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Head drops in heeling

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Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones.

A while ago I did a blog post on “what’s more ___ than ___”  You can read about that idea here.

Using that principle, let’s consider a dog that drops his head while heeling. Maybe on the first step, or left turns, or right turns, or on the fast pace or…you get the idea.

What’s more looking up than up?

Jumping up, with your head up.

First I taught Brito to jump up for a cookie.  For some dogs that can be a bit complicated, so start from a standstill , then progress to a slow pace, then normal, etc.  They’ll figure it out.  If your dog is taller, then your hand would be higher – just up.

Now that you have that, let’s switch that to a generic hand touch rather than a cookie. And… here we go.

Problem on the start?  Do a week’s worth of starts with a hand touch to start and reward every single one.  We want our dog to love this game!

Problem on the about turn?  Do a week’s worth of about turns with a hand touch at the exact point where the head drop tends to occur.

If your dog misses the hand touch,  just try again until they succeed, and then reward.

Watch what happens.  It’s like magic!  You will find that your dog begins to hold a lovely, head’s up heel position, even on those tricky spots.

Here’s a very short video of Brito.  The specific issues were the first step of heeling, and dropping his head when pivoting to the right, so those are the two things I worked on.

TODAY is the first day of instruction at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!  If you’re enrolled, head to your classroom, and if not – go get registered!

Don’t tell the dog!

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I rarely tell my dog when they make an error.  Instead I’ll train better to make errors less likely.

And when I make an error?  Same thing.  There’s no reason for the dog to know if I can hide it.  And if I can’t, then I’ll probably throw out a free “screw up” cookie and move on.

And the judge?  What if the judge makes an error?

You can’t throw out a consolation cookie because that’s not allowed, but you can still do your best to hide the error from your dog.

If the judge miscues you in an exercise and you know what was intended, simply proceed as if the judge gave the correct cue.  For example, you’ve just finished the retrieve and your dog is holding the dumbbell in front position.  The judge cues “finish” instead of “take it”.

Don’t look to the judge – that breaks the exercise for your dog.  Simply take the dumbbell as if the correct cue had been given.

How about in heeling?  The judge cues you to turn left when you know it’s an about turn.  Same thing, do the about turn.

How about if you do not know what the correct cue is supposed to be?  For example, the judge simply gets muddled and forgets to cue you, or you cannot hear the judge, or you had forgotten the pattern?

Halt and wait for the judge to direct you onwards.  But there’s one more thing.  The important thing is that your dog have no idea that something just went wrong.  Keep your expression neutral.  Don’t look wildly around in confusion or break your connection with your dog.  Treat is like a cued halt – not a sudden panic stop.

The following video is part of a formal run through that I was doing with Brito.  My judge forgot what she wanted me to do, so gave no cue at all as I approached the wall.  So I picked a direction and kept right on going.  My dog never knew that something odd had happened and I got what I wanted – to see how my dog would do in a formal run through.

All is well.    The important thing is that my dog’s confidence is 100% intact.

Here’s the relevant piece:

It doesn’t matter if your teaching, or practicing or competing.  Keep your dog’s confidence intact and don’t let them know about errors.


If you’ve watched this and the only thing you can think is, “I can’t do decent footwork for heeling under any circumstances,” then consider taking the class, Healing Your Heeling Handling with Nancy Gagliardi Little at FDSA.  As a retired judge with a strong interest in handling excellence, she can fix you.   Indeed, you might find that you add several points to your score and create a much more confident dog simply by cleaning up your own behavior. The dog’s will follow.

We have 36 classes this term – if you’re interested in learning we have something to teach.  I’ll be running Bridging the Gap (to get your dog off the cookies, practice proofing, and generalizing behaviors so you can compete) and Engagement (getting your dog to drive the start of work rather than relying on you to provide the energy).  At $65 for a bronze spot, it’s a steal.  Hope to see some of you there!

You Screwed up. Big Time

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You got mad.  Really really mad.  And you did something that you regret. or…

You followed directions.  Did what you were told to do, even though you weren’t too sure about it.  And now you regret it. or…

You let someone else handle your dog, and they did things that you would never do. And now you regret it.

It doesn’t matter what happened; now you feel like crap.  You did something to your dog,  or you let someone else do something to your dog, and from your point of view, it was horrible.

Now what?

One of the reasons that dogs get along so well with humans is their ability to forgive.  To move on.  To take each day as a new day and to live in the moment.

I’m not saying there won’t be some fallout because there probably will.  But what matters more than the past is the present and the future.

Even if whatever you did went on for weeks, months or years, the odds that your dog will move on when you do is really pretty good.  Not all dogs, but a fair number.

Do a little better going forwards.  Give out a few extra cookies the next time you’re hanging out together; that’s a pretty decent doggy apology. Unlike a mistreated child, there will be no calling you out in therapy sessions twenty years down the road. It really will be over.

Unless you’re one of those woman who holds guilt to your heart like a drowning child, refusing to let go, but that’s not about the dog.  That’s about you.  How about considering the 99% of the time when your dog is living the coolest life with every possible comfort?

An extra cuddle and a hug will do a lot.  The easiest, most no brainer training sessions for the next while. Your dog wins and wins and wins.  Any signs of discomfort in your dog should be met with a smile, a few more cookies and the end of the session.  Next time, make it even easier.

If you can move on, your dog can too.

It’s going to be alright.  That why we love our dogs.  They love us, even when they shouldn’t.  And what’s super cool about humans is that we can plan in advance, so that in the future we really will do better.

How Good is Good Enough?

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I’m a good trainer.  I am not a great trainer.

A great trainer sets up training plans in advance, splits behavior into tiny bits, keeps records of what they are doing, and in all likelihood – progresses more quickly than I do.

So I’m working on getting better, but in the meantime I don’t really have a problem, because what I AM good at is reading the dog in front of me and as a result, I get away with my occasional “less than stellar” training.  My dogs rarely opt out, even when what I have to offer is fairly low value.  That’s because I’m good enough for each dog that I train. Stress is kept low in training.  I’m fun to be with.  My dogs like me and as a result, it’s worth their while to play my games, even when I’m messing things up.   I don’t pay enough attention to being a great trainer so I have to pay attention to my dog.  Works for us.  Good enough.

How good does one have to be to be “good enough?”

You need to be “good enough” that your dog wants to be there with you, even when you’re muddling along at a fairly low level of competence.  Muddling along is not a problem if your dog chooses to muddle along with you.

When your dog begins to exhibit signs of distress then it’s time to stop and reconsider. Stress could be leaving, exhibiting stress signals, or becoming frantic or noisy.  You’re not being good enough.  At least not at this moment in time.

Good enough means that your dog is watching you with a clear head and positive body language.  Not because your dog is hungry and you’re holding the food.  Not because you have your dog on a leash and he can’t get away.  Not because your dog is OCD for a tug or ball, and he simply cannot opt out no matter how much stress he is experiencing.

“Good enough” is up to the dog.  Your “good enough” with one dog might be downright “under no circumstances” for another dog.

It doesn’t matter why your dog is opting out.  If you use physical corrections in training and your dog would rather not train with you then you’re not being good enough.  Stop and create a new plan.  If you use force free training and your dog is getting whiny with frustration, you’re not being good enough.  Stop and create a new plan.  Regardless of the reason for your dog’s preference to opt out, physical or mental distress, you’re not good enough.

Your dog decides.  Fortunately for us humans, our dogs are frequently quite tolerant of our muddling, and will cheerfully muddle along with us.  But if your dog has other ideas, then see what you can do to rise to the occasion.

If you have a dog with a clear head, a stable temperament and an innate love of work, you may find yourself doing quite well with your dog in spite of your technically poor training – and that’s fine.  That’s good enough.  And if you have a dog with a trigger fuse, an unstable temperament and the working drives of a cat, then your training is about to take a quantum leap.




Distraction Training

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This is nine minutes of unedited video with a focus on distraction training.  The rate of reinforcement (ROR) is quite high here because success is “marked” with a reward.  I try to isolate specific behaviors that have clear criteria; either he does them or he does not.  You can see how I handle failure to respond to cues.  Not a big deal.

I start with a minute of engagement training so he can adapt to the space.  Soon enough he comes to visit and we play.  Not a lot of play, but enough to make sure that we’re fully engaged with each other.

I move on to retrieve distraction training.  My criteria for success are eye contact for a solid second regardless of the location of the treat.  If he follows the treat hand instead of making eye contact, I simply wait.  I’m also looking for a quiet hold. Fortunately, I find he almost always holds well if he is making eye contact with a distraction present.

Next, we work on positions.  I place the cookie in front of his nose and ask for positions.  Note that he often has to move away from the treat in order to be successful.  “Wait” (stand) is new for him within the context of distraction, so this is the first session where I have incorporated it into his lessons  This is approximately his third session working with sit and down under this form of distraction.

This is hard!  The treat in front of his nose keeps him in the game even when he’s failing to respond.

After a few minutes, we switch to pivots in heel position so that he can move his body and relax his brain.  I feed from behind my back to offset his tendency to forge.

After his mental break, we go back to distraction work.

Note that I recognize success after failure with an increase in verbal praise and genuine appreciation for a job well done, and throughout the session I use play and personal interaction to keep the focus on our shared activity rather than the food.

The following video is our entire session, unedited, so you can note my reaction to errors and also the overall pace of the session.

Engagement: Why the Extremes?

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I watch people train dogs for a living.

One thing I see is people silently staring at their dogs, handing over cookies for behaviors they like and withholding cookies for error.  The currency is cookies.

If you use food as your primary commodity for developing a relationship, then you might find your relationship feels very…hollow.  And if I ask you about your lack of sincere interaction, you might tell me that your dog is independent or doesn’t care about you so you don’t bother with it.  That’s certainly possible.  The other possibility is that how you are choosing to interact is creating that disengaged dynamic.

How about starting and ending each training session with some sincere form of interaction that your dog enjoys? It could be a belly rub.  It could be a game of chase.  It could just be happy talk and pleasant eye contact.  Connect.  Not with cookies.  Not with toys.  Just you.  Connect – and then train.  And when you end?  Connect again.  If you cannot find a way to do this right now, ask yourself how you might get there.

On the plus side, I can see that dogs trained this way clearly chooses their behaviors – to opt in and earn classic food reinforcement or to opt out and experience…nothing.  But what I don’t see is the development of the underlying relationship – you and your dog, that will glue your team together under pressure or when the classic motivators are gone.

And then I see the opposite.  I watch people who are “on” their dogs non-stop.  Second by second, attempting to control every thought, movement, and behavior that their dog might express.  Good or bad, but never relaxed and simply enjoying the process of training.

And what is the end result of this controlling approach?  As always, it depends on the temperament of the dog and the skills of the handler, but it seems to range from a stressy intense worker who channels that emotion into the work to a dog that takes off at the first hint that the trainer has stopped paying attention.  It’s not hard to see why the chance to escape from the physical or emotional control is hard to resist, hence- the dog leaves the moment the owner lets down their guard, or, when given choice in the matter, never opts into work in the first place.

Why is “middle” so hard to achieve?   Maybe because the right answer varies by dog – one dog’s “middle” is smothering or disconnected to another.  Maybe beacuse handlers have their own opinions; what they are comfortable with and their preconceived notions about how a dog should behave. Maybe beacuse handlers are working so hard to learn the skills that they forget to enjoy the process. Maybe because professional dog trainers are good at training dogs to perform specific behaviors, but are less good at training humans in the underlying relationship skills.  Regardless of why it happens, I certainly see the results when people cannot find middle.

Here’s the goal.  Develop a warm relationship with your dog.  “Warm” means that you sincerely acknowledge what you like within training and life as a whole.  That could include food or toys, but it really needs to be more.  It needs to be you as the basis.  Set up circumstances so that the dog can choose to be with you – to train and to learn – because they have learned that it works for them. And if your dog opts in – don’t get intense.  But don’t get clinical either.

Find the middle.  Express how you feel!  If you’re pleased with what is happening – let your dog know rather than having the cookies do the work for you.  And if you’re not pleased – consider your options.  Maybe just let your dog go back to doing not much of anything.  You don’t have to add control, but you also don’t have to try to ratchet training up so that your dog is compelled to stay.  Just let them go.  And see what happens, over time, when you offer sincere warmth for interaction and simply neutral existence for the alternatives.

If you’re not sure how you’re doing then videotape a training session and watch it. Do you look like a disconnected pez dispenser?  That’s bad.  Work to look like a human who loves their dog.  Or do you look like a neurotic parent supervising a child on the edge of a cliff?  That’s bad too.  There is no cliff.  Let your dog discover on his own just how much you have to offer.

And on another note…congratulations to me!  This blog has been nominated for  a Maxwell Award for “Best dog blog!” Even better, my book, “Beyond the Back Yard: Train Your Dog to Listen Anytime, Anywhere!” has ALSO been nominated in the category of Best Training Book.  Yay for me!


New Podcast for Dog Sports Competitors!

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Starting this Friday, December 23rd, FDSA will begin podcasts on topics related to competition dog sports and training.  Our plan is to offer these podcasts every other week for six months, or longer if people are enjoying them

The podcasts are free, will not include outside paid advertising and have no strings attached.  What’s not to love?

Go ahead and get signed up!  If you subscribe, then the podcasts will be downloaded directly to your phone as they are released.  You can also listen on your computer if that works better for you.

Melissa Breau will be the host.  For our first episode, Melissa interviewed me on a range of topics, including my transition from traditional to force free training, applying a positive philosophy to life as a whole, and various other bits and pieces.  Join us!

Click here to get started:  Instructions to sign up for podcasts

Happy Holidays!