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Reducing reinforcers/Ring Readiness

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Today I had an opportunity to do a semi-formal run through.  I had a few interests:

I wanted to test Brito’s heeling in a distracting environment and when being directed by a pretend judge.  Because I am not ‘training’ heeling and because I need to begin reducing reinforcers, I do not reward him in position at the end of the pattern.  Instead, I now give a high percentage of my cookies BETWEEN exercises.  Separately, I will continue to work the fine points of heeling,  in my house and with low value reinforcers,  for the rest of his career. But here on this day I’m rewarding the game that we’re playing together – not the heeling.

I simply expect the finished exercises to be correct or I would not be testing them.  The classic reinforcers cannot continue to mark correct work or you’ll struggle horribly in the ring where you cannot reward, regardless of how amazing your dog is.

If Brito had struggled with heeling there is a chance that I would have continued anyway because I need the information.  Then, for the next several weeks, I would focus on cleaning up those weak areas and then I would test them again.

If he struggles and I believe that it’s stress related then I stop instantly.  I never work a stressed dog. (same in trial – I’d leave if he was struggling with stress in the ring).

1:28 – I chose to reward the “waiting” for the figure eight posts.  It occurred to me as I stood there that this expectation was new, and I wanted him to know that I appreciated his good choice.  I did not reward that exercise at all; I moved on to the stand for exam.

Brito did well on the stand for exam.  This was actually a risky move to include in this trial readiness chain, because he is still learning to remain in a stand when I return.

I did not reward this exercise, though with hindsight I probably should have.

I did reward his set-up for the recall at 2:40.

I rewarded generously after the recall but not in the finish position.

Retrieve on the flat.  Brito anticipated the finish – now I know and I can work on it!  I did not reward that exercise but not because of the anticipation – I simply moved to the next exercise.

Retrieve over high jump.  He anticipates the send over the jump.  This is a long standing issue (either going before being sent or not going at all on the first cue) so…back to the drawing board on that one.  But again, this ring time was to test where we are at – the last thing I want to do is call him back and erode his confidence.   Heck, I know I have an issue with anticipation/not going on cue.  No reason to address it here when it’s not even correct at home.

Broad jump is nice.  I end this run through on that exercise.

On balance, I’m happy.  We’ll continue to work on various aspects of reducing reinforcers and ring readiness.

Starting February 1st I’ll be teaching a class called Bridging the Gap; Reducing Reinforcers, Proofing and Generalization.  It’s a ton of materials so this course runs for two terms (and is priced accordingly).  For twelve weeks, we’ll consider the wide variety of issues that need to be addressed before sending in your trial entry. Ideally, you take this class when you have several finished behaviors, and you think you’re about trial ready.  This class is also excellent for dogs that are currently trialing but are starting to run into trouble.  Registration opens January 22nd.


Building Confidence with Scent Articles

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For some dogs, scent articles are really challenging.  We teach them what we want (select the one that smells like me), they select correctly (yay!) and then…

They stare at you. Standing at the pile.  Failing to bring it back.

Waiting for a sign.  Something.  Anything.  A twitch from you, to let them know that they have selected the right one and should bring it in.

If you’re in the ring, you stand helplessly waiting.  If you’re in training, you’re conflicted.  One side of you wants to call the dog in and tell them “yes, you are right!”  But the other side of you knows that this is simply exacerbating the problem; your dog is not confident about completing the entire exercise.

What can you do?

Once your dog knows scent articles and is selecting the correct article the vast majority of the time, then it’s time to let your dog take responsibility for the entire process – from the selection to the return.

In the following video, Brito is being asked to select the correct article and return…but I am no longer in his line of sight, so there is no way for him to use my body language, facial expressions, or extra cues to give him feedback. I am simply not there, so he needs to make a  choice and execute it – from start to finish.

This is the first time that I’ve done this exercise with Brito, so we start as normal, and then I leave the room after he is warmed up.  In the final send I expect a formal front.  In the future I’ll be out of sight from the first send.  And eventually, when I want to make this into a game, then I’ll start hiding after I send him.  At that point, after finding the correct article, he’ll have to find me as well.  My older dogs loved that game!

I’ve cut this video down to only a few repetitions; in the full session I sent him around ten times.  Note that there are only four articles -that is because I want to build his confidence and ensure success!  If he picks up his courage and brings me an article, I will accept it – right or wrong!  If you punish your dog (whatever that means to you) for bringing you the wrong one, then you will defeat the purpose of this exercise; this exercise is to get your dog to make a choice and carry it through.

The message to the dog should be: select an article.  Pick it up.  Bring it back.  I’m not available to help you.

If your dog is bringing you the wrong articles, then do not proceed.  Reward your dog for bringing you the wrong one, and then go back to training the scenting behavior to find the weakness in your training.  You do not have a “confidence with the return” problem – you have a “finding the right one” problem.

This is polishing training; not scent discrimination.  It’s designed to give your dog sureness and confidence in their abilities.  If you use it with a dog that is not confident about the actual scenting portion then you will make matters worse.

Good luck!

Trial Readiness Part 3: The Competition Ring

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In the first two parts of this series we looked at the process of getting high quality behaviors and then generalizing those behaviors to new environments.  Both of these factors are incredibly important if you want to have a dog that can compete and succeed with confidence in a trial setting. Today we’ll consider the place where you are going to be judged: Inside the competition ring.

If you’ve done a good job with generalization, your dog should be very comfortable with the idea of performing at the show site because you have generalized to a range of environments.  Hopefully this included noisy and busy environments too. Now let’s consider the actual competition space; the ring.

To get into an obedience or rally ring, you can count on a period of waiting outside the ring for up to several minutes.  What is your dog trained to do during this period?  Watch you?  Perform a down stay?  Rest?  It’s up to you what you select, but keep in mind that your dog should be trained that the next thing that will happen is work.  (To see one option, search this blog for “Squishing”).

Now you’ll enter the ring through a relatively narrow space – usually with a table, people in chairs and ring gates on your side.  Sometimes you’ll also have an overhead shade canopy. Does your dog recognize these environmental cues as the precursor to work?  What is your dog’s CER (Conditioned Emotional Response) to these environmental cues – the presence of a ring, the stewards table, canopies, and…a judge?

You’re almost in the ring. Does your dog want to be there? How about agility?  Will your dog have to watch another dog before your run?  What does the entrance to your ring look like?  Does your dog welcome the chance to get into that space?

The issue of building ring confidence is one of the most neglected areas of trial preparation in almost all sports. Your dog should be conditioned to love the cues that represent a trial and teaching them is pretty easy. It goes like this:

Set up a mini ring entrance; whatever that will look like for your sport.  Walk through that entrance and have a party that lasts at least 30 seconds.  Throw food; run with toys, play ball – whatever your dog thinks is a party.  This is one of those times when you cannot care what the neighbors might think; i’ts about your dog, so let go a little and make it special. Leave the ring quietly.  And repeat.  Over and over and over, until your dog visibly brightens and gets excited at the sight of a ring.  Indeed, I’d like to see your dog trying to drag you into the ring.

Stop feeding or playing with you dog on the outside of the ring when you are working on this concept.  All of the fun must take place inside the ring, not outside. When your dog shows an enthusiastic demeanor, you have effectively conditioned the correct response to the competition ring; ready to go and excited to be there! Now you can add a bit of work and control inside the ring, but never stop rewarding your dog simply for entering that space.

If you’re following the progression of this trial readiness series, then hopefully you have a dog that is solid on behaviors, performs well in a range of environments, and LOVES to go inside of a competition ring.  Should you enter a trial? Not yet. In my next blog I’ll consider the need for Proofing; teaching your dog how to perform correctly “under adversity.”

Preparing for Competition: Squishing!

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As many of you know, I now teach classes on-line at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  One of the courses I’m about to teach is a Ring Confidence Class.  In the process of preparing for this course, I realized just how many behaviors we can teach our dogs in order to allow them to attend their first competitions with maximum confidence and sureness in the ring.  Quite a few, really.

Some of us do this without thinking about it too much.  If you attend dog training clubs, then you are helping your dog with generalization of behaviors.  If you practice your behaviors in the face of increasingly complex challenges, then you are proofing those behaviors.  If you use a “routine” to cue your dog that work is about to begin (hopefully not the presence of cookies and toys!), then you are teaching your dog ‘Work cues” – a predictable series of behaviors that allow your dog to gear up for the competition ahead.

This blog is taken straight from the first lesson of the Ring Confidence Course.   If you choose to teach this lesson, or if you recognize the value of training your dog to enter a ring with maximum confidence and sureness, then don’t stop here!  Think carefully about what you will ask of your dog in the ring – what generalization is required, what proofing should be complete and what reinforcement schedule needs to be attained.  Change only one thing at a time!  Set your dog up for success rather than failure.

If I could ask one thing of you, it would be this:  Do not enter your dog into a competition with the “hope” that it will be ok.  Take a dog into the ring that is ready to be there.  Much as you would not like to give a speech before you knew the words, your dog does not wish to perform without knowing the required behaviors.  More dogs are permanently soured on competition by hopeful owners pushing their dog before it is ready than anything else I know of.  Take your time – there is no race here.  Teach your dog all of the necessary behaviors, and teach your dog what is expected both before entering the ring and as you move around the ring.  Finally, train for emotional comfort on the show grounds.
To get you started, here’s lesson #1 from my upcoming course on ring confidence.  If you wish to join the class, check it out at:

If you don’t enjoy structured classes or if you prefer to train alone, you can do this without a course.  Simply think carefully about exactly what happens at the dog show, and put a plan in place to help your dog be successful.  It may seem like a time consuming process in the beginning but it is much less time consuming than trying to recover a dog that already hates the ring.

Here is the first lesson:

Lesson #1:  Teach a work/no work cue.

Supplies needed:  None

Rationale:  Your dog needs to know when they are working, when they are not working and when they are about to work but have not begun yet; this is black and white for a dog and allows them to rest or wait expectantly, as appropriate.  If you rely on food or toys to create engagement, you will struggle at the ring entrance when you no longer have your special props.  If you rely on commands to create engagement, then you are banking on your dog’s ability to verbally turn on quickly – most dogs do not do this well.  Instead, teach your dog a specific work/no work cue that allows your dog to wait expectantly (but without real focus) for the two minutes before entering the ring.  By using applying body pressure and then removing it, it will be hard for your dog to “miss” the fact that you have changed your position and now wish to begin work.

You do not want to leave this to chance.
Goal: Your dog goes from relaxed or patiently waiting to completely ready in one second.

Method: To teach a dog to understand that work is going to start RIGHT NOW, we pick a position for the dog to wait.  In the “waiting” position, the dog is never asked to work, and is never rewarded.  The two most common positions that I use for waiting are between the legs or across the front of the body.  I call these positions “squishing”, because the dog is squished safely against the handler.  For small dogs or for handlers who are not comfortable bending, I recommend between the legs.  For larger dogs, or dogs that have learned that ‘between the legs’ means another form of work (such as flyball), I recommend across the front of the body, with the head facing your right.  Pick what works best for you.

Both positions allow your dog to feel very safe and protected.  By holding the dog firmly in either position, the dog can look out at the world and knows that you “have their back”.  Dogs learn to love this position – it acts as a thundershirt or mobile crate for many dogs, and allows them to soak in the environment of the dog show without being overly stressed. If it’s hard for you to understand this, imagine if you went to a new place which had you overwhelmed.  Imagine how you would feel if you were there with a friend who had been there before and had their arm tightly around your shoulders, versus. how you would feel if you were standing a few feet away and connected only by a string?
Physical proximity is very important to creating a sense of security in your dog.  It doesn’t hurt that your dog is also learning to rely on you; if you say this place is safe then it IS safe!

It is your responsibility to never let anything happen to your dog in this comfort position (which I call squishing). Neither dogs nor people should be allowed to approach when your dog is placed in this manner.   This is your dog’s safe space – to look out and adapt to the environment.

So far I have described the first value of this position – a safe place for your dog to wait and soak up the environment.  By squishing near the rings or wherever your dog will be asked to work, your dog also has a chance to adapt to wherever they will be asked to work.

Now we’ll talk about the second use of squishing.  We also need to teach the dog that squishing always ends with a high energy interaction with you – whatever your dog cares about.  When we release from squishing, we turn quickly away from the dog and either reward heavily or go into work.

In the teaching phase, we release from squishing and always go straight to food or a toy and make the dog catch up to us to get that reward.  We want to create a sense of urgency in our dog; when the dog feels the release of the pressure position, they need to instantly turn and move towards us, as fast as they can, to get their reward.

This becomes a game that serves us well. Squish means relax.  But be ready for an instant on!  If you ever release a dog from squishing and then do nothing, you will totally ruin the value of this position.

You can use squishing anytime you need to wait – while you speak with an instructor, while you explain something to another person, or while you wait for your turn.  Squishing might be ten seconds or it might be several minutes.  The longer your dog can stay in this position comfortably, the better, because then you can use it outside of the obedience ring when you aren’t sure how long you’ll have to wait before your turn.  When your number is called, your dog is released and you immediately heel towards the ring; ideally with a very powerful and driven dog at your side.

To teach squishing:

1) between your legs.

  1. Place dog between your legs for no more than two seconds – it’s ok if you lure your dog there if they are not comfortable, but as soon as they accept this position readily then get rid of the lure.   You don’t want your dog to panic, so make this position well accepted.
  2. To release your dog, take several steps backwards so that you are walking backwards off the rear end of your dog.  Your dog will almost always turn to face you – if not then call to them.  Keep moving backwards and reward in the front of your body with your wrist still touching your body.  Your dog will effectively be in a ‘front’ position.  Repeat until your dog instantly turns towards you expecting a cookie – moving quickly to get their reward.
  3. When this is going well, back off of your dog as described above, but also turn to the right so that your dog ends up in heel position and gets rewarded in heel position there.  You will do this exercise for the career of the dog since we want squishing to be highly desirable to your dog.
  4. When this going well, back off dog as described above, but go into active heeling work.  This is how you would enter the ring!

2)  In front across your body

a)  Place dog across your body with the dog’s head facing your right hand.  Use a lure if needed to get your dog comfortable in that position but that is the only use of the lure – eliminate as soon as possible.

b) When you release your dog, turn 90 degrees so that you are facing the same direction as your dog ,and simultaneously back up so the dog is coming towards you – reward with your hands touching your body in “front” position.

c) When this is mastered, release your dog as described above, but instead of turning 90 degrees you will turn 270 degrees so you are walking away from your dog – your dog should catch up and then you reward in heel position.  This is how you would enter the ring.

When your dog is extremely solid on one of the above methods, you should notice that your dog whips around into heel position very fast when released.  Over time, your dog will learn to relax in the squish position, since there is neither work nor reward there.

When your dog is absolutely solid, you can begin to alternate squishing to work (without a reward) and squishing to a reward.  You would want to practice squishing in as many environments as possible so that your dog can generalize.  To go into the ring, you will squish.  When your number is called, you will squish and then heel into the ring, hopefully with a very attentive dog! Here is Lyra in a ring prep class – practicing this skill:

Video/class Assignment for Gold level:  Send me a video of your squishing efforts!  Keep this up through the next few weeks – we’ll be integrating it with your ring entrances soon.  The more you squish to an exciting reward, the stronger your dog will be.  Remember to make the dog catch up for the reward – don’t slow down!

Judges, coaches, and competitors

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Judges, coaches, and competitors are all important to the success of dog sports, but they are different.  There’s not much value in asking a judge a question that is more suited to a coach and likewise, you may not get much help asking a competitor a question about training that is specific to you.

A good judge is an expert at scoring for their given sport and organization.  They observe carefully, know the rules extremely well, know where to be and when to be there, hold a lot of detail in their head at any given time, and can appropriately rank class placements at the end of the day.  Ideally, this person also has an approach which is welcoming and open to people new to the sport.  Judges are invaluable to the success of dog sports competitions.

A good coach is a person who is talented at guiding a team in training. They know how to work with people, understand training methodology and how to apply it effectively, and have excellent skills of observation as it applies to training. They see what is right most of the time (I hope) and help to improve on what is wrong.  A coach can provide practical solutions for fixing errors, and with some luck they work with you over time, adapting their style as you advance your skills. A coach is invaluable if you want to progress in the dog sports.

A good competitor is a person who is focused on success in the ring. They tend to handle their dogs exceptionally well even under pressure and have a good temperament for competition.  They enjoy preparing their dogs for whatever levels they will compete at, and are often goal-oriented individuals who work extremely hard over a long period of time.  They may, or may not, have any real knowledge of training or possess strong communication skills; it’s not unusual for an excellent competitor to only have familiarity with training for teams that are extremely similar to them.  Competitors are also invaluable to dog sports.

Each of these categories are different; no one is “better” than the other.  If you have questions about judging, ring procedure, competition trends over time, or any specific points that you may have lost in the ring, then the judge is the appropriate person to ask. But if you ask them about training or problem-solving?   You’ll get what you get.  Many judges have not trained a dog in twenty years and have not kept up with current training methods at all, so there’s no more point in asking a judge for training advice than there is to asking your grandmother who picked up a few titles in 1985.

Heck, I put agility titles on a dog around the year 2000, which may well give me the titling qualifications needed to judge for some organizations. However, you do not want my advice on handling for agility because my knowledge is totally out of date.  Believe me on that.

Coaches should be quite good at training and problem solving for a wide variety of dogs and handlers, but they cannot necessarily tell you why a given judge did or did not give you a specific score.  They may not even be familiar with the organizations that are most important to you, but if they can train a dog and you can explain what you need…they have value to you.  A coach is a flexible person who enjoys the process of helping other teams, and who can adjust to the needs of the team in front of them.

And competitors? Like the other categories, they may fill multiple roles very well, or maybe not! They may not enjoy coaching other teams. They may not have good people skills. They may not have the patience for people with different skill levels and goals than their own.  But a competitor could tell you all about preparing for competition. They can tell you exactly what has worked for them, and what has not. They can tell you about handling, selecting judges and venues and give advice on mental management techniques for competition.

Plenty of people fill two or three roles, or they have in the recent past.  Awesome! But not required.  Value each group for what they bring to the table, and don’t expect (or demand) more than what they really are. Ideally, each group of people is clear on where they stand, what they do, and what they have to offer, but not always!  It’s up to you to identify what a person brings to the table, but don’t assume, or you may find yourself sorely disappointed with the result.

On another note, Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is now enrolling for the October 1st term; come join us!  I’m teaching Relationship Building Through Play and my new class, The Art of Training; Developing Confidence and Flow.


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Today I worked both Lyra and Brito through a series of simple behaviors. All of the exercises involved skills that they know well, like circle a cone or pivot on a disc, but I had to read exactly how each one was to be performed off of a piece of paper.   I had food and toys available to me and I was working in my home training area.

And it was a bit of a disaster.

Even with my dogs on a stay while I read, the lack of leadership on my part was obvious and as a result, each time I started a new behavior I could feel how we had lost our working connection. I didn’t have a clear plan for our working time, and they knew it.

This got me thinking about novice handlers; the ones who enter the competition ring without sufficient confidence in what is going to happen.  Or who train haphazardly and without a plan, losing energy as they move equipment or contemplate what to do next.

Leadership is critical.  Your dog has to believe that you know exactly what is going on, and that you’ll maintain the flow of training.  This doesn’t necessarily mean being energetic, but it does mean being connected and confident.

Regardless of sport – obedience, agility, rally or any others, you MUST handle with confidence and a plan, even if you’re not feeling it inside.  If you are training, then you must have a clear idea of what you want to do in the session, and a plan for getting there smoothly and with minimal down time. If you are in competition, you must know the order of exercises and where you are going.  And if you don’t – you get lost or confused – then fake it!  It’s better to go wrong and have your dog oblivious than it is to wander around like a lost puppy while your dog loses confidence in you.

Your dog is counting on you.

Try it and see what you think.  Plan out a series of activities, and work hard to maintain flow and connection at all times.  If something goes wrong and you’re not sure what to do, hand your dog a cookie and move on; figure it out later.  Keep the session short; rarely should good training go over fifteen minutes.  Keep you energy level even and work to project leadership and confidence in your plan.

And just for fun, arrange another session where you write out the exercises on pieces of paper, place them in a hat, and after completing one – go to the hat and pull out an exercise at random.  Read it, set it up, and then get your dog.  Try it out.  Repeat until you have completed your series of behaviors.

At the end of each session, evaluate how you felt and how your dog performed. Better yet, videotape and compare.

To be honest, I was shocked at how hard this was for both me and my dogs.  Later on I tried again, but this time I memorized the first several exercises.  It went well.

What did I change?  I added leadership.

Advanced Distraction Training

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Brito is just beginning his Advanced Distraction Training.  This video picks up roughly where a dog would leave off if you completed all of the assignments in my book, “Beyond the Backyard; Train Your Dog To Listen Anytime; Anywhere!” (available on Amazon or from my own website, The Dog Athlete)

Note that I am introducing the idea of going away from me to a place (foot target) and Brito has to cross over cookies on the ground.

To get there:

Warm up with familiar work where your dog is moving towards you – in this case I start with a recall over cookies on the grass.  Make sure you have a plan for failure!  You’ll see that Brito goes for a cookie (which he gets) at :42. I add a “punishment” in the form of picking up all the remaining cookies and also delay before allowing him to try again (remember, control the environment and not the dog whenever possible).  Finally, my fast movement in to control the cookies alerts him to the fact that those cookies are not for him – yet!

Make sure you have higher value cookies to reward success!  On the grass he is getting cheerios (his routine training treat) and from my hands he is getting a dog cookie. 

On your first sends away from you, start very close to your dog so you can interrupt if he makes an error!  

Start in your most familiar training area.  Brito has been able to do this exercise at home, so we’re now taking the show on the road. (generalization).

Do not increase the challenge level until your dog can walk directly over the distraction food without bowing out.  That suggests confidence and a strong understanding of how to “win” – bowing out suggests either stress or unsureness.   (That’s fine but do not progress until that has subsided.)

In addition to working “over” distractions close up, I’m also working on calling him off of distractions after he has permission to eat the cookies directly off the grass.  You’ll see that start at about 5:30.  I tell Brito to eat the low value cookies off the floor, and now I bring out the meatballs to reward him!  I call him name, stick a meatball under his nose, and pull him off the cookies on the floor.  I do this repeatedly, sending him back to the grass cookies every time.  I will stay at this step until I can call him off of cheerio eating without luring him with a cookie on his nose.  From there, I will increase distance from the pile of cookies, lower the value of the reward cookie in my hand, and increase the value of the treats on the floor. One step at a time! Finally, Brito will be rewarded with work for calling off the treats (the work can then earn a cookie, either from my pocket, the ground, or another location altogether).

Take your time! I started seriously working on this a while ago when I attended a training in a building that had too much random food on the floor.  I realized that I could not control the environment – so rather than fighting about it and teaching Brito to opportunistically avoid me to get to random cookies, I’d train through it.  Eventually he’ll end up stronger in the presence of open distractions, but we’re not there yet!

Brito advanced distraction training

Brito’s Rainy Day Training

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Too much rain outside so we worked inside.

I apologize for how dark this video is and for the lack of trimming at the front and rear – my video editing program is giving me grief so it was all or nothing today.  I decided to go with “all.”

The challenges:

Stay until I send on the dumbbell retrieve, and then go even if you don’t see me put down the object.  This went reasonably well, except once he went before he was sent.  That’s fine – we usually have the opposite problem (I send and he doesn’t go) so no worries there.  I’m happy he’s going!  This exercise has done wonders for our retrieve on the flat and over the high jump; he goes about 90% of the time even without seeing the object being thrown.

Gloves – fetch the one straight ahead, even if another is much closer.  On the first send he reacts without thinking so he fetches the wrong one first, but then his behavior makes it clear that he recognizes his mistake.  I reward dogs for problem solving, so he gets his cookie.  He does fine after that.

Articles had two challenges.  The first is to stay until I send you to go, and then go, even if I’m giving you cookies for staying.  This is the same basic process as for the dumbbell retrieve that I showed a couple of weeks ago.  For reasons that are not clear to me, he really struggled to hold his down stay for this exercise when I set out the articles.  No worries – I’ll address that at another time, but I did have to put him back repeatedly (not good training there!)

I also sent him to a large (30+) mixed  article pile with a variety of objects (baby shoes, regular articles, wooden blocks, etc.).  To help him I did a couple of sends with two correct articles in the pile instead of only one.   He did well on this exercise, even when he had to show a good deal of persistence to find the right one.  His reliability with articles is increasing notably as his confidence increases.

What I am hoping to accomplish with the large piles is to teach him a global search pattern rather than checking each object.  He is just beginning to get this idea, but we’re not there yet.  As a result, it can take him much longer than it should to succeed.  I’ll know that we’re there when he scents a few inches above the articles and then narrows it down, rather than bringing his nose down on each object.


Default Behaviors

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A default behavior is what your dog does in the absence of a specifically cued behavior.  The most ‘desired’ default behaviors vary by sport and activity.

For example, in AKC obedience and rally, we expect our dogs to default to a sit in heeling when we halt (technically one could argue that this is not a default since our body language – halting – cues the sit, but let’s ignore that for now).  In freestyle dogs are taught to stand at a halt.

In AKC obedience, most of us teach our dogs to default to heeling if we move forwards without a cue.  But in IPO, dogs default to a “stay” unless cued otherwise.

Defaults can be overridden by alternative cues, so an IPO dog will heel along with their trainer if cued to do so, and an AKC dog will stay instead of moving with their handler, but only if specifically cued.

There are benefits to training specific defaults.

Brito is learning to come “find front” as a default when he is moving and facing me at a distance.  I want him to come to front, unless cued otherwise.

I am doing this to help him with a few exercises:  to distinguish the drop on recall from the straight recall – keep coming unless cued otherwise! For the broad jump – come to front after you jump, unless cued otherwise!  Bring dumbbells, scent articles, and gloves to me, unless cued otherwise!

There are different ways to teach a default behavior.  In Brito’s case I set him up for success-  I just called him to front when I wanted that.  It gave him confidence and sureness.  But eventually, my “silent staring” when he is moving towards me needs to mean “come to front”.

To work on this, I start out with my normal amount of chatter, but right before he gets to me I go silent – and then I reward the front.  First without objects, and then with objects.  Over time I substitute “silent staring” for the recall cue.  (Remember, he is moving, so there is no issue with his stay).

When that is going reasonably well, then I add alternative cues.  So…when he is reliably returning to front with my “silent staring” as his only cue, then I need to add something like “down”.  Or “stay”.  and then release him from that alternative (I could say “ok” or “come” – either would work) to return to his defaults.

The default part – that is usually easy.  The hard part is when you start adding in the alternatives.  For example, after I drop Brito with a down cue, on the next repetition it is likely that he will try dropping without a cue rather than performing his recall default.  That is normal!  He is learning and working it out in his head.  I am patient. I do many many more defaults than alternative cues as he works it out.  And I look for ‘signs of learning and processing’ such as – almost dropping but then coming to front.  Those make me happy because I know that he is thinking!

Here is a video.  Note that standing quietly and still is the default body cue to tell him to come to front after a cookie toss.  Note how I handle error!

Note:  This video is edited.  I included all of the errors, both before and after the actual errors, to give you context, but I removed most of the correct repetitions to keep the video a bit shorter.  If he were making this many errors as a percentage of the total than something would need to change in my training program.

12 sec – first error – I cued down and he came to front.  That was my error – at this point Brito only knows how to down if I ask for the behavior as he is picking up the treat – here I was too late and two things had happened – he was returning but more imporant I was moving my foot back.  That is a clear cue for him to come to front at his stage of training.   So – he gets a screw up cookie and I let him finish as if he were perfect, since he believed that he was correct.  That was on me.

Correct drop at 29 sec – earned his ball; a higher value motivator here than a cookie.

1:45 note the tiny pause here.  He wasn’t sure if I was going to ask for another drop. Good boy Brito for coming in!

2:10 Drop is slow – that doesn’t worry me at all.  The distance was greater and he’s working it out.  He will speed up when he’s ready.  I can also use reward placement (reward behind him) to hasten that process.

We’ll work on this hundreds of times, until I can do multiple drops in a row and he still defaults to a recall when I do not cue another behavior.







Guest Video: Laura Waudby

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Today’s guest video is provided by FDSA instructor Laura Waudby and her 9 month old Toller puppy.  This video is an excellent example of foundation work.  Note the pace of training, handling of errors. and emphasis on attitude and movement over finished behaviors.
Laura will be teaching Confidence Building for the Obedience and Rally Ring at FDSA for the August 1st Term.  This is an excellent option for dogs that perform well at home but shut down as soon as they enter the obedience or rally ring.

Thanks Laura, for your excellent video!