Train the basics…

Time and time again, people show up for their first lesson and we never work on what they scheduled the lesson for. Why? Why would I not want to help them with their heeling or their dog’s fronts or their dog’s retrieves? Because, in reality, the main issue is a lack of engagement between the handler and the dog, as well as a possible lack of commitment from the dog. This does not mean if we fix the engagement piece, the dog will miraculously be able to heel perfectly or do their fronts, but it will give us a better starting point to work on these skills.

Examples which I see often:

  1. Dog does not have an “off” behavior and is, instead, micromanaged by the owner
  2. Dog does not automatically connect with the owner when released from a kennel or from their “off” position (without being cued or corrected)
  3. Dog does not know how to cue they are ready to work
  4. Dog disconnects and leaves the owner
  5. Handler has the dog sitting in heel position for an extended period of time, but does not require 100% focused attention consistently

Gone is the day when we ask our dogs to simply perform and follow direction, rather than think, offer and engage. However, this does not mean he has a free pass to do as he wishes until we ask him to work. Your dog should CHOOSE to engage with you and STAY engaged, regardless of what is going on around you. Yes, I know this is easier said than done. All dogs have different temperaments and tolerances for their surroundings, but it CAN be done!

Off Behavior

Teach your dog a “settle” command or give him an “off” position. For example, teach a curled down (not a sphinx down) or have your dog sit between your legs. While in these positions, your dog does not have to maintain engagement, but they should remember you exist and be ready to reconnect. These are TRAINED and maintained positions. If you place your dog in a curled down, he is not allowed to sniff the floor, lean to sniff a person or dog, crawl around, or continually shift positions. Flipping hips is not a huge deal for me now that Open stays are gone, as long as it is not happening constantly. And, when you train an “off” switch, you need to train an “on” switch. Teach your dog how to quickly re-engage on a verbal and/or touch cue.

My dogs are also trained how to place themselves into a sit position between my legs, facing forwards. If I need to have a quick conversation with someone and am going immediately back to work, this is usually a position I place them in. When I step off, they should immediately re-engage with me (also a trained behavior!). I often use this position as I am waiting to go into the ring, to allow my dog a moment to relax and take the opportunity to look around.

Whatever you decide to train, it does not matter, just train something. Your dog should not be allowed to pull you around on lead while you are trying to talk to someone. They should not be barking at you to get your attention. They should not be jumping on you trying to get the cookies out of your hand. They should not be dragging you to get to the instructor, their buddy next to them in class or their treat bag on the chair. This behavior from your dog is exhausting. They are expending valuable energy on being naughty, rather than saving their mental and physical energy for training.

Automatic Connection

If you have never watched Susan Garrett’s “Crate Games”, this would be a fantastic place to start. (There are probably tons of videos on YouTube on how to teach this behavior.) While I do not follow her training methods verbatim, it is essentially the behavior I want…100% offered focus as soon as they are released from their crate or off position.

When arriving at a new location, I will generally do a short acclimation walk for my dog to see the surroundings, then put him back in his crate. The next time out, I expect nothing short of wonderful, offered engagement…or back in the crate he goes. This is started, trained and heavily reinforced in low level distraction areas, before expecting it in higher level distraction locations. And it is ALWAYS reinforced…forever. Remember, behaviors which you do not continue to reinforce, will weaken or go away completely. It is much easier to maintain something, rather than try to build it back up again later.

Coming out of their kennel, warming up or moving to a setup point…this is not an opportunity to sniff or disconnect. Even if you do not expect your dog to heel to the next area, they should remain connected with you, waiting for direction. You should not have to put them on command to get to a different area in the room or ring, i.e. “with me” or “let’s go”. If you walk to a different spot, they should automatically go with you. With my current dog, this usually involves bounding around somewhere in front of me, keeping his eyes on my face, while I tell him how smart he is. 🙂 In the ring, however, I will often use a “with me” to get to my next setup position, as I do not want it to look like a lack of control.

Dog cues you that they are ready to work

This is similar to the automatic connection, but slightly different if my dog is in a new environment.

When going to somewhere new or when arriving at a training location where I need to warm up my dog, I follow the same general procedure each time.

  1. I set up my crate and bring in my gear bags.
  2. Potty my dog, bring him inside and put him in his crate. Close the crate door – latched or zipped!
  3. Make sure I have cookies in my pocket and get my dog’s training leash ready.
  4. Open the crate door, attach my dog’s leash, expect and require engagement coming out of the crate.
  5. Release the dog from engagement with a “go for a walk” command.
  6. Walk around the training or trial site, possibly pointing out items I think my dog needs to investigate. He is trained and reinforced for going towards something to check it out if I ask him to. Examples of things I would ask him to look at would be the stewards table, chairs holding extra jumps, or the bucket of cleaning materials on the ground.
  7. At some point during this casual walk, my dog will generally start to check in with me (I want more than just an eye flick.). I will mark it with a “yes”, take a step or two backwards letting the dog come towards me and give him a cookie. I then give him the “go for a walk” command again and keep moving. When my dog tells me he has looked around enough, he will generally push me for more engagement by turning completely to face me. At this point, I will usually ask for a couple of tricks (spin, twist or bounce) and reward my dog. The time frame for the dog checking in will vary depending on the dog and the surroundings. The more places your dog is acclimated to, the quicker he will be able to tune out the environment and focus on you.
  8. I will work my way back towards my crating area and put my dog back in his crate. Close the crate.
  9. Depending on time frame, he may sit in his crate for a few minutes or longer, then be brought back out of his crate to warm up.
  10. When exiting his crate the next time, he is expected to offer engagement and maintain engagement throughout the training process.

Dog disconnects and leaves you

This is one of my biggest pet peeves and is a very simple fix, even with older dogs. The caveat is you have to be very consistent and deal with this every single time, regardless of the situation or surroundings. You also have to be very QUIET when correcting the behavior.

Normal situation: Handler and dog are on the training floor. Handler may or may not break their engagement with the dog (for example, asking me a question), but the dog decides to leave the handler to check out their training bag, come say hi to me, search the floor for cookies or simply remove themselves from the training environment. Handler calls the dog “Fido come” and the dog may or may not respond. Handler often rewards the dog for coming back to them.

My expectations for my dogs…even if you are not placed in a specific position (curled down or between my legs), we are still training and you are expected to pay attention to me. Yes, I am the first person to tell someone to stay connected to their dog when they are training…but, people, this is life. What happens if you need to break connection in the ring with your dog? Is it okay if your dog says “okay, you are not paying attention to me, so I do not have to pay attention to you”? Absolutely not.

What if we are working on proofing a behavior and my dog decides he really needs to say hello to the judge sitting on the ground or play with his canine buddy who is heeling on the other side of the ring gate. Should my dog think he only needs to stay with me because I have given him a specific place command? Or would the behavior I am asking for be made even more solid by explaining to the dog very early on that he is not allowed to leave me at all when working?

But, how do I train this? To me, this begins with training a dog on how to offer engagement. Once I have the engagement, it is up to me to maintain the engagement. Despite the feel good phrase of “be the most exciting thing” to your dog, it does not work that way. You are not going to trump his canine buddy or the person sitting in the chair eating a hot dog when the going gets tough.

My dogs are trained very early on a “with me” command for general day to day, loose leash walking. If asked, I expect them to stay within a very close proximity to me whether they are on leash or off leash (so, for example, not running around a yard during free time). If they start to pull or decide to leave me when walking (even though I would not consider them to be “engaged” with me), I silently go to the dog, take them by the collar with both hands, turn them around to face me, walk backwards while telling them “with me”, let go of the collar while still walking backwards (expecting the dog to continue to move towards me), and tell the dog how smart they are. No cookies in your hands or given as a reward. This is a very quiet and soft correction. This should not be made into a huge confrontation, you are simply reminding your dog that he needs to stay by you.

Later, after I have worked voluntary engagement with my dog and he knows how to offer this behavior, I expect him to stay close AND engaged with me, even if I am not staring lovingly into his face. And, he especially needs to not leave me IF I am actively engaged with him in the face of distractions. Pretend, for example, I am proofing and testing my dog’s understanding of his setup position on the directed retrieve exercise. The person playing judge is set up directly in front of me, holding his clipboard down at an easy to reach position. My dog leaves his set up position to go sniff the clipboard. I walk to him SILENTLY, take him by the collar, walk backwards a couple of steps telling him “with me”. I then let go of him, continuing to move backwards a few more steps while telling him how smart he is. You may ask “why the praise when you had to go get him?”. I am praising him for continuing to come toward me after I let him go, I am not praising him for leaving me. For leaving me, he earned both hands on his collar with a small “with me” correction. This correction happened at a place where he should not have been, which was next to the judge sniffing the clipboard. The most difficult part for most people is to simply keep their mouth closed while they are walking to their dog. No “come” and no saying their name to get their attention. Also, no feeding a behavior you have to correct. So, even though you can offer verbal praise when the dog follows you backwards, do not feed him! When setting up for the direct retrieve again, I ask for brief sustained focus before marking and rewarding my dog for being correct. I might then repeat with a little more pressure or distraction from the judge, trying to mark and reinforce the proper response from my dog before he makes an error. If during this process my dog pushes me for even greater engagement, I may break out to reward with a small jackpot or play session.

This behavior is proofed during training by me NOT maintaining 100% engagement. If my dog is training and I break or release my dog, this does not give him permission to excuse himself from training. For example, if I pause to explain to someone why I am doing something or if I walk to my gear bag to get something, my dog is expected to maintain attention even if not placed in a specific position or settle command. But, I also feed this offered engagement very well and I always have a portion of my brain on what my dog is doing, so I can respond immediately. So, while talking to someone, I may toss him a cookie every once and awhile. Or, I may pause during my explanation to the person, look squarely at my dog and tell him how wonderful he is. So, in essence, my dog should THINK I am always 100% engaged, regardless of what I am doing. In this particular example, it does not matter if my dog sits, downs or stands, but he is not allowed to leave my close proximity and he should be watching me. If he decides to check out the person I am speaking with, he would earn a soft “with me” correction.

Obviously, when you are in the show ring, you are not allowed to take a hold of your dog’s collar, except in Novice when leading the dog to the next exercise. But, personally, if my dog does not know his requirement is to stay with me between exercises, he would NOT be in the Novice ring. But, dogs can be dogs. If my dog were to become distracted at some point or become a little too wound up and started jumping around, I would simply say his name and tell him “with me”. If I have done an adequate job of preparation, he would know this meant he needed to stay near me and pay attention. No touching the collar necessary.

Extended time in heel position when not “working”

This is one of the drawbacks of going to a formal class setting. Handlers are waiting their turn to work an exercise and they have their dog sitting in heel position. But, the dog is looking around and, in general, not paying attention to the handler. So, when the handler goes to perform the exercise, the dog makes a mistake and the handler is forced to either correct the dog or restart the exercise, neither of which you can do in the ring. (Don’t I wish we had “do-overs” in the ring!!)

If my dog is in heel position, his requirements are: proper heel position with engagement. Anything else dilutes my position command. How does your dog know the difference between when you say “heel” and he is allowed to look around or when you say “heel” and he should maintain 100% focus?

People have a tendency to use a ‘sit in heel’ position as a control position…to prevent the dog from actually having to think for and control himself. Instead, use a settle command and step OUT of heel position. Or, place your dog in a sit between your legs. When it is almost your turn to work, pick up your dog with your “on” cue and set him up with attention.

Think about when you are taking a lesson or training with friends. How often do you ask your dog to get into heel position, then continue talking with your instructor or your training buddy…while your dog is completely disengaged and disinterested?

Train the basics…

While none of the above items specifically deal with teaching a single formal exercise, they all have the potential to either positively or negatively impact everything you do during training. Helping your dog understand engagement, commitment and self control is a valuable part of your training and should not be overlooked. Pay attention to the small things you are asking your dog to do, which could dilute or negatively impact a specific command or behavior you teach them…and think of other ways in which you can instead build your dog’s understanding of his job, through motivation and rewards.