Lose the bait bag!

Regardless of how you train, the venue you show in, or the level you are competing at, you have probably heard the saying “train like you show, show like you train”. It makes sense, but it is sometimes hard to do. During training, we fall back to using different equipment or visible toys or treats to get the behavior which makes us feel good.

Huge differences between training and showing come into play with visible toys (or even hidden toys your dog sees you “hide”) and cookies. One of my biggest pet peeves in training is bait bags. Do you think your dog does not know your humongous bait bag is hanging off of your hip? Why do you think your dog is working for you? He is working and paying attention to you because he knows you are going to reach into that bait bag and pull him out something yummy! You may have attention, but he is not paying attention to YOU, he is paying attention to the bait bag! Puppy training, yes, feel free to leave the bait bag on since you are going to be rewarding a lot, but once you start progressing during your training, lose the bait bag and keep the treats somewhere else (pockets, mouth, etc.)

If you are trying to get the toys or treats off you altogether, but still want to reward your dog occasionally during the training session, I recommend playing small containers of treats or toys at several locations around the ring. These should be placed BEFORE you get your dog out of his crate. They should be inconspicuous to the dog, so don’t use a huge container or the largest tug you own. During the training session, if your dog does something brilliant or you want to take a short break to have a play session, you can make your way over to the treats/toy and reward your dog. After rewarding, put the container/tug back where it was and go back to work. The next time you want to reward, go to a DIFFERENT treat/toy location and reward your dog.


  • After rewarding once, your dog tries to go back to the initial location for his next reward, just mark him as incorrect and encourage him to come with you.
  • Dog runs ahead to self-reward, mark him as incorrect and encourage him to get back into heel position. While I don’t formally heel to the spot, my dog is still required to give me his attention while we work our way over there. If you do jackpot training with your dog, it is (in my opinion) imperative that you do not release your dog to run to his bowl without you. Keep him with you and engaged on your way to his bowl.
  • Dog grabs cookies or tug before you. Not allowed. YOU need to stay a part of the reward process. Make sure the cookies are in a covered container, so the dog can not get to them. If using a toy, simply ask your dog to out the toy, put it back on the ground and work your way to a different toy reward. Just be prepared to manage your dog a little more as you get close to the tug. My dog who trains with treats is required to sit before getting his reward, but my dog who trains with tugs is only required to not grab the toy by himself.
  • Do not be lazy and leave all your cookies or toy sitting on the table outside the ring. How often do we end up in front of the judge’s table in the ring? Depending on your dog, he may decide to check out the judge’s table when he should be doing something else entirely…like a finish into heel position!

You can do the exact same method in the agility ring. Before you get your dog out of his crate, put treats or toys in various locations around the ring. When he does something fabulous you want to reward, say your marker word and run over to the treats/toy. Again, your dog should go WITH you, not ahead of you. The last thing you want to do with a food driven dog is run around the course holding your bait bag in your hand…especially if you are having issues in the ring!

Think about the differences between your showing and training. These may include such things as:

  • Equipment – It does not matter if your dog can heel like a rockstar when wearing a prong collar, if he can not heel when wearing a buckle collar.
  • Double commands – Normally, I’m not going to give a double command in the ring, so why would I do it during training. And, if I do decide to give a double command in training, I usually release the dog and immediately set up to try it again.
  • Visible lures or rewards
  • Formal vs informal body mechanics – For example, not paying attention in practice to how you walk during heeling or helping your dog get his halts with exaggerated body cues.
  • Repeatedly helping the dog find front or heel position – you only get one shot in the ring, so make it count! This does not mean I do not fix bad fronts or finishes in practice. But, if I have to fix it, the dog does NOT get rewarded. He only gets rewarded if he does it correctly, by himself, the FIRST time.
  • Releasing your dog A LOT to reward him (Crucial for younger dogs in training, but be conscious of how much work you require an older, trained dog to do before releasing him…remember, random reinforcement!) If you are in Utility, you may be in the ring for 8-9 minutes. How often do you work that long in practice without giving your dog cookies or his toy?
  • Avoiding components of the exercise which are not as “fun”.

While the dog may dictate what type of reward is used, I control how and when he earns it. If my dog starts to get sloppy and I throw cookies into his mouth to get him “up”, I failed as a handler. Instead, I will do everything and anything to get him motivated to work, then require a short amount of solid effort before I take a break to reward him or give him a rest break. This may include some collar bounces, hand pushes, or even some hands on scratching or rubbing while I try to amp him up with my voice. You may be able to bribe your dog into working with you in practice, but it is not going to earn you much carryover once you get in the ring. Also, take the time to learn what type of physical rewards your dog enjoys…because these types of rewards CAN go into the ring with you. And, remember, your DOG dictates what is or is not a reward. If he finds petting on his head offensive and you insist on giving him a pat each time he does something good, there isn’t much value to the dog, is there?

Remember, every time you train your dog, you either build value into your working relationship or you erode it. Make every session count. Train hard, but play harder.

You get what you reward…

Ever so subtly, we sabotage ourselves. We have the perfect picture of our dog’s position and performance in our head, but yet we do things in training which work against that picture. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t. But, hopefully, we fix our errors before they become a trained behavior in our dog.

Reward placement and the maintenance of criteria are critical in every aspect of dog training, whether you do obedience, agility, nosework or dock diving. Little things we do as trainers, can degrade or enhance our dog’s understanding of what proper position and performance actually involves.

In obedience, reward placement is crucial. Dogs are smart and opportunists by nature. If we reward less effort, what encourages them to work harder? For example, have you every heard someone complain about their dog leaning sideways while performing a front? But, then watched the person reward their dog for an “acceptable” front with one hand off to the side of their body…and probably rewarding their dog after digging through their side pocket trying to find a cookie! The handler is causing the leaning with their reward placement, and then rewarding the dog for leaning…the very behavior they want to extinguish!

Or, when heeling, the dog is crabbing or wrapping and the handler ignores it because the dog is animated and pushy, wanting to work for their toy or cookie. (I catch myself in this dilemma often with my young dog!) You HAVE to maintain your criteria for your dog to understand exactly where he needs to be.

Remember, your dog does not dictate where and when the reward happens. If you begin accommodating your dog on certain behaviors, then you are training him to do the exercise incorrectly. Who is training who?

Let me give a couple of examples to help clarify my point.

Signal stand and moving stand – Dog does not stop quickly and lock into the stand position

The dog takes too many steps before coming to a complete stop and ends up in a forged position. Or, the person accommodates the failure to lock into a stand by taking extra steps themselves or slowing their pace. But, guess what, the dog stopped! So you reward the stand and walk away to practice your signals or the call to heel. Problem…you have just told your dog that his failure to lock into a stand position was acceptable. And, even worse, the 1-2 steps in practice, will likely turn into 2-3 steps in the ring.

Now, some people are thinking “Well, what SHOULD I do?” This is where I often see people starting to smack a dog in the nose or give a stronger verbal along with a signal. Essentially, punishing the dog for YOUR improper training during the foundation work. Not very fair to the dog, is it? Instead, go back and help the dog understand the reward placement for the signal stand…and do not reward anything other than EXACTLY what you want the behavior to look like. This does not mean you should not praise effort, but do not feed the dog!

In my dog’s case, this would be a cookie in the hand I am giving the signal with. I would also probably help the dog with a quiet verbal, depending on which dog I was working. If my dog locked up in his stand wonderfully, he may get a quick, rapid fire reward of cookies to clearly show him that I loved what he just did. Or, he may get released to a toy thrown behind him. But, if he did not stop and stand exactly like I wanted, I would simply give him a negative “oops” marker and try again. And, as I am a huge proponent of making the dog work harder in practice, I would also implement some backwards motion into the stand. Meaning, as I stopped and signaled for the stand, I would also take a step backwards, requiring the dog to shift his weight back faster (or even take steps backwards) to stay in position to earn his reward.

Do not change your handling (extra steps, slowing your pace, etc.) to accommodate your dog’s failure to perform the exercise correctly. If you do not think the judge notices this handler error, you are wrong. Smoothly transition into your stand and require your dog stop in heel position. And, by all means, if your dog does not perform the stand properly in practice, do not walk away from them to practice signals!

Finishes – dog finishes with his rear out or is slow

I, as much as anyone, love to reward fast finishes. However, IF you are going to let your dog sit before rewarding them, make sure they are sitting straight! It is amazing how fast those half points add up in Open and Utility, so straight finishes are essential. The more fast, crooked sits you reward…guess what? The more crooked sits you will get!!

So, if I’m working on adding or maintaining speed to heel position, I avoid having to nit-pick straight sits by not letting the dog sit at all! A prime example is the call to heel on the moving stand exercise. If I practice the call to heel component in its entirely every time I do the exercise, my dog’s return is going to slow down. Instead, I work on the dog driving to heel position from the stand by calling the dog to a toy or cookie in my left hand (for a left finish).

Find what works best for your dog. For example, what worked well for my German Shepherd was actually calling her to heel, but then asking for a hand touch mid-way back to me. If she did not give me a hand touch, her correction was a little bounce to the hand and another try to do it correctly. But, in the ring, it kept her speed up and gave me a cute little bounce into heel position. However, if I did this with my younger Springer, he wound die of boredom! He loves his tug, so that is what I use.

To help your dog work harder on his sit, think about how to make them give you more effort to get into proper position. Some examples:

  • Left finish – pivot 90 degrees left AS the dog is turning to sit in heel position (move before they sit)
  • Left finish – take a step to your right or backwards as the dog is coming up to sit. A step forward makes it easier.
  • Right finish – take a step to your right as the dog is coming up to sit
  • Right finish – spin to the right as the dog is coming around. For my dogs, I will generally have a toy or cookie in my left hand to help the speed.
  • Hand touch or hand push in heel position
  • Attention, attention, attention! Do not let your dog sit and look forward into space. My dogs are required to look up at me on every finish.

Above all else, maintain your criteria on every piece of the exercise. If your dog does something you do not like, do NOT keep going! Mark the behavior you did not like, break off and try again. If you dog continues to fail, you need to change something. Maybe give them a short break, ask for a smaller piece of the exercise, back off the pressure or proofing, or help them with a verbal or extra signal a couple of times.

Continuing to fail (and being punished for it!) teaches your dog nothing, except to hate the sport of obedience.