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Webinar: Ring Stress!

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I’ll be teaching my first webinar and I hope that some of you will join me!  The lecture portion runs approximately an hour and there will be time for Q and A afterward.


Topic: Denise Fenzi – Ring Stress: Understanding, Addressing and Avoiding It!

Date:  Thursday, September 7, 2017
Time:  6-7pm Pacific Time (Click here for time at FDSA (Pacific Time).
Fee: $19.95 – Registration required PRIOR to scheduled presentation time.

Description:  Is your happy worker looking like a beaten homeless dog in the ring? Does your dog start yawning, looking away and avoiding eye contact before you ever start? Or maybe your dog does fine for one or two exercises, but then he refuses to set up for the following exercises? Do you think it’s the result of stress? Or are you simply trying to learn all you can in advance so that you can avoid ring stress issues altogether?  Regardless, this webinar is designed for you. Denise will discuss what ring stress looks like, how it happens, what to do about it if you’re experiencing it now, and most important, how to avoid seeing it in the future!

Note:  A recorded version will be made available in your webinar library at FDSA 24-48 hours after the presentation.

This is the start of a new direction for Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA); we’re excited by this opportunity to spread world class dog training even further!  Feel free to share the following link and check it out yourself to see all of the topics that we’ll be offering.  Follow the link and get registered to reserve your spot!:

Upcoming Webinars at FDSA



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.


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!

Competitive Obedience

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Originally published on Facebook:

My preferred dog sport is competitive obedience. The sport is struggling right now and various powers-that-be are working to make it, in theory, more appealing. How might we get there?

Making dog sports easier is not going to solve the problem of new people not coming into the sport. Adding food, allowing talking, and keeping dogs on leash is not going to solve the problem. Removing stays is not going to solve the problem. Blaming whatever training method you don’t approve of certainly won’t work. Adding more levels between titles might help a little, mostly because trainers will break their work down more.

At the end of the day, the dog sport’s underlying training culture is the issue. Obedience is perceived as unkind, unwelcoming, inflexible, stuck in the dark ages, and too difficult. If that does not change, then the issues will continue.

People need to learn how to have fun while gaining cooperation and control with their dog. You need all of that. That is not a matter of adding cookies or corrections. Both of those additions will work for a percentage of dogs but at the end of the day, what you need to do is learn how to train dogs.

Training is innately interesting to many people (and palatable to dogs) if it is done well. That requires understanding. In my mind, that is what is missing in competition obedience training facilities across the country. Some have added cookies because they have learned that when an owner is holding a cookie the dog is more likely to behave. Some use harder and harder corrections for the same reason – they have found that when the dog is on leash he appears under control. These are not the answers – both are crutches that mask the lack of training.

Understanding and teaching excellent training, rather than “training to the competition exercises” is the answer. Treating people with care and respect so that they want to learn is the answer. You can do that as a competitor, a coach or as a judge. Talking badly about others with differing views is a rather poor way to attract people to what you love. It might be somewhat gratifying to those who are already there, but it certainly won’t bring in new people. Or at least not the kind of people that will make for a very warm environment.

When your ship is sinking, it’s time to consider structural changes – patching the leaks only works for so long.

I want to talk about the TEAM training program. Not as a way to title your dog, but as a way to change the culture of training within obedience based sports.

The point of TEAM is to teach people how to train by breaking down exercises and improving them. It emphasizes good training that leads to results, rather than results driving training. Poor trainers could get through it, but it would be a whole lot harder for them.

If you have not taken a hard look at the TEAM program, consider doing that now. Notice how the levels build on each other and emphasize excellent training at every step.

Now consider what would happen if your local dog training club started competition training in this way. Consider what would be happening in the entry level class – compare “one step halt” to doing things with impulse control, cones, jumps and scent work – as the starting point? Consider what would happen if the trainer learned early on how to maintain control in the face of distractions, in new places, and when they weren’t holding a cookie or a leash. Consider what would happen if entry level obedience was more than precision heeling?  Consider what would happen if a person got stressed during a videotaped run, and saw that their dog reacted badly to that – before they ever hit a live competition. Consider what would happen if a person realized that taking the cookies off of their body or working without a leash ended their dog’s work.

People can’t wrap their head around that, but to me it’s obvious – excellent training illuminates the holes long before you go to a show.

Why can’t people visualize this? Maybe it’s because incremental change (or better yet, no change at all) is a lot more comfortable for people than fundamental change. But sometimes a new foundation is the only viable solution.

Take any exercise at any level of any rally or obedience organization that interests you. See if TEAM skills would cover it with just a bit of behavior chaining – I bet it would. A new way of thinking. Much more intriguing for dog and handler. Kind. Friendly. Welcoming.  If you’re not sure what that might mean, join the Facebook group, “Fenzi Team Players.” You’ll see what kindness looks like.

If clubs trained TEAM and then pulled those skills together into finished exercises, that could potentially change all of the obedience based sports altogether because the process would teach the training excellence. Are they ready? Maybe in a while.

Fenzi Team Titles

The value of video

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Many people do not videotape their training.  Ever.  Not even when they have a specific issue.

At first, it might seem daunting. But if you have a smart phone, which 95% of us do, then you can prop it up against a chair or on books or something, and try video taping your work.  A friend suggested putting it in a coffee cup – the perfect angle!

Almost everyone feels nervous when they video tape themselves.  Good!  That’s how you’ll feel at the dog show; stiff and hyper aware of every move you and your dog make.  If you want to replicate that trial feeling you can do so at home easily with a video camera.  And while you’re at it, you’ll be training your dog to accept that weird, stressed demeanor that you adopt at a competition.  A win/win!

I’m not talking about editing or uploading or online classes that require video review.  I’m talking about watching what you are doing. If you have not done that, you are in for an enormous eye-opener. It is the most important thing that I have added to my training in the last few years. I don’t do it all the time, but I do it often enough that I catch small errors that I don’t even know I’m making. If you have never done it, I can practically guarantee that you will be amazed at what you learn in your first five-minute video.

You will find things that you are doing much better than you expected, and you will find obvious errors. You will see that you are pushing too hard in some areas, and staying with well-known behaviors for too long. You will see where you are interesting and where you are boring. You will see signs of stress in your dog that you missed before and you may also notice a much happier dog than you were aware of. You will see the frustration that you didn’t know you were generating because of your rate of reinforcement, or choice of reinforcer, or your general skill level. You will see how often you stop paying attention to your dog; leaving them hanging with no idea of what to do next. You will discover how much you rely on external motivators. You will see where you flow correctly in your work, and where you fall down.  And if you’re training for too long – wasting time and drawing out your work – you’ll discover that too.

You cannot change what you are unaware of. No need for a coach or special equipment at all. So if you are less than thrilled with your dog’s progress in his work, videotaping is the obvious first step.

Practicing poorly won’t progress your skills. If you have a problem and the video camera shows you that you have tried exactly one solution – which is not working – then you can use that information to select a new plan. Spend an extra ten minutes to videotape your work and a few more minutes to watch it.  Now you’ll get somewhere, which will save you an enormous amount of time and frustration over the long run.

Try it!

Failure to Set-up for an Exercise

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One of the common challenges that exhibitors encounter is dogs that refuse to “set-up” for work.  Maybe they have just finished the heeling pattern and are moving to the start of a recall and…the dog stands there, looking everywhere but at the handler….waiting. But not sitting.  Not setting up.

This is an extremely common stress response.  Akin to – “If I don’t sit then I don’t have to start.”  Which is technically true.

When a dog fails to set up, there are two things I look at; one is what happened immediately before and the other is what is about to happen immediately after.

If the last thing that happened was a fantastic play party with food or toys and now the dog won’t set up, then I suspect that the dog finds playing/working and time between exercises a whole lot more rewarding than work.  If that is the case, then consider either carrying the party into the start of the next exercise (reward the set-up and then release – do that several times and make it a habit for life) OR after your play party, offer your dog a break.  Then restart engagement at Stage 4 (search this blog for info on that). Both of these will prevent the dog from developing a bad habit of setting up slowly and painfully.

But what if the dog does this regardless of what happened immediately before?  You certainly don’t want to stand around waiting – that’s going to create a really bad habit.

That’s when I look at the actual training.  Is something about the work not much fun, so my dog is avoiding starting or continuing?  Is my dog only showing this behavior in a ring, and is a ring the only place that I ever go from exercise to exercise without reinforcement?  Fix that – train for it! Simply end one exercise, praise, go to a new one, set up – and reinforce there instead.  Then randomize it – sometimes you reward parts of exercises or finished ones.  Sometimes you reward after play.  Sometimes you reward at the set-up. And other times you don’t reinforce with food or toys at all; you just keep going.  Maybe for two exercise or maybe for an entire run through.

When in doubt, it’s pretty safe to assume that the dog is avoiding work, so make that set-up worthwhile for your dog!  You can do that by decreasing the value of whatever happened immediately before, increasing the value of the work that is about to follow, or acclimating your dog to continuous chains before reinforcement happens, but regardless, listen to your dog, because if you’re seeing this in training you’re likely to see it in the ring.  And while you can ignore it in training and talk the dog into cooperating, that doesn’t work nearly as well within a competition.


Seminar dog? Or not.

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of teaching at a dog training conference with seven instructors over four days. By the end everyone was pretty well exhausted.  Happy, but exhausted.

We all experienced a lack of sleep and routine, erratic eating hours, unusually cold temperatures, and reliance on translators to get our information across. In addition, there was a tremendous amount of information and learning to digest. It was exhausting for both the auditors and the presenters.

And the dogs?

Over the course of the weekend, reactive dogs became more reactive and in some cases, non-reactive dogs began to act out; growling and avoiding, whereas at the start of the weekend they had been calm and tolerant. Instead of sleeping more as the days progressed, some dogs appeared to be unable to sleep at all – constantly awake and attentive to the activities around them.

I was glad I didn’t have a dog with me.  The fact is, seminars can be incredibly stressful for dogs, and not all dogs are cut out for a multi-day event.  The first day might be great but by day four?  You need the right kind of dog to succeed in these circumstances.

What should you do with your dog that is agitated no matter what you do for them?  Cannot relax or sleep?  Becomes reactive or behaves in a distressed fashion?  Or simply shuts down and avoids the whole thing?  What can you do for those dogs?

Ask yourself this question:  Is THIS dogs suitable for THIS event?  Or might THIS dog be better off at home while you attend on your own – gathering as much information as possible and bringing it home to practice in the comfort of your dog’s familiar environment?

I understand that you might want a specific person to see and interact with your dog; maybe to help you gain insight into some long-standing challenge.  But if your dog is struggling and not acting normally then the value of that advice is going to be minimal because the dog isn’t behaving in his normal fashion.  I can’t help you with your precision heeling if your dog is too stressed to eat.  I can’t progress your personal play skills if your dog is still staring at the dog standing near the door.

And it can get worse.  In addition to not benefitting from the conference itself, your dog may end worse off than when you arrived.  Your non-reactive dog may become sensitized as a result of the cumulative stress and lack of sleep, becoming more and more uncomfortable with this environment that closely mimics the dog show. Anyone who has followed my blog over the past few years is well aware that I put a lot of value on working towards a dog that is emotionally confident and secure in the dog show environment; don’t ruin that!

Auditing at seminars is highly underrated, which is unfortunate.  Auditing allows you to listen carefully and quietly without worrying about your dog.  It allows you to consider the advice that you are given without the pressure of actually applying it, and if anything makes you uncomfortable you won’t feel pressured to try it. Auditing allows you to relax and socialize; when you get home you can try anything you want!

People tell me that they learn better when they can apply the skills, so they only attend events if they can work. That’s fine, but in the dog sports, there ar two of you, and both of your interests need to be considered. If your dog is struggling but you brought him so that you could practice, is it possible that you’ll end up frustrated with your dog, because you’re not getting what you want? Over the long run, will that support or erode your progress? Maybe your dog can tolerate a half day or a single day, but not a weekend. Start there.

On the other hand, if you have a dog that can rest anywhere, remains reasonably comfortable over multiple days, and handles long days well, then working your dog with a trusted instructor can be quite valuable.

But until you have that dog, consider leaving your dog at home and coming to your learning event alone.

Relaxed Criteria with increased arousal

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Brito has a series of skills that he does reasonably well, indoors, when working for a food reward.  We’ve also been working on reducing his curiosity about the environment so that we can get work done outside as well.  To do that, my focus has been on developing his enthusiasm for toys without requiring any work at all in a challenging environment.  This has been quite a process but we’ve turned a corner. I can get a few minutes of continuous toy play – outdoors in lizard territory – with a high level of attention.  Kind of.

Now I’m putting the two concepts together – skills working for food in the house need to be attached to his enthusiasm for toy play outdoors.

The answer to “how do I do this” is simple – start rewarding simple, known behaviors, outdoors, for a toy reward.

I like it when I can say something is simple.  Instead of saying “Sit” and giving a cookie, say “sit” and throw the ball.  I like this approach because  1)it’s theoretically true and 2) it’s easy to understand.

Unfortunately, there is a 3.  Specifically, 3) the dog might not go along with your plan.

Here’s what can happen:

Handler:  “Fido, sit”

Fido:  Sit? No problem!

Handler gives Fido a toy reward rather than the anticipated cookie.

Fideo:  “oh my god!  My ball!  My ball!  I am so happy!”

Handler:  This is great; let’s do it again.  “Fido, Sit”

Fido:  “I’m am so happy!  She threw my ball!  I love my ball!”

Handler “Fido, sit!”

Fido: “Let’s do that again!  Throw that ball!  Life is good! Ball, ball, ball!  I am looking and waiting and so very happy!”   Hey, why aren’t you throwing my ball?”

Fido: “Hey, why aren’t you throwing my ball?”

And while this goes on, the handler is very likely repeating “Sit” and getting nowhere.  Fid0 acts like he has never heard that cue in his entire life.

The fact is, switching motivators can be tricky.  Dog brains sometimes fail to function when they are excited.  They see the handler mouthing words but under arousal, they really can’t cooperate, and the longer the whole failure to succeed thing goes on, the more frustration the team experiences.  Some dogs figure it out, but others just start throwing random behaviors or worse, walk away out of frustration.

Now what?  Well, there’s good training.  That would mean either using a low-value toy to try to mimic the arousal of food, or work with higher value food to mimic the value of the toy.  There is also location; introduce the toy where arousal is likely to be lower, wherever that is.  But sometimes that is quite difficult to set up.

Here’s a video with Brito.  This is within a few days of starting “perform known cues for a toy rather than a cookie.”

This isn’t good training at all.  I have not broken down the pieces small enough so that he can have success after success while performing perfectly.  I’m repeating cues, using tons of body language and getting involved well past what is generally considered “good training.”  I’m also rewarding downright sloppy work.

On the other hand,  I’m keeping him willing and in the game.  What I want for him now is to make a simple connection – the way to get the ball is to cooperate and listen for cues.

I’ve edited this training video down to two things – heeling (with lots of help) and a “down” cue. I’ve made the decision to help him out and keep him in the game; not taking anything too seriously while we work out these very beginning learning steps.

Good training?  Not really.  But it preserves my number one interest of keeping him in the game, excited for training, and learning that he can work for a toy.  Might I create issues long term by training this way?  Yep, but I know this dog.  It won’t be a problem for him.  He’s generally a clear headed dog, not very driven, and certainly not inclined to stress up and lose his brain.  That gives me a degree of flexibility that I might not have with a different dog.

We’ll progress.  That’s good enough for me.

Next week I’ll show a video to demonstrate a simple way to regain my heeling criteria – adding a hand touch in heel position before throwing the toy. But for now it’s just about having a good time.

If you want to develop your toy play, join me at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy; I have a class on Building Relationship Thru Play starting on April 1st.  Registration is open now:



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I recently taught a seminar where I asked a participant if I could handle her dog to demonstrate a specific technique.

She said no.  Nicely but…No.

I doubt this comes up more than a handful of times a year – that someone pays money to get my input, brings a dog to see me, and then chooses not to let me handle their dog.

That handler believed that her dog would not benefit or might be distressed by going with a stranger. So what did she do? She advocated for her dog.


If more people would do that – stand up to their friends, instructors, judges, presenters, and advocate for their dogs, then I would hear a lot less of the story that starts…

“He was fine until my instructor took him and ____”

You fill in the blank.

If you opt to own and train a dog, you are also opting to advocate for your dog.  It doesn’t matter how “nice” or “well-respected” or “force free” that presenter is – it’s your dog.  Your responsibility.    At the end of the day, will your dog still see you as an advocate or will you have become part of the problem?

That handler has the right – the responsibility – to do what she thinks is in the long term best interest of her dog.  I have enormous respect for her.  Honestly, I wish I saw that sort of advocacy more often.

If you’re not sure you can do it; stand up to a person in a position of authority, then that’s fine.  Leave your dog at home when you attend a seminar and then you won’t find yourself in that difficult position.  Don’t be naive.  Just because someone is well known doesn’t mean that they’ll behave in a way that is in the best interests of your dog.

And if it’s already happened?  You made that mistake?  Fine – put that in the past, learn from the experience, and do right by your dog as you go forwards.

Good luck.

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!