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Molecular Redistribution

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Here on my blog I generally talk about dog training, but on Facebook, I cover a good deal more territory.

The following conversation is one of a regular series of conversations that I have with my 13-year-old dog, Raika.  Some of our conversations are funny and some are sad, but many will ring true for anyone who has the pleasure, and heartbreak, of owning a dog coming near the end of her life.

I am placing this conversation here so that others can find it again, should they want to read it in the future, quite possibly when they find themselves facing their own dog’s molecular redistribution. You can find more by searching #Raika on Facebook or simply following me there.

Molecular Redistribution:

Raika: When I go through my molecular redistribution, I am going to give Brito my quietness.

Mom: Your molecular redistribution?  

Raika: Yes, when my molecules get redistributed wherever they are needed. I will give Brito my quiet voice. He sure needs it. And I think I will give Lyra my loyalty so she can help take care of you.

Mom: Raika, I truly have no idea what you’re talking about.

Raika: Don’t you remember your molecular acquisition day?

Mom: As a matter fact, I do not. Go right ahead and explain it to me.

Raika: Well, right before I was born, I got my personality molecules. My emotions, my habits, my clever nature; little things like that.  The bits that make me, me!

Mom: You did?

Raika: Of course.  Didn’t that happen to you right before you were born?

Mom: I have no idea. I cannot remember before I was born.

Raika: That has got to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard! I’m very sorry about that. Molecular acquisition day was probably the most exciting day of my life!  As each one came, I learned a little bit more and became a bit more me.  I found out that I was going to be witty and sharp and an amazing problem solver. Plus I knew I was going to be a little bit bossy. That’s why I pushed my way to the front of the line; I figured I better show my littermates the way out. No time like the present to get started on your destiny.

Mom:  Where did your molecules come from?

Raika: From dogs that have passed on. When their body is gone then their personality molecules get distributed wherever they are needed.

Mom: So they go to puppies?

Raika:  Not necessarily. For example, if an adult dog is grumpy, and if he is working on it, then he might get a cheerful molecule to help with his grumpiness, even though he’s all grown up.  Of course, the one that happens right before birth is the big one and sets the stage, but the distribution process never truly ends, which is why we can grow and change.  In short, the redistribution keeps all of the personality traits of the world in balance.

Mom:  Raika, I can’t believe you never told me this before.  So that’s what happens after you die? You go through a molecular redistribution? And you give all of your personality molecules to wherever they are needed?

Raika: Well I can’t say I know the exact process because my time hasn’t come yet. I know how we get them, but not how we give them away.  But when the time comes, I’ll give you a few molecules for sure.  

Mom: You can give me your molecules?

Raika:  I think so.  I think you might need some small bits of me to help you with the sadness.  And I’ll request that they be lodged directly in your heart, so you’ll feel me near.

Raika: Mom are you crying? Don’t cry!

Mom:  I’m not crying.  Just a little cold is making my eyes water.

Raika:  I’m sorry to hear that.  Maybe a walk and some fresh air will do you good?

Mom:  Yes, that’s probably a good plan.  And Raika?

Raika:  Yeah?

Mom: I think you’re right.  When the time comes I’m going to need those molecules. Probably a lot of them.  So don’t forget, okay?

Raika:  I won’t forget.  

The need for space

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I do a huge amount of training in my house.   I do that because it’s quiet, it’s familiar to my dog, and it’s convenient for me.     That is very much a winning proposition, and the convenience allows me to get in several tiny sessions per day if I wish to do so.

Unfortunately, after a reasonably short amount of time, I will have taught the behaviors that my dog can learn inside. Sit, down, stay, pick up an object, etc. I can add proofing, and I can add in fun little games, but at the end of the day…

I need space.

I need space to create behavior chains.   The way I get off endless cookies is primarily through behavior chains, and there are relatively few that I can do in my house.

I need space for play.   I like to build energy for work with toys, and I’m not willing to play tug or fetch with a 50-pound dog in my bedroom on hardwood floors.

I need space to bring joy to the work. Dogs like to move their bodies. If you want flow in your training, so that you and your dog begin to ‘feel’ the work, then you need to free up the dog to move and express themselves.  You can’t get that in your bedroom.

I’m not talking about the generalization of skills. It can be your own backyard or a local training building for all I care. I’m talking about movement; the joy that comes when the work becomes more interesting, and that includes running and movement. Expressing joy.

What if you have no space? You live in an apartment and there are no training buildings nearby?   The weather outside is consistently too horrible to train there?

I don’t know.

I’m serious. I would give you suggestions if I had them, but at the end of the day, if your goal is to get into any sort of competition with a freed up dog who finds joy in the work, you need to allow the dog to move so that it becomes part of the dog’s training habit.

I find it incredibly hard to get off a fairly continuous stream of reinforcement if I cannot move around freely with my dog. How you do that in your house? Well, like all things you can be super creative, but it’s not the same.

Personally, I like to incorporate movement into my training early on, with a puppy. I do it in my own training yard so that they will be comfortable, but it doesn’t change the fact that by the time a puppy has been here a week or two, a decent percentage of their training actually takes place in the yard.

Precision skills? In the house. Probably for the rest of their lives. Flow? Freedom of movement? Games? Fetch or toy play?  Developing a love of training independent of cookies?   Mostly in the yard or in any larger training space. A space with good footing for running.  Space where the dog isn’t always within 3 feet of a wall.

Give some thought to the percentages of your training which take place in an open space, and the percentage which take place in a closed space. Then consider what you use each of the spaces for.

Think about creating a plan to bring those two together.   If you do not, if you stay in your small home space and work endlessly on precision skills, you might find it extremely difficult to get off of the cookies and use the joy of flow, movement and training later on, when you want to go into competition.


The myth of ring experience

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If I had a dollar for every time someone said they were showing for ring experience, I’d be a very rich woman.

“Experience” can be a wonderful thing for creating comfort and enthusiasm for a task. When you train your dog on a regular basis and it’s really fun for both of you, then your dog is developing “experience” with training – which will create increased comfort and joy every time you do it.

If you train in a way that is unpleasant for the dog, then that dog is also developing “experience” but it will not be a positive one. Over time the dog will show more and more avoidance of training.

Both are forms of experience.

 So what about the dog show? Well, a lot of dogs are taken in the ring with the promise of cookies.  The owner has the cookies outside the ring and the dog is encouraged to assume that they will be available inside the ring as well. Unfortunately, your dog is about to learn that the rules are different inside the ring.

Okay, so no cookies but still praise, right? Yes, but not very often – only between exercises. And often the owner is so nervous that they forget. Plus, praise is actually punishing if the dog learns that it means no cookie is coming, a reasonably common result with too many training programs.

And the owner? Well, if the owner is nervous then there’s not much room left over to look out for the dog, who is starting to feel a little anxious.  

And what if it goes badly? Maybe the dog gets nervous because it is all so new, or maybe the dog never really had proper generalization and now begins to fail? There’s not much you can do except leave the ring, which most competitors are unlikely to do, even when they probably should. So the dog gets no help to be successful, no cookies, very little interaction, and a scared owner – all while being stared at by a judge.

 What, exactly, is there to recommend this experience to the dog? The promise of cookies? Who cares about a promise if it doesn’t materialize? Now you have disappointment to go along with the worry.

So how about for the owner; does the ring experience benefit them? It depends. Did the dog wander off? Refuse to work? Pee in the ring? Go into avoidance? Shut down? Run amuck? None of those are good experiences for the owner either.


How about if the first show is okay – the dog is still operating on the premise that the cookies will materialize, so sticks it out? Does that mean you made a good choice after all?  Not really.  How many shows until the dog figures it out? And if it begins to go badly, is the owner going to be more or less anxious at the next show? Probably more. Not to mention how the dog is feeling about the whole trialing thing.

Ring experience is no benefit at all unless it is a net positive.

So if ring experience isn’t the ticket to comfort, then what is?

 A well trained and prepared dog. A dog who knows what to do in a new environment. A dog that knows what the ring is for and looks forward to being there. A dog who has experienced every aspect of a show before that day (including no reinforcement, a stiff owner, silence, staring judges, tables, distractions, performing in silence, etc.)

There is no way we can (or should) try to make every training session like a trial – that makes no sense at all. What we SHOULD do is make sure that we introduce all of the possibilities, so that the overall impact of the show is as minor as possible.  That is what creates comfort, not random experiences.

And let’s not forget about genetics. The more stable and confident your dog, and the higher the will to please and working drive of the dog, the better off you’ll be. If your dog can learn to love working – simply to work and to be with you, you’ll have a lot more flexibility than a dog that is less enthusiastic about work or less interested in what you think about his performance.

Are you ready to show?

 Ah, the million dollar question! Before I show, I look for three things:
1. I’m downright surprised that my dog fails an exercise in a familiar space.
2 I’m downright surprised that my dog loses more than a second’s worth of attention at a match or run through.
3. I can’t think up any more excuses not to show.

Now, someone out there is thinking…it worked for me!  My dog was terrified and i just kept doing it…and he got better!

All I can say is that the exception proves the rule. Try not to use your personal experience to influence others who are much less likely to have your luck.  It’s a numbers game and when it comes to numbers, consider this:

The most common topic that people want to talk to me about in obedience seminars is…ring stress. Their dog is falling apart in the ring.  Started out fine and…got worse and worse.  I can count on one hand how many people said their dog started out a mess and got better.

Think about that.  The number one thing obedience competitors want to talk to me about.  And…the answer I give?

It’s the hardest problem to solve once it’s an established pattern.

Starting February first, I will teach a class called “Bridging the Gap; Reducing Reinforcers, Proofing and Generalization“. The goal of this class is to PREVENT ring stress and enter the ring with a well-prepared dog, but the route is the same if you already have ring stress and are trying to address it.  This class is targeted at obedience and rally students, since ring preparation is particularly important in these sports, though the concepts apply to many other sports as well.  This is the last time I plan to teach this class ‘live’, so if the topic is of importance to you then this is the time to take it.

I hope to see some of you in class!


Handling Errors: Help your dog!

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Recently, I wrote a blog on the meaning of silence.  I discussed how we risk inadvertently communicating to our dogs that they are wrong if we create an association between silence/no cookies and errors.  So what can you do when your dog makes an error, or when you strongly suspect one might happen?

You should always have a plan when you train; both for handling success AND for handling failure.  “Helping” your dog is one of my favorite options when I am teaching something new and where I fully expect errors to occur.

How might I teach my dog to do a known behavior (fetch) with a new object when I expect errors to take place?

In this video, I am asking Brito to pick up an awkward object,  so he’s probably going to drop it a few times.   When that happens, I will simply help him. That’s it.

“Helping” dogs has developed a bad reputation. People seem to think that if they help their dog when they’re struggling, then they’ll be stuck with a lifetime of helping their dog. Or that their dog will rely excessively on them. Or that somehow they aren’t being scientific enough in their training.  Or that their dog will never be able to do it without the additional support.

It’s up to you how you choose to train your dog; I’m not going to tell you what is right or wrong, but I will tell you this; I have a lot of experience with what works, and often helping your dog is exactly the right thing to do.

It communicates that you care. It communicates that you are a team player. It communicates that your dog is not on their own and that they can you look to you as a resource. It adds personality and energy to the training session, and that takes the focus off of the cookie! And possibly most important of all, your tone, and the way you help your dog, can communicate to your dog that you’re not the least bit upset with their errors. It’s just part of the process.

Let’s take a look at this video for an example:

Notice how much energy I am putting into the session; he makes plenty of errors, and I chatter and help him out!

And possibly most important, notice that when I “test” my progress at the end with a silent formal retrieve, he does just fine.

So, is that what you should do with your dog? I can’t answer that question; it depends on your dog and his temperament, the training you’ve already put into place, and the circumstances that led to the specific errors or situation. But I can tell you that it’s a viable option.

If you’ve never added personality to your training and you come on the way I did here with Brito, odds are you’re going to scare your dog. However, if you’ve always been an enthusiastic and engaged trainer, you might find that this is exactly the ticket to preventing your dog from opting out when inevitable errors occur.

Your options might range from a cheerful interrupter to different value of reinforcers to not even telling the dog they made an error, with all sorts of options in between.

If you want to learn more about handling errors, join me in my webinar this Thursday night, January 4th at 6pm PT.   To learn more about my webinar, follow this link:  FDSA webinars

Beyond The Basics: Unlock Your Dog’s Behavior

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Beyond the Basics Front Cover 5x5I wrote another book!  And right now it’s on sale for a really good price ($15.50) so you may want to look at it.

I do that on occasion.  Write books. Well.  Actually, I do that a lot.  I’m up to….eight!  But this one is a bit different because it’s about dog behavior.  It is equally well suited to the engaged pet person as the competitor.

Here’s a short write-up to give you an idea of what it’s about:

You are a dedicated pet owner or trainer who is willing to put a fair amount of time and thought into the process of changing dog behavior. You want to develop a training plan that accounts for your dog’s needs as well as your own, and that moves you to desirable behavior as expeditiously as possible!

By considering your dog’s emotions, overall health, and temperament and then adding a big dose of applied training skills, you and your dog can come to a place of mutual cooperation and behavior change.  Not only will this book help you understand your dog better so that you can pick the right training plan, it will also help you evaluate your decisions after the fact to ensure that you are, indeed, making progress towards your goals.

The first part of this book focuses on “Understanding”.  Understanding what factors influence your dog’s behavior and also how to apply training skills to your situation so that you can design a training plan.  

The second part is a series of case studies, focused on the problem behaviors of excessive barking and failing to recall.  Both are frustrating to owners, and both require a good look at the overall situation before deciding how to proceed with any given dog.

The final part of this book focuses on Evaluation.  Did you reach your goals?  If not, why not?  By walking through a systematic approach to evaluating both success and failure, odds are that success will be reached more quickly.

If you happen to subscribe to the Whole Dog Journal, you can read most of the first chapter there this month.  An easy way to get a preview before buying!  Plus, you’ll learn something about emotions and how they interact with behavior.

Through the end of the year, the book will sell for $15.50 on my website:  The Dog Athlete.  That’s pretty good!  Plus a couple others are on sale, just in case you’re trying to round out your collection.

If you’re in Canada, you can get the best price at Dog Books Canada.  Otherwise, please search Amazon in your country.

I hope you enjoy this one!


Removing your puppy’s desire to play fetch with you

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This blog is going to tell you the easiest way to prevent your puppy from ever playing fetch with you.

Why you would want to do that… I don’t know.   But I’ve had this conversation so many times that I thought I better put it out there. Either so you can remove the fetch if that is your goal, or so that you can avoid this mistake if you do not want that result.


If you want to teach your puppy never to play fetch with you, then include your puppy in games of fetch with your adult dogs. It’s that simple.

It works like this:

Take your young puppy out with your adult dogs who already play fetch. Throw the ball or toy. Your adult dogs will do what they have always done; enthusiastically run out to fetch! And your smart puppy will do the smart thing; chase the adult dogs and have a fantastic time with live prey!

If you think about it; at this stage of the game, it’s a win-win. The adult dog gets the ball, which is what they wanted. The puppy has a fantastic time chasing the adults and doesn’t risk the wrath of the adult dog by trying to actually touch a prized object.  And the human gets everybody exercised.

The problem shows up long term.  Your puppy is learning to focus on running dogs rather than objects that you want your puppy to value.  That’s not much good if your sport might involve working around other running dogs.

Your puppy is learning to ignore objects altogether.   In some breeds, I do not doubt that the adult dog will politely take its turn, holding back so the puppy can win. But I can tell you that my adult dogs have no sense of humor about sharing their toys with youngsters.   Plus, even if they would share, the puppy simply does not have the raw speed to keep up.

Your puppy is learning how amazingly fun other dogs are; even running away!  No focus on body language or reading the interests of the other dog, no focus on mutually engaging activity, and certainly no focus on you or where you might fit into the bigger picture. Mostly you’re the chauffeur.

And while this article will not go into the potential long-term issues, I’ll just throw something else out there.  Someday your adult dog might not appreciate having the puppy, now grown up, chasing after him. Or bashing into him.   Or circling him.  Or barking at him…

You get the idea.

My dogs live together as a group. I have neither the time nor the energy nor the inclination to crate and rotate dogs.  It works fine; they do not “bond” to the other dogs and ignore me.

But they play and train as individuals.  It may be fetching a ball, playing tug, engaging in personal play with me, or learning specific skills.   That is our one-on-one time, and it’s the highlight of their day – or I am doing something wrong.

When all of your dogs are grown-up, you may find that you can take them out as a group and play ball. That’s your choice.  But when they are puppies, think 100 times first.  Ask yourself:

What are you teaching and what are the possible long-term ramifications of this choice?   If you’re comfortable with answer, then carry on. If you’re feeling a little queasy, take this opportunity to rethink your strategy.





The behavior chain game

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Even a relative beginner to dog training can start creating behavior chains and there are some real advantages to doing so early in your training career.

Chains are endlessly more interesting to dogs than single behaviors.  As a rule, single behaviors rely on external reinforcers to make them worth doing; chains are interesting in their own right.  Chains allow for natural proofing early on because your dog learns to pay attention to be successful; it’s a game! And finally, chains reduce reinforcement; the dog has to complete multiple elements for one motivator at the end.

Here’s an example.  Let’s consider a dog that has the following foundation skills:

Pivot with a disc (TEAM1). Back up to a target (TEAM 1). Take a position at a target (TEAM1). Recall to front  (TEAM2 simple chain). Stay for a short period (TEAM1) and…fetch under distraction (TEAM3).

What can you do with those pieces?

A lot!

How about this: place your dog at your side on the disc. Throw your retrieve object straight ahead. Now, pivot on that disk 180° away from the object you just threw. Heel a couple of feet forwards and leave your dog. After a short hold, cue your dog to back up to the disc and then recall to front, include a finish, and send your dog to retrieve the object.

Could you do it? Did your dog pay attention? Was it interesting? Maybe you didn’t get all of it the first time, but a little here and a little there  and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your dog buys  into the “Behavior chain game.”

here’s a video example of a similar sequence.   Notice that these are simple, single behaviors that are chained together:

What else can you do with those pieces? How about if you add in additional TEAM1 level skills, like a send around a cone or a position change at a short distance?

Playing with foundation pieces in chains will cause the handler to “think differently” about training – not just teaching the “tested” behavior chains, but really reinforcing the individual pieces. And, possibly most important, the combinations are endless!

Go ahead and try it. Think about the pieces that you have and create a unique chain.  Share your chains on the Fenzi Team Players list on Facebook; let’s see your creativity!

If you’re not familiar with the TEAM titling program, you can learn more at Fenzi Team Titles.