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Engagement: Why the Extremes?

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I watch people train dogs for a living.

One thing I see is people silently staring at their dogs, handing over cookies for behaviors they like and withholding cookies for error.  The currency is cookies.

If you use food as your primary commodity for developing a relationship, then you might find your relationship feels very…hollow.  And if I ask you about your lack of sincere interaction, you might tell me that your dog is independent or doesn’t care about you so you don’t bother with it.  That’s certainly possible.  The other possibility is that how you are choosing to interact is creating that disengaged dynamic.

How about starting and ending each training session with some sincere form of interaction that your dog enjoys? It could be a belly rub.  It could be a game of chase.  It could just be happy talk and pleasant eye contact.  Connect.  Not with cookies.  Not with toys.  Just you.  Connect – and then train.  And when you end?  Connect again.  If you cannot find a way to do this right now, ask yourself how you might get there.

On the plus side, I can see that dogs trained this way clearly chooses their behaviors – to opt in and earn classic food reinforcement or to opt out and experience…nothing.  But what I don’t see is the development of the underlying relationship – you and your dog, that will glue your team together under pressure or when the classic motivators are gone.

And then I see the opposite.  I watch people who are “on” their dogs non-stop.  Second by second, attempting to control every thought, movement, and behavior that their dog might express.  Good or bad, but never relaxed and simply enjoying the process of training.

And what is the end result of this controlling approach?  As always, it depends on the temperament of the dog and the skills of the handler, but it seems to range from a stressy intense worker who channels that emotion into the work to a dog that takes off at the first hint that the trainer has stopped paying attention.  It’s not hard to see why the chance to escape from the physical or emotional control is hard to resist, hence- the dog leaves the moment the owner lets down their guard, or, when given choice in the matter, never opts into work in the first place.

Why is “middle” so hard to achieve?   Maybe because the right answer varies by dog – one dog’s “middle” is smothering or disconnected to another.  Maybe beacuse handlers have their own opinions; what they are comfortable with and their preconceived notions about how a dog should behave. Maybe beacuse handlers are working so hard to learn the skills that they forget to enjoy the process. Maybe because professional dog trainers are good at training dogs to perform specific behaviors, but are less good at training humans in the underlying relationship skills.  Regardless of why it happens, I certainly see the results when people cannot find middle.

Here’s the goal.  Develop a warm relationship with your dog.  “Warm” means that you sincerely acknowledge what you like within training and life as a whole.  That could include food or toys, but it really needs to be more.  It needs to be you as the basis.  Set up circumstances so that the dog can choose to be with you – to train and to learn – because they have learned that it works for them. And if your dog opts in – don’t get intense.  But don’t get clinical either.

Find the middle.  Express how you feel!  If you’re pleased with what is happening – let your dog know rather than having the cookies do the work for you.  And if you’re not pleased – consider your options.  Maybe just let your dog go back to doing not much of anything.  You don’t have to add control, but you also don’t have to try to ratchet training up so that your dog is compelled to stay.  Just let them go.  And see what happens, over time, when you offer sincere warmth for interaction and simply neutral existence for the alternatives.

If you’re not sure how you’re doing then videotape a training session and watch it. Do you look like a disconnected pez dispenser?  That’s bad.  Work to look like a human who loves their dog.  Or do you look like a neurotic parent supervising a child on the edge of a cliff?  That’s bad too.  There is no cliff.  Let your dog discover on his own just how much you have to offer.

And on another note…congratulations to me!  This blog has been nominated for  a Maxwell Award for “Best dog blog!” Even better, my book, “Beyond the Back Yard: Train Your Dog to Listen Anytime, Anywhere!” has ALSO been nominated in the category of Best Training Book.  Yay for me!


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. Congratulations! ! Well deserved! !

  2. Kathryn Butterfield

    I love this! I am trying to find the perfect mix of “tries too hard” and “if you love someone, let him/her go”…. interesting I raised 6 kids and found it easier to mix those up into a workable successful relationship with them than I do with my 8 month old Golden pup whom I adore and want to do”everything right” with… i want that easy breezy you are my favorite human and I choose you over ______ anyday! This post confirms what I feel to be right and I thank you for it! What I needed to hear today !

    • Here’s something to remember…when your toddlers were two years old, I doubt they chose you over the world. And I bet you didn’t think anything of it. Your baby dog is 8 months old…stay realistic….offer interesting things to do….be a friend….and then set up the environment (your house?) when you want to train, so that you’re a no brainer choice.

  3. I agree, yay for you. I love your blog–clear, and makes sense!

  4. Congrats Denise! Your thoughts on dog training have really changed how I think about things and training and more important the relationship in general. I watch seminars now and all you here is the sound of clickers coming from everywhere but nothing else. All of a sudden that sounds so hollow. Have a long way to go but glad for the new direction.

  5. Thoughtful and so well-stated, as usual. This is an area in which I continue to struggle mightily in trying to help many of my students who struggle with just what you describe. I feel it’s especially hard for many folks when they have trained the Pez dispenser” way for months if not years and then they try to get off it and establish communication when the cookie has done all the talking. We’ll keep chipping away at this critical skill, inspired by your words! Thanks!

  6. I loved it! So true on every level. I love my dog..and we both show it 😁

  7. Reblogged this on Dogs On The Ball! and commented:
    Another great read from Denise Fenzi about true interaction in training to build relationship.

  8. Yaaaay for you!!!

  9. Congratulations from France ! great thoughtful article ! very inspiring ! thank you so much for this blog !

  10. You deserve it Denise! You work really hard at communicating to people how to train their dogs – humanely. Loved this blog! And your book! Think I’ll go hug my dog now. Yep, SHE likes it!

  11. There seem to be so many dogs these days that spend their lives locked in cages, dogs that only get released for ‘training sessions’ A real relationship is best built on the everyday interactions, moments and connections, it shouldn’t have to be crammed into the ten minutes a day spent teaching heeling.

  12. Well done many times over
    Your blog is terrific , it makes me lol , it gives me food for thought , challenges me to think .check the most important thing . “The Dog ”
    You create a way for people to see their dogs , their training in a way that is mindful of the spirit with in “The Dog.” to care for it nurture that spirit , in doing so the dog and handler gain so much, learning then is joyous for both sides
    I just read this after a short sweet training session
    Both the dogs and Zi say
    Thank You,

  13. Congratulations Denise! You are so deserving of your Maxwell Awards. You are so generous with what you share and how you share it. Thank you for everything you do!

  14. Oh my, what a timely email! Today I broke my connection with my dog while we took a walk…I won’t bother you with the details, but I needed a good swift kick in the butt and you provided a well aimed blow. Thank you!

    Congratulations on your nomination for the Maxwell Award and a double fist pump for the nomination for best training book, “Beyond The Back Yard”!! I love reading, watching and listening (recent podcast) to your wonderful and insightful training techniques.

    I look forward to the next big lightbulb moment that I reap from your blog.

    Happy dog playing in 2017

    Denise Fenzi wrote: > a:hover { color: red; } a { text-decoration: none; color: #0088cc; } a.primaryactionlink:link, a.primaryactionlink:visited { background-color: #2585B2; color: #fff; } a.primaryactionlink:hover, a.primaryactionlink:active { background-color: #11729E !important; color: #fff !important; } /* @media only screen and (max-device-width: 480px) { .post { min-width: 700px !important; } } */ dfenzi posted: “I watch people train dogs for a living. One thing I see is people silently staring at their dogs, handing over cookies for behaviors they like and withholding cookies for error.  The currency is cookies. If you use food as your primary commodity for dev”

  15. First of all, yes triple yay for you! I considered myself a pretty good dog trainer and instructor before I started reading your amazing blog and books and attending seminars and camps. Then I realized I still had a long way to go, lol!

    Secondly, I sure have experienced this first hand. My lovely Border collie Fay showed no propensity for physical interaction as a young dog and I didn’t do anything to build it. She did show a strong desire for classic motivators and so there you go, I used them. And used them, and used them some more. 5 years later I realized it was a bad decision. I know that hollow feeling and I don’t ever want to experience that again nor do I want my students to experience it. The good news regarding me and Fay is we really love each other and we have worked out a good compromise. Expecting her to value engagement at this point in her life was not easy but I just built little pieces bit by bit and it’s different in a good way even if it isn’t as good as it could have been. Baby Trek, now 16 months old is engagement crazy and I’m a happy trainer! I’ll never live without that connection again, thank you for leading us in that direction. I’ll do my best to help students develop this with their dogs and show them how much better things can be.

  16. “disconnected pez dispenser” had me choking on my coffee! Great insightful article and woo go you on the nomination!

  17. Yeah for you!!! Congratulations for well deserved awards!!! Your blog posts are always spot on and ever so helpful!!! Thanks 😃

  18. Yay for You – and us! Congratulations on your honors!

  19. Love your blogs and double the congratulations on your nomination! You deserve it and I am looking forward to more.

  20. Congratulations!!!

  21. Congratulations so well deserved!!

  22. Gosh I now realise I’m not being negative about other persons training methods. I do all of what you have said and have fab. Relationships with my dogs. Love and attention win always

  23. Pingback: Вовлечённость: две крайности

  24. Funny ways of life 😊 When I first discovered your blog via a shared link of your 8 days with Wink, I discovered something. Not controling every move can have rewarding outcomes too, for both of us, me and my dog. This was like a shock! You were the first person who said: well, it doesn’t matter now, we’ll eventually get there…
    Everything I read until now had all kinds of controlling plans, from thetering the dog to you 24/7 way up to spy your dog 24/7 and reward every good choice and try never miss anything; and then the other side of the flip coin: never let an unwanted behavior unpunished – and lets not get into the punishing methods; just wait for choice vs never allow choices! But relax? Does this word even exist? I don’t think I have found this word in any book I read (like a full library size). Middle road? Serious? What’s that?!?
    Ever since I was a child I dreamed becoming a dog trainer.But life didn’t gave me the opportunity to have a dog before my 35 age. Pomped up with my childhood dream, I started to train. And oh dear, never expected the outcomes. I have read tons of books, read blog, joined online courses, everything just to get the best learning possibility. The results? Exactly what you have wrote above, both extrems. From dog running out on me on first occasion, up to the most hurtful issue: independence day proclamation! Frustration was sometimes unbearable. Could not figure out what was wrong? Tried all types of training: dominant, compultion, luring, positiv, reinforcing, you name it. But non gave me the results I wanted. How do I want to become a proffesional dog trainer if I can’t even train my dog to my expectations, if I can’t get through my own dog. Other people say my dog is very trained, but for me something was still missing, something was still off. Fact was that neighbours envied me for my good trained dog, and I envied them for their untrained, misbehaved, spolied dog or whatever, but for some reason I envied them and din”t know why. And I have just recently realized, thanks to you mostly: the GLUE! My relationship with my dog was pretty shallow. Because I forgot on the way to treat the dog like a living beeing, which I bought to love, cherish for and care for, instead, I ended up to treat my dog like an object, a trainig object, and in such relationship there’s no middle way, it makes no sense. This revelations is pretty new, the thinking process took a few months. And now, reading this blog? You writing down these words on paper, confirming my hunches, caused a big brainstorm in my mind. Confirming that there is still a lot of room in improving my relationship with my dog, that the middle way can be an answer, and definitely a more relaxed and enjoyable one, just gave me a very sunny future image.
    I come from Romania, where compultion and dominant base training is the most common, especially in my town, where we have a very famous army dog school and most of the local trainers are the members of that school. My goal is to teach and help regular pet owners, that training is not army school, that training can be fun for both human and dog, and that a basic training means a more relaxed life and most importantly: more freedom for the dog= off leash time, something that is almost utopic to some pet owners.
    Founding you, your books and your blog, will help not only me, but alot of others too. Many pets and owners will thank you for your wisdome and willing to share it with us. THANK YOU!!! Thank you!!! Thank you!

  25. Great advice! Traditionally dogs were considered “man’s best friend,” but it is easy to focus so much on training that we forget to be real friends with our dogs.

  26. First, congratulations! You deserve all the recognition and then some.
    This is really thought provoking – so thank you! I live in a multi-dog home and I do catch myself trating them the same. As if they all learn, feel, and respond the same. I need to recenter myself and find each dog’s middle. I feel the peaceful existence and better connections already.

    Thank you!!!!!!

  27. Marge Kranzfelder

    Very deserved recognition!

  28. “treat dispenser” – hahaha ! I swear this is how my Great Dane ‘thinks’ of me ! To ensure Recall, it’s almost automatic; as I say “come”, my right hand is in the ‘treat pocket’…. I’ve tried petting, but she’s head shy (rehome/rescue to us at 10 mths old). I’m currently trying “happy bum”, i.e. rubbing her butt while avoiding the lash of the ‘happy tail’ LOL
    Article resonated with my experiences.
    Thank you !


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