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Think Like a Dog Trainer

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If you want to think like a dog trainer, get in the habit of asking yourself (or your trainer) two questions.

First, when learning a new training technique,  ask, “Why does this work?”

When you train a dog to use a foot target before teaching positions, why does the foot target prevent creeping?

(Answer:  Short term:  Dog is conscious of their feet. Long term: Muscle memory).

When you train a dog to back up after each position, why does backing up prevent creeping forwards?

(Answer:  Dog is anticipating backing which is incompatible with moving forwards.)

When you use pocket hand, why does the dog move their rear when you are manipulating the front?

(Answer:  Your hand creates a pivot point; the dog can’t get to the food without moving their rear).

When you’re unsure of how to use a technique correctly, the question, “Why does this work?” will allow you to become a problem solver for your specific situation.  The reality is, the odds that any given training technique will work perfectly for all dogs without modifications isn’t that good!  If you don’t understand why you are using a technique and how it works, you’ll  have a terrible time problem solving effectively when you run into a slightly different situation.

Let’s use pocket hand as an example since I wrote about it last week.  Here are some of the responses that I read:

“This technique challenges me!  My dog is…

Big, small, rough about taking the food, frantic personality, nervous about my body pressure, not food driven, just stands there and licks the food, etc.”  And of course, my personal favorite,

“I tried it and it doesn’t work.”  Which appears to be the generic response when the trainer prefers to blame the technique rather analyzing where they’ve gone wrong in the application.

Let’s consider why Pocket Hand works and, from there, how one might address challenges.

It works because your back three fingers create a block and your pinkie finger becomes the pivot point.  The food in on the other side of the block in your thumb-forefinger combination, just a few inches away.  The dog wants the food but can’t get past the block. To get around the block the dog must work their muzzle around the pivot point – your pinkie.  Because the dog cannot bend their muzzle in the middle, they move their rear to come in from a new angle and get closer to the food.  If the dog tries to reach around without moving their rear, the handler rotates the hand a bit more – so the dog still cannot reach the food as their head gets twisted at a weirder and weirder angle.  Finally, they move their rear to get a better position to reach the food….Voila, rear end movement.

It’s worth pointing out that if the dog can reach the food and if you did it correctly – you should be giving the dog the food instantly.  If the dog has reached the food and you have not released it….why not?

If you attempt to use the pocket hand technique without understanding how it works, then you’re going to struggle, because very few methods are done exactly the same way with every dog.

For example, in the video I showed, I asked the handler to wrap her hands under her dog’s muzzle just a bit.  I rarely do this BUT this handler has tiny hands so it was a necessary accommodation to prevent the dog from simply going under her hand for the cookie and avoiding the pivot point altogether.

I used this technique with a Papillon early in the day.  The Papillon was  pressure sensitive, so we didn’t even touch the side of the dog’s head – just placed the block and the dog worked around the pivot point to avoid handler personal pressure – no reason to touch the dog’s head at all – the visual block was enough.

The papillon was introduced to pocket hand on the handler’s knees – it’s the movement that matters, not the handler’s position.  What if the handler can’t get down on their knees?  How about bending at the waist?  What is the handler can’t bend or kneel?  Try a chair.  I’ve used this technique with handler’s in wheelchairs – you can figure it out IF you understand why it works.

And the lab?  That dog had a big head and a lot of resistance to movement!  Why not work your pivot point  at the back skull and use the whole side of your hand to create the block?

Dog is quick and grabs for the food?  If the dog moves a step, GIVE THE DOG THE FOOD. There is never a time when the dog can reach the food that it is not released instantly.

What if you don’t have any fingers?  Or no hand at all?

Fine – shape it!  Place what you have of your hand/arm on the outside of the dog’s head and train your dog to target the side of their head to whatever you have.  And then rotate your body on a spot.  The dog will pivot to keep their head against your hand/arm.

Ok – handler is in a wheelchair, has no left side mobility, and the dog is tiny.

Ah!  That brings us to the second question a dog trainer should ask:

“Is this the best method for my circumstance?”

Sometimes, after looking at how a method works, you might decide that rather than attempting to modify it for your situation that you’d like to try something else altogether. It doesn’t even matter why – it could be a highly uncoordinated handler with a fast dog.  It could be an extremely talented handler who dislikes luring.  It could be a dog that is so tall that the position is not comfortable for the handler, or will not give the desired end picture.  It could just be that you’re doing it completely wrong.  Who cares?

How long do you plan to smash that square peg into a round hole?

If I have twelve students in front of me, I will make twelve different decisions, based on the behavior of the dog, the skill of the handler, and with an eye to any particular quirks present in the team.  I spend no energy trying to pound square pegs into round holes – what a waste of time!  In my mind, the great pleasure of dog training is figuring it all out; encountering challenges unique to each team and creating an effective route to success.

The faster you ditch the cookie cutter approach the more success you’ll have.

Starting April 1st, I will co-teach a class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy called “Train the Dog In Front of You”.  For three weeks, I will look at how I evaluate a dog’s temperament and behavior in order to try and balance that specific dog for the best possible training outcome.  Soft dog?  What can I do to make the dog stronger?  Driven dog?  How can I avoid whining or stressing up through my training set-ups and trial preparation?  When I encounter a  dog in a seminar situation, how do I quickly evaluate the team, and make a plan to proceed in real time?

How do you learn your dog?

And then Deb Jones will take over for the second three weeks of class for the “applied” portion – helping the students think about applying training choices to create behaviors to accommodate their particular dog, based on whatever conclusions the student has drawn in the first three weeks.

This is a “thinking” class followed by a “doing” class.  Should be interesting.  If you’d like to join us, registration starts on March 22nd!   Gold spots were already filled by lottery, but bronze is unlimited, and at $65 it’s a pretty good deal!  Hope you’ll join us:

Train the Dog in Front of You.




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.

11 responses »

  1. Hi How were we to know that there was a lottery for gold spots? I was hoping to try to get a spot.janet Amighi

    Date: Mon, 21 Mar 2016 14:41:04 +0000 To:

  2. In another forum, you said that handlers who prefer not to use a food lure can use a hand target, but as you describe it above, it seems like the food lure is pivotal (pardon the pun) to hand pocket. I’m kind of curious as to how it worked with a hand target. I can kind of see how you’d use it to push in a dog that is heeling wide or angling out, but I am not picturing how you could pull out a dog that tends to angle in, behind the handler. The best I’ve been able to come up with on my own is to have my dog target my palm with the left side of his face and the back of my hand with the right side. In theory I could push his butt out by bringing my fingers in and angling my wrist out with his face on the back of my hand. But I’m thinking that’s not really an efficient way to train this.

    • I would not use pocket hand for a dog that angled in behind the handler – or at least nowhere near how I do it to teach heeling.

    • Amy this is my problem with the ‘pocket hand’ method. I’ve had a number of dogs who simply do not work for food rewards. Then I have always taught my dogs a default ‘sit if you want a treat’. So when I tried ‘pocket hand’ with my German Shepherds all they did was sit I front of me 🙂
      I do prefer target (to lure) and click rather than deliver a food treat. It was essential when I was first introduced to ‘positive training’ since my to dogs at that time really did not like food very much at all. You simply cannot lure with a ball/ring in hand, because the dog is waiting for it to be thrown.
      I’ve finally got a really foody dog. (Weird! She behaves like everyone used to say dogs behaved!!) But with my physical limitations now I would need a ‘treat stick’ to be able to use anything like this effectively,
      Mary Ray puts our a target, click ad treat stick but I cannot see that this would replace a ‘pocket hand’ since it is ‘uni-directional’.
      But maybe something like a small table-tennis paddle that the dog learns to target only one textured/coloured side with its nose??

  3. I think this is when having trained multiple dogs is a big advantage, no two are exactly alike. You have to learn to adjust to the dog.

  4. What a great article Denise! You make it all sound so simple and with time and patience I can see how the ‘pocket hand’ can be achieved and the endless possibilities it has!!


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