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Is it time to take stock?

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Is it time to step back and take stock of your training?

On a typical training day, I head out of my house to my training area with whatever dog I want to train. I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to work on before I walk out the door, but mostly my plan is to build on whatever I did the day before, and hopefully, over time, that plan will take me a little bit further than the week before…

And then every once in a while I either run into a problem or I realize that I really haven’t taken stock in a long time.

When I say “take stock”, I mean put the dog away, step back and take a hard look at the various elements of your training.

It’s important to do this because sometimes we’re a lot like frogs dropped into a pot of cool water that slowly comes to a boil; we didn’t jump out of the pot because…we weren’t paying attention!  We didn’t realize that things weren’t going quite right. Maybe the problematic changes were very small or incremental.  Maybe we focused so much on teaching a particular skill that we hadn’t even noticed that our dog had lost motivation. Maybe we didn’t see that the problem we’d been battling for weeks or months was really the symptom of a bigger problem and not what we had focused on at all.

Is it time to stop and take stock?  Have you really stopped to think about your entire training plan?

How is your dog’s motivation?    How are your dog’s skills?    Are you doing a nice job of breaking training down into small bits that your dog can digest easily?    Is your dog opting into training willingly?     Is your dog physically and mentally thriving?    Is it obvious to your dog how their work affects what rewards will happen and when they will appear?    Have you realistically assessed your dog as an individual, and stayed within their abilities over time?  Do you feel good about your trial preparation plans so that either now or in the future, you can be successful in competition?

There’s no time like the present, so why not stop and think about these things?

If you’d like a systematic way to take stock of your dog’s current state of training or if you know that something is broken in your work but you’re not sure how to diagnose the root problem so that you can start working to fix it, join me for a webinar on this topic on Thursday, October 26, at 6 PM Pacific time.  There will be time at the end for questions.

Here are the details:

Denise Fenzi – Problems to Polishing: Evaluating your Progress

Date: Thursday, October 26, 2017
Time:  6-7pm Pacific Time (you don’t have to attend “live”)
Fee: $19.95 – Registration required PRIOR to scheduled presentation time.

Description:  In this webinar, Denise will consider what it takes to develop, maintain or rehabilitate your performance dog.  What factors do you need to consider when you’re not progressing quite as you’d like, but you’re not sure where the challenge lies?  By occasionally evaluating one’s training by comparing what we have against a set of standards that remain constant, handlers can find their weak spots and work to improve, making training more fun and effective for both the dog and the handler.

And if you’re already struggling with your training?  Think you’ll never get your dog ready for competition?  That’s okay too!   This webinar will also provide a framework for identifying where the challenge may lie and give you a starting point for getting back on track.

Suitable for all sports.

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

Register here!



Stay straight!

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Does your dog’s rear go out wide when you cue sit, down or stand in heel position?  Annoyed with the fact that handler errors are judged?

Check out the TEAM newsletter for advice:

TEAM newsletter

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

Sit, Down and Stand from a Distance

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I teach Cue Discrimination for a variety of reasons.  I needed it in competition for Mondio Ring Sport (sit, down or stand under “adversity”), for TEAM3 (Two positions at 20 feet with the handler taking unusual positions) and now…AKC is proposing adding cue discrimination into the Open Class as well.

While that proposal is still under discussion, some handlers may wish to begin working on it now, so I’m sharing the August 2107 TEAM newsletter since the topic was…Cue Discimination at a distance!

TEAM Newsletter

If you’d like to get a jump on the proposed AKC exercise, take a look at the newsletter.  Note that the emphasis should be on adding challenge before distance.  If you take that to heart, I may well have saved you and your dog a fair bit of grief.  Remember, distance is simply another form of adversity.

Also by good luck, this particular TEAM newsletter discusses “backing up” – that skill will be quite valuable to you if you find that your dog likes to creep between cues.  What you can do – give your position cue – ask the dog to back up – give another position cue, etc.  If your dog learns to back after each cue, you may eliminate that creeping altogether.

If you find the TEAM training program intriguing – either because you can use it to teach all of your competition exercises for any organization or because you like the idea of a systematic training program that leads to the option of video competition, check out the TEAM1 Training class we’re offering this term.   We start on Sunday the 1st of October – so get registered!  At $65 for bronze, you can’t go too far wrong.

If you do decide to pursue TEAM as a standalone training or titling option, you’ll absolutely want to join the extremely supportive Facebook group where you can submit videos and get help from other Team Players.

The program is fun!  We look forward to seeing some of you there!






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You just read something. Or you heard something. Or a thought entered your head, and now you have an opinion. So the question is, should you express it; that thought or opinion?

As an avid user of social media, I am consistently amazed at the number of people who feel that every thought that enters their head should come out of their mouth. Why is that?

If I think people with blonde hair are not attractive, and I think people with brown hair are absolutely fantastically attractive, do I need to express that opinion? Or might I want to consider the fact that many people have blonde hair? What does my expression of my opinion add to the world at large? And how might it harm people, whether I intended to or not?

It never hurts to take a moment to consider your opinion before you throw it out there.  What are you adding to the conversation?  Can you add to the conversation without demeaning the opinion or interests of others?  My mom often said, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Maybe there’s something to that expression.

So your favorite sport is agility and you don’t like obedience very much. That’s fine. Now can you explain to me why you feel the need to tell people who love obedience how boring it is, and how much better agility is? Remember, if you’re speaking publicly on a Facebook list, you’re talking to thousands, many of whom will love obedience. And if you love obedience, can you explain to me why you feel a need to tell agility competitors how easy their sport is, and how you don’t do it because it offers no challenge?  Have you taken a moment to consider how you just affected an agility competitor who just managed to squeak out their first agility title…barely?

Maybe we don’t have to express every opinion that enters our head. Maybe we could keep in mind that people are individuals with different interests. Some of us prefer one thing, and others prefer another. It’s not a matter of right or wrong; it’s not even a matter of expressing ourselves. Maybe it’s a matter of respect. Admiring that different people can appreciate such different things! Admiring another’s enthusiasm for their sport, without worrying too much about where we might fit inside their world.

Hell, my dad is fascinated by cactus plants, and while I can think of few things that interest me less, for the life of me I cannot think of one reason why I should tell him that.  Mostly I’m just interested in how excited he gets about the whole thing.  And no; I haven’t developed any desire to raise cactus but that doesn’t need to become a point of conversation. He loves his hobby.  I support his love.  Full stop.

In this day and age where every thought that enters anyone’s head seem to have permission to come out of their mouth or keyboard, I can’t help but wonder if we are doing ourselves any favors.  Why not build each other up instead?  Admire another’s enthusiasm, even if it’s not your passion?

Dog sports competitors are on the same page. They are fascinated by dogs and dog behavior. They enjoy training to a high level. And many of them are willing to compete and test their skills. That is worthy of admiration right there, whether or not you choose the same route as another.

Consider reserving your opinion for those times when you can actively support, encourage, and praise those around you; adding value to the overall conversation and feeling in the space.

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.

Philosophies and Techniques

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A philosophy is an overarching belief structure that guides your choices. My philosophy of dog training is that it should be kind and enjoyable for both the dog and the handler, and I have held that philosophy for a fairly long time; maybe fifteen years or so and through two OTCH dogs and a variety of other titles.  Another might be that it should be primarily to the benefit of the handler.  I held that philosophy for about twenty years earlier and also through a variety of titles in different sports.  A third philosophy might be that is should be primarily to the benefit of the dog.  I have never held that philosophy but I am certainly aware that it exists.

Some philosophies are more goal-based and others are process driven. I am in the “process” camp and have been for most of my life, which is probably why I consider myself more of a trainer than a competitor.

From one’s philosophy will flow your choice of techniques and methods, and possibly a system of training.

In a “system”  of training, the trainer uses techniques that are strongly related and rely on a common foundation of knowledge by the dog and handler.

If a trainer does have a system, and if that person also teaches seminars or problem-solving opportunities for dogs that do not have a basis in that system, or if they work with teams that cannot do well within that system for any reason, then they will also need knowledge of different options and techniques. That works fine too; just stick to your philosophy.

I don’t have a system.  I do, however, have a variety of foundation behaviors that I find extremely useful, but I can manage well enough if a given team does not have them; we just approach the issue from a different direction.

Last week I spent some time with a friend who wanted to start training scent discrimination. First I described a shaping based method, and then I offered a lure based method. I asked her which she preferred and she selected the shaping based method. However, within a minute of starting the session, I didn’t like what I was seeing. I saw the beginnings of frantic and frustrated behavior, the opposite of what I want to see for scent work.  If we had been trying to teach a movement based behavior (like standing on an object) then a small amount of frustration is tolerable, but not in scent work.

There’s no point in pushing through when there are 100’s of ways to train a dog quickly, efficiently and kindly. Change direction!

My first choice would’ve been to change to a lure based method, but we didn’t have the proper equipment so we went with a third option, a hunt-based approach. Within a minute we were making obvious progress.  The dog and handler were happy; philosophy goal met!

In a few days, the handler will have more choices to make. Once the dog understands to use her nose,  she might choose to go back to shaping or switch to luring.  Or she can continue with the hunt-based method. Each option brings different benefits and challenges, either now or later.  No one approach is “better” than the other. Just get it done.

Most people have a philosophy of training right from the start, whether or not they have considered it, but techniques are acquired with experience. After you work with a few hundred or thousand dog-handler teams at varying stages of training and with a variety of foundations of their own, you should develop a wide repertoire of options that will work.

There is no one way to train dogs.   Select a philosophy that works for you. From there, learn as wide a range of techniques as possible (with their benefits and disadvantages), so that you can remain flexible. These are not issues of right and wrong, they are simply different ways to get to the same result.  Pick the one that looks the most interesting and switch directions if it’s not working for you.

This is why I find dog training so fascinating; the range of ways to get a dog trained is pretty much infinite. Consider the temperament of the dog; the dog’s background and tendencies. Consider the temperament of the handler; their experience level and preferences. If you put it all together, you’ll end up with a trained dog.