Wednesday, December 9, 2015

New blog site....

I've decide to update my blog to a new, dedicated website, instead of going through Google. Please feel free to check out the new blog site -

I will be trying to add posts regularly, including (hopefully) a lot of puppy training blogs and videos in the new year!

Happy training everyone!

Train hard. Play harder.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


You can not ask your dog to control his emotions, if you can not control your own.

Train hard. Play harder.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Taking a break....

I love to train my dog and I love to show. I work hard to pull good scores with my dog and impress judges with my “non-traditional” breed. Personally, I feel that if you train all the time, showing your dog a few times a year, your methods are not proven to hold up long term.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that money issues come into play, time away from family or work...all of these things influence how often people show their dog. Maybe you are working through an issue and do not want to show until you think the problem is fixed. Whatever the reason, it is still your right not to show your dog.

But, everyone needs a break sometimes and Gunner is telling me he needs one. While he’s had a good year, he’s not having fun right now. I’ve changed a lot of training requirements with him this year and I think it has affected his overall love for the game. So, I’m stepping back for a couple of months and reassessing what I expect from him. Fortunately, I decided not to enter the Classic this year and, honestly, at this point I’d eat my entry fee and stay home if I had entered. As well as he worked at that particular show last year, he could not handle the environment for stays; and it is not worth causing my dog undue stress to compete at a dog show. 

We have had some unbelievable highs this year, including numerous High in Trial and High Combined awards (earning both awards at our National breed specialty), as well as taking over the top OTCH spot in AKC history for the English Springer Spaniel breed.  This little dog has done everything I have asked from him and we still have more goals I would like to achieve.

I have no doubt that Gunner and I will come out next year ready for another competition year, but until then, I need to decide what is best for my dog. I need to decide what method of training will work best for HIS temperament. I need to decide what I am willing to sacrifice to maintain the attitude and desire I like to see from him in the obedience ring. We, as owners and trainers, know our dogs the best...but sometimes we just need to slow down and listen to them. 

Train hard. Play harder. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Criteria...the word of the day

Gunner’s new training has brought forth some new criteria. While I have always asked for high level work, I’m now insisting on some fairly rigid requirements on certain parts of exercises. This, however, sounds a lot easier than it is. It requires that I break down exercises (some all of the way back to the beginning) and reteach certain skills with the new requirements. I needed to explain to him what is and what is not the correct way to do something. And, in doing so, my criteria needed to stay consistent and clear.

Lets start with the definition of criteria - it is "a rule or principle for evaluating or testing something”. If you do not know what your criteria is, how do you know when your dog does (or does not) give it to you?

If you walk into the practice ring without a plan and without clear criteria, you are setting yourself and your dog up for problems. That does not mean a plan can not change, it can...and often does, depending on a lot of factors. Say, for example, your plan for the day is to work articles, but when you walk into the practice ring, it starts to thunder outside. Now, your noise sensitive dog is too concerned with the weather to even think about doing articles. What would happen if you stuck with your original plan and asked him to do articles? Articles have now become very stressful and your dog may start to make abnormal mistakes, which lead to even more issues. You have not accomplished anything and you could have actually made things worse. 

What is your criteria for articles? I’ll list some of Gunner’s criteria for an example. None of these are “new” criteria for Gunner, but it is an exercise that has a lot of pieces to maintain. These also were not his criteria when we first started teaching articles. 

  1. Set up needs to be crisp, perfect heel position and with focused attention on me.
  2. When I mark the pile, my dog needs to stay seated in heel position and look at the pile.
  3. Perform an attentive, left, 180 degree pivot to set up with our back to the pile.
  4. Maintain attention in heel position while I pick up and scent my article.
  5. Stay focused (and quiet!) in heel position when I hand the article to the judge and while they take it to the pile.
  6. Prompt and focused pivot to face the pile. No noise!
  7. Sit straight in heel position after pivot.
  8. Wait (with attention on ME) to be sent to the pile. 
  9. Go directly to the article pile at a fast pace.
  10. Work the pile quickly, without sniffing the mat and he must stay in the pile.
  11. Ignore the judge and other distractions.
  12. When he finds the correct article, he needs to pick it up cleanly.
  13. The correct article should not be set back down and he should not pick up or taste other articles.
  14. Come directly to a straight front, maintaining at least a crisp trot, without mouthing the article.
  15. Not allowed to drop his head on front, as he has a tendency to be a little possessive of fetched items. 
  16. Release the article when prompted, while maintaining his front. No leaning. 
  17. Finish promptly when directed. No sightseeing. Finish must be straight and in position, with attention. 

Wow, that’s a lot of criteria to maintain isn’t it?! So, what would have happened if my dog had started throwing out stress signals because of the thunderstorm outside? We probably would have failed criterion number 1 and, if I had kept going, we would have continued to have problems. So, instead, I would step back and work on maintaining some quality moving attention until he started to relax. I would also make a mental note to incorporate more noise work into my training and to start taking advantage of the (almost daily) thunderstorms by playing with my dog during these times at home. I would ask for quality setups and increase my reinforcement schedule to help him work through the stressor. If he started to relax and his focus increased, I would reevaluate whether or not we should do articles.

Now, say there is no thunderstorm. You walk into the ring, set up your dog with attention and mark the pile. But when you go to turn around, your dog drops his head and starts to sniff the ground. Your dog has just failed criterion #3. What you do about it depends a lot on where your dog is at in his training. If he’s a green dog, I will remind him that he needs to keep his attention on me and I will help him get back into position. I may ask him to repeat the requested behavior. However, if he is aware of what the requirements are, I may push him a little more OUT of position (to over exaggerate the error) and he may get a slight scolding. If I do not address it, I have now made criterion #3 very grey. 

Personally, I do not like grey criteria. I like to make it very black and white for my dog. He should know exactly when he is correct and exactly when he is wrong. And, I am not afraid to tell him each of those things.  I think it is much less confusing to tell my dog that he is doing something I don’t like, rather than let him try to figure it out by himself. I will always take the approach of correcting my dog. Because after all, correcting literally means to “make something right” or to “point out or mark the error in” something. How you correct your dog is completely up to you. 

What if you do NOT address the failed #3 criterion and you continue to work the articles? You have now told your dog it is okay for him to drop his head on the left about turn. Remember, you are ALWAYS training your are either training him how to do something correctly or you are training him how to do something incorrectly. Make sure it is the first one! 

Your criteria for articles may not be as long as mine or it may be even longer, but whatever your list includes, you need to make sure the criteria is very clear to your dog. Address anything you would consider as not meeting your criteria. If your dog gets stuck, look at your criteria. Does he understand exactly what you are asking? Have you allowed your criteria to change? Are you asking too much of your dog for where he is at in his training? What external factors are coming into play? Are you training or testing?

I asked someone today what their criteria was on a specific exercise....they could not give it to me. (But in their defense, I kind of sprung the question on them.) Can you list your criteria for each exercise? Maybe you should try. Because maybe, if you are having some issues on certain exercises, spelling out ALL of your criteria may help you find the hole you are searching for. After you find the hole, put together some fundamentals to help you fix it, before putting the exercise back together again. 

We ask our dogs to perform a lot of tasks during training, some of which are a lot more complex than they are at first glance. And, some of these tasks may not even be related to a specific exercise. For example, one of my criteria for Gunner is “don’t show me your rear” when he has been released from an exercise. Because honestly, if he shows me his rear, he’s definitely not paying attention to me. So, if this happens between exercises or drills somewhere, he’s going to get a little tag on his rear. He can spin or twist, but he needs to come back immediately with attention. He is also not allowed to self-release himself to food, toys or people.

Every handler’s expectation of performance and criteria for their dog will be different. What is important is that YOUR criteria for your dog is clear. And, as your dog’s skills progress, your criteria will also change. And do not forget that you have to uphold your end of the team as well. The criteria for YOURSELF as a handler should also change as you gain experience. Have others watch you or videotape your sessions to make sure you are accountable to your own set of criteria. :)

Train hard. Play harder.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The light is dim, but it’s there....

As I packed my cooler, the urge to grab string cheese, cut up hot dogs and leftover chicken was overpowering. My first “real” trial without any cookies for my dog. I swallowed hard and filled my cooler with drinks for both of us, but snacks just for me. 

Fortunately, this test was going to be at a location my dog was familiar with. This took a little of the stress off of me, but I was still left with a feeling that I was forgetting something. I packed my gear bag with my selection of tug toys and the things I needed for the trial. Dumbbell...check. Articles and gloves...check. Leash and collar...check.  The list was considerably shorter, now that I didn’t need 5 different types of food rewards and jackpots. 

Warmup for the ring was a little stressed. Gunner wasn’t super attentive, but I was able to get some good tugging and effort before going into the ring. Once we entered the ring, we were able to get into a flow. He knew what to do and things went pretty smoothly. He wasn’t looking outside of the ring, and his finishes were a million times better, now that he wasn’t concerned about the cookies that MAY be outside of the ring waiting for him. A car alarm had him a little concerned in the Utility ring, but he worked well and pulled a nice score to win the class. Open had some impressive dumbbell pickups, but also a failure to drop on the recall. But, I walked out happy, excited about the rest of the work and the commitment of his dumbbell pickups. (Open NQ run

All in all, a great first trial with our new methods. He had earned enough points with his Utility win to meet one of our 2015 have more OTCH points than any other English Springer Spaniel in AKC history. Maybe no where near the point levels in some breeds, but I didn’t care. I was ecstatic with his work and the effort that I saw. 

Sunday brought a little less effort, but I was expecting this. To him, reinforcement still meant food...which he had earned none of the day prior. Dumbbell pickups were a little worse and we had some attention issues in Utility (I think partially from the stress the day before with the car alarm). But, the finishes stayed good and I didn’t feel like I had to fight to keep him in the ring. We had skipped stays on Saturday, since we had busted the drop on recall, so Sunday was our first stay group. Traditionally, he earned a jackpot for doing stays. He came out of the ring and tried to head straight for his crate...and his jackpot, which wasn’t waiting for him. I redirected him and asked him to play with me instead. It was lackluster, but he finally played and stood for some back scratches while we were waiting for the scores to be finalized. First place and High in Trial...not bad, especially considering I had no idea of what to expect our first weekend out. 

There is no magic potion, no magic wand that can fix our problems overnight. But the light is a little brighter at the end of the tunnel. I may change the warm up slightly at the next trial. I may try to work in a few food reinforcements for some cued behaviors and some motivational pops. The jackpots need to stay gone (forever), but I also need to use the things that my dog finds highly rewarding. Practices are still highly tug related. Effort and speed are required on all exercises. Social drive is fostered and encouraged. 

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. It is easy to reward your dog’s work with a cookie, even if you make him chase it down and turn it into a little reward event. It is hard to get a dog, who has no desire to tug with you, to latch on and tug with conviction after a correction for looking away during heeling. Seemingly impossible to require a fast return on a glove pickup when you are outside working in the heat. But, requiring effort (without the promise of a cookie payout) is what is necessary to help solve our problem. I’m grateful for the friends who keep me on track and hold me accountable for my new training methods. No one ever said it would be easy, but it will be worth it in the end. 

Train hard. Play harder.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cookie rehab...

Does your dog view cookies as a bonus or a paycheck? I’ve had one of both. My GSD girl, Zita, loved to work with me. Verbal praise and physical petting made her wiggle with joy. She was a serious working dog and knew her job. To her, cookies were a bonus; they were simply frosting on top for doing a good job. So, when I got my Springer, I trained him the same way. If it worked for her, why wouldn’t it work for him? I’m sure you can see where this is going...

I’m careful with using cookies. I’ve heard (and seen) the trouble that arises from being dependent on treats. Yes, in the beginning, they are visible lures to help me develop muscle memory and shape specific behaviors and positions. But, they quickly turn into rewards. And, this reward isn’t simply handed to the dog. Instead, the dog is asked to “work” for the cookie in most cases, by doing a spin or a bounce, or even chasing the cookie down in my hand. So why was my ring performance starting to suffer? Finishes were getting slower and my dog was looking towards the ring gate. He wasn’t stressed in the ring (we’ve gone through that in the past), in my opinion, he was looking for his crate and his cookies.

About a year and a half ago, I started jackpot work with him. Wow, he thought that was wonderful. Give me effort and earn an exceptional jackpot. It worked, and worked very well...for awhile. Then, while I got sporadically great work in the ring, at other times it was (what I considered) subpar. I’d lost the crispness that I loved with this dog. However, when I exited the ring he was back to his “over the top” self. He’d offer spins, perfect heeling, perfect halts....because he knew the jackpot was coming soon. But in the ring, he was lackluster. He did well. Still won nice sized classes, still pulled some nice scores, but what I loved about showing this dog was not there. He wasn’t working for me, he was working for his jackpot. I knew things had to change. 

Enter “cookie rehab”...I reached out to Linda Koutsky, who is an exceptional trainer in Michigan. She has published work on rehabbing this particular problem and she believes in the dog working for the relationship with the handler, not for the cookies. She helped me walk through my problem and confirmed my belief that Gunner felt the cookies were the paycheck, not the bonus that my GSD had seen them as. So what does this cookie rehab involve? No food...EVER. Well, not really EVER, but no food was to be given for ANY formal component of an exercise. What?? No more spitting a cookie to my dog for a good front? I’m not sure who this was harder on....Gunner or me. Instead, I was to move to highly reinforcing “bridge” behaviors - like spins, through the legs and up into heelwork position and hand touches. The food could be used here, but no more jackpotting and no more rewarding exercises with food. This was to help change my "dog’s expectation about the jackpots and being fed” (Linda Koutsky). Food could come out on motivational behaviors or compulsion exercises and corrections, but that was it. Wow, this was a completely different method of training for me. It was a difficult concept to wrap my head around and I read my notes over and over again. (The tug toy, as well as personal praise and play, was also to be used liberally throughout this process, both as a reward and during compulsion exercises.)

A little background on Gunner....he is a pretty environmental little dog. He will tug like a demon at home or at places where he feels very comfortable, but these places are few and far between. So, how do I get this dog to tug, when he is unable to block out the environment to tug with me? I have to make him mad. Actually, sometimes VERY mad. I grab at him, I push him, I tell him that I’m going to “get him” as I’m going towards him with my hands out. I get him growling. (I actually have growling on command as a trick.) When he got mad, he would tug. Yes, he probably wanted to rip my arm off in the beginning, but he knew the tug was a better decision. Fortunately for me.

Oh my gosh, this was a lot of work, for BOTH of us. Training sessions were short, but a lot of hard work. But, I’m determined and the cookies stayed put away. I tried a couple of different styles of tugs. I tried a few different ways of making him mad. And, guess what? It’s working. He's forgetting about the cookies. He thinks tugging is fun, so much fun that I very rarely need to get him mad to tug anymore. 

I tried bringing the cookies out to work on some compulsion games the other day. His behavior changed immediately. He was 100% fixated on my mouth where the cookies were. He was springing at my mouth, anything to earn a cookie. I tried two compulsion exercises, I looked at my training partners, said “this isn’t going to work” and I ate the cheese in my mouth. Back to the tug. 

While I’m hoping I can bring a few cookies back into training at some point, he’s not ready yet. And, honestly, neither am I. Maybe when we get over the “hump” and he’s back to being committed to working with me, I’ll try again. But, maybe not. Maybe by then, I (and Gunner) will be so happy with the tug work that I won’t feel the need to reach for a cookie. 

There is no such thing as a quick fix. I am not going to be able to change this dog’s behavior overnight, but I do think we’re on the right track. The first few shows will be hard. There is too much background of jackpots and cookies to be erased overnight. But, I can see the glimmer in my dog’s eyes again....and I love it. 

Train hard. Play harder.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Stop micromanaging your dog

While training with someone the other day, I watched them continually telling their dog to set up for an exercise. The Golden was staring at me adoringly and was trying desperately to make his way over to say hello. The dog was completely ignoring his handler and was watching me wherever I went. Because of this team’s issue in the ring, I did what I would normally NOT do. I watched the dog and smiled at him, inviting him to me with my body language. I did not call him, I did not motion to him, because it wasn’t needed. 

After watching the frustrated handler for a couple of minutes, I interrupted him and asked him why he didn’t just let the dog leave. Of course, the handler gave me a very odd look and responded with “What?”.  This is not a green dog, but rather a dog working on UDX legs in competitive obedience. The overly friendly dog knows exactly how to set up for an exercise, he just would rather go over and say hello to the judge.  

Assuming you have laid the proper groundwork....let the dog make a decision. If the dog makes the wrong decision, simply tell the dog what was expected and ask him to try again. If he makes the correct decision, tell him how wonderful and smart he is, then break off for a quick game of tug or a few cookies. 

I wish I would have video taped the short time we worked with this dog, as he quickly grasped what was expected of him. 

To show the handler what I wanted him to do, I called in another person (who the dog loves) and I had her sit down on the ground. I let the dog know I was now working with him and moved towards the setup spot. The dog saw the other person on the ground and off he went!! I quietly walked towards him, said “oops, where did you go?”, while I took a hold of his collar with both hands and walked backwards about 10 steps while I talked silly to him. I then released him and told him how smart he was. I moved towards the setup again and off he went!! I repeated my quiet correction. When I released the dog this time, he jumped up on me for a scratch on his shoulders before we headed back towards the setup spot. All of a sudden, he ran forward...then stopped and looked at me. Yes! Same quiet correction, but less hands on his collar. Fourth time to setup and he stayed with me while we setup for the exercise. 

Next, we repeated the same drill with his owner handling the dog. He had to repeat all of the steps that I did, as the dog tried to leave him several times to go say hello to the person on the ground. The hardest part for this person was not saying anything as soon as the dog left him. No hollering the dog’s name, no saying “come” or “here”, just letting the dog go, then walking to him and communicating what the dog did was incorrect. The last setup they attempted was perfect. Beautiful attention, with an upbeat and animated dog. I told him to release him and go give the dog a reward....and then quit! Don’t try to do another one. Put the dog away in his crate and let him think about what just happened.

Obviously, when in the show ring, I would recommend that the person call their dog if the dog tried to leave them. However, if this drill is practiced and enforced consistently, he will get a much better response from his dog when he does need to use a verbal command. 

This same drill would apply to dogs who self-release themselves to run for their rewards. Let the dog go...then fix it. Even if the dog got to their reward before you did (hopefully the food is unattainable if the dog does this), simply walk to them, take the reward from them (tug toy, etc.) and drop it on the ground, take a hold of their collar gently while you walk backwards, quietly telling them how silly they are and how they are supposed to stay with you. Then release the collar, but make sure you stay engaged with your dog. When your dog stays next to you, tell them how wonderful they are and try again. 

If done correctly, your dog will not deflate or lose attitude. If anything, your dog will become pushier and more animated because they now understand exactly what is required from them. Stop micromanaging your dog and make him accountable for his decisions. But first, you need to let him make a decision. 

Train hard. Play harder.