Foundation skills

I have learned not to be awestruck when someone shows me what they can do with their young dog. You have seen them…those young puppies doing amazing things, working on advanced behaviors or competing at 6 months old. Look at your puppy as an individual, the same as a 2-legged child. Everyone learns at their own pace and may need something explained to them in a different way to help it make sense. If something doesn’t work today, put it away and try it again in a couple of days. Instead of looking at a complex behavior, look at speed and attitude. Build drive and desire. Teach the puppy how to think and problem solve. In the long run, you will be better off.

I’m always amazed by people who skip the foundation (building block) work and then wonder why everything falls apart later. Actually, the “foundation” needs constant work…forever. Teach these foundation skills with energy, and require speed and effort from your puppy. Use a combination of rewards for your puppy, including food, praise and play. If he appears tired or he’s too distracted, put him away and try again later.

What things do I consider “foundation” exercises:

  1. Voluntary attention (HUGE!!) – yes, I reward the puppy just for standing there and staring at me.
  2. Get it (young puppy) and Hold (older puppy)
  3. Marking
  4. Hand touch & hand push
  5. Targeting (I use a plastic lid)
  6. Motivational pop to food or toy
  7. Pop up release (to food for puppy, later a hand touch)
  8. Rear end awareness exercises
  9. Find heel position
  10. Move with me & stay with me (even when released)
  11. Bounce, spin, twist, backup
  12. Position changes
  13. Find front
  14. Come
  15. Spin back after picking something up
  16. Getting on a platform & send away to a platform
  17. Dumbbell games
  18. How to use their nose (beginning scent work)
  19. Send to a mat or crate
  20. How to come out of a crate
  21. How to play with me WITHOUT a toy or a cookie
  22. Chasing a cookie or toy
  23. Marker words
  24. Muscle memory for head position
  25. Responding to their name
  26. Collar grabs
  27. Switching back and forth between food and play
  28. Responding to cue words that I can take into the ring, i.e. “Ready”
  29. How to bring the toy BACK to me – this is a hard one for Kazee!
  30. Speed – I don’t want you trotting to me, I want you RUNNING to me.
  31. Jump up on me – to deliver toys or objects, i.e. dumbbell or article (I don’t put fronts into exercises until much later. Fronts slow a dog down, so I work on fronts separately.)
  32. and (most important) learning that training with me is the best thing in the world!!

Spend the time training these things to your puppy or young competition dog and it will pay off in the end!

If you have another foundation skill, please list it in the comment section. I’m sure I have missed some!

Train hard. Play harder.

12 weeks old

Sixteen pounds of energy and puppy teeth. Wow. I don’t know how people breed litters…I’m worn out with just one puppy. Not to mention the sore back from bending over all the time. I don’t think I could ever own a toy breed, because at 5’8″, that is a lot of bending!

As Kazee starts to get a little older, it is natural to compare him to my other Springer. Last weekend, I went back and watched some of Gunner’s puppy clips from when he was 12 weeks old. I was amazed at how much he was doing, including puppy retrieves, baby stays, and baby scent work. But, I also noticed he was paid for everything with a cookie. Is it any wonder why I have a cookie issue with him now? No, not really. Now, granted, Gunner LOVED to eat and I still use a lot of cookies with puppies and young dogs to shape foundation behaviors. But, I didn’t see any clips of me really playing with him. We played, but I was surprised to see that nothing made it onto the clips that I saved.

Kazee, on the other hand, loves his tugs. He is starting to learn that our arms and legs do not substitute for tug toys, but it is hard to remember ALL of the time. 🙂 He is still working for almost every meal, when it is something I can use easily (ground raw vs. chicken necks). He draws blood when heeling for his ground puppy mix, so much that I’ve started wrapping my fingers that take the worst of it. I’ll be glad to see those needle teeth finally fall out!

Today, I took some impromptu video of our session at the dog club. It seems a little ‘far away’, as I only had my phone, so hopefully you can seen how nicely he is coming along. I improvised for my recalls, using a harness and a long line, which was looped through an eye bolt in one of the beams…it worked perfectly. I wasn’t sure how much he’d be up for working after his vet check this morning, but as you can tell, he was ready to work!

Until next time….Train hard. Play harder.


Work for it…

Because Kazee loves his raw grind mix (combination of beef, chicken, tripe, organ and bone), he is very rarely given a meal for free. Instead, I use meal time as a way to work small foundation behaviors. This also gives me a wonderful chance to work on our marker words (I will also sometimes use a clicker, but when using his raw food, I need another hand!).

My marker words:

  • “yes” – perfect, Kazee gets a cookie
  • “good” – good work, keep going and you will earn a “yes”
  • “oops” or “wrong” – kept very light, meant as an interrupter, try again

With my competition dogs, I want to be very clear. While I do not want them to be afraid to make a decision, I am also going to tell them if they did something incorrectly. At this stage, a negative marker is going to be very rarely used, but I will use it once and awhile. Normally, I will just wait the puppy out and see what he does because I love to see the little wheels in his head start churning. There is nothing better than having a competition dog (or any dog) who thinks and tries to figure something out!!

Kazee is starting to realize he has choices; but, only the correct choice will get him what he wants. While he may enjoy barking at me for his food, it is not going to earn him anything (unless I have asked him to “speak”, which was introduced in last night’s training session). He is also starting to try shortcuts. For example, he will barely touch my hand with the side of his head or target my arm, hoping for a cookie. My requirement is that he touch the palm of my hand with his nose. If I started to reward the less focused touches, it will make the criteria for the behavior very grey. I don’t like grey.

Below is a short clip of Kazee working for his breakfast this morning. I have just started to add some repetition to his hand touches (introducing the “good” marker word). While I am still often rewarding for just one hand touch, I will sometimes ask for 2-3 touches before he earns a “yes”. I also introduced “back” in the down position this morning, as well as continuing the “speak” command from last night. We are also working on Kazee not helping himself to the food in the bowl. When we are working, food comes from ME, not his bowl, even if his bowl if present. The sooner he understands this the better, but at this stage, I keep the food covered with one hand, to prevent any errors. If he gets too pushy, I just remind him to stay back and that the bowl is mine.

When teaching a behavior, I normally add my cue words right away. I do not believe  Kazee understands what “speak” or “back” means, but I still use the words. He will start to pair the cue with the behavior over time, so why wait? I just need to make sure my criteria stays consistent.

After finishing his breakfast, I decided to also do some tugging. Kazee is doing great with outing the toy and going right back to a game of tug. Because I do a lot of hands on work with my dogs, I am also shaping some collar grabs and collar bounces during tugging. Kazee does not like being restrained, so the fact that he is only stopped temporarily (sometimes not stopped at all) and he gets to go right back to his tug is patterning a positive association with his collar being grabbed.

Games like these are played several times throughout the day in short little bursts to keep his attention. If I noticed Kazee was not interested in what I had to offer, I would just stop and try again later. The goal is to keep all of these teaching sessions fun and full of energy. If he was giving me less effort than what I wanted, it would actually be counterproductive to my desired result. Remember, at this stage, we are simply shaping behaviors and teaching him that interacting with me is the best part of the game.

Train hard. Play harder.



Train the details

In my opinion, two of the most important things to train your competition dog are ring entrances and setups. If showing in Open and Utility, I also consider removing the dog’s lead as part of a ring entrance, as well as preparing the dog for the possibility of being measured. Your ring entrance sets the tone for the entire run. While it should not influence scoring, the judge’s first impression of a team is extremely important and it is your job to make sure it is the best impression possible.

The next time you are at a show, sit back and watch these two specific items. Who walks into the ring with an attentive, focused dog? What is their body language saying to the judge? Who moves easily between exercises, setting up efficiently and quickly for the next exercise?  While I may talk to my dog in an upbeat voice, I do not want to cheerlead or do a lot of clapping or extra body language. Personally, I will also not do a lot of “tricks” to get to a setup. I may throw in a spin or a hand touch, but I do not ask my dog to spin the entire way or walk with my dog between my legs.

Remember, you are being judged the ENTIRE time you are in the ring. While there is generally nothing to score on a ring entrance or setup, the main thing to remember is you should not slow down the judge’s ring. If you have difficulty setting up or controlling your dog, or if you use your hands to physically set up your dog (even in Novice), then the judge can choose to mark you below the line. Also, if you continue to reposition your dog on a setup, the judge can instruct you to stop and prepare for the exercise. While you are permitted to take your dog’s collar and guide him between exercises in Novice, I choose not to do this with my dogs. If I can not move between exercises without physically guiding them, then they are not ready to go into the ring.

Obviously, all dogs are different…some need to be formally heeled between exercises, while some need a chance to disconnect briefly and allowed to refocus (which is how my German Shepherd was). Experiment during matches or wildcard classes to see what works best for your dog.

Take the time to teach these skills, so your dog will know exactly what is expected on show day. Teach your dog some stress relieving behaviors in case you need to use them between exercises (spins, hand touches, bounces, front feet up on handler). These need to be practiced and reinforced OFTEN, not just taught, then forgotten.  In practice, these behaviors (after taught) should be required. Meaning, if I tell my dog to put his front feet up on me, he must do it. If I tell him to do a hand push, he must get into position and push. It is not an option, it is a trained and required behavior. It is also heavily rewarded when done well.

While training, do not forget the perfect picture in your mind. My “picture” includes speed, effort and precision. So, if I call my dog to setup, I require he does it quickly and accurately. Anything that does not meet my expectations is addressed. Require 100% in practice, because you will likely not get 100% in the ring. Consistency is extremely important. Decide what you want from your dog and reinforce it…every….single….time. No exceptions!

Train hard. Play harder.

Puppy love…

Seven years…that is how long I have been without a puppy in the house. While part of me did not really want to be the owner of FOUR dogs (all of whom live in the house), I also knew I wanted (and needed) a new puppy to start training. Gunner, my current competition dog, is seven years old; and, while he hopefully still has a couple of years of showing left, I wanted to have something else coming up the pipe.

Meet the new addition – VinEwood’s Make Mine a Double, call name Kazee (pronounced Kah-zee):


I have loved his sire for a long time (CH OTCH MACH8 Topguns Vinewood Makin’ A Splash UDX3 OM6 VER RAE2 MH MXB3 MJB3 XF T2B2) and knew I wanted a puppy from him. The first litter in 2015 did not work out for me, but luckily there was one special little boy in the second litter (along with six girls). So, I flew up to Minnesota on January 2nd and brought him home to Florida!

There is no rest for the wicked, so we started “training” right away. Training at this age (for me) involves a lot of little basics – crate training, getting acclimated to my other dogs from the opposite side of a baby gate, teaching him his name, socializing, and teaching him that learning and working with me is fun.

Lets talk about socializing for a second…for me, this does not involve meeting a whole bunch of strangers, but it does involve going to lots of new places to see and hear a lot of new things. I honestly don’t care if ANYONE pets him. If he showed me signs that he was worried about people, then maybe I would seek out some quiet people, but that isn’t the case for Kazee. I just want him to see and experience the world. In his first ten days at home, he has been to:

  • Vet’s office
  • Dog club twice (avoided the main potty area) – played in the rings and on the agility field
  • Ace Hardware (played outside on the sidewalk)
  • Soccer field where I train often
  • Pet Supermarket (rode around in the shopping cart)

He has met a few people on our trips out and, with one exception on our first trip to Ace Hardware, has been friendly and outgoing. Noise has not seemed to affect him at all, but I will continue to watch for this. He is also learning how to sit in his crate while I train my other dog at some of these places. Still pretty noisy in his crate, but getting better. 🙂

This puppy came with a love for tugging. Actually, he loves it so much that he can escalate pretty quickly. Because I want to use this to my advantage later in competition work, I have been encouraging the rough tugging. If I have an issue during tugging, I just deal with those issues, instead of stopping the tugging entirely. These issues may involve him going for my hand instead of the tug or redirecting on my leg or arm. I have also been teaching him a cue word (“Enough”) to stop tugging.

We have also started shaping heads up heeling, hand touches, pot work and some stationary positions. Here is a little bit of our training (over a couple short sessions) this morning.

While training this morning, I also took the opportunity to work on his crate behavior while working my other dog. While I want him to prefer to be out working with me, instead of sitting in his crate, I also don’t want him screaming and carrying on. I do not mind a little whining, but anything more will cause him to exert too much energy. Energy that I want OUTSIDE the crate, not inside the crate. Poor crate behavior is also irritating to other people around you. While a little distraction can be good, this is not the energy that I want my working dog continually experiencing, nor do I want my crated dog to work himself into a frenzy. I moved Kazee’s crate to the side of the work area and covered his crate with a towel. If he was somewhat quiet, he was allowed to watch. If he got loud, the front of the crate was covered.

I think the covering is something I will be continuing for a little while to see how it works for him. As Kazee is not a huge treat lover, it has not worked much to reward him with cookies when he’s being quiet. Most of the time, he just lets the cookies drop into the bottom of his crate and starts screaming again when you walk away.

Love, love, love these dogs and I am very excited to see what the future holds in store for the newest member of the family. Hard to believe that this is how Gunner started out seven years ago!