far and wide!!!

  7. Thank you for posting about this, Denise! I’ve made the same mistake a few times and learned the hard way that at least with Zoe (Phoenix is a lot quicker to jump right into working), I have to spend time allowing her to acclimate or bad things happen! One very memorable experience of her teaching me was she blew me off completely and took off after some geese. The geese were fine, she was fine but it was extremely embarrassing. It was one of those, “OMG! She’s never done this before” moments and I will never forget it. She was not in the right frame of mind to work and I think if I had given her the time to check everything out first she wouldn’t have done that. That being said, I am definitely taking your engagement class in December when you run it again!

  8. My Novice A obedience sheltie was very concerned with the environment and these were the exact things I did with him (over 20 years ago) before entering the ring. As he became more confident, it would take less time for him to acclimate to the environment, but he always needed this time. We pulled it together one trial for a HIT! Love that you’ve put this in a blog!

    • I definitely didn’t “discover” acclimation. I got it from Leslie McDevitt and surely thousands of people figured it out the way you did – trial and error.

  9. Another wonderful blog Denise! you probably got some negative comments because it takes longer to train but should be so well worth it to have a dog when you get to the ring! Thank you for posting this article as it reminds us that dogs are creatures of the enviornment and want to check it out before thinking about doing anything else!!

  10. “I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference”
    -Robert Frost

    Thank you Denise!

  11. I’ve been doing this for years. When we get to a trial, I take my Casey for a walk around the event. Its a casual walk, on lead. She’s not running loose, but I honor her curiosity. If she wants to check something or someone out, we do that. She gets to meet people and say hi. She gets to hear the sounds and see the sights. I try to get her on the field surface if I can. Then we go outside and take care of her business. She prefers to attend briefings, too. She barks if she can hear the briefing from her crate. She’s much more relaxed when she gets to experience the environment that way. She was an excited anxious dog in her youth but she’s mellowed a bit. My new pup doesn’t need acclimation as much as she does. He’s got confidence in abundance.

  12. I too, read Lesley McDevitt a few years ago, completely changed my atittude to my dogs and training. I absolutely don’t insist I am the focus of my dogs world, as so much obedience training does, it just isn’t realistic and it is control freakery ! My first memories of going out with Blossom as a pup was throwing food on the ground for her to forage and chasing feathers with her ! Hasnt harmed our obedience progress at all !! Same with pup, Zanzi, I’m letting her have a puppyhood, doing puppy things. If she is out with me, the first thing she does is turn and initiate play between us. All I want is that she will always be confident and relaxed with the relationship between us !

  13. Another great blog post, Denise! The words of my first guru/mentor, Jean Donaldson – said to we budding trainers at the SF SPCA, working with shelter dogs – ring in my ears to this day; “Train a dog who wants to be trained.” Getting the dog to “want to” was, of course, a combo of acclimation and building value for working with us over time. The concept is simple but the implications are HUGE! Thanks for articulating it in a clear and accessible way! (PS – another great thing Jean said was, “If I’m training my own dog, I’ve lost all objectivity.” Those words ring in my ears a lot, too LOL!)

  14. Reblogged this on Learning With Dogs and commented:
    Here is something that I agree with wholeheartedly. I’ve seen it time and time again with my dogs. Honor their time, honor their needs.

  15. naturalhealing4pets

    Nice post 🙂

  16. Holy cow, this was so helpful, Denise! I have a young somewhat reactive dog and wanted to bring him to a place he will be working in with me. Instead of trying to get his focus after a short acclimation, I walked around for ten minutes until he was asking to work. What a huge difference this made. How much kinder this was for my dog to be able to reach his own comfort level in a new environment instead of me deciding it was time to work. Thank you so much.

  17. I have recently discovered your blog and I am really loving it!
    Can I ask how you feel about capturing in the acclimatisation process? In new environments I usually allow my dog some time to sniff around and get her bearings. However, I still usually mark and reward behaviours I like. I feel like this maybe has worked reasonably well for us as she has changed from a dog that would be hyperaroused in a new environment to a dog that is curious about the environment but not going over threshold. But still, I would appreciate your thoughts on this?

  18. Pingback: Tell me about your first day of puppy school! - Golden Retrievers : Golden Retriever Dog Forums

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