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One of the common challenges that exhibitors encounter is dogs that refuse to “set-up” for work. Maybe they have just finished the heeling pattern and are moving to the start of a recall and…the dog stands there, looking everywhere but at the handler….waiting. But not sitting. Not setting up.
This is an extremely common stress response. Akin to – “If I don’t sit then I don’t have to start.” Which is technically true.
When a dog fails to set up, there are two things I look at; one is what happened immediately before and the other is what is about to happen immediately after.
If the last thing that happened was a fantastic play party with food or toys and now the dog won’t set up, then I suspect that the dog finds playing/working and time between exercises a whole lot more rewarding than work. If that is the case, then consider either carrying the party into the start of the next exercise (reward the set-up and then release – do that several times and make it a habit for life) OR after your play party, offer your dog a break. Then restart engagement at Stage 4 (search this blog for info on that). Both of these will prevent the dog from developing a bad habit of setting up slowly and painfully.
But what if the dog does this regardless of what happened immediately before? You certainly don’t want to stand around waiting – that’s going to create a really bad habit.
That’s when I look at the actual training. Is something about the work not much fun, so my dog is avoiding starting or continuing? Is my dog only showing this behavior in a ring, and is a ring the only place that I ever go from exercise to exercise without reinforcement? Fix that – train for it! Simply end one exercise, praise, go to a new one, set up – and reinforce there instead. Then randomize it – sometimes you reward parts of exercises or finished ones. Sometimes you reward after play. Sometimes you reward at the set-up. And other times you don’t reinforce with food or toys at all; you just keep going. Maybe for two exercise or maybe for an entire run through.
When in doubt, it’s pretty safe to assume that the dog is avoiding work, so make that set-up worthwhile for your dog! You can do that by decreasing the value of whatever happened immediately before, increasing the value of the work that is about to follow, or acclimating your dog to continuous chains before reinforcement happens, but regardless, listen to your dog, because if you’re seeing this in training you’re likely to see it in the ring. And while you can ignore it in training and talk the dog into cooperating, that doesn’t work nearly as well within a competition.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of teaching at a dog training conference with seven instructors over four days. By the end everyone was pretty well exhausted. Happy, but exhausted.
We all experienced a lack of sleep and routine, erratic eating hours, unusually cold temperatures, and reliance on translators to get our information across. In addition, there was a tremendous amount of information and learning to digest. It was exhausting for both the auditors and the presenters.
And the dogs?
Over the course of the weekend, reactive dogs became more reactive and in some cases, non-reactive dogs began to act out; growling and avoiding, whereas at the start of the weekend they had been calm and tolerant. Instead of sleeping more as the days progressed, some dogs appeared to be unable to sleep at all – constantly awake and attentive to the activities around them.
I was glad I didn’t have a dog with me. The fact is, seminars can be incredibly stressful for dogs, and not all dogs are cut out for a multi-day event. The first day might be great but by day four? You need the right kind of dog to succeed in these circumstances.
What should you do with your dog that is agitated no matter what you do for them? Cannot relax or sleep? Becomes reactive or behaves in a distressed fashion? Or simply shuts down and avoids the whole thing? What can you do for those dogs?
Ask yourself this question: Is THIS dogs suitable for THIS event? Or might THIS dog be better off at home while you attend on your own – gathering as much information as possible and bringing it home to practice in the comfort of your dog’s familiar environment?
I understand that you might want a specific person to see and interact with your dog; maybe to help you gain insight into some long-standing challenge. But if your dog is struggling and not acting normally then the value of that advice is going to be minimal because the dog isn’t behaving in his normal fashion. I can’t help you with your precision heeling if your dog is too stressed to eat. I can’t progress your personal play skills if your dog is still staring at the dog standing near the door.
And it can get worse. In addition to not benefitting from the conference itself, your dog may end worse off than when you arrived. Your non-reactive dog may become sensitized as a result of the cumulative stress and lack of sleep, becoming more and more uncomfortable with this environment that closely mimics the dog show. Anyone who has followed my blog over the past few years is well aware that I put a lot of value on working towards a dog that is emotionally confident and secure in the dog show environment; don’t ruin that!
Auditing at seminars is highly underrated, which is unfortunate. Auditing allows you to listen carefully and quietly without worrying about your dog. It allows you to consider the advice that you are given without the pressure of actually applying it, and if anything makes you uncomfortable you won’t feel pressured to try it. Auditing allows you to relax and socialize; when you get home you can try anything you want!
People tell me that they learn better when they can apply the skills, so they only attend events if they can work. That’s fine, but in the dog sports, there ar two of you, and both of your interests need to be considered. If your dog is struggling but you brought him so that you could practice, is it possible that you’ll end up frustrated with your dog, because you’re not getting what you want? Over the long run, will that support or erode your progress? Maybe your dog can tolerate a half day or a single day, but not a weekend. Start there.
On the other hand, if you have a dog that can rest anywhere, remains reasonably comfortable over multiple days, and handles long days well, then working your dog with a trusted instructor can be quite valuable.
But until you have that dog, consider leaving your dog at home and coming to your learning event alone.
If you follow me on Facebook, then you know that I’m passionate about cooking, and if you follow me here, then you know that I’m passionate about sharing information. What you may not know is that I have a short attention span for most endeavors, roughly ten years, and I’ve been training dogs for a good deal longer than that.
Not long ago, I found myself scanning the April Schedule at FDSA, and of course I found dog training class after dog training class after dog training class. How could we possibly have 35 dog training classes? My God – hasn’t it all been said?
If I were inclined to head in a new direction, where might I go? If you’ve ever found yourself on Facebook, waiting for me to post your dinner recipe, then the answer should be blindingly obvious – I should go to my kitchen. And to your kitchen. I should share my knowledge so that we can all eat on a regular basis, not just on the days that I remember you’re waiting!
How about realizing my dream today? Maybe…this evening?
If you don’t follow me on Facebook, then here’s what I offer this is unique to my approach to meal preparation: I specialize is very simple recipes that anyone can follow, regardless of their level of cooking experience, dietary restrictions, or, frankly, what’s in your refrigerator or pantry. My recipes can be customized for vegetarians, vegans, paleo’s, poor students, etc.
Yes. I’m that good.
Obviously, I know how to start an online school, and cooking classes would be an easy and natural fit. But what if instead of simply starting the Fenzi Cooking Academy…what if I were able to combine that idea with the current school for dog training? We already know that feeding a dog creates a cheery and willing learner; what happens if we also feed the human? What if a person could get their dog trained, fry up the bacon (including a vegan option), and build a solid relationship with the human family – all at the same time?!
What if my cooking school included recipes that could be fed to your dog? And to your children? What if my cooking school offered such flexibility within those recipes that fat dogs could become thin, thin dogs could become fat, and all dogs could look better, live longer, and perform at their absolute best in competitions?
What if my school provided you with such outstanding relationship building recipes that all of your friends would want to eat your food so that you no longer felt lonely? You found new friends at your door – simply to watch you cook – magnetized by the meals in the skillet? What if those new classes had such an impact that your children learned to drive more easily and with fewer accidents? Your chickens all came home to roost, your dogs stopped smelling, your teeth straightened, and your underwear re-emerged in their rightful place? Strangers started hugging each other on the street and new people found lasting romatic relationships – but only those who really wanted them?
What if politicians rose up to join hands, sang songs of peace, and did the right things for our country? What would it take to realize this dream?
What if, indeed?????!!!!!!
So anyway, that’s what I’m working on for tonight. I’ll keep you updated on my progress.
In the meantime, today is the first day of the April term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Go get enrolled!
Have a lovely first day of April.
Did you know that chronic “bad hair days” cannot be fixed by adding a generic potion from a bottle? It’s true. To fix a hair problem you have to know what problem you’re trying to fix. The reason is that there are two basic causes of hair problems – insufficient moisture or insufficient protein. It just so happens that these are two sides of the same coin. You need both, in balance, and adding one will affect the other.
If your hair has a lack of protein and you try to solve that by dumping on moisturizer, you’ll make the problem worse, because your hair will become over moisturized. The reverse is also true; if you choose a protein treatment but what your hair lacks for is moisture, then once again, you’ll either get nowhere or make your problem worse. Frustrating.
Which solution do you need? To know the answer you’ll have to pay attention to your hair. It doesn’t matter how much your friend loves her hair treatment; it won’t help unless you both share the same underlying problem.
So what should you do? Learn about hair. You can’t get around it; there is no quick fix. Apply that learning to your own head. Determine what you need right now – at this time. Give it a shot and try the appropriate solution. Consider the results. Of course, be ready to change your assumptions at any moment, because if you go too far in one direction or the other then you’ll likely have to change course because “more” is not the answer. And a shot of realism never hurt either; it’s not likely that you’re going to turn your stick straight, thin white girl hair into an Afro, but feel free to try.
The issue is not one of more or less, good or bad, right or wrong. The issue is one of balance and realism. All the eye rolling and puffing from your best friend isn’t going to change the fact that what worked for her hair may, or may not, make any sense for you.
Hair. Dogs. Whatever.
When I teach, I would estimate that 90% of my time is spent helping the dog-handler team change their balance in a specific dimension. It could be their balance of work to play, or skill building to acclimation, or drive building to control but in the end, the issue is rarely specific to skills. To help them, I have to understand their unique situation and apply the appropriate solution at that point in time and for that team.
I know that for some people the word “balance” is about how much external control they choose to put on their dogs in training. But not for me. For me, balance is about what the handler is doing in training and what the dog actually needs to thrive.
If you’ve got a problem, take a moment to check your balance.
Do you need more drive building and energy in your training or more control and thoughtfulness? Two sides of the same coin; you need both, but in balance! Remember, it’s likely that your neighbor’s situation has nothing to do with your own, so if you’re following someone’s boxed solution, you’re going to struggle, either now or later.
Does your dog need more acclimation or structure in training? Again – two sides of the same coin; apply the wrong one and you’ll make your situation increasingly worse. (Here’s a hint: Soft, lower drive, and fearful dogs almost always need to acclimate and curious or more driven dogs offer more choices to the handler).
If your balance is off then you may well be solving a problem that doesn’t exist, failing to progress, or worse, creating a new one.
The next time you’re struggling with your training, try this: Forget about training techniques, step back, and take a look at your underlying balance. Ignore your friends who are prone to “helpfully” offering advice, regardless of whether you actually asked for their input. What does your dog need, at root, to improve the situation? Are you and your dog on the same team? Playing the same game? Or is your dog busy thinking about the squirrels in the tree while you’re trying to solve your retrieve problem? If so, you don’t actually have a retrieve problem; you have an engagement problem. Fix that and the retrieve problem may well solve itself.
Excellent techniques are wonderful, but they’ll only take you so far if balance isn’t there.
Oh yeah, and realism. I referenced it above, but we’ll hold off on that topic. That’s a blog for another day.
If you want to learn more about balance in relation to the topic of Play, come join me at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA). I’m teaching Relationship Building Through Play and class starts on April 1st.
Unlike hair, the interplay between dogs and humans can create many different issues with balance; indeed it can become complicated really quickly and rarely is there a quick fix. Since a class on building control probably won’t be very useful if your dog has no desire to even get out of the crate, ask me if you need help getting started with the right class for you. Send me a note through facebook or FDSA’s “people” link.
Last week I showed the very beginning of asking Brito to heel for a ball reward. It was sloppy. He was happy. I was fine with that.
I allowed that until I felt he was very clear on the relationship between a tiny bit of work and receiving his toy, and then I decided to tighten things up. By adding a hand touch in heel position between the heeling behavior and his ball, he is motivated to stay in position. A hand touch where you want the dog’s nose is a simple way to bridge correct position and a non-food reinforcer. It also works when the reinforcers are no longer on your body.
This is his entire working session, unedited. Note the working stretches are short and he is highly successful. Good boy, Brito.
On another note, classes start at FDSA (Fenzi Dog Sports Academy) on Saturday, April 1st – get registered! At $65 for bronze and with 35 classes to choose from, there is something for you. Online learning is fun, effective and convenient; go ahead and jump in!
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: