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Reducing Reinforcers

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I did a FB live on the topic of Reducing Reinforcers; if you’re interested go ahead and watch the video.

The basic points:

1.  Train with a 100% reinforcement schedule with cookies on or off your body.

2.  Work to develop alternative reinforcers like play (with our without cookies)

3.  When your dog shows a strong understanding of the target behavior (you’re surprised when he does not perform correctly) then do one of two things: a) place this known behavior in a chain so that the next behavior reinforces that one, and then reinforce the second exercise or b) reinforce the target behavior with a secondary reinforcer like play.  You may (or may not) then reinforce the secondary reinforcer.

4.  String more and more known behaviors together to create exercises.


5. (not addressed in the video) string chains of known exercises together to create ring ready performances – with a combination of secondary reinforcers offered in the ring and a primary reinforcer at the end – if desired and appropriate for your particular dog.

How well this works will be a combination of your skill in creating your chains and your dog’s innate temperament – how much biddability and working drive your dog has.

And while working on your chains, have a plan for handling failure within the chains.

That’s it!  I just saved you 38 minutes of watching a video!  But if you want to see the whole thing – with a demo dog (Brito!) and questions at the end – watch it anyway.

I may do a follow up at some point on Handling failure within the chain.  Or not.  Or  maybe I’ll do something else altogether.

“One Day of Brito”

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Recently I did eight days of unedited video with puppy Wink.  That unedited video compilation demonstrates how I choose to approach teaching play as an interactive and choice based game with relatively few rules.  You can see changes in her behavior over time.

Today Brito found a toy in the yard so now you can see “One day of Brito”

This session focused on switching between types of play (personal, toy and food play) for the fun of it.  I’m having a nice time with a nice dog.

Any time you are training, you can stop what you’re doing and simply enjoy your dog’s company.  Life is not one great big transaction unless you choose to make it one.

If you play with your dog, then you’ll likely see an enormous improvement in your training. Not because the dog “earned” the play but because you just became an interesting person to spend time with.

Take a moment to watch one of your recent training sessions.  Do you look like you’re fun to be with?  Do you want to be your dog?

Not a bad question to ask on occasion.


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This article was first published several years ago; by request I am publishing it again.

I am often asked how we should socialize our dogs so that they will grow up as well adjusted as possible.  I think the answer is both simple and intuitive: The same way you socialize your small children.

I know that many of you don’t have children but work with me here.  Even if you do not have children, you certainly know what they are, and you have a pretty good idea of how parents raise them.

Parents take their children to all of the normal places of life.  If mom goes grocery shopping, the child comes along.  Same with the the bank, the store, the homes of relatives, and the library.  These are places that almost all children will have significant exposure to from early in life.  Through small doses of exposure over time, our children learn what to expect and how to behave in different places.

The type of home a child is raised in will affect the type of socialization experienced.  Some parents are highly social and have frequent parties or social events.  Children raised this way will have an easier time at parties when they are older than children who are raised by parents who are not as inclined to host social events, but always within the context of the child’s underlying temperament – a shy child may choose a more reclusive life as an adult, even if well socialized to parties as a youngster.  That is where the interplay between temperament and socialization come together.   For the most part, society allows for this – a range of personality types is well tolerated in society.

How about a child who is destined for a more unusual life?  A royal baby, for example, will be exposed early on to crowds of thousands, proper table manners and to all sorts of expectations that will not be a part of a regular child’s life.  A child born into a native tribe that still relies on hunting to survive will have a vastly different set of experiences.   How successfully each takes to his role will rely heavily on proper socialization.

Rarely do we consciously think about socializing our children, but that is indeed what we are doing.  As a result of this “quiet” approach, we have a good chance of making the right decisions.  We don’t push.  We don’t lump socialization into one day a week.  And we don’t freak out when the child has a bad day and throws a fit over not much of anything.  We simply get them out into the world – focusing on those areas that will be critical to their future.

And your dog?  I’d say it’s about the same.

If you plan to walk your dog in the neighborhood, take the dog to a local park for exercise, or visit a local nursing home, then you’ll want to start early showing your dog those pictures, and helping them understand what the expected behaviors are in those places.  Exposure and familiarity will allow your puppy to adapt, assuming that the underlying temperament is suited for that lifestyle.

How about a dog with a more specialized future; a dog destined for performance competitions?  This puppy should be exposed to crowds of both dogs and people.  Noisy places.  Loudspeakers. Travel.  Training classes.  And at some point, when the puppy is ready, he should learn to perform some basic skills in those environments – after all, that is the puppy’s future.  If his temperament is within the range needed for success in these environments, then basic exposure should do the trick.

How should we treat a puppy that is nervous around people?  The same as a small child who is nervous around people.  It’s not a big deal most of the time – allow the puppy (or child) to hide behind you if they wish.  It won’t matter.  Children are notorious for hiding behind their mothers, and most parents (and strangers) understand this natural phase of growing up and just ignore it.  If you want to make your child hate going out, force them to interact with people who they are afraid of or force them to enter places that frighten them.  And so it goes for puppies.  If they aren’t ready to meet your neighbor, let it be.  If you allow them to explore the world at their own pace, they will learn to use you as a resource for safety rather than taking matters into their own hands by growling, barking, or becoming catatonic when threatened.  They can meet the neighbor when they are ready; your job is to non-judgmentally support the puppy’s decision.

And the puppy that is exuberant?  About the same as a child who is exuberant.   Calmly redirect the behavior and remove from the situation if behavior does not improve quickly.  Allow the dog or child to return when the behavior is better, or recognize that the expectations of the situation exceeded what was reasonable at that time.

And if your child has a tendency to become aggressive with other children? You remove that child, calm them and try again…with much closer supervision. When you notice behavior escalating, you remove the child before it gets worse.  You pay attention – no hanging out with the mommies on a distant bench.

And so it goes with your puppy.  Assertive puppies need closer supervision while they learn how to behave.  Leaving small puppies or young children unsupervised is a recipe for disaster because the bully will win; small children and puppies do not “work it out.”  If your puppy is becoming too rough or excited with the other puppies, then remove him for a short period and supervise much more closely when you return, or change the scenario.  Limit the total period of exposure since good behavior is exhausting for both dogs and kids.  Good parenting is exhausting for us too!

Do you use a leash with your small children?  Probably not.  Instead you pay attention to what the child is watching and you look for triggers that signal a potential problem (a ball rolling into the street will cause most parents to watch their kids carefully for signs that they might follow).  If people had to manage their puppy without a leash in public spaces, their understanding of their dog’s needs and triggers would improve dramatically – they would have no choice but to pay attention and “learn” their puppy.

Pass the toddler?  I’ve never heard of it.  No one expects a toddler to go willingly to ten different strangers – with no choice – and to be happy about it. Sure, some toddlers would probably love the game, but most prefer the security of their caregivers.

And puppies?  I’ll admit I do not understand “pass the puppy”.  My puppies are allowed to rely on me, and they have 100% choice about whether or not to approach a new person.  If they want to approach ( and if the person wishes to visit) then they approach.  And if they don’t want to, then that’s fine too.  We all grow up when we are ready.  I never pass my puppy off unless he has indicated that he wishes to go.  Some of my dogs grow into social adults and others are more reserved but I’m hard pressed to believe that handing them off to random strangers while they shut down in fear would have benefitted them.  I wouldn’t do it to a child and I will not to it to a puppy.  Leave the puppy on its feet and it can approach (or avoid) as it is ready.  If you give your puppy choice, as you would a human child, it’s much harder to put them into a situation that terrifies them.

And a few words about the rights of other people.  Yes, people have rights, and they have the right not to like your dog or your children.  If a person does not wish to visit, then it is my responsibility to prevent my rambunctious child or puppy from bothering that person.  Over time, both children and dogs learn for themselves when a person prefers to be left alone.

Most puppies will do quite well if raised in this manner but some will not do well – those puppies may have specific temperament issues that will need to be addressed in a more systematic fashion. If your puppy is in the minority and their behavior appears to be deteriorating, go see a specialist and get help.

The Rational Participant

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How does one train a dog?

You just cued your dog to “sit” and your dog did nothing.  Stared at you, and nothing happened.  What should you do?

If you throw your dog a cookie while he lies there not responding at all, are you teaching your dog to stay down when you signal a sit?

95% of dog trainers will say that feeding a dog for failure to perform is bad training.  To “reward” an incorrect response goes against the laws of learning!  Dogs do more of what works for them, so if ignoring your cue gets a cookie, then the dog will ignore you more!  The right answer would be to either ignore the behavior or punish it, depending on your philosophy.

And they would be wrong as often as not,  because operant conditioning presumes a conscious and rational participant that is striving to maximize his or her well being at that moment in time, and a very high percentage of the time, our dogs are not behaving in an operant fashion at all!   Operant conditioning can only work if the dog is 1) aware that his behavior matters at that time 2) knows how to adapt his behavior to get the best possible outcome and 3) cares about the result – at that moment in time.

Here’s an example:

Your dog is in a glass room behind a soundproof wall.  He cannot hear you.  You cue a sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, he can’t hear you!  So should you march in that room and correct him into a sit?  Of course not.  If he can’t hear the cue, then he can’t operate in his own best interest – he is not conscious of that fact that training is taking place, let alone that his behavior matters.

How about if your dog is in a training building with a dog lunging on his leash behind your training area, which is causing your dog a good deal of distress?  You cue your dog to sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, you gave the cue!  Should you march over there and correct him into a sit?  No!  Because at that moment in time, your dog is not participating in your training game!  His rational instinct is to preserve his safety and as long as he perceives that the lunging dog is a threat to his safety, then he is not in a place to do anything with your training.  You cannot use operant conditioning at that moment in time, because his best interest is not to attend to you. So while his behavior is certainly rational in the greater scheme of things, it’s not focused on you or learning your games, so no training can take place at that time.

But what if that lunging dog is on leash and cannot get to your dog?  Your dog has nothing to fear!

That’s irrelevant because that conclusion is from your point of view and it’s the dog’s opinion that matters. If your dog thinks that other dog is a threat to his safety then your perspective is not relevant.  And anyway, fear is rarely logical.  Even if the dog can recognize that the dog cannot get to him, that doesn’t mean he’ll just move on.

So what should you do?  You’ve given your dog a sit cue and nothing has happened.  What now?

The question to ask yourself is this; if my dog’s emotional state is not in a place to respond to operant conditioning, what can I do to make him feel better so that he WILL be in a place to respond to me?

Switch to classical conditioning.

It may well be time to stop training altogether while you puzzle out your solution.  While your dog might not be receptive to operant conditioning when he’s feeling stressed or fearful, he is always a participant in classical conditioning, so the best thing that you can do in a case like this is try and make him feel better.  Train his emotions through classical conditioning rather than his conscious behaviors.

It doesn’t matter much if your dog is not participating because he’s bored, tired, scared, doesn’t care about your consequences, doesn’t hear you or doesn’t understand you. If he hasn’t engaged in the learning process, then the only option you have is to either switch to classical conditioning or change the parameters of your operant conditioning; train when he’s not bored, not tired, not scared, change the consequences, clarify your cues, or train him to understand what you want.  And all the while, give some thought to how you can modify your overall training plan so that he’s a whole lot more excited about training, regardless of the specifics of the day, so that he begins to opt in all or most of the time, rather than opting out.

This is so hard for us trainers!

Your dog is not manipulating his way through every moment of life!  “giving it away” goes against everything many of us have been taught to believe about dog training. The phrase ‘the dog is always learning’ has come to mean that every moment of our dog’s life needs to be seen as their attempt to get more, as if they are constantly thinking about what they can get and how to avoid what they don’t like. And that is simply not true. Most of life just happens – it’s an emotional reality -not a conscious manipulative one.

If you come to accept this reality, then you can stop feeling like you have to manipulate your dog every moment as well.  The rest just falls into place.



Play – 8 days worth

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I recently puppy sat for my friend – I had her dog for eight days.

And if a puppy is in my house, then it’s going to get trained.  Either to entertain me or to entertain the puppy.  In this case, it was a little of both.

At the request of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Alumni list on FaceBook, I recorded, live, half of her training sessions, usually in the morning  At the end of each session, I answered their questions.

The end result was eight days of unedited training and question/answer – which I then pulled together into a continuous youtube video for those who are not Fenzi Academy students.

If you’d like to learn about play – here it is.

What you should take from this video – train the dog you have.  The puppy I was working with showed all the qualities of an interactive and talented player – I just needed to be available.  Maybe with another dog you’d approach it differently, which I discuss at length in these segments.  Figuring out  what makes  sense for your dog is what makes training so very interesting.

Here’s the youtube link to the video:

If you want to learn more about play, sign up for my online class, Relationship Building Through Play at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA).  We cover a lot of territory.   Class started a week ago, so now you’ll be playing catch up.  Enrollment will close on the 15th.

In the meantime, enjoy this 2.5 hour long free video.

Train the dog in front of you: Heeling

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I recently discovered “Facebook live”.  So fun!!!!

Anyway, I asked for something to talk about, and the most popular topic was “Train the Dog in Front of You”  and how that might apply to Heeling.  I spoke for a while and then answered questions as they came in.

Here’s that video live feed.  It’s about 38 minutes long and addresses the topic of tailoring training to the individual dog.

I’ll be teaching heeling games at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy starting October 1st so if you’re interested, go ahead and get registered.  It will cost you $65, and you’ll probably learn quite a bit.

If you “follow” me on Facebook you’ll be able to catch live feeds here and there, and submit questions if you have any.  I have also done a large number of live feeds on the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Alumni Group on Facebook, so if you’re a student of FDSA make sure you ask to join the alumni group!


Definition of Insanity

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What is the Definition of Insanity?

We all know this one.

“Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” – Albert Einstein

I’m thinking about this, because a person I know, who clearly loves her dog and thinks she is doing right by him, is giving me pause to reflect on what makes us stick to training methods that are perceived as “tried and true” when the method of choice has been most obviously tried and yet is certainly not true.  At least not for this dog.

In short – it’s not working.

She’s a nice lady; I like her a lot.  She also has a nice dog – anxious, but nice.  And her dog leaves her in training.  Runs amuck!  For three years this has been happening.  Three years!

She sees conscious disobedience, and thirty years of “experience” has taught her exactly one way to handle disobedience – set him up and then correct him for failure.  Thirty years of focusing on conscious behavior has also made her totally unable to see that the real issue has nothing to do with conscious behavior at all – but that’s not the point of this post.

When is it time to make a change?  When is it time to acknowledge that what you’re doing is not working?  When is it time to step back and look at the problem from a new angle?

If what you’re doing causes no harm to you, the dog, or others,  but adds no value, then…whatever. If it were one of my dogs and I really cared about creating change, I’d sure be looking at my technique, but if you don’t and if you and the dog have reached a happy enough place, then that’s your choice.

If what you are doing DOES cause harm to either you, your dog or to others, but your choices are not improving your situation, then explain this to me: Why do you have so little regard for your well being or the well being of others?  Is your dog scaring you?  Scaring other people or dogs?   A risk that others feel the need to go out of their way to avoid?

Is your solution scaring or hurting your dog?  Shouldn’t your dog’s opinion matter?  It’s not like he volunteered for your choice of training methods.

It doesn’t matter if you’re “working on it;” if you’re not progressing over a significant period of time and you’re causing harm, then it’s time to change something, or maybe even…give up!  Your choices are to change your strategy or to walk away, not to subject others, possibly including your dog but possibly not, to your good  intentions.

At some point, you need to take stock!  Ask yourself – might there be another way to solve this challenge?  Might I be reading the situation all wrong?  Can my dog do better?  And if not, is there anything that I can do to help the situation?

It’s ok to get it wrong.  But it’s equally important to take stock of your situation on occasion.  So; what you’re doing is not working.  What do you plan to do now?

I think Albert Einstein was simply wrong.  Doing the same thing over and over is human nature; not the definition of insanity.  We are loathe to change, especially if a method has worked in the past on other dogs.  But as humans, we also have the option to reflect on our choices, take stock, and make different decisions.

Admittedly, new decisions might feel totally foreign and uncomfortable.  Then again…what you’re doing is not working.

If you think I just described you, then why not make today the day you take stock?   Stop hurting your dog. Or stop letting your dog hurt you.  Or stop letting your dog hurt someone else.  Or stop wasting your time if you’re not hurting anyone but making no progress at all.

Three years.  Three years and no change to the dog’s behavior.  Three years, no change to the dog’s behavior, and no change to the handler’s choice of method.

Mind boggling.

On another note, registration has begun for the October 1st term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  29 classes to choose from; take a look and join us!  Only $65 for a bronze subscription.  I’m teaching heeling games and relationship building through play, and would love to have you!