Category Archives: Training Philosophy

Build focus, not exposure

We’re sailing this morning on the frequently ailing Queen of New Westminster, heading home from Vancouver Island. I usually spend the ride in my car, but today we’re parked too near the engines to make it pleasant and there’s no wireless service down there so I’ve headed upstairs to blogland.

The title of this post might have mislead you to think I’m going to discuss photography, but fear not, we’re still on topic; dog training.

Parked on the lowest deck at the front, where the larger trucks are, so there are few people around, I briefly considered bringing Zeke out to work in the space in the bow. That reminded me of how differently I approach training now, compared to when I first got Zeke.

People with new puppies are often advised to take the puppy everywhere to get him used to everything. I took Zeke out to every high stimulus environment I could, whenever I could. He was frightened with a few bad experiences and overwhelmed by everything. Why did I do that? At the time, that’s what I understood to be “socializing the puppy”. Just get him out and shovel the cookies in him, so he learns to love everyone and everything.

Susan Garrett’s Puppy Peaks videos of her puppy “Swagger” show that it’s not enough to simply “expose’ the puppy to everything. Instead, from the earliest age possible, you play games that teach him focus for you and the work, build his self control, build his confidence through shaping games, build the value for yourself and the work/play to the point where you can take him anywhere and he doesn’t even NOTICE the environment.

That’s the training method that has given her dogs who will work no matter where they are. And that’s the training method for me. So, unless I am absolutely confident he’s able to successfully tug on the front of a ferry car deck, I’m not going to set him up for a failure.



Seated here in the lounge, a fire is chasing away the freezing fog that has crept into my bones here in Portland, Oregon and a very nice Cabernet is warming me nicely from the inside. I am writing from the Doubletree Hotel, site of ClickerExpo 2012. There are lots of Canadian delegates here as well as people from all over the US.
This morning I attended a presentation by Ken Ramirez of the famed Shedd Aquarium. He explored the use of non reward markers. Those are the things people say or do when they want to communicate to a dog that they have made a mistake. Whether it’s Uh Uh, wrong, or Oops, he explains that they’re all really a mild form of punishment. Some very skilled trainers may be able to use them effectively, but in his opinion, most of us are not able to time them well.

If an animal makes a mistake, Ramirez uses a very short pause with no movement, almost a freeze. Then he continues, usually asking for a simpler behaviour that he knows will be successful, and then later, he may ask for the failed behaviour again.

So if an animal makes a mistake, the consequence is he doesn’t get reinforced and the game stops for just a few seconds. After that, just carry on.

Susan Garrett’s Games

Susan Garrett demonstrates a fun and effective way to teach “Stand” on her Facebook page. Worked beautifully with Zeke. Her method is in stark contrast to the way the stand is usually trained and performed.
I have learned so much from Susan Garrett’s blog, as well as from her Crate Games DVD. I’d do more, except I run out of hours in a day! I’d love to take her Recaller’s course.
Last summer I taught her Crate Games to my dogs. I gained a much clearer understanding of how to establish and maintain criteria; the “rules of the game”. I also gained dogs who enjoy their crates more and wait calmly in them or at other doorways for release.

If you haven’t checked out Susan’s free webinars yet, try them out.

Two words

Obey me. Now.
Something stands behind the commands,
Squared off.
Sword at the ready.

The word floats.
Colourless and clear.

It’s all just behaviour.
Invited, encouraged, sometimes ignored.
Enticed and shaped,
Fluidly changing.
Washed of any values,
freighted opinions
or fears,
behaviour is simply
what it is.

Mold it like clay,
Press your fingers into it,
a living work of art.

Stand over or stand beside.

Tug versus…

The ball!

Zeke’s toy of choice has been the ball for much of his life. This week, I’ve started working on changing that.
Many trainers recommend playing tug with your dog rather than throwing a ball for him. Tug offers more opportunities to teach useful self control behaviours, including giving up the toy and stopping and starting the play intermittently. The direction of the dog’s nose is mostly towards you and you become associated with the fun, rather than when he is chasing a ball away from you and greeting any number of environmental distractions in the world away from you.
Of course, there’s always lazy, rainy day ball where you can sit on the couch and toss the ball right into his mouth. That game also keeps his focus on you, depending on how good your aim is. But tug games have the advantage indoors too; because they take up even less space.

With tug, you are always pairing the sight of yourself with the pleasure of play. When you are throwing a ball you are pairing the pleasure of play with running away from you.

This isn’t an obvious problem unless you have a reactive dog. And I do, don’t I?
The part I miss is the pleasure of watching a beautiful dog in full flight, but that’s a small sacrifice for the greater good.

Denise Fenzi

Denise Fenzi is a renowned trainer who breeds high drive performance Belgian Shepherds. On her kennel website she has written some articles about ‘working temperament’. The following quote caught my attention, because it relates to my work with Zeke.

“Training a herding dog requires walking a fine line between encouraging and discouraging a dog’s natural drives”

“An “everyday” example that demonstrates this can be tested using a tennis ball on a very ball driven dog. Throw the tennis ball a few times and allow a natural retrieve. The next time, throw the ball and call the dog back when he is half way to the ball. Next time throw the ball and let the dog retrieve. Alternate these activities, randomly throwing with or without a call-off. Is your dog slowing down? Refusing to come before retrieving the ball? That might give you some idea of the challenge of training French Ring dog for the call off on the face attack. The dog is called off within 2 meters of the decoy, more than 50 yards from the trainer. In the ideal performance, the dog returns to the handler’s side as intensely as he runs to the attack.”

Denise Fenzi

Upon reading this very interesting section about protection dog training, I decided to see if I could call Zeke off his ball after I’ve thrown it.

Which is lovely because now I have another game to play.

Susan Garrett’s “Land of Do”

Susan Garrett coined this phrase and I love it. Instead of telling the dog what not to do, she suggests you ignore the behaviours you don’t want and teach them what you DO want. She’s been living in the Land of “Do” for a very long time and has had outstanding success with her dogs in agility and other dog sports. But best of all, she trains her dogs without damaging her relationship with them.

Many people say that they are positive trainers, but still feel the need to give negative feedback or punishment to their dogs. They tuck ‘clicker training’ and ‘rewards’ into their ‘toolboxes’ and claim that while positive training is all well and good, different things work for different dogs. While I’ll agree that there is no one size fits all training method, I know there is only one right value upon which to base those methods, both in training animals and teaching children. Respect the learner.

Can you remember when a teacher or other adult expected you to know something that you didn’t understand yet? Remember the feelings that came from that? You might have silently thought “Gee, I can feel you are frustrated, and I know you taught that to me yesterday, but I still don’t get it. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to screw you up and I’m not `blowing you off’ or deliberately disrespecting you. I just don’t get it yet. Could you please explain it again another way?” You’d have probably felt much too afraid to say anything like that out loud, though. Now think of how grateful you feel whenever someone is patient and shows you something yet again, maybe in a different way, without berating or diminishing you.

That’s the attitude I want to bring to my training. If my dog doesn’t do something I have asked them to do (or does something I don’t want them to do) I want my first thought to be something like “How can I help them succeed” and not “They’re just not trying, they’re bored, they’re blowing me off, they’re not listening, they’re stupid, lazy, dominant, etc.” Susan Garrett thinks of a dog’s mistakes as valuable information that they are giving you. I like that.

If I adopt the joyful attitude that when my dog fails to do something the way I want them to do it, I just haven’t explained it in the right way or practiced it in enough places or broken the task down into small enough parts or made it valuable enough to perform, then I have opened the door to infinite possibility. I have a deep well from which to draw ideas that will improve my ability to communicate with my dog. The responsibility remains where it belongs. On me.

But if I take the attitude that the dog SHOULD know it by now, or that they are just stubborn or any other number of explanations I can invent for why my dog didn’t perform, then I close that door. I have few options for training. I encourage resentment, resignation, anger and frustration in myself. The responsibility for good performance lies with the dog. Punishment (or ‘correction’) now seems reasonable.

Positive training is not positive because it rewards the dog. It’s positive because it offers us endless hope and possibility.