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Category Archives: Lyra

Three second behaviors, easy chains, and high arousal

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In a recent blog, I talked about the value of three second behaviors in distracting environments. I suggested setting the dog up for success by using simple behaviors so that your dog can develop the habit of accuracy and love of work, regardless of location.

There is another time when three second behaviors make a lot of sense.  This is when the dog wants the reinforcer so badly that they are working on the edge of unhealthy frustration.

Some frustration is good and drives behavior.  Realistically, if a dog doesn’t care about what you have to offer, then you’ll see rather poor quality behaviors.  Your dog has to care, and caring and frustration are closely linked.

But if your dog cares too much, then if your dog perceives an excessive delay between reinforcers then this can cause sufficient frustration that the dog is no longer able to think.  When this happens we say that the dog has gone “over threshold.” These dogs scream, whine, spin. bite, and basically lose control of both their physical and mental behaviors.  This is especially common in working venues such as IPO, field work, or any activity where the dog is extremely attracted to the activity or the chosen motivator.

When the dog expresses these undesirable behaviors, some trainers say that ‘controlling reinforcers” doesn’t work in training because the dog becomes unmanageable and refuses to cooperate.  I would argue the opposite; controlling reinforcers always works, as long as three conditions are met:  1) the handler asks for a reasonable amount of work for each opportunity to access that reinforcer, 2) the dog is 100% clear on what they must do to earn the reinforcer and 3) there is no chance for self rewarding, especially in the initial learning stages.  As the dog becomes aware of what is required to earn reinforcement, frustration decreases while compliance increases.  The dog then channels their energy into completing requested behaviors as quickly as possible to whatever level of criteria the trainer has held.  To get to this point requires breaking behaviors down into small and manageable pieces.

When I first trained Lyra for a chance to play fetch in the pool (her highest value motivator) I was asking too much and her frustration behaviors were obvious and non-productive.  This eroded her accuracy and made it very difficult to work her close to the pool. This summer I got smarter and broke her training down much further, and the frantic behaviors went away rather quickly.  Here is a video from last summer when I was “lumping”.  Allowing a dog to work in this frantic state is not good training:

By contrast, here’s a video of Lyra this summer.

Note that now she is both “clear headed”(another way of saying “under threshold”) and enthusiastic.  This year, rather than asking for long behavior chains that are likely to be faulty under excessive frustration, I ask for three second behaviors first and then string them together.  As Lyra demonstrates the capacity to perform, then I ask for more.

In this second video you can see that I start with a simple three second behavior – “find front” on cue.  This behavior is easy for her.  Next I ask her to hold the dumbbell quietly in front position. This is more challenging for her when excited but she has mastered this skill, so I now have a chain that includes both front and hold.  Next,  I add a simple retrieve on the flat.  I could have placed the dumbbell and had her retrieve in my direction only which would have broken this chain down further, but I forgot:).  Finally, I ask for a dumbbell retrieve where she also has to “find front”.  This is the more difficult because it takes longer and there are several components to complete in order to be correct.  (Stay, retrieve directly, sit straight, and hold quietly).

Slowly and over time, I can increase the quantity of behaviors and the chains that I request, and her head stays “clear” because she knows exactly how to win.  This is not the time to hurry; be absolutely certain that the dog can complete each behavior correctly under lower levels of distraction before asking more.

Before moving from the easiest behavior, you must be convinced that your dog understands the relationship between getting what they want (a chance to swim) and what you want (an accurate behavior or chain).  If your dog does not understand that they have absolute control over the situation then you will encounter undesirable frustration behaviors.

If you do encounter frustration behaviors, end the session.  Next time, ask for a behavior or a chain that you feel very confident is easy to perform, and then build from there.  If you are including precision work (fronts and finishes) consider pulling those out of the chain to allow for more success, at least initially.

Remember that as a general rule, you want at least two successes for every failure.  If you’re exceeding that, rethink your training plan.  If your dog is beginning to wind up with vocalization, spinning biting, etc, be aware that you are building frantic behavior into your chains, and those can become extremely difficult to extinguish.  End the session and when you re-start, shorten the chain.

If your high arousal motivator is “portable” and you can take it to dog shows (food, toys, etc) then work up to using it as the final reward for all of your competition behaviors in a long chain.  If your high arousal motivator is not portable (for example, the swimming pool), then the value of the motivator is limited to providing muscle memory and habit.  For example, if I work Lyra on her dumbbell hold in the pool area, her retrieve away from the pool is always much better because of the habit she has developed.


Silence is…Good!

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Those of you who follow me on FB or who take classes with me at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy know that I have a lot of opinions about how our training decisions affect our ability to move into competition.  One of my favorite rants refers to the use of silence in training.  Is your dog trained to love silence, or to perceive it as a no reward marker (NRM)?

Let me be specific.  Do you use silence to mean, “try again” or “yes, you’re on the right track?”.

If your goal is competition then it matters.  A lot.  You absolutely must not train your dog to believe that silence means “wrong, try again” and click/cookie means “right”.

In the beginning phase of shaping new behaviors this isn’t such an issue, but once behaviors are on cue and your dog is performing behavior chains, it matters very much.

So, you’re in the middle of a behavior chain.  What do you do if your dog is wrong?

Well, I’d suggest you start talking and find a way to end the chain while preserving your dog’s attitude.

Here’s the video I showed of Lyra’s figure eight yesterday.  It’s loaded with errors so let’s go through the video together and consider how I handled them.  In addition, consider how my choice of silence when she is correct will affect her sureness and confidence when she goes into a competition:

2 – 3 seconds:  Lyra is correct and I am quiet.

4 seconds:  She’s pushing too hard.  I change direction and prevent her from  forging ahead on the outside turn.

5 seconds:  She “accepts” the correction and moves her rear end in.  I acknowledge her decision with a verbal “good girl”, but I will not reward this because I did the work, not Lyra.

6 seconds: she’s correct and I am silent

7 seconds: she’s pushing – I change my behavior and verbally acknowledge her choice to follow me.

8 and 9 seconds:  She is correct

10 seconds:  Body correction; “good girl” marks her choice to get back and get in.

12 seconds: verbal and body correction.

12 seconds: she did a good job handling that correction so I switched directions to free her up a bit and let her be right.

I then remained silent until 17 seconds because she was correct

17 seconds: another body/verbal correction

Silent until 25 seconds – if she had completed that inside loop I would have rewarded but she did not make it.

26 to 31 seconds: I used both verbal and body help to try and structure her to make the next inside curve successful.

31 sec:  she makes it to 34 seconds at which point I realize she’s not going to succeed so I add ANOTHER inside turn to the left.

36 sec:  another attempt; she fails at 38 sec and is corrected until 39 sec.

40 to 43 sec:  – she is correct and fails at that point.

45 through 48 are her next attempt – I can “feel” that she’s about to fail at 48 so I correct all the way to 53 seconds.  I really want her to win soon, which is why I pushed her very hard on that one.

She almost makes the next loop and fails at 57 seconds, but notice that she’s getting slightly further around that inside pole each time and the correction comes later and later.

Lyra finally wins at 1:05; a full inside post.


For the most part, I was happy with my handling.  The changes I would make (with hindsight) include a lower initial criteria – I would have gone for “half” of an inside post instead of the whole thing. I would have done a few exercises before beginning this exercise to remind her of her rear end.  Finally, I would have considered using a lower value motivator to reduce some of her drive and push throughout this work.

Be aware of how you are using your voice, your body, your silence and your classic rewards in training.  They all matter.  I’d strongly recommend taping a short piece of your training, and then critically evaluating your work as I have done above.

Now let’s look at Brito’s turn.  Here we have a young dog – there is NO WAY I’m going to hold out for perfect on a lagging dog because usually lagging gets worse with lack of reinforcement, not better.  So I’m thinking a lot more about reward position (throwing treats and wrapping him around my leg) and less about operant conditioning.

First 11 seconds – I do what I think he’s capable of – I’m offering verbal support to try and keep him pushing, but I wouldn’t hold out any longer. I would have given him that cookie at 12 seconds almost regardless of his behavior.

15 seconds:  I have a lot of dog at this moment and I know it.  That means I can push harder and ask for more.

17 seconds:  he nails that spin around so I go quiet, click and throw the cookie to reinforce the direction of travel.

25 sec:  he sits crooked – who cares?!  This isn’t the time to worry about that; I’ve got a ton of dog at this moment and I want to use that energy for productive purposes (driving around the about turn) not fussing over a sit.

Notice that I’m more matter of fact in my tone of voice.  But…I dont like what I see here; he’s softening a bit so I reward at 30 seconds, mostly to ensure that he stays in the game and less because I thought he did anything particularly good.

36 seconds: crooked sit which I ignore.

42 seconds:  this was his best one. I decided to quit there since I try hard to train him when he shows maximum energy.

I felt good about my overall handling of this exercise and I’ve noticed that his heeling improved quite a bit in the following week.  That tells me that I did a good job, or at least I did no harm, which is half of the battle some days.

I do incorporate silence before rewards with Brito but it is much less obvious because his working stretches are so short.  I have found that in the last few days those silent periods are becoming more pronounced.

I hope that evaluation of both dogs helps some of you understand both the role of silence in training as well as how/when to use a verbal or body correction that signals, “no cookie for that; try again”.

Figure Eights

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The most notable contributor to poor work on the figure eight is the tendency of the handler to do it in exactly the same fashion every time, so that they are completely predictable to the dog.  It makes sense that our dogs would learn the pattern and would begin to anticipate what they need to do.  For some dogs this will work well and they will develop a very smooth figure eight, but other dogs will begin to predict what comes next;  slower dogs will lag and more driven dogs will forge and surge.  In both cases, we need to break the pattern. No more predictable figure eights!  Instead, focus on teaching your dog to accurately follow you, regardless of whether you’re in a figure eight pattern or working in a regular heeling pattern.

The following two videos show very different handling and training choices, depending on the dog’s tendencies.

Here’s a very good way to practice your figure eights with a dog who tends to forge or bump:

And here is an excellent pattern for a dog who tends to lag:

Lyra – General Training

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Here are the sessions of Lyra that I taped a few days ago – I strung them all together in one long 11 minute video.

I push her pretty hard here, which is unusual.  You’ll hear No Reward Markers (NRM’s) as we work on some heeling details.  I do this because 1) she’s in a good mood, and 2) she’s been very good at these lately, so I believe if she tries harder she can win.  As a general rule, I would not allow a dog to fail as much as I did here without making changes somewhere.

All of the work in the firs several minutes is designed to improve her left turns since she tends to forge and keep her rear end out.

I cut out the directed jumping because it was mostly off camera:(.

I use play to keep her in the game.  She does not like working for food, and it’s very easy to lose her speed and attitude if I’m not careful.

I work on precision fronts, followed by precision fronts with a dumbbell.  And finally, I try to combine those with a quiet dumbbell retrieve, with mixed success.

This is a very hard and boring session for Lyra.  She’s working for food and the emphasis is on precision behaviors.  Not much to recommend that, so I try to incorporate some play sessions to keep her cheerful.

Our next couple of training sessions should probably emphasize more movement and the fun stuff.  Simultaneously, I’ll  go back to doing some specific precision work in the house where she is more comfortable working for food.

Proofing Scent Discrimination

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This blog isn’t about teaching scent discrimination.  There are plenty of ways to teach scent work that are kind and effective; pick one or blend a few and find a plan that works for you.  Here is how I taught Lyra if you want some ideas:

Brito is being taught differently.  Not because the above method wouldn’t work for him, but because I find it entertaining to try different things with different dogs.

At this point Brito is roughly indicating either wooden clothes pins or metal rings.  I am just beginning to ask for a more clear indication – a bit of mouthing of the object.  He already has a shaped retrieve so it will be straightforward to get a full retrieve when I am ready.

This blog and video are more about introducing proofing to scent work.  I am working two dogs here; Brito and Lyra.

For Brito, I am adding the idea of movement – my movement – and separating it from clicking or rewarding.  I am doing this to prevent him from watching me for signs that he has found the correct article.  For example, if I am always dead still and then I get ready to click/throw a treat, some dogs learn to hover over  the articles and wait for a sign from mom.  To wash out that variable, I am moving my hand continuously, regardless of what he is doing.

For Lyra, I am actively trying to pull her off of her work by putting cookies under her nose.  I also place cookies on the ground within the pile but I can cover them with my hand if she goes for the cookie (not shown in this video).

Both dogs make mistakes; you can see how I handle those.  Mistakes are common for Brito (he’s just figuring it out) but very unusual for Lyra.

Both of these games are gentle ways of adding commitment to scent work without unduly stressing the dog.  Make sure the proofs you select are appropriate for the dog’s level of training.  If your dog begins to fail, either make the proof easier or change some aspect of the training scenario.

I tried to add a third dog to this video for more advanced proofing, but it appears I have never worked Raika sitting next to the pile, so she started offering random behaviors over the correct article.  Since she is retired from competition, I’ll see if I can develop a cute trick out of those behaviors and I’ll post it in a later blog.

Here are Brito and Lyra:

Lyra – Run Through

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Today I took Lyra for her first run through in many months.   It is rare that I do a “run-through”.  To me, that means I have pre-decided which exercises I will do, and mostly I ignore errors.  I’m checking to see what needs work.  I use no classic reinforcement until we leave the ring.

And I’m glad we did it!

Here’s Lyra’s run through.   The heeling is mostly good; we need to work on her fast pace (which I knew) and smooth out her halts (which I also knew).  We also need to work on moving into pressure areas, like corners and directly at people and dogs (which I did not know or had forgotten).

Her stand for exam was a disaster.  We’ve been doing mostly moving stands and the signal exercise, so the ‘waiting’ didn’t make sense to her.  I think she can master that exercise very quickly now that I’m more aware of it.

Her recall was noticable for a couple of reasons.  One, her front is too far away and second, it’s crooked.  Finally, her finish is very weak, and leaves her butt out.

Normally her recall is better than this, so I suspect it is the pressure of working close to ring gates that is causing the challenge.

When I returned to the ring I focused on one thing; the pressure of walls.

I bring my toy back in the ring for this work.

What I’m demonstrating with these two videos is this:  Go ahead and test on occasion to see where you are at, but when it’s time to fix issues, isolate them and return to a high rate of reinforcement to help the dog understand what you are looking for.

On balance I was comfortable with these sessions.  She worked nicely for simple personal praise and she also worked hard when I isolated the problem areas and pushed her to work correctly.

I also did her long sits and downs with this line-up; I know the dogs well and I felt very safe. She was perfect on both, even though she has never done a formal group stay before.  We have done a TON of prep work on passive stays away from line-ups, so they generally transfer well unless your dog is nervous about other dogs, which Lyra is not.

You can see the “fixing” video here:

Lyra – training update

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It’s been a while since I posted a generic training video.  So you here you have it, unedited, full of mistakes (hers and mine) for your viewing pleasure.

Note that Lyra is working for food.  I’m doing this for two reasons.  One, I want her to learn to function accurately when she’s in a lower state of drive.  The mindset of a dog matters!  Lots of dogs can respond correctly to cues when they are in “one” frame of mind, but when they are in “another” frame of mind, either higher or lower, they are no longer able to respond appropriately.  This is a well researched learning phenomenon so make sure you practice when your dog is feeling higher or lower than normal – it will help with competition preparation.  Since food is not a high value motivator for Lyra, it helps us practice the picky details (in this case, correct heel position) when she’s relatively calm and out of drive.  The second reason I’m working Lyra for food is to create “contrast” between rewards.  Cookies are for routine success, and toys/pool are for impressing me.

Here we go.  I’ll go ahead and narrate.

2 sec – poor placement of reward.

5 – 15sec – nice pivots; well placed rewards.

16  – 125 sec glove retrieve handled well.

26 sec good timing of interruptor – fixing a finish is useless; better to interrupt the behavior and start over.

36 – nice finish here.

decision to go to the platform was driven by the prior poor finish.  Platforms “force” correct behavior and build confidence.

1min  – 1:30 – working on change of pace.  First we change “gait” then I’ll add a true change of pace.

1:39 she breaks her stay because she had been sightseeing and when she saw me sitting she thought she had missed the cue.  I went ahead and cued the behavior.  I’m ok with handling it this way but would have been better to start over.  Now I’m “on notice” to watch for anticipation in this scenario.

2:13 I appreciate her commitment to going back to the articles!   I chose to ignore her dropping it on the way in.

2:37 – I’ve been retraining her down so this should not have surprised me.    What I should have done was gone back and reset her.  What is interesting is that when I re-cued “back” she went down – she remembered what I asked after a mental pause. That is when I went to her and told her she tried hard – I reset at that time.

2:50  – not impressive training on my part. I should have made it easier and allowed her to win, rather than setting up the same (failing) situation again, which caused me to add a hand signal AND to accept creeping.  Or dear.  Bad trainer.

3:35 I handled this sequence well.  She spooked over something and missed the return jump.  No big deal but I didn’t let her finish the exercise.  Since she’s been pretty good on this exercise I set it up formally again and it went well.

4:49 – I rewarded that drop because she failed the earlier drop signal AND because she is in a lower state of drive – yet she still did what I asked.  That was worth a higher level reward so I brought out a toy.  I want that to happen in the ring when she’s in a lower state of drive.  I play with her for a full minute to reinforce her earlier work.

The last minute is more formal heeling without reward.  Lyra is beginning to realize that longer stretches of work without a lot of interaction or reinforcement “predict” a BIG reward.    I give her lots of help to nail her sits at heel.  Her final reward….off to the pool.

On an unrelated note:  Tuesday the 15th of October is the last day to sign up for October 1st classes at the Fenzi Academy – Class has been in session for two weeks so you’ll be playing catchup!  There are ten classes this time; check out the schedule if you’d like to give online learning a try.  It’s amazingly effective.  :