RSS Feed

Category Archives: Musings

Relaxed Criteria with increased arousal

Posted on

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:



Posted on

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.

Are you Listening?

Posted on

Some dogs do very well with human words, but a high percentage really struggle to listen for verbal cues.

In part this is likely due to the nature of being a dog – they don’t speak in words, so probably have much less capacity for understanding them easily.

And in part it is due to the human training the dog.  We often offer small (but definite) visual cues to go with the verbal ones.

Of course, the reverse can be true as well.  If your dog prefers words, then you might find that you’re struggling to teach your visual (hand) signals.

If you can isolate the issue of verbal from visual, then you have a better chance of forcing your dog to attend to whatever is important to you.

Here I’m working on teaching Brito his verbal cues for sit, down, wait (stand) and back.

In the following video I have taken away all of his visual information so he listens much more carefully.  He has no choice but to use his ears since his eyes are of no use.  If I were in the room he would still be using his eyes to search for clues.

This video is unedited and includes errors.  Note that I can see his shadow so I know if he is responding – I can also hear when he changes position.

If you’re working on the TEAM obedience program, this exercise will do wonders for your dog’s verbal fluency! For more information on TEAM, go to

Grief and Regret

Posted on

One of my online students lost her dog to cancer.  Her lovely dog was four years of age.

A vet check showed that she was fine; a young and healthy dog!

But she was not fine.  Not because the vet was incompetent, but because we can’t know everything; modern medicine is simply not that good.  The nature of life when working with a non-verbal creature is that we often have to guess about the animal’s internal state by their behavior. But that only works if we’re willing to listen – even if we don’t truly understand the underlying reason.

This dog?  Not much interest in tug.  Not much interest in food.  Not much interest in play. Not much interest in work.  Frustrating.

Over time, this lack of enthusiasm took a toll. What does one do when the dog doesn’t seem to share the interests of the humans?   The owner is stressed  – nothing seems to work.  The instructors are stressed – trying to help but the results seem inconsistent and slow to come by.

And that is when people start to make bad decisions.

“She knows this!” “She needs to know that she doesn’t have a choice.” “She did it yesterday; are you going to let her work only when she feels like it?”  “The vet said she was fine.” “Only feed her when you train; she’ll work when she gets hungry enough.” “Crate her when she doesn’t want to work.” “Make her do it!”  “She’s blowing you off.”

While my student grieves, I’m glad that she is only grieving the loss of her bel0ved pet, and not regretting her own behavior.





I won!

Posted on

A shiny object for me!  Best website:



Building the Retrieve on Flat

Posted on

Last week I considered the pieces you would want to have in place to create the behavior chain called “drop on recall.”

This week I’m looking at the Retrieve on Flat.

Note that the foundation elements for the ROF exercise include the stay, the send, the automatic return, the release and the finish.  If you want to set your dog up success then each one needs to be in place before asking for a full retrieve.  Moreover, each of those pieces should be properly proofed before adding it to the chain, but that is beyond the scope of this particular blog.

Note that I test most of the elements with food.  That way if I’m not happy with how a piece turns out it will not affect the actual retrieve.

This video is unedited.

If you’d like, next I can take one foundation element and consider ways to proof it. I’m open to suggestions, so if you’d like to see how I proof a specific foundation piece, leave me a comment.

Today is the last day to register at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, so if you’ve been meaning to do that, don’t wait!

Drop on Recall (DOR) – Proofed in Bits

Posted on

Can you dog come when called?

Can your dog drop on cue?

Can your dog back up on cue?

Those are basic foundation behaviors that you’ll want to teach for your DOR.  But they won’t fold easily into a drop on recall until you’ve proofed each piece.

Can your dog come when called, even when a cookie is behind the dog?

Can your dog drop on cue when you’re holding a cookie at nose level?

Can your dog back up on cue, when you’re holding a cookie at nose level?

Now a little harder….can your dog do these things when you’re moving backward?

If you have all of those pieces, you’re well on your way to an “overtrained” dog, because a dog that can back up or drop when you’re also backing shouldn’t have too much trouble with a drop on recall.

Before you create a chain with known behaviors, test the behaviors that you have individually.  Then string them together and see what’s what.  If you don’t like a specific piece, pull it out for a little more attention.  Then try again.

When I want to practice the DOR, I’m not going to practice the whole chain because I don’t need to; that takes unnecessary time and space.  Instead, I’ll emphasize proofing the pieces of the chain.

This video is unedited – I made a few errors.  That’s ok.

Consider if this exercise were the retrieve on the flat.  What steps might I need for a strong foundation?  How might I proof each one to ensure that the chain was strong?  If you’re interested, let me know in the comments and I can do that one next.

When you’ve got the chains you want just how you want them, then consider joining me for my online class, Bridging the Gap.  There we’ll take your nice chains and get them ready for competition.  That class is enrolling now and runs 12 weeks – $125 for bronze: