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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!




Details of Heeling – FB live

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I did a Facebook live today; for those of you who choose not to watch it there on my Facebook wall, I have copied it over to Youtube to make it easier.

This live is about teaching your dog to to put more power to his rear and lighten up the front, with a few bits of sitting straight.  I also touch on rewarding for position and how your choices about where to reward will influence your dog.

Good luck!

Train the Dog in Front of You

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I know – I say that a lot.  Presumably because I feel strongly about it.

If you watch me train Raika, Lyra and Brito, you would see me make different decisions for each of them in what appear to be identical situations.  Why is that?

Because they are not identical situations from the dog’s point of view; they cannot be!  They are different dogs with different genetic packages and different life experiences.  So in each training situation, I will approach them as what they are – individuals!

I just turned this concept into a book.  It’s about considering the dog’s point of view so that you can be more successful in any dog sport.

I love this topic.  One could call it my “pet” topic because it provides an endless source of fodder for discussion.  Every time a new dog shows up, you get to start again.  Hopefully with a wiser foundation from which to build.

Want to learn more?

You can pre-order my latest book; it’s due to ship early December.  Just in time for Christmas gifts!  Then you can read, slowly, and probably with a highlighter.  One color for each dog in your house.

Or you can go a bit further and take an on-line class with me on this topic, starting December 1st.  In that class, we’ll take many of the lectures from the book, add case studies and exercises, and then consider 12 dogs – the ones in front of us – to find a route that works for each of them, with whatever their current life circumstances might be.  I did a short promotional video on this topic for those who prefer to think visually.

It’s a good class if you like to think a lot.  You’ll have lots of opportunities to think. And by the time Spring rolls around, you’ll be itching to get out and about so you can see if the plans that you have made for your dog are really holding up in the real world!

Tuition is $65 at bronze.  Plus, if you’re FDSA alumni, you can join the Alumni list on Facebook.  You want to join that group; some of the nicest and most supportive people hang out there!

And, before I forget to mention it, I’m teaching a second class this term; this one on Advanced Heeling.  So if you want to look at just about every heeling problem under the sun, and learn new ways to address them with lecture and video explanations, consider joining my Advanced Heeling class.

Hope to see you there.  Class starts December 1st!



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.