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The Art of Adaptation – What happens if?

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I’m teaching a new class starting October 1st on “The Art of Training”  The goal is to help science based trainers become more confident and fluent in their training so they experience less worry and more success!  Sadly, after I finished writing up the class, someone suggested a topic that really should be there. But it’s not. So I’ll write about it here instead.

The topic is, “The Art of Adaptation”

Your dog is big or small.  Fast or Slow.  Enthusiastic or Withdrawn.  Agile or a bit clumsy!

You are big or small.  Fast or slow.  Enthusiastic or Withdrawn. Agile or a bit clumsy!

You have a disability or….you are fully abled!

You have a lot of time on your hands or no time on your hands!

You have an enormous training space with fancy equipment or you train in your house using a coffee table for your jump.

What is your situation?

When you are learning how to train an exercise, proof an exercise, generalize an exercise or get ready for trials, you’ll find that rarely is someone else’s situation exactly like yours.  You might ask someone for help with any of these skills and yet….their situation is simply different – not like your situation! Now what?

Becoming a fluent trainer largely involves creativity and adaptation; the ability to look at what others are doing and making it work for your situation.  The more you can do that, the more successful you are likely to be as a trainer. So, how do you get there?

A good start is to think in terms of solutions and commonalities as opposed to emphasizing problems and differences.  It also means learning to rely on your own thought processes rather than having someone else do the thinking for you.

The more you attempt to solve your own challenges before asking for help, the better a trainer you will become as you move forwards. If you find that you rely on your trainer extensively to adapt everything for you, you’re losing an opportunity to problem solve for yourself. There’s something to the expression “necessity is the mother of invention.” So, do a little inventing!

Exercise:  Think about something that you have taught your dog to do.  Anything you like!  Go over a jump, retrieve an object, find a nosework scent, cross an agility teeter, find heel position, get on a platform, down stay – anything!

Now – add one of the following challenges to that exercise:

Heeling:  You’ve lost your left hand in an accident and you need to teach left side heeling.

Jump:  You are in a wheelchair.

Retrieve:  Your dog is 8″ tall and you have a bad back and cannot bend.

Nosework:  You are allergic to Nosework oils.

Down stay:  You’re blind.

Behavior: Your dog is afraid of dog show environments and you live in the country far away from shows.

These are simply examples. I don’t care what exercise you take, or what challenge you add. Simply add something unique and different, something that will make your current approach difficult or impossible and learn to think outside the box a little. Don’t ask your trainer for help. Don’t ask your friends. Work through it yourself. I bet if you spend a little time with it, you will find an answer. Over time, you’ll find that you actually have many solutions within yourself. You just have to take a moment to think about it.

I made the examples extreme to force you to think, but the fact is, all training needs to be adapted to individual circumstances.  It’s up to you how you do that.

The next time you begin to teach your dog something new, start with the basic instructions and then…. ask yourself what would happen if… and consider if there might be an adaptation that would make it just slightly better (or more interesting!) for your situation.  Not because you have to but because you can!  So your instructor starts her retrieve from her hand?  What happens if you start it from the floor?  Or a chair?  Or your instructor starts her heeling from a static position – what happens if you start with movement?  Without a leash?  With a target instead of a cookie?  Or with nothing but a toy?  What happens if….?

Make this way of thinking a habit and I guarantee you will become a better trainer.





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



Yes, but.

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On occasion I will encounter a hardworking, enthusiastic trainer with a truly challenging dog.  I have to think hard to come up with advice that will help the team establish a workable training plan, and even then, I often have doubts about how the team will progress, especially if the handler is on the more novice side.

Invariably, if the handler is engaged, patient and focused on the silver linings when they appear, the dog gets better and better and better!  Over time, I am amazed at what an optimistic and patient handler can do, even with less than stellar skills and applications.

And on occasion, I will encounter another kind of team.   The handler may be quite skilled indeed and the dog appears to be relatively normal but with some random flukes or shortcomings.   My first impression is that we’ll have a fairly straightforward training progression. And then this happens:

Me: Does your dog like toys?

Handler: No.   I worked at it but he doesn’t play.

Me:  “That’s okay. We can use food and throw it.

Handler:  I can’t throw food. If I throw food then he sniffs.

Me:  If you don’t want to throw food then we could use a Manners Minder at a distance.

Handler:  He’s afraid of the sound of the Manners Minder.

By the time we’ve gotten to this point in the conversation, I know what the problem is, and it has nothing to do with the dog.

I have a “yes but ” handler.

While all of the above may be true, the dog may not enjoy toys, and the dog might sniff, and maybe the dog is sound sensitive or has some physical issue, the difference between this case and an engaged and optimistic handler is their willingness to look for solutions with me; to work with what we have and grow our success from there.

To make matters worse, some handlers seem to take a certain joy in having an “impossible” dog.   They’ve been to all of the trainers! Their situation is absolutely unique! Unfixable!  It’s not the handler’s behavior or their handling or their skills. It’s the dog. 100% the dog.  No one could fix this dog because it’s that unusual.

Now we have a “yes but” handler with a serious passive aggressive streak.

The fact is, even if the dog IS perfectly normal, if the handler is determined not to find success with their dog, then that is the way it will be.

The most correct application of a technique will not work if the handler is determined not to let it work.  The handler will do small and unconscious things to sabotage their own success. The dog can feel it; this expectation of failure. This determination to fail.  And the handler can prove to everyone what they knew all along – their dog is “different”.

Are you a “Yes, but”? Do you have a long list of motivators that you cannot use, techniques that cannot work, places that you cannot go, issues that cannot be resolved, and trainers that could not help?  Do you always have a reason why each technique or suggestion is not going to work? If something does work, do you ignore that success and instantly move on to a new concern without appreciating what was accomplished?  If you feel a subtle sense of vindication when the trainer fails to help you then that is about you and not about the training at all; you’re being a passive aggressive “yes but” handler.

Your job is to actively try and engage your trainer to solve problems and find a way to work around challenges. Your job is to remain positive and focused on the points of success so that you can grow from there.  And if your situation is so extreme that this is not possible, then your job is to ask yourself why you are continuing at all.  Retire that impossible dog!

Or sit down and take a hard look at your behavior.  You can change, but not if you don’t become aware of what you’re doing. If it occurs to you that others might think this is how you behave, but you see it differently, take a moment to think that through.  Regardless, the solution is the same; either change your behavior and learn to become a teammate with your trainer and dog, or consider a new hobby.

If you decide to stay on your current path;  if you’re a “yes but” who opts not to change, then you will win. You will be right. Your dog will not succeed. Hopefully, that’s what you had in mind in the first place because you will get your way.

Or today can be the first day of your new path.  Find what is right in your dog’s behavior and rejoice in that!  Fixate on your successes and grow them, a tiny bit at a time.  Make sure your team feels appreciated; both your dog and your trainer.  Work hard to find reasonable workarounds to your challenges. See what happens.  You might find that training is a lot more fun with your changed attitude.




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!

From start to finished

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Want to compete with your dog?  Here it is; twenty steps for any dog sport.  If you’re struggling with your training, you may find that your answer is in here too.

  1. Get a dog. Have that? Awesome. One down already.
  2. Get equipment. What do you need? A leash and collar, some very tasty treats, and a few things for your sport. Because we teach sport behaviors as a series of foundation skills, the kinds of things you are going to need are going to be pretty simple, and will probably cross sports. For example, you will probably want a platform, a disk, something for your dog to retrieve, something for your dog to touch, a cone to go around, etc. You may need some specific things for your sport too, like tug toys.
  3. Make a list of foundation behaviors that you will need for your sport by learning about each exercise is that is required. To get that list of exercises, try the website and rules for whatever your sport and organization might be, and go from there.  Take each exercise that you will need to teach and break it down into its component pieces.    For example, a recall requires a sit, a stay, a front, a finish, and a recall! Teach those things separately.   Don’t worry about stringing them together.   Consider putting all of your foundation behaviors in a chart. That will come in handy later on.
  4. Teach those foundation behaviors.  Learn how to handle the behaviors when they go right, and how to handle those behaviors when they go wrong.  
  5.  Get a personality.   It is absolutely critical that you learn how to interact with your dog in a way that is fun for both of you. Do not stand around staring at your dog like a tree.   Pay attention!   Get involved!
  6. Introduce the concept of proofing. Proofing just means adding distractions and complications to the work so that your dog can become stronger. Now, go back to one of those foundation behaviors you started, and add a little challenge to it. You are now proofing that behavior.     Add a column for proofing to your chart of foundation behaviors.   If a behavior is going well under proofing, you can check it off. If a behavior is weak, keep working on it, ideally in a new way.
  7. Introduce the concept of generalization. That means to take the show on the road. Consider the sorts of places that you might compete with your dog, and try to mimic the “feel” in your training.  For example, if you will always be in a training building, then you might want to focus your energy on indoor spaces. If you will always be outdoors, then you might want to head to local parks, etc. What you do at those locations does not matter nearly as much as the fact that your dog is exposed to them. Add another column to your chart for generalization.
  8.   Watch your dog. About now is when you might’ve started to notice that your dog has some weird behaviors. Overly enthusiastic with new people in public, or fearful, or with attention problems, or whatever. This is a good time to figure out what they are, and set up a plan to deal with them.
  9. Mix it all up! Spend some of your time working on skills, some of your time on proofing, and occasionally get out and about.   Don’t forget to bring your personality with you.
  10. Create some behavior chains. To do that, take those foundation behaviors that you have proofed and generalized, and string them all together. Those are your exercises.  How do they look?  If good – yay!  If weak, figure out what piece is weak (the foundation behavior) and fix it.
  11. Start reducing those reinforcers.   There are different ways to do this. Most people back chain or forward chain to some extent.  At the end of a chain, give a more substantial reward. When working one’s foundation skills (which you will never stop doing) give less substantial rewards; cheerios vs. steak.
  12. Now mix it all up again!  You’re going to take your behavior chains on the road, with less reinforcement. Not all at once of course. In little bits and pieces. And only change one big thing at a time!  If it’s a new place then let that be your change; don’t start adding formality or reducing reinforcers at the same time.  
  13.  Add in some testing. Testing is different than training. It means a more formal demeanor. It means checking how your dog does when you continue an exercise even when something goes wrong. For example, your dog goes wide in heel position. Ignore it and continue. What happens next? Better to discover that now than in a trial. While testing is not something you want to do a lot of, you need to do it occasionally just to see what will happen next. That will set your training path for the next week or so.   Then test again. Eventually, you will test entire run-throughs.
  14. Start looking for events.  Go and observe. Leave your dog home.   Your job will be to notice how it all runs. Where do the dogs stay? If they are crated, can your dog do that comfortably? Do people tend to have their dogs out with them or away? Are they crated in cars are on in the working area? How close are the crates and dogs to each other? These are all things you will train for, as needed. Does anything make you nervous?  This is the time to take a hard look at your dog and decide if in person venues are appropriate for you, or if you might want to explore on-line trialing options instead.
  15. At the event, take some time to notice how the process works. Is there a table where you check in? Then what do you do? Each sport is a little different, so simply ask. People are always helpful.  If you come across a grump simply move on.  The next person will be nice.
  16. Go to another event. This time bring your dog along if it’s allowed. Observe your dog’s behavior. Is it going okay? If so, maybe you’re on your way! If it’s allowed, do a little practice on the side. Before you do that, make sure you ask if it’s okay. Are you happy with your dog’s behavior in this space?  If not, create a plan to address it.
  17. While you are there, ask about how you will enter the event. Somebody will explain it to you. If it requires an online entry form, go to the place where the entry form is, and take a look. Do you know the answers to the questions?
  18.   Do you know anyone in your sport? Either through online interaction or through in person training? Find out if they are going to go to any events, and try to go to the same one. It’s always easier and more fun when your first event has a familiar face.
  19. Enter.  Attend. Compete.  Go home.  Evaluate.
  20. If you did not develop your sense of humor somewhere between #1 and #19, go ahead and do that now. Because your team will probably fail. A lot. That is part of the game, and part of the learning process. It’s also part of the joy when your dog gets it all right. Figure out what went wrong in the above 19 steps, address it, and try again.

Good luck!  Fenzi Dog Sports Academy offers classes for pretty much all of these – check out our schedule or send me a note through the instructor’s link if you’re stuck, and I will give you some direction. Registration closes on the 15th, so don’t wait much longer – classes started on the 1st.

Leadership: Management Training!

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For my first post in this series on Leadership, I talked about the importance of reacting when things are happening around you, whether talking about a dog or a child. Few things scream lack of leadership like an absence of human direction, so avoid that!

In the second in the series, I talked about handling a situation where your dog is behaving badly, and neither the dog nor the human has any training. Regardless of the cause, my advice was the same: get out of there one way or the other.

Next, I considered a slightly more sophisticated situation; a handler that happens to be carrying cookies with her.

And now?  Now let’s talk about a handler who is aware that their dog may react badly to something and who wants to be prepared should a bad situation arise.

Note that we are still talking about the concept of leadership; the difference this time is that we have a pro-active handler who is willing to put in training time in advance, should they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

Let’s start with the goal. The goal is to get out of a situation with your dog as a willing participant, rather than having to physically remove your dog from the situation, or rely on a cookie that you’re probably not holding anyway.

And to reach that goal, we are going to teach the dog to orient to you and move in your direction.   Not a recall with the dog on a 6-foot leash facing you (whenever might you need that?) and not a recall where the dog runs to you from across the yard (though that is useful).  There will be no stationary handler, no stationary dog, and no distance,  because right now, we don’t need any of that.

What we need is a dog that orients to you, regardless of what else is happening, on a specific cue, like the dog’s name.

Here are a few steps to get you started.  Note that the more proofing (distractions over time) that you add to this exercise and the more effort you put into it, the more useful this skill will be – not only for for management in public but also for teaching a more traditional recall – when you want the dog to come to you in spite of the amazing things that are happening in the world.

You will need:  a dog, the most amazing food you can possibly come up with and space behind you to back up. That’s it.

Here is what you will do.

  1. When your dog is looking away from you (this is important), you will reach in front of your dog’s nose, wiggle that amazing food, and back up quickly at least 10 feet while your dog chases you and the food.  Give the dog the food.  I chatter cheerfully during this training, but that’s your choice.
  2. When that is solid (which should take a matter of minutes;  all your dog is doing is chasing food while you back up – no talent required), you will repeat that step, except this time you will wait until your dog is actually doing something else.  For example, sniffing a spot on the ground.   Put that cookie right under your dog’s nose, wiggle it, and back up at least ten feet before handing it over.
  3.  When your dog is already turning around when he sees you coming up behind him and before you have a chance to show him the cookie, add your cue (I use chatter as my cue) – back up immediately with that cookie, wiggling away!
  4. When your dog responds instantly to that verbal cue, start practicing when your dog is doing more interesting things.
  5. When that is going well, repeat all of the steps WITHOUT a cookie in your hand – as you are backing up you will be reaching into your pocket to get one.  However, you will still do a mousy move with your hand – that is going to become your visual signal to your dog.

This video attempts to show the basic idea.  In the first two repetitions, I am holding/wiggling a cookie in front of his nose.  For the final repetition there is no cookie in the hand, but note that my behavior still mimics the first two repetitions, as if I were holding a cookie:

Training for Reactivity Management

The goal is that your dog will respond instantly to your cue and turn away from whatever it is out there. The more you work on this, the more likely it is to become a reflex for the dog. So rather than thinking about whether or not they want to respond, often in a time when they are no longer able to think, they will simply respond to the words (in my video example, my chatter of “pup pup pup”.) It is not at all unusual for dogs to be able to respond almost reflexively to a cue or noise that is extremely well-known, even if they can’t respond to much else.

Now take your dog into the big wide world. Remember that you are paying attention, because you are the leader, and you are responsible for your team. You notice your dog start to react to something, hopefully at the “looking” stage rather than the slathering, screaming, lunging phase. You are behind your dog and he is looking away, so this should feel very familiar to both of you. You instantly work to get your dog oriented to you, start backing up and making chatter (wiggling your hand all the while), and backup as far as necessary to get out of the situation. At that point, get out a cookie and give it to your dog and then congratulate both of you for your excellent training and management!

But…what if it doesn’t work? What if you waited too long? What if your dog didn’t respond as expected? What if retraining had not progressed far enough to get to this level of distraction?

In spite of the fact that I just asked it, I am not going to answer that question. Read through the past blogs and see if you can figure it out for yourself.  If you can’t, keep reading those prior blogs until it is obvious to you.  Believe me – it’s there in spades.

And when the event is over, what will you do? Contact a trainer, your mentor, or a sophisticated dog-friend, and asked for help dealing with your dog’s problem with reactivity.

I can almost guarantee that your reactivity training will go much better now because you’ve put some time into showing your dog that you are paying attention and that you are trustworthy to solve problems – you are showing leadership. You have taught your dog that you can get him out of situations where he should not be. You have stepped up instantly, rather than passively watching as situations spiraled out of control.

That’s leadership. And it is, hands down, the hardest thing I teach people.

If you would like to learn how to teach your dog a rock solid recall (a godsend for a reactive dog and quite useful for all dogs), go ahead and check out our recall class at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for the August 1st term.   Chrissi Schranz will take you through six weeks of step-by-step recall training.  And if you’d like some help working through your dog’s reactivity issues rather than simply managing them, check out Dr. Amy Cook’s class, Dealing with the Bogeyman.

Good luck!

Leadership: A little bit of knowledge!

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This blog is a continuation of my leadership series of posts.   Please see the last two to “catch up” if necessary.

In my first blog of this series, I talked about the importance of reacting when things are happening around you, whether talking about a dog or a child. Nothing screams lack of leadership like an absence of human direction, so avoid that. I also suggested that exactly what you did to intervene mattered less than the fact that you intervened.

In my last blog, the second in the series, I talked about handling a situation where your dog is behaving badly, and neither the dog nor the human have any training. Your average dog owner got caught flat-footed.   Regardless of the cause, my advice was the same: get out of there one way or the other. First, manage the event; the training will come later.

Now let’s consider a slightly more sophisticated situation. In this case, the handler has some minimal training,  and as a result, she is inclined to be carrying cookies with her. It is also possible that she has had one or more bad experiences in the past, so is “on notice” that things could go wrong.

Ok; here we go again.  For whatever reason, your dog starts misbehaving. Possibly growling, barking, lunging etc. What should the handler, who happens to have food on her, do in a case like this?

As soon as she realizes her dog is in a bad spot, she should take a cookie, wiggle it like a little mouse in front of her dog’s nose, and redirect her dog 180° away from whatever has his attention.  The goal is to magnetize the dog to the coookie while moving away.   After that, the advice is the same:

Get out of there!

The “get out of there” process should happen as soon as the handler recognizes a problem, because the longer the situation goes on, or the closer the handler gets before she realizes there is an issue, the more likely it is that her cookies are not going to attract her dog. The dog may be aware of them but too over-aroused by the situation to really care at that moment.

So let’s run with that for a second. Let’s say that the handler tries the cookies, and the dog ignores them!

Then get out of there however you will. Review the last blog for more ideas on this.

The notable thing for the cookie in hand technique to work is that the handler has to 1)  be paying attention and 2) have a cookie in her hand very very quickly.

So here’s a question for you. If the handler gets into a bad spot and the dog is acting up noticeably, should the handler stand there and fish around in her pocket until she finds a cookie, or should she revert to the no cookie approach?

This isn’t necessarily a black-and-white answer but in general, I would suggest reverting to the no cookie approach. The reality is, the longer you stand there doing nothing, the less likely the dog is going to want it anyway.  That’s because a little over-arousal has a way of becoming big over-arousal when nothing intervenes to stop that process.

So let’s say that happens.   The handler gets into a bad spot.   The handler is not paying attention, so the dog is pretty high by the time she recognizes the need to intervene. She is holding the leash, but struggling to get a cookie out of their bag because the dog is pulling.

Forget the cookie and act like you don’t have any on you. Get out of there one way or the other. Use your voice or physically interrupt the dog’s behavior, and get as far away as you need.

There is a silver lining here, however. If the handler has cookies on her body, whether or not she was able to use them to get out of the situation, she should absolutely use them once they are further away, because food will help to calm the dog down. In that case, the order would look like this:

The dog and the handler approach. The dog becomes agitated. The handler doesn’t notice. The dog starts to act out noticeably. The handler claps or taps the dog physically or blocks the dog, or whatever, and gets the dog out of the situation. The handlers is then able to get the dog further away and the dog is no longer looking in the problem direction. The handler then feeds the dog’s cookies until calm – (both of them, since the handler is probably a wreck by now too.)

And now that all is calm and you have some free time, call your mentor, friend, or dog trainer, and set up a training plan to make things better for the future.

Is this the best possible handling/managing of a situation?  No, it’s not. In this case, you had a handler with some training and a dog with little or none. So what can you do in a situation where the dog has more training, or the handler is possibly on notice that their dog has an issue and really wants to fix it?

Next, we’ll consider bare bones management for a bad situation where the handler is somewhat sophisticated and has taken the time to train their dog, at least a little, in advance. We’ll call that “training for management”.