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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.


The Sound of Silence

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Silence is a cue.  It means, “You are right; keep on with what you are doing.”

If you sit your dog, leave, and then face your dog, then your silence means he should continue to sit and wait; it is the cue to keep going.

If you send your dog to fetch and then wait quietly, then your silence cues him to continue – that he is correct in his current path.

If your dog is cued to sit, down, stand, and then to recall?  If you are silent between cues it means….

You’ve got it.  Keep going.  You’re right.  You’re a star!

So how do you teach it?

The same way you teach any cue; with reinforcement for correct behaviors under successively more challenging conditions!

If silence follows a single cue that you have given, like asking your dog to sit, and you want to reinforce both the sit and then the silence, then you will reinforce as such: sit, cookie, silence, cookie,  silence, cookie….

You are teaching your dog that silence means to continue on.

And in a chain?

That similar. Now you will give two cues before you reinforce. For example, sit, silence, cookie.  In that case, one cookie reinforced both cues; the sit and the silence.

And in a more complex chain; for example, the retrieve over the high jump?

You cue the fetch. And then you silently wait until the dog finishes. Your silence is the cue to the dog that he is doing it correctly.

Some people use praise this way. For example, sit, praise, cookie. Or fetch, praise, cookie.

That’s fine if your dog needs a little extra help getting through in the beginning, but long-term it’s a killer. It’s silence that your dog must value as “common” marker of correct behavior.

If silence comes to mean “wrong” beyond the earliest shaping/training phase, you may well find yourself with a dog offering a whole lot of behaviors anytime there is a pause between cues. That would be bad, and really, that’s pretty easily avoided. Just make sure that you reinforce the cue of silence the same as any other cue and you’ll be on your way.

If your dog makes an error with the silence cue, then you treat it like any other cue that is not executed property; what that might be would depend on the dog and how you train.  I’ll have a webinar on the topic of handling failure in January – there’s way more to that topic than I can handle here.

Train silence by reinforcing it, and soon your dog will find the Sound of Silence – Golden!

The relationship between Personal Play and Engagement

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This question comes up a lot, so I wrote a supplemental lecture for my online Engagement class on this topic. However, since I discuss Engagement on my blog quite a bit, I am sharing the lecture here as well.   I hope this provides clarification!

What is the relationship between play and engagement?   Do you need play to train engagement?

To answer this question, I want you to think about the game of fetch and its relationship to the process of training a formal dumbbell retrieve.

Does a dog need to play fetch in order to learn a shaped dumbbell retrieve? No, not at all. We shape the dumbbell retrieve and reward it with something else, usually food or a toy.

But a dog who plays fetch has a definite advantage in the final dumbbell retrieve exercise because when the formal retrieve training is finished, the odds that the dog will find the activity itself rewarding (the opportunity to fetch the dumbbell) goes up dramatically.

The same is true of engagement.

Engagement training is a trained process. We shape/train it with food and toys the same way that we shape/train a retrieve.

Play is an activity that the dog enjoys for the activity itself, the same as the game of fetch.

Eventually, all of these pieces come together in both activities.

After the dog has learned a shaped retrieve they begin to enjoy the activity for its own sake if they like to fetch things – regardless of a toy or food reward. It is also common for a dog that did not enjoy the game of fetch before the dumbbell retrieve was trained to begin enjoying it after the retrieve training is completed.

And the same is true of the relationship between Play and Engagement.  After the dog has lovely trained engagement, they may begin to enjoy the Play activity itself, even if they did not beforehand.  And if the dog did enjoy play before you started Engagement training?  That’s great too; it will get stronger as a side effect of the Engagement training.

But in the same way that a dog does not have to play fetch for fun to learn a dumbbell retrieve, a dog does not have to play with you personally to get trained through engagement.  Each one feeds the other.  And that’s good!

Is personal play/interaction a reinforcer?

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When I talk about personal play or interaction, I’m talking about the process of interacting with your dog without food or toys in a manner that is enjoyable for both of you, but rarely do I consider personal play a reinforcer.  So what does that mean?

A reinforcer increases behavior.

For example, you just asked your dog to perform a short stretch of heeling and it’s perfect!  So you tell your dog that was amazing, scratch his head or thump his sides, and repeat it.

What happens next?

If it’s a reinforcer, then your dog should zoom along with you and give you another good effort!  This one may or may not be as nice, but….the effort should be there.

And if it’s not a reinforcer then what might happen?

That would depend on the dog but as a general rule, each repetition will be less impressive than the last. Indeed, if the personal interaction signaled to the dog that food or toys were not going to happen, you might find the dog leaning away from your touch, in which case personal interaction has come to signal the loss of food or toys which makes it….a conditioned punisher.


So, you run out and perform this simple test and…voila!  It’s a mess!  After a few repetitions, your dog starts giving less and less effort (not a reinforcer) or actively avoids your touch (a conditioned punisher)

So should you bother with personal interaction?

Yes.  Because personal play and verbal interaction are relationship builders.  Dogs innately understand that people who talk nicely to them and pet them are friends.  (If you doubt this go hang out with four-week old puppies who have never been given food from a human hand).  Dogs seek out people who are nice regardless of the presence of food or toys, and dog/handler teams that have an interactive relationship have an easier time in the ring when no food or toys are present.

For example, my dogs enjoy interacting with my kids and greet them enthusiastically when they come home, in spite of the fact that my kids have never fed my dogs treats nor played with them with toys.   They find the interaction pleasant; a relationship builder.   My dogs will hang out with my kids if I am not home because they prefer their company to being alone or with a stranger.

So if my dogs had a choice between working with my kids or with a stranger they would choose my kids because they have a relationship. Would the work be impressive? Probably not because that generally requires reinforcers and a working relationship, which develops over time.  Here is my young son training Cisu:

Working for Approval

And in the ring, what do you have?

Whatever relationship you have developed with your dog.

If your dog avoids you when you don’t have food or toys, consider how that developed in training.  How did personal interaction come to be a punisher?

It’s possible that you only used personal interaction when no food or toys were going to follow – that’s a deadly mistake.

So what should you do now?  Condition your dog to understand that personal play or interaction PREDICTS food or toys – or possibly work if you are working on Engagement training – but take it one step at a time.

  1.  Work to find ways to interact with your dog away from training that your dog enjoys.
  2. In small doses, add that personal interaction to your training and always back it up with food or toys.
  3. Start adding a bit of work after the personal interaction but before the food or toys.
  4. Extend that process so that the dog begins to accept food, toys or personal interaction as all meaning ‘well done!’ I am pleased!  Our relationship is intact!

Even if the personal interaction NEVER becomes a reinforcer, you’re still ahead of the game.

There are ways to get in the ring with no relationship at all so you can choose one of those options if you prefer and if you are a talented trainer.  But…why?  It’s nice to interact with your dog.  It’s nice when your dog likes to interact with you.

If you want to get walked through this process in great detail, sign up for my online class “Engagement” and spend six weeks on this topic for $65.  It’s a lot to wrap your head around in a simple blog post, but I gave it a shot.









Problem Solving: Go back! and…

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I wrote this for the TEAM Player Facebook group but thought I’d throw it out here as well since it applies to all dog sports.

When you’re struggling to get a behavior, try this:

“Thoughts on problem-solving for TEAM:

Are you “Stuck” on a behavior at Level 2 or above? Try this:

If there is a corresponding behavior at Level 1, go back to working on it for a few days and leave the higher level behavior alone! Then “add complexity” to the lower level behavior.

For example, let’s say you’re struggling with pivots at Level  2 – your dog can’t keep his rear end in.

Go back to pivoting on the disc – a Level 1 behavior. Spend one day doing it exactly as is stated for level I competition.

Now, can you make it a little harder? For example, instead of doing 180°, can you make it 360°? Excellent! Can you do it with no cookie on your body? Super! Can you do it without the hand target above your dog’s head? You’re on your way! Can you do it when there’s a cookie on the ground nearby? Awesome!

This is proofing. Making it a little bit harder in manageable pieces so your dog becomes stronger at the base behavior.

Now, after you have mastered the above, go back to doing it off the disc – the Level 2 behavior. What happens?

Off the disc is just another form of complexity. You might discover that your dog is now a pivoting pro with no additional training 🙂

The levels were designed specifically to make this approach to problem-solving work well. That’s why we call it a training program; it will make you a better trainer.”

While the above statement was targeted at TEAM trainers, it applies to all sports and skills.

Struggling with your fronts?  Work on them with a platform but add distractions nearby or place your hands behind your back or stare at the sky or or or….  Then try it without the platform or the distraction – and see what happens!

Struggling with a full set of weave poles?   Go back to a much smaller number, and add guides if you used them in the initial training. Now add complexity! Hop like a bunny, or run backward, or hold your arms at weird angles. After a few days, try a full set of weave poles again, but this time remove the proofing elements. Did it help?

How about nose work? Is your dog struggling with endurance? Stop working on endurance! Instead, try some super easy hides, but add complexity. Maybe a distraction nearby like food in a box. Or work outdoors if you normally work indoors. Or leave your other dog loose in the house if you have one. Or sit on a chair! Remember though, the base behavior should be easier than the one you are trying to work towards. And when you are ready? Remove the proofing, make the challenge more difficult, and see what you have.

It’s amazingly effective . Give it a try!

On another note, next week is Fenzi Frenzy Webinar Week at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!  Starting on Monday, we’ll have a full week of Webinars to cover lots of topics that may interest you!  I’ll kick it off on Monday with Engagement, so I hope I’ll “meet” some of you there.  For more information, Check out our webinar schedule.

Remember, you can watch the webinar for at least one year from your “webinar library” even if you can’t participate live, but you have to purchase it before it runs! Each one is $19.95, and will give you a chance to get to know our FDSA instructors.  I look forward to seeing some of you there, and answering your questions about Engagement!


FDSA Podcasts

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If you like to listen then check out the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Podcasts. Each week you’ll spend about 45 minutes learning something interesting from someone interesting!

When you click the following link, you’ll see two greenish buttons – click the one for your phone type if you want to have future episodes downloaded automatically to your phone.  We now have thousands of subscribers…and room for more!

Or…scroll down and pick and choose what you’d like to learn about. We have 34 episodes to choose from!

Transcriptions are available for each episode if you prefer reading to listening.

Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Podcast





Is it time to take stock?

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Is it time to step back and take stock of your training?

On a typical training day, I head out of my house to my training area with whatever dog I want to train. I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to work on before I walk out the door, but mostly my plan is to build on whatever I did the day before, and hopefully, over time, that plan will take me a little bit further than the week before…

And then every once in a while I either run into a problem or I realize that I really haven’t taken stock in a long time.

When I say “take stock”, I mean put the dog away, step back and take a hard look at the various elements of your training.

It’s important to do this because sometimes we’re a lot like frogs dropped into a pot of cool water that slowly comes to a boil; we didn’t jump out of the pot because…we weren’t paying attention!  We didn’t realize that things weren’t going quite right. Maybe the problematic changes were very small or incremental.  Maybe we focused so much on teaching a particular skill that we hadn’t even noticed that our dog had lost motivation. Maybe we didn’t see that the problem we’d been battling for weeks or months was really the symptom of a bigger problem and not what we had focused on at all.

Is it time to stop and take stock?  Have you really stopped to think about your entire training plan?

How is your dog’s motivation?    How are your dog’s skills?    Are you doing a nice job of breaking training down into small bits that your dog can digest easily?    Is your dog opting into training willingly?     Is your dog physically and mentally thriving?    Is it obvious to your dog how their work affects what rewards will happen and when they will appear?    Have you realistically assessed your dog as an individual, and stayed within their abilities over time?  Do you feel good about your trial preparation plans so that either now or in the future, you can be successful in competition?

There’s no time like the present, so why not stop and think about these things?

If you’d like a systematic way to take stock of your dog’s current state of training or if you know that something is broken in your work but you’re not sure how to diagnose the root problem so that you can start working to fix it, join me for a webinar on this topic on Thursday, October 26, at 6 PM Pacific time.  There will be time at the end for questions.

Here are the details:

Denise Fenzi – Problems to Polishing: Evaluating your Progress

Date: Thursday, October 26, 2017
Time:  6-7pm Pacific Time (you don’t have to attend “live”)
Fee: $19.95 – Registration required PRIOR to scheduled presentation time.

Description:  In this webinar, Denise will consider what it takes to develop, maintain or rehabilitate your performance dog.  What factors do you need to consider when you’re not progressing quite as you’d like, but you’re not sure where the challenge lies?  By occasionally evaluating one’s training by comparing what we have against a set of standards that remain constant, handlers can find their weak spots and work to improve, making training more fun and effective for both the dog and the handler.

And if you’re already struggling with your training?  Think you’ll never get your dog ready for competition?  That’s okay too!   This webinar will also provide a framework for identifying where the challenge may lie and give you a starting point for getting back on track.

Suitable for all sports.

Note:  A recorded version will be made available in your webinar library 24-48 hours after the presentation.

Register here!