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.

Proofing…when to start

You have trained an exercise, start to finish, and your dog understands his responsibilities and how to perform them. Yay! Now you feel ready to start proofing…but guess what, you should have begun proofing a long time ago!

By introducing proofing during the early phases of training, your dog learns to work through pressure when things are “easy” and the rewards are still on a high reinforcement schedule.

For example, let’s say you are teaching heeling and still have your dog on a visible cookie. Instead of training every day in your quiet yard, start working short bursts of heeling in busier environments like parks or storefronts. Reward effort and attention when your dog ignores the environment and stays connected to you! However, while a piece of hot dog may work at home, you may need to up the ante in these environments (maybe roasted chicken or steak!). With the visible cookie, you can help your dog stay in precise heel position, without any form of correction or pressure. You can also reward quickly when your dog gives you the extra effort needed to stay in precise heel position or remains completely engaged.

Proofing can even be started with retrieve exercises before the retrieve item is even introduced! But how? Take the directed retrieve exercise…most people start teaching this exercise by teaching the dog to mark a cookie on a plate. Why not start introducing distractions when the dog is simply running out to eat a cookie, without worrying about a glove pickup, turn, hold or a front? By doing this, you have eliminated attaching any negative emotions to the retrieve object, which could carry over into the ring. The dog is immediately rewarded (with the cookie on the plate) for ignoring the distraction and he gains confidence by being able to control his response to the distraction. Meaning, you will not negatively impact your glove retrieve if you have to provide extra encouragement to your dog to run out and get the cookie if he is worried about the distraction. This is the “teaching” phase, you are teaching him HOW to be correct. Distractions could include people and/or dogs standing on the other side of the ring gate, someone sitting in a chair nearby, someone playing with their dog, etc.

And, occasionally, even after I have completely trained an exercise, I will still break down a certain aspect of the exercise if my dog develops a problem or a source of confusion. Currently, my young Springer has decided jumping in the high jump is so much fun, he wants to do it on EVERY retrieve….whether it is on the flat or over the jump. While he goes directly to the dumbbell on the retrieve on the flat, he will actually turn and LOOK for the high jump on the return. Most people’s opinion would be to put him on a flexi and control his return. The problem with this is that “I” am doing all the work. He is not making a conscious effort to come directly back to me, I am making it for him.

At first I just moved up after sending him, to help take the jump out of the picture, but it was not giving me the carry over I wanted. So, back to a cookie we went. Of course, when the camera is rolling, he does not even think about taking the jump; but that is okay…it just means extra rewards for coming back correctly. Even though I am proofing one particular component, my criteria for everything else remains in place. Kazee is required to set up promptly and correctly, wait for me to send him, return promptly and get his front. I could drop the front requirement for this drill; however, we have been really working very hard on fronts lately in preparation for the open ring and I wanted to keep this requirement in place. Had I wanted to skip fronts, I would have let him jump up on me to get his cookie or have tossed the cookie backwards between my legs.

Again, when proofing at any stage, your current criteria should remain consistent. If your criteria for marking a cookie on a plate means the dog quickly drops his head and focuses on the plate when indicated, this does not change. Distractions should always start mild and increase as your dog becomes confident and understands his job. And your DOG controls the level of distraction. Just because YOU think a distraction should be easily handled by your dog, it does not mean your dog thinks the same way. If he looks like he is having difficulty, adjust the proofing or the difficulty and increase your reinforcement rate. Remember to give honest praise for his effort. Tell your dog when he is being super brave or smart…and MEAN IT! Praise is the one thing you can use in training and the ring, so build its value as much as possible.

And, you should never feel bad about having to go backwards to help your dog understand something. Lowering difficulty is not the same as lowering criteria. It is our jobs, as handlers, to help make the components of each exercise crystal clear to our dog. Build confidence at each stage by showing your dog how to be successful, and you will be a stronger team in the end.

As always, train hard, but play harder.

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.

Troubleshooting:

  • 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.

Rewarding effort and changing tactics

The motto at class today was ”When all else fails, reward effort.” Without effort, you have nothing. Even if your dog is going through the motions and staying in position, it can be (in my opinion) lacking in joy and teamwork, and who wants that?!?

People get too hung up on everything being perfect. You can work with any dog who gives you effort. Help them, show them, encourage them. But if you have a dog who does not love to work with you and simply goes through the mechanical motions, what fun is that? I want bright eyes, a naughty grin and a dog pushing me to work. So, when things start to fall apart (and they will), go back to simply requiring effort. Forget perfection for the moment and do whatever you need to do to pull the desire and joy out of your dog. And, if I require effort from the dog, you better bet I require effort from the two-legged half of the team too. You only get what you put into it.

To clarify, just because I sometimes isolate the “give me effort” part, it does not mean my criteria is loosened. For example, if I am working effort on signals, I do not allow my dog to take a step forward in the stand as I am walking away. Or, if I am working speed on the drop on recall, I do not allow my dog to break his sit stay before I call him. If I allow my criteria to change, it creates grey area for the dog…something I never want in training.

Training’s today brought some unexpected challenges, which required a change in training plans. Like most young dogs, Kazee got confused on a basic skill….a come front signal. We had started the session with directed jumping, so the jumps were in the ring, and we had actually done a couple of quick drop drills in our earlier warmup before I had taught a class. Watching the video, I think he was getting confused more with the hand signal than the actual “come” portion of the exercise. He loves the drop on recall exercise (done primarily with a right hand signal), we had just done directed jumping (right and left hand) and my come signal is also with my right hand. So, to him, he was seeing hand motion and not differentiating between the different commands.

Some people may have simply made the decision to correct a failure to come directly, but when you watch the video, this is clearly NOT what is going on. Kazee is giving me effort…actually too much effort. He is just not making the correct decision. So, I changed tactics and helped him figure it out. I paired my verbal with my signal and I did not put as much distance between us, in some cases taking the jumps out of the picture entirely. But, once he started to figure it out, I set him up for directed jumping to my right. Why would I do this when he clearly was confused on the right hand motion? Because I wanted to show him the difference between the jump signal and the come signal. I wanted to clarify his understanding that “THIS is the difference!” And, he nailed it. Train your dogs for understanding!! Had I simply worked the come command only, I am pattern training, not training for understanding. He would not have to differentiate between commands, he would simply say “okay, now we are working fronts”. While he may get his front command, he is doing it without thinking of the actual command and/or signal.

The next training session of the day brought another couple of training opportunities. We started with articles and, after all of our problems working through this exercise over the last year, I am very happy with where Kazee is currently at. He is working the pile extremely well on a consistent basis, going quickly to and from the pile, continuously working, and (though he sometimes will make a mistake) is reliably finding the correct article. Because I am more concerned with his attitude and confidence on this exercise, I am not asking for pivots before the exercise and I am just now getting to the point where I occasionally ask for a front on the return. However, it was clear on the last article that the added energy brought along some undesirable mouthing. Something to work more often, OUTSIDE the context of the article pile.

Then, when working on the return to heel from a stand position, it was obvious Kazee did not want to give me the behavior I was asking for. This may have been the result of him being tired, who knows. So, I again changed my tactics and went back to just requiring effort to get into heel position. Normally, I ask him for a little bit of a bounce/hand touch when he is coming around to heel position. If I don’t, Kazee has a tendency to not go far enough behind me before trying to turn (something you will see at about 5:30 on the below video). I was happy with where we were when we stopped training, but the entire hour drive home involved me thinking through my problem. So, when I got home, I pulled him out of the car and we went back to work. Instead of asking him to physically come up towards my hand, I decided to let him power through the return to me, going directly to his tug toy. I will need to thoroughly shape and condition this drive on the return, so this skill needs solidifying before attempting to pull everything together. However, this does not mean I will stop the requirement of him coming “up” to my hand in other situations. This is a great way to require (and reinforce) effort from your dog.

And, maybe someday, I’ll learn how to set up my camera so I don’t cut off my head!

Setups are one area where it is easy for you to work effort. I want my dog driving quickly into heel position, setting up straight, with head up and eyes bright…ready to work. This “ready to work” attitude will then carry over into my exercise. But, if I allow my dog to wander around, call him multiple times to get into heel position and watch him numbly get into heel position, you can bet that attitude will carry over into the exercise also. If your dog has a problem with setups, they are super easy to work with a food lure. Let him chase the cookie in your left hand for a second, then ask him to quickly set up. As soon as he is in heel position, mark and reward. In the beginning, I don’t even care if my dogs sits in heel position, I will reward the drive and speed trying to get there. Later, I will lose the cookie and do the same game with a hand touch requirement. If your dog prefers a toy, you can play the same game with a toy. Use it as a lure in the beginning, but quickly turn it into a reward.

Because there is always the comment of “there may be an underlying physical issue”, I feel obligated to add that I absolutely agree. Make sure there is not a reason your dog CAN’T give you the effort you want. But, there are plenty of people who cite “he must not be feeling well”, to excuse a lack of effort. A lack of effort is then inadvertently trained and reinforced. Yes, everyone (two and four legged) have bad days and sometimes things just go south in a hurry. On those days, put your dog away and try again later. But, learn to recognize the differences in your dog and address the areas where your dog chooses not to give you effort. Key indicators are when your dog will happily work for the cookie in your hand or when the training is all done in a playful manner, but stops working as soon as the cookie goes away or you take training in a little more formal direction (which has to be done to make it ring ready).

Train hard, but play harder!

 

Killing drive

You stand in the ring with your dog, waiting for someone else to take a turn in class…or worse yet, waiting for multiple people to take their turn. Meanwhile, your dog is wandering around at the end of their lead, sniffing the ground or trying to reach the dog next to them. You are watching the team working, so you are ignoring your dog until the instructor calls your name. You hasten to the starting point and tell your dog to “heel”. But, instead, your dog starts off lagging, giving you minimal effort. You give your dog a quick pop, telling him to “Get up here!”

Who is at fault? Your dog isn’t tired, he’s been standing around for 10 minutes waiting his turn! Unfortunately, even if your dog had been adequately warmed up prior to class starting, you have let him become completely disengaged and disinterested in training. This is one of the main reasons I dislike group obedience classes.

Every time you train your dog when he is not completely engaged and in drive, you are telling him it is acceptable to not give you 100% effort. YOU are telling him it is okay.

Say, for example, the group class is doing dumbbell retrieves. You throw your dumbbell and the dog trots out to get it, picks it up and trots a little slower coming back. “He’s stressed” the instructor says, “give him a cookie for trying so hard”. Really? You are going to reward a slow retrieve? Remember, what you reward, you reinforce. If your dog was not ready to do a FAST, CONFIDENT retrieve in a group environment, you should not have done the retrieve in the first place.

So, what do you do, if you need a group class for your dog. Research how the instructor handles their class. Are all dogs handled the same? Are you allowed to put your dog in his crate between exercises? At minimum, train your dog how to relax on a mat and how to reengage with you coming OFF of his mat. This is a skill taught in practice, not in class. Be ready and get your dog engaged with you before it is your turn. Pay attention! Do not start an exercise until your dog is completely engaged with you. If an exercise is too difficult for your dog to do it in drive, modify the exercise for your dog. In the dumbbell example, maybe instead of doing a full length retrieve, you will do a short dumbbell recall instead. Or, maybe a very short pickup, allowing the dog to jump up on you to receive their reward.

Always keep the end picture of the exercise in your mind. Stop making excuses for your dog’s performance. Because, really, you are making excuses for your training. Advocate for your dog to help him be successful. Classes can be wonderful for proofing, but done correctly, this should bring a dog’s confidence UP, not down. Errors are fine, lack of engagement and effort are not.

So, again, every time you train your dog when he is not completely engaged and in drive, you are telling him it is acceptable to not give you 100% effort. YOU are telling him it is okay.

Train hard. Play harder.

 

 

The power of the “pause”….

As you prepare for the next exercise, the finished product is clear in your mind. You move swiftly over to the go-out setup, keeping your dog engaged the entire time, mark your dog on his “spot” and tell him to “go”. He runs halfway then veers off to the right. He was looking directly at his spot, what distracted him? Was it the sun spot on the ground by glove 3? Was it the dog in the next ring? Did you not mark him the same way as usual?

Some of the best advice I ever received was during a conformation handling seminar by George Alston. He told everyone to “slow down in the ring and do everything at half speed. When you are in the show ring, under pressure, everyone has a tendency to speed up. So, if you slow down, to what feels like half speed, it will probably be closer to the speed in which you actually train.”

I will be the first person to tell you to “show like you train and train like you show”. The problem is that showing is almost NEVER like training, especially for those of us who train primarily by ourselves. I almost never train with dogs working in neighboring rings (sometimes with handlers hollering way too loudly at them), tons of activity outside the ring, loudspeakers, or doors opening and closing. Heck, I am lucky to have someone call a heeling pattern for me every once and awhile!

So, what do I do? I slooooow myself down, in practice and at the show. During heeling, I count to myself (1,2,1,2,1,2…), this helps keep my heeling, turns and halts smooth while keeping my emotions under control. When I set up for an exercise, I almost always take one deep breath while I am smiling down at my dog. In other words, I pause. I stop what I am doing for just a second and connect with my dog. I do not delay the ring or the judging, but it is not a race to see who can complete their run the fastest. The important thing to remember though, is I do the same thing in training. And, guess what, I train the pause to build anticipation from my dog. Imagine that. 🙂

Pausing does not automatically bring your dog down (although an excessively long pause could), it can actually bring them up. Remember back to when you were about to open your birthday presents when you were younger. You were all ready to rip off the paper, but then your parents made you stop and wait until everyone came into the room or until they ran and got their camera. Did you get more excited or less excited? Me, I got more excited! I wanted to open my stinkin’ presents!! Dog training can be exactly the same way. “Okay Dog, you want to get to that super awesome go-out spot, you are going to have to wait a second and REALLY stare at your spot before I send you.” And, if you think only a border collie can do the stare and crouch, then you have not watched my Springer when he is really ready to go.

I also apply this same “pause” to errors. If my dog keeps messing something up, I require them to pause for a few seconds before trying again. Think about it as a mini-time out if you want to, but putting him into a down for a few seconds while I just stand there and think, puts us both in a better frame of mind to continue our training. And, honestly, very rarely does my dog make the same mistake after pausing for a few seconds to regroup. As long as he is put into the down without a huge negative emotion on my part; and as long as I bring him out of the down properly, I have lost zero drive.

So, in training and at the show, remember to slow down. Stop worrying about hurrying to the next setup, instead connect with your dog and move together. Think about your pace, rather than how you are going to move your feet when the judge calls the upcoming halt. Think about ONLY the exercise you are currently doing or the exercise you are moving to set up for. Train until everything that you need to do, happens in your subconscious without having to actively think about what to do next. Video is your friend! Tape your training sessions and your trials and compare them. Do you appear rushed? Are you heeling at the same pace? Are you staying connected to your dog? Remember, this is a sport about TEAMWORK!

Train hard, but remember to play harder!

 

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 shannonshepherd@me.com. 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!

Progress!

While working on my next (more informative) blog post, I wanted to check in on Kazee’s articles, especially for those of you who have told me that they are working the same method with their dogs.

I have been working Kazee’s article bins daily, unless I am out of town at dog shows, and I am very happy with his progress. He had been reliably finding the correct article each time and willing picking up the article and bringing it to me when I removed the lid. Normally, I do the articles before breakfast and Kazee seems to have much more drive than he did this afternoon. But, we had an early agility class, so there was no time to do them this morning. However, this is definitely something to note in my journal, and I may need to start varying the time I do the articles and increasing my rewards respectively.

But, even with the slight lack of drive searching the bins, I upped the challenge for him today…I started removing lids to bins containing non-scented articles. I did one article find as we had been doing them (all lids on), but then I removed a lid on each of the next three searches. I was very happy to see him check the open bins, but continue working until he found the correct bin.

My plan is NOT to remove ALL of the unscented lids before removing the scented bin’s lid, but rather to randomize how many bins are uncovered on any given search. And, sometimes, leave the scented bin uncovered as well. If the scented bin is uncovered, he will not be praised until he has the article in his mouth and is moving towards me. Obviously, if he gets stuck in the beginning, I will help him, but this help will be dropped quickly. I will probably work up to about half of the bins uncovered before removing the scented bin’s lid. But, at some point, ALL of the bins will be open.

By now, everyone knows this little dog’s love for his tug toy…so I have started using it for more difficult impulse control work, which will hopefully be transitioned into our go-out work later. He has done very similar tug drive work before, but I have always held onto the tug toy, I have never dropped it on the ground. It definitely made him think!!

On a breed ring note, Kazee was an awesome boy last weekend at a local breed trial (okay, mostly awesome for those of you who saw him in the regular Group ring 😉 ). He went Select on Saturday and on Sunday was given Best of Breed, Best of Breed Owner Handled, and was then awarded an OWNER HANDLER GROUP 4!!! Very, very proud of my boy. 🙂 Don’t tell my husband, but the GCH title is looking pretty intriguing…2017-04-09 OH Group 4

Train hard, but play harder!

Journaling

I have to admit, I am horrible at journaling any kind of information. I never kept a diary when growing up and (I am little ashamed to admit) I did not even maintain baby books for my two boys…granted, I had twins and there was no time for sleeping, let alone journaling! But, with each dog I train, I tell myself I am going to start keeping track of my training, as well as problems and lightbulb moments. But, yet, I never did. I would start, with good intentions, but it never lasted long. But, I was determined this year to start maintaining a training journal for Kazee.

Recent research by the University College London says they believe it takes an average of 66 days to create a habit. Wow, no wonder exercising never became a “habit” for me. I could not even make the old theory of 21 days, let alone 66 days!

I knew a couple of things had to be in place for me to create this new habit for myself – it had to be convenient and it had to be portable. Enter technology. While I do carry a notebook and pen in my gear bag, it is much faster for me to do a voice to text memo or even type my notes, than it is to write them out. Plus, I wanted some other perks of doing my journal electronically.

As I have exclusively Apple products (iPhone and iPad), I found the answer in an application called “Day One”. They also have a version for your Mac computer, but that application is more expensive (and I record mostly on my iPad anyway), so I stayed with the mobile only application. If I train at home, I generally record my training data on my iPad, as it is easier to type on the keyboard. But, because I do not carry my iPad around with me in my gear bag, I can also journal on my iPhone, and everything stays synced.

I can set up multiple journals and record much more than just what I did during a training session. A screen shot of a journal entry from April 4th shows how much data is recorded automatically. It records the time of my entry, as well as my location and the weather conditions. If I do not write down something right away, I can go back and edit the time and/or location and it automatically updates the weather conditions to the corresponding time and location. You can also add “tags” to entries, to search for them later, although there is also a general search feature.

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Friends who know me, know that I can not even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, let alone when I started training a new skill. Journaling keeps you honest. You might think you have been training that particular behavior for four weeks, when truthfully you have only been working on it for two weeks. Also, if you work with an instructor, you can go into your journal at the start of a lesson and tell them exactly when you started something, problems the dog has been having, good progress or handling items, and lightbulb moments.

If I happen to record my training session, I can insert a hyperlink to the YouTube video and it embeds the video directly into my journal entry, where I can watch it from the Day One app, without going to YouTube. You are not able to save video directly into Day One, but you can insert photos directly into the journal entry. If you wanted to keep track of your ring setup on any given day, this would be a perfect way to do it.

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While I do not have these particular features set up, Day One can also be linked to other accounts, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And, if needed, you can password protect the application with either a numerical password or Touch ID. Do not worry about losing your data, as Day One automatically syncs your entries with iCloud and you can import/export the entire journal or just one entry.

Recording plans or ideas is as simple as doing a voice text directly into the application from my phone. I have also discovered, that as I record my problems, I come up with alternative solutions to address my issue. So, while I also like to talk through problems with training friends, I discovered that just writing my problems down helped me work through it.

While I am a not ready to say my journaling habit is carved in stone, I am happy to report I am well past the 66 day timeframe. Journaling has given me somewhere to do more than just keep track of Kazee’s progress, it has given me a place to write down my goals and a means by which to hold myself accountable for the way I train. Dog training is not all fairy farts and rainbows, sometimes our dog, or us, just has a bad day! Writing it down helps you vent. If you have a bad day, write it down, then either forget about it or come up with an action plan!!

Happy journaling!

** For those of you who have already asked, this is the exact app in the iTunes store –

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I do not know if there is something similar for Android phones. If someone is using something, please share the information in a comment!