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Category Archives: Musings

The Sound of Silence

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Silence is a cue.  It means, “You are right; keep on with what you are doing.”

If you sit your dog, leave, and then face your dog, then your silence means he should continue to sit and wait; it is the cue to keep going.

If you send your dog to fetch and then wait quietly, then your silence cues him to continue – that he is correct in his current path.

If your dog is cued to sit, down, stand, and then to recall?  If you are silent between cues it means….

You’ve got it.  Keep going.  You’re right.  You’re a star!

So how do you teach it?

The same way you teach any cue; with reinforcement for correct behaviors under successively more challenging conditions!

If silence follows a single cue that you have given, like asking your dog to sit, and you want to reinforce both the sit and then the silence, then you will reinforce as such: sit, cookie, silence, cookie,  silence, cookie….

You are teaching your dog that silence means to continue on.

And in a chain?

That similar. Now you will give two cues before you reinforce. For example, sit, silence, cookie.  In that case, one cookie reinforced both cues; the sit and the silence.

And in a more complex chain; for example, the retrieve over the high jump?

You cue the fetch. And then you silently wait until the dog finishes. Your silence is the cue to the dog that he is doing it correctly.

Some people use praise this way. For example, sit, praise, cookie. Or fetch, praise, cookie.

That’s fine if your dog needs a little extra help getting through in the beginning, but long-term it’s a killer. It’s silence that your dog must value as “common” marker of correct behavior.

If silence comes to mean “wrong” beyond the earliest shaping/training phase, you may well find yourself with a dog offering a whole lot of behaviors anytime there is a pause between cues. That would be bad, and really, that’s pretty easily avoided. Just make sure that you reinforce the cue of silence the same as any other cue and you’ll be on your way.

If your dog makes an error with the silence cue, then you treat it like any other cue that is not executed property; what that might be would depend on the dog and how you train.  I’ll have a webinar on the topic of handling failure in January – there’s way more to that topic than I can handle here.

Train silence by reinforcing it, and soon your dog will find the Sound of Silence – Golden!

The relationship between Personal Play and Engagement

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This question comes up a lot, so I wrote a supplemental lecture for my online Engagement class on this topic. However, since I discuss Engagement on my blog quite a bit, I am sharing the lecture here as well.   I hope this provides clarification!

What is the relationship between play and engagement?   Do you need play to train engagement?

To answer this question, I want you to think about the game of fetch and its relationship to the process of training a formal dumbbell retrieve.

Does a dog need to play fetch in order to learn a shaped dumbbell retrieve? No, not at all. We shape the dumbbell retrieve and reward it with something else, usually food or a toy.

But a dog who plays fetch has a definite advantage in the final dumbbell retrieve exercise because when the formal retrieve training is finished, the odds that the dog will find the activity itself rewarding (the opportunity to fetch the dumbbell) goes up dramatically.

The same is true of engagement.

Engagement training is a trained process. We shape/train it with food and toys the same way that we shape/train a retrieve.

Play is an activity that the dog enjoys for the activity itself, the same as the game of fetch.

Eventually, all of these pieces come together in both activities.

After the dog has learned a shaped retrieve they begin to enjoy the activity for its own sake if they like to fetch things – regardless of a toy or food reward. It is also common for a dog that did not enjoy the game of fetch before the dumbbell retrieve was trained to begin enjoying it after the retrieve training is completed.

And the same is true of the relationship between Play and Engagement.  After the dog has lovely trained engagement, they may begin to enjoy the Play activity itself, even if they did not beforehand.  And if the dog did enjoy play before you started Engagement training?  That’s great too; it will get stronger as a side effect of the Engagement training.

But in the same way that a dog does not have to play fetch for fun to learn a dumbbell retrieve, a dog does not have to play with you personally to get trained through engagement.  Each one feeds the other.  And that’s good!

Is personal play/interaction a reinforcer?

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When I talk about personal play or interaction, I’m talking about the process of interacting with your dog without food or toys in a manner that is enjoyable for both of you, but rarely do I consider personal play a reinforcer.  So what does that mean?

A reinforcer increases behavior.

For example, you just asked your dog to perform a short stretch of heeling and it’s perfect!  So you tell your dog that was amazing, scratch his head or thump his sides, and repeat it.

What happens next?

If it’s a reinforcer, then your dog should zoom along with you and give you another good effort!  This one may or may not be as nice, but….the effort should be there.

And if it’s not a reinforcer then what might happen?

That would depend on the dog but as a general rule, each repetition will be less impressive than the last. Indeed, if the personal interaction signaled to the dog that food or toys were not going to happen, you might find the dog leaning away from your touch, in which case personal interaction has come to signal the loss of food or toys which makes it….a conditioned punisher.


So, you run out and perform this simple test and…voila!  It’s a mess!  After a few repetitions, your dog starts giving less and less effort (not a reinforcer) or actively avoids your touch (a conditioned punisher)

So should you bother with personal interaction?

Yes.  Because personal play and verbal interaction are relationship builders.  Dogs innately understand that people who talk nicely to them and pet them are friends.  (If you doubt this go hang out with four-week old puppies who have never been given food from a human hand).  Dogs seek out people who are nice regardless of the presence of food or toys, and dog/handler teams that have an interactive relationship have an easier time in the ring when no food or toys are present.

For example, my dogs enjoy interacting with my kids and greet them enthusiastically when they come home, in spite of the fact that my kids have never fed my dogs treats nor played with them with toys.   They find the interaction pleasant; a relationship builder.   My dogs will hang out with my kids if I am not home because they prefer their company to being alone or with a stranger.

So if my dogs had a choice between working with my kids or with a stranger they would choose my kids because they have a relationship. Would the work be impressive? Probably not because that generally requires reinforcers and a working relationship, which develops over time.  Here is my young son training Cisu:

Working for Approval

And in the ring, what do you have?

Whatever relationship you have developed with your dog.

If your dog avoids you when you don’t have food or toys, consider how that developed in training.  How did personal interaction come to be a punisher?

It’s possible that you only used personal interaction when no food or toys were going to follow – that’s a deadly mistake.

So what should you do now?  Condition your dog to understand that personal play or interaction PREDICTS food or toys – or possibly work if you are working on Engagement training – but take it one step at a time.

  1.  Work to find ways to interact with your dog away from training that your dog enjoys.
  2. In small doses, add that personal interaction to your training and always back it up with food or toys.
  3. Start adding a bit of work after the personal interaction but before the food or toys.
  4. Extend that process so that the dog begins to accept food, toys or personal interaction as all meaning ‘well done!’ I am pleased!  Our relationship is intact!

Even if the personal interaction NEVER becomes a reinforcer, you’re still ahead of the game.

There are ways to get in the ring with no relationship at all so you can choose one of those options if you prefer and if you are a talented trainer.  But…why?  It’s nice to interact with your dog.  It’s nice when your dog likes to interact with you.

If you want to get walked through this process in great detail, sign up for my online class “Engagement” and spend six weeks on this topic for $65.  It’s a lot to wrap your head around in a simple blog post, but I gave it a shot.









Problem Solving: Go back! and…

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I wrote this for the TEAM Player Facebook group but thought I’d throw it out here as well since it applies to all dog sports.

When you’re struggling to get a behavior, try this:

“Thoughts on problem-solving for TEAM:

Are you “Stuck” on a behavior at Level 2 or above? Try this:

If there is a corresponding behavior at Level 1, go back to working on it for a few days and leave the higher level behavior alone! Then “add complexity” to the lower level behavior.

For example, let’s say you’re struggling with pivots at Level  2 – your dog can’t keep his rear end in.

Go back to pivoting on the disc – a Level 1 behavior. Spend one day doing it exactly as is stated for level I competition.

Now, can you make it a little harder? For example, instead of doing 180°, can you make it 360°? Excellent! Can you do it with no cookie on your body? Super! Can you do it without the hand target above your dog’s head? You’re on your way! Can you do it when there’s a cookie on the ground nearby? Awesome!

This is proofing. Making it a little bit harder in manageable pieces so your dog becomes stronger at the base behavior.

Now, after you have mastered the above, go back to doing it off the disc – the Level 2 behavior. What happens?

Off the disc is just another form of complexity. You might discover that your dog is now a pivoting pro with no additional training 🙂

The levels were designed specifically to make this approach to problem-solving work well. That’s why we call it a training program; it will make you a better trainer.”

While the above statement was targeted at TEAM trainers, it applies to all sports and skills.

Struggling with your fronts?  Work on them with a platform but add distractions nearby or place your hands behind your back or stare at the sky or or or….  Then try it without the platform or the distraction – and see what happens!

Struggling with a full set of weave poles?   Go back to a much smaller number, and add guides if you used them in the initial training. Now add complexity! Hop like a bunny, or run backward, or hold your arms at weird angles. After a few days, try a full set of weave poles again, but this time remove the proofing elements. Did it help?

How about nose work? Is your dog struggling with endurance? Stop working on endurance! Instead, try some super easy hides, but add complexity. Maybe a distraction nearby like food in a box. Or work outdoors if you normally work indoors. Or leave your other dog loose in the house if you have one. Or sit on a chair! Remember though, the base behavior should be easier than the one you are trying to work towards. And when you are ready? Remove the proofing, make the challenge more difficult, and see what you have.

It’s amazingly effective . Give it a try!

On another note, next week is Fenzi Frenzy Webinar Week at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!  Starting on Monday, we’ll have a full week of Webinars to cover lots of topics that may interest you!  I’ll kick it off on Monday with Engagement, so I hope I’ll “meet” some of you there.  For more information, Check out our webinar schedule.

Remember, you can watch the webinar for at least one year from your “webinar library” even if you can’t participate live, but you have to purchase it before it runs! Each one is $19.95, and will give you a chance to get to know our FDSA instructors.  I look forward to seeing some of you there, and answering your questions about Engagement!


FDSA Podcasts

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If you like to listen then check out the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Podcasts. Each week you’ll spend about 45 minutes learning something interesting from someone interesting!

When you click the following link, you’ll see two greenish buttons – click the one for your phone type if you want to have future episodes downloaded automatically to your phone.  We now have thousands of subscribers…and room for more!

Or…scroll down and pick and choose what you’d like to learn about. We have 34 episodes to choose from!

Transcriptions are available for each episode if you prefer reading to listening.

Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Podcast





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