No creeping!

Sit and watch any Utility class, and you will more than likely see dogs moving forward out of position. Often, you will see dogs taking steps forward on the signal stand as the handler walks away, or you will see dogs who fail to lock up on their moving stand exercise, continuing to trail along after the handler.

Reasons for this are many…a lack of clarity regarding the performance requirements, stress about the exercise, the dog may not like the additional distance from their handler, or the dog may be feeling pressure from the judge and trying to alleviate the pressure by adding distance. A lot of times, in training, you will see these handlers physically correct their dogs for breaking position. Unfortunately, if the dog is breaking because of stress and/or pressure, you have now made the situation worse.

When I was training Gunner as a young dog, it was very evident he did not want the judge touching him for a Novice stand for exam. He was not necessarily worried about the judge, he just did not see a need for anyone (other than me!) to touch him. We worked through this in a common way, with a clicker and a whole lot of cookies. Novice exams went smoothly and it was almost comical to watch Gunner’s tail wagging wildly on a exam, waiting for his click and treat.

But, judge pressure in the advanced classes was a whole different ball game. This was primarily visible on signals, when Gunner would take a couple of steps forward as I walked away, sometimes looking back at the judge before he moved. People’s opinions for correcting the problem covered the entire gamut, from physical corrections, to ground poles or platforms, to having the judge go in and feed him while he was standing…none of which I liked. So, instead, I went back to one of Gunner’s favorite foundation exercises – the target. But, instead of releasing Gunner to a target in FRONT of him, I released him to a target BEHIND him.

Kazee is going to have the opposite issue as Gunner. He wants everyone to touch him and, even better, he will help you by running over to you! Yes, just a little bit of impulse control issues. 🙂 So, I decided it was time to pull the target into more of Kazee’s obedience work. He is familiar with the target from agility class, but in this context, he is always running towards the target, it is never behind him.

If your dog is not familiar with a target, I would recommend sending the dog to a target placed in front, before moving the target to the side or behind the dog. The target needs to hold a lot of value for the dog. This is a good game to play at mealtime, even using your dog’s food bowl as their “target”.

The following video show Kazee’s first introduction to the target behind him, as well as some basic target work to introduce the concept to the dog. Please note my very exaggerated hand signals when releasing the dog to the target. They are slightly cut off in the video, but you have to make sure your release is dramatically different than your Utility signals. My cue to release the dog to the target is a step forward, with BOTH hands raised, and a verbal “go target”.

If you have another person to train with, work up to the “judge” carrying the target and placing it on the ground after you stand your dog on signals. Normally, in the beginning, I want this done before I have left my dog, so I can support him (if needed) during the judge’s movement behind him. The target does not need to be close to the dog, it can be placed by the go-out stanchion. But, what helped Gunner the most with the judge pressure was placing the target closer and closer to the judge, including directly between the judge’s feet. Yes, I would send my dog TO the judge to get to the target! Then, the judge would feed several cookies to my dog ON the target, while I ran to give an evan better jackpot on the target. What better way to have your dog control the judge pressure than to make your dog WANT to run towards them!

Targets can be worked into any exercise. And, for dogs who love to eat, it gives you some built in proofing, as the dog has to work through the exercises with cookies easily visible (and attainable) on the target.

For dogs who move forward (either because of pressure, Gunner, or from insufficient impulse control, Kazee), I also feel it is important to be able to move my dog backwards in ANY position (stand, down or sit) and have them maintain their position. As soon as I start working with a young dog, I teach them if I give them a signal and they are already in the position, they need to move backwards. For example, if the dog is in a down and I give them another down signal, they need to scoot backwards, but maintain their down position. Remember, the ring exercises need to be easy, but the practice work needs to be difficult. I want my dogs always thinking backwards. If they are thinking “backwards”, they will not creep forwards!

Yes, I know I cut off the top half of my body, but when you are filming yourself on a tripod before you have had your coffee, that is what happens. You can easily see my dog and my requirements, so that is the important thing.

Moving stands can be another challenge to get dogs to lock up. Most handlers add pressure in front of their dogs to get them to stop. But, in the ring, when this pressure is gone, the dogs take a couple of steps forward (or worse, do not stop at all). Instead, increase your requirements in training. Teach the moving stand by requiring BACKWARDS movement on the stand. In the beginning (and often throughout the dog’s career), I will help them by moving backwards with them (if you show in Rally, this would be comparable to the backwards steps during heeling). In the ring, I generally do not see backwards movement from Gunner, he merely locks up into his stand. But, really, if he moved backwards one or two steps, what is wrong with that? Bonus points, in my opinion! And, to reiterate, this is something I do forever with my dogs. The more you show, the more you have to keep your requirements crystal clear. I could have easily gotten Gunner’s OTCH without teaching this, but he recently finished his Obedience Grand Master title and went over the 700 OTCH point mark. No way would I have been able to meet those goals without requiring extra effort in practice.

You may have noticed my verbal cue with the stand signal…”Stand Back”. Completely legal in the ring and a little extra reminder to my dog of his requirements. The stand signal (in my case, my left hand) can not be held as a cue to the dog, and it needs to be immediately returned to either my side or the center of your body as I walk away. If the signal is held, it may be a scored as a handler error or, if the judge felt my signal kept my dog from moving forward, an NQ on the exercise.

This blog post is in response to a reader’s question on helping a dog who moves forward on exercises. If you have any problems or questions you would like to see me address in a blog post, please feel free to either ask in the comments or send me an email to I never claim to have all the answers, but if what I do with my dogs can help someone work through a problem, I will help in any way I can.

Until next time…train hard, but play harder!

Proofing vs. Confidence Building

I sat at a trial last weekend, watching utility A after utility A dog fail exercises. For some reason, no one expects Utility A dogs to pass, why is that?? My last German Shepherd earned her Utility Dog title in two weekends. While I know she is the exception to the rule, I do not understand why people are showing dogs who are not ready for the ring. Yes, I know dogs make mistakes, people are nervous, etc…all of these factors play a part in why dogs fail in the ring.

While watching one dog struggle in the article pile, someone came up to me. “Can I ask your opinion,” she said. “Of course,” I said. She went on to tell me she was helping the team currently in the ring. The dog was visibly stressed on articles (staring at handler, repeatedly picking up and setting down articles, circling the pile…handler eventually called the dog in), and she wanted to know what I would recommend doing to “fix” the problem. This is an awkward position to be placed in. While I have known the dog for a while, I can not say I know him well. When I did not answer her right away, she went on to tell me what she thought they needed to do…which was to put more pressure on the dog in the article pile and apply harder proofing situations. She believed the dog needed to be required to work through the pressure and find his article.

Honestly, looking back, I think I visibly sighed. Everyone seems to think when something fails in the ring, the dog has not been proofed enough. That the dog was not required to work through enough pressure on a daily training basis to handle the pressure in the ring. I shrugged, and (politely as I could) said that is not what I would do. The dog lacked confidence. Take a dog who lacks confidence on an exercise and start applying a lot of pressure, and all you are going to do is make the dog’s world explode. You have now turned the scary article pile into a horrible place where there are toys or food laying around to trick you or the person standing close by (who you thought was safe) is now there to pull you out of the pile if you do something wrong.

If you start putting a lot of pressure on a dog who lacks confidence, especially on an ‘away from the handler’ type of exercise like articles, you are going to create a problem with the entire exercise. Not to mention risk damaging your relationship with your dog altogether. I told her, while I did not know the dog very well, I would recommend stepping back and retraining how to work an article pile with CONFIDENCE. I would consider going back to working small article piles, in easy locations, and with high rewards. The dog would have to be successful and very confident, before I started making the exercise harder or applying any proofing at all.

This does not mean proofing does not have its place or that it can not be used to help a dog GAIN confidence. But I really believe it depends on the exercise, the problem you are experiencing and the overall relationship between the dog and handler. I will use my older Springer, Gunner, as an example. Gunner is (and has always been) very environmentally sensitive. Thunder (or even rain), diesel trucks, motorcycle noise, air conditioners turning on…all of these were enough to send him running for the ring gate. If he had a visual to pair with the noise, it was even worse. Seeing the large truck making the noise did not make it any better, it only confirmed there was something to be afraid of.

Years ago, before I even started showing in Novice, it was recommended to me to take Gunner to difficult environments and REQUIRE him to heel with attention. The well-known instructor clearly told me, “You will NOT like what you have, especially in the beginning. But it will get better. The more you expose him to difficult environments and help him work through his anxiety, the better he will be able to handle easier environments in the future.” Looking back, I do not think I followed her advice right away. I wanted to work through the anxiety more positively. But nothing I did could recreate a more difficult show situation. He could handle quiet shows, where nothing out of the ordinary happened, but he could not hold any level of concentration under more difficult scenarios. While I did not go heeling in a train yard, I did go to places he felt were difficult…an empty grass lot behind a park-n-go lot being his biggest problem area. To me, there was nothing super distracting about his lot. The main road was on the other side of the parking lot, and the lot itself did not have a lot of traffic. Sometimes there was a large truck making a delivery at the nearby pharmacy, but other than that, not much going on. But Gunner decided the lot was hard, so this is where we went…often.

To be clear, my dog was NOT being flooded. He was always willing to take cookies, he was never frozen in fear. But it was difficult for him. And, six years later, it is STILL difficult for him. But, I can tell when I do not do enough of this highly distracting work with him. By heeling in these difficult (for him) situations, it makes the ring pressure easier.

But heeling is different than articles. Articles are worked 20 feet away from the handler. The dog is by himself in the middle of the ring with a judge standing right next to him, sometimes with dogs in the next ring with dumbbells being thrown, commands being shouted, etc. Articles (and other utility exercises) require A LOT of confidence on the dog’s part, you can not rush to the dog and help him in the ring. So, if your dog lacks confidence and you start applying pressure, all you are doing is adding stress to the exercise. In contrast to my above heeling example, while heeling I can support my dog. I can help him through problems, I can completely break from the exercise and do whatever I need to do to help him be successful. Who cares if my OTCH dog is heeling to a cookie in my hand? I don’t!! What is important is that my dog knows I am there to help him, to support him, and to reward him…very, very heavily.

So, now that I have droned on and on for eight paragraphs (oops!), let me pull the article situation back to my own dog. Last I checked in, Kazee was doing articles on a tie down board. I hated it….and Kazee hated it. I was not providing enough information and Kazee was getting frustrated. He would scent the pile well one day, then try to snatch and grab the next. So I broke it completely and went all the way back to the beginning.

Kazee does NOT like the scent-a-whirl, he hates it actually. But, he hates it because he has to put his entire face and head down into bins. This is an issue in other ways for Kazee, which (I believe) is what led to some of our initial problems on the scent-a-whirl. So, I went a similar, but different route. I decided to teach it initially like a nosework game. All I wanted him to do was FIND the scent, he did not have to pick up anything at all. I bought 12 new, shorter plastic tubs, which would allow him to pick up an article (when the time came) without him having to put his entire face into it.

We stayed at this “nosework” stage for almost two weeks, starting with only 1 bin and building up to 12 bins. His confidence came back up, he was eagerly running to do his “find it” game and I was not seeing any stress signals from him. We did the game in different locations – inside my house, in the driveway, on the back porch, in the garage, at the dog club. I will not say that he never indicated the incorrect bin, but he was actively using his nose and searching for the correct scent.

I will not post all of the early (working up to 12 bins) videos, but I will post two videos at the end of this step, as they show different issues –

The main thing I wanted to see was a happy, confident dog in the article “pile”. A dog who could easily take a negative marker, if needed, and eagerly go back to work. I definitely saw this from Kazee, so at the end of last week, I decided to move to the next step, which was having him pick up the article after he found it. Because I added new requirements, I made the exercise easier, going back down to only two bins. Today, I add two more bins, bringing it up to four bins total.

I am in no hurry to train articles. I know, in my mind, what I want his article work to look like, so we are working towards that vision as our goal. Some people would look at our earlier article work and say “he knows he is supposed to scent in the article pile” and would have started to apply more pressure to the dog. They would have then, essentially, taken all of the joy out of the exercise. I want my dogs oozing joy. I want people to stop ringside and watch them work. I want people to look at my non-traditional obedience dogs and see that they can be successful with something other than a Golden or a Border Collie. And my definition of successful does not necessarily mean in the winner’s circle, it means showing the judge what a true obedience TEAM looks like. And, sometimes, you have to have a sense of humor…if we go down in flames, we go down together. 🙂

As always, train hard, but play harder!

Focus on progress

It is hard not to focus on results. Every trial weekend, people ask you what place you received or what your score was. They don’t ask if your problem area had improved or if you had a better connection with your dog in the ring. After all, this is a competition. Weekend after weekend, we enter the ring to find out who is the best team, on that particular day, under that particular judge.

I am no different. After not showing much at the beginning of the year, I have been showing my older Springer, Gunner, trying to finish his Obedience Grand Master (OGM) title. But, for this, I need scores…good ones. So, I have been concentrating on results. But, because I have also been fighting stress and effort issues, I failed to see progress. So, our ring performances were sporadic. I was either pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough, trying to find the perfect balance to pull out my dog’s best performance. But, as a result, our relationship was suffering. I wasn’t happy and Gunner was most definitely not happy.

And then one day while driving, I heard a comment while listening to the radio…

“When you focus on results, you fail to see progress.”

I realized this was exactly what I was doing to my dog…to both of my dogs. Gunner in the show ring and Kazee in some of his foundation exercises. I was so focused on the end result, I wasn’t looking at what each dog was giving me. And, when the dog is trying his best, you are not going to correct him for trying hard, but not being able to give you what you want.

So, you know what I did? I stopped. I stopped thinking about my score. I stopped thinking about my competition. I stopped trying to “think” at all. If you have ever listened to mental management tapes, they talk about moving your skills from your conscious mind into your subconscious mind. Think of your subconscious mind as your body’s autopilot. This “autopilot” is developed through the countless hours you spend training and working with your dog. For example, when the judge tells you to do an about turn during heeling, you do not have to concentrate on each foot placement, you just DO the turn. The same is true with your dog. He should no longer be thinking “What does ‘down’ mean?” He should just drop. But in the beginning, your dog needs to process your commands and think about what to do. He needs to think about how to actually manipulate his body to go from a run into a down.

And you know what, our trial last weekend was better. Open was about as close to perfect as we can get, with a 199.5 on Saturday and a 196.5 on Sunday (with a -3 for an exuberant finish on the JUDGE’s command on one of the exercises). And, right after my dog autofinished, I told him it was the “most brilliant autofinish ever!” Yes, I actually praised my dog for finishing on the judge’s command. Why? Because the finish was fast, happy and straight…three important components that we had not been getting in the ring lately. Utility still had a few minor issues, but overall it was much better. I am hopeful that a few more Utility classes with the “right” handler and our problems will be even more under control. 🙂

Kazee’s progress on the dumbbell has been another issue. Shaping was not progressing as I had hoped and Kazee was not moving past a quick open mouth over the dumbbell bar. I changed tactics and was thrilled to have him reaching for and holding the dumbbell. But then, he refused to move (even a fraction of an inch) when the dumbbell was in his mouth. He literally turned into a statue as soon as he closed his mouth over the bar. Taking a hold of his collar and insisting on movement backfired completely and we were soon back at square one. Another change in tactics and Kazee is finally picking up the dumbbell happily and bringing it up to me. Yay, my NINE MONTH OLD DOG is picking up his dumbbell. 😉 Talk about a work in progress!!

I love working with this little guy though. Problems aside, he is confident, outgoing and drivey, everything I wanted in a puppy. I am definitely going to have to think outside of the box though. He is independent and does not like to be “told” what to do. And don’t even think about drilling something! But yet, he needs structure and impulse control. Wish us luck!

As always, train hard, play harder!

Keep it fresh…

Those of you who know me from obedience, know Gunner. Those who know Gunner, love him. But, those who know him WELL, know how hard of a dog he is to train, show and live with. Could it be me? Did I cause some of my problems or at least intensify them? Oh, yes, I have no doubt about it. We have started over more often than I would like to admit. But, I guess these problems and figuring how to dig our way out of holes, has allowed me to keep learning new ways to do things.

Background on Gunner for those of you who do not know him…he’s a 7 1/2 year old Springer, who has been showing for over 4 years. He has earned top awards in his breed and many, many High in Trials and High Combined awards. He is also very environmental, has some separation anxiety and has decided that he no longer needs to work very hard in the obedience ring. We have not been showing as much this year with the new puppy in the house, so we have stepped back to work on effort and confidence.

While Gunner has not really had any problems with go-outs (which were originally taught with a platform), they can always be better. After attending a Debbie Quigley seminar, I decided to introduce food pouches to see if they helped with his speed and desire to move away from me. This is the first time Gunner has used his food pouches at the dog club, so I was expecting (and got) some mistakes. The video is a little long, but I think it more important to show his errors and how I handle them, rather than just him running out to get a pouch.

We HAVE had some recent issues with articles…and I’m not sure why. Gunner will occasionally stop in the pile and look at me for several seconds before going back to work. Looking for help or directions? I’m not sure, as I have never talked to him while he was in the pile. So, I’ve thrown in some more distractions and have been asking him to think a little more “outside of the box”. This is NOT proofing for a green dog. And, this is not all new proofing for Gunner either. He struggled today, which I am fine with. I will help him figure it out. One thing you will see, is even with some mild corrections, Gunner is NOT stressed about going to (or working in) the article pile. He is not circling the pile, afraid to make a decision. His head is up and his tail remains wagging. So, despite some issues, it is still a success for me.

Kazee continues his foundation work. I am thrilled with his progress on heeling and his engagement while working. I am going to have to stay on my toes because he’s a little “too” smart, but that is what makes obedience training so much fun. Because I am not sure how he will be trained on his go-outs yet, I have also decided to introduce him to the food pouches. Even if I do not use them for go-outs, I may want to incorporate them somewhere else.

Kazee makes his breed ring debut tomorrow, so wish us luck! Actually, wish ME luck. Kazee knows what he is doing, it is me who needs help!

Until next time…Train hard. Play harder.



One of our jobs as a trainer is to help our dog gain the confidence he needs to make his own decisions. This does not mean he will always make the “correct” decision, but this is not the same as a “bad” decision.

If you continue to make things easier for your dog, they will never gain the confidence to make the decision by themselves when needed.

Help them if needed, cheerlead them occasionally and praise them often (even when they make an incorrect decision). I would much rather have my dog make an incorrect decision, than stand there waiting for me to tell him what to do. Teach your dog how to think, not just how to react.

Train hard. Play harder.