Category Archives: TRAINING TIDBITS

Thinking about dogs…

Start at the beginning

When it comes to training something new, it’s really surprising to find out how slicing down those first moments into super easy requirements pays off. Many people feel like making things so simple will compromise progress. But, in fact, it works the opposite way! Let’s look at a pretty involved project of training a dog to perform multiple, unexpected positions on a treadmill.

At first, most dogs aren’t going to be comfortable with this ‘crazy noise machine that moves strangely’. And I know a lot of you would try things like luring the dog straight onto the belt as your 1st step. It might even work out that you have a happy dog in a short while, marching along with his tail wagging. Some dogs (dare I say most?) would experience quite a bit of fear and unpleasantness with this approach. So, with experience as my guide here, my first goal didn’t involve turning the machine on…nor did it require the dog get on. They didn’t even have to touch it with a paw.

My first goal is to convince these dogs to LOVE the treadmill, to teach them that the machine is the source of fantastic reinforcement. Nothing else. I am not going to wait or ask for more. I’ll even interrupt the dog who’s ready to jump on by clicking the approach and throwing a treat the opposite way for a bit. Depending on a dog’s experience and skill at learning new behaviors through shaping, I’ll raise the stakes to touching the machine, then bearing weight on a foot on it…but, even with the most experienced dog, I will start by just rewarding approaches and investigation with enough “payment” (i.e. rewards) that the dog’s impression of the treadmill becomes, “I like this thing. Let me at it”.

How basic do I make those first steps? I don’t stand by the treadmill and try to pull the dog toward it. Instead, I sit in a chair (casually placed in the same room) and let them show me what they would do. ANY investigation of the apparatus earns a click followed by the treat thrown AWAY. Away because it relieves any pressure this new item may be putting on them. Running away to collect a treat is doubly reinforcing because it’s relief from any demands to do more, and, obviously, because it’s delicious food.

After chasing down that treat, the dog naturally turns back to where they just earned a treat, and can approach right up to the distance she was last comfortable at to earn another, pretty much “free” treat. What happens in the wake of these freebies, is, the dog figures out what earns, and starts running back faster and closer in an attempt to get treats out of me more quickly. Do that enough times and Voila! Now you can raise your criteria (which your dog is already offering)…but still only raise it a hair!

It’s so easy to get greedy. It’s reinforcing to YOU to see your dog climb up on the machine. Sure, you could probably have the dog walking on the belt in one session, but, I guarantee you that in a couple months, the dogs that started out slow will be much more confident than the coaxed dog, and likely will be dying for a chance to play the easy treadmill game. This quality of the performance makes all the difference in your and your dog’s enjoyment in training. Enthusiasm usually can’t be added in later if you don’t build it from the start. It’s counter-intuitive to realize this without experience learning that doing less will get you so much more in the long run. And, starting at the beginning actually takes less effort in the long run.

Zeal, who is usually very timid about putting his body on new surfaces, ran back from eating a treat and jumped on. I clicked before he landed, and threw the treat off the belt. Soon, he was happy jumping on and off from every direction, and we were able to next work on various positions where he has 2 feet on and 2 feet off. It’s important that he learns all these positions without the treadmill being turned on. Yes, it’s involved. But, ultimately, the goal is for him to move in a relaxed and healthy way while stepping in unusual ways. So, it takes a considerable amount of time to build this up. Not because we couldn’t turn on the belt sooner. But because I want him to be totally comfortable around the treadmill before the next big scary step: the moving belt.

Turning it on for the first time, start by rewarding for the same easy steps from the 1st day.  Take as much time as your dog needs to feel comfortable. Abandon your goal of exercising your dog already on the machine, and teach your dog in a way that allows him to build confidence. Build from approaching, to touching with a paw, to bearing weight on a paw, and position yourself straddling the belt to prevent the dog from hopping on with all 4 feet. Allow your dog to stand on with his hind feet on the firm ground and give him time to understand how this moving belt works. Let him choose to get on and walk with his front feet. Keep rewarding the dog by throwing the treat away from the machine. For most dogs, this moving contraption will occasionally startle your dog during these stages, and you don’t want to give your dog the ultimatum of having to put himself at risk to collect the treat held over the belt. Here’s where you’ll really see the payoff of “relief”.

Only after your dog starts to move on the belt without fear should you consider rewarding them while they are actively walking on the belt. It could take anywhere from a number of days to weeks to get to this level of comfort. Don’t rush it. Unless using the treadmill is a passing fad, you want to solidly develop all the movements so that you can really use it for conditioning exercises. By the way, most human treadmills are too short for medium and large dogs to walk/run with 4 feet on. You could train them to an unnatural, shortened gait. However, you can train a number of variations with a simple human treadmill.

But, back to the point. If you want to develop a dog’s work ethic, you can’t just throw them into a situation and ply them with treats and think that you’ve built something reliable. Using positive reinforcement well involves more than just feeding your dog lots. The how and when and placement of reinforcement along with the selective additional environmental challenges makes a big difference.

Likewise, you can’t use traditional methods and correct a dog who isn’t paying attention or working for you and achieve a strong work ethic (that’ll earn you a dog that doesn’t totally trust/enjoy working with you). A dog trained that way only behaves so long as you have “controls” in place. Take away the leash and fear of you (usually achieved by a enough distance from you), and your imagined power over this dog fades fast.

You’ve got to use good training strategies, build value along the way, remain your dog’s friend throughout, and prepare him for challenges. The only way I know how to do this is to have the dog be an active participant in the learning process. There’s so much more to it than just “obeying”. A very “obedient” dog that never developed thinking is often trained to be dumb. But, a dog that makes choices throughout the training journey, with criteria adjustments made neither too difficult, or too easy for too long, becomes a very clever “kid”,  because he’s practicing learning all the time. This is fun for a dog. And, purely for the sake of this fun, such a dog wants to work, and a work ethic is born.

Are you responsible with toys?

As the brains of the operation, it’s your responsibility to do what you can to keep your dog safe in life. You’re probably not going to make obviously dangerous choices, like walking off-leash next to a busy road. But, do you realize there are a lot of other ways your dog is at risk where you can help? In a previous post it was mentioned, in addition to what any smart athlete knows, that you may have to be clever about what sort of toys  you choose for your best friend. Why, you may ask. Well, that’s the situation in which many injuries happen.

My younger girl will shred her body in hot pursuit of a ball. She finds a ball intoxicating. To understand why, think about the nature of how prey moves, and how a bouncy ball behaves. A ball (or other erratic bouncing toys) explosively launches followed by intriguing bouncing changes of direction. Customarily, you’ll throw the ball away from the dog for a chase, not towards a dog. So, right off the bat, some dogs will rip after that ball so hard that they’re straining their muscles. Micro-tears occur with intense movement, causing tiny breaks in  a muscle, and can go completely unnoticed.  Not all dogs suddenly accelerate with abandon, but many do. Is your dog one of them?

Next, the ball begins to decelerate, the dog is gaining on it gleefully, and here comes the bounce. Perhaps now that your dog is getting close, she’ll put out extra strain for speed, all the while studying where that puppy is going to bounce. What happens next? Does it hit a surface that causes a surprising change of direction? Most dogs don’t sit idle and let it pass, but find reserves for a new burst of chase. For many, that unexpected twist of direction makes the ball even more interesting! After a series of those movements, there’s still the pick up to contend with.

Even a perfectly mellow partner who’s not going to do anything too crazy on the pursuit is at risk if her motion during the pick up doesn’t go down just the right way. This is where you can help. You can choose toys that encourage better body use. You want to eliminate the extreme nosedive that a small item demands. Dogs often go from running all out to slamming on the brakes with a head dip to achieve the pick up. This causes notorious injuries to the shoulders and/or back of a dog’s neck, directly connected to the oh-so-important spine. Occasionally, you’ll see a dog somersault with too much momentum to accommodate the sudden stop, sometimes they’ll scream out in pain when they do this.

So, what’s the answer? That depends on the dog. My 1 dog cuts and twists and  and changes direction so extremely that she comes up lame after a single game of chucking a small ball. So, for her, no tennis-sized balls. Period. Well, not for fetch. Because they’re such high value in her book, I can surprise her with it during training to make her love whatever behavior she’s learning (because in her mind, it equals the ball!). Since I know her tendency is to react spastically, I can temper the way that I deliver the ball. If she needs running and exercise, we choose discs.

There are a lot of different flying discs out there, and we use a variety. Certain cloth ones float very slowly, but can’t be used when there’s a bit of wind, but it’s great indoors (no hazard when you hit the furniture). Not all cloth discs float. And in my experience, the larger the better if you want it to actually fly.  My all-time favorite is the West Paw Zisc, either size. They fly well, they’re easy to pick up off the ground, they don’t damage your dog’s mouth (even if you whip it right into their kisser), they can handle wind and pretty tough teeth. The actual disc dog sport discs come in a variety of designs, some go REALLY far, all are shaped with curves that keep them really stable for ideal flight style. They’re great for those qualities, but you’ll probably see blood from time to time (more so with some dogs) because they cut their mouth and tongue, or bite their tongue. I never see this with the Ziscs, by the way. If you do use disc dog discs (Hyperflite or Hero are common brands), make sure that you don’t let your dog gnaw the edges into razors (they are brutal when that disc spins with speed) and you may be able to shave off the pointy bits, or just replace them. If you go that route, people usually by a whole set, and then you can add throwing one disc after another in rapid succession to your game (and might be less hesitant to throw away the toasted ones). I also really love Aerobie’s Superdisc because of how well it sails and floats. BUT, it is not for the dog who hasn’t learned to not destroy the disc. These toys are not for your dog to be left unattended with, though you probably wouldn’t need to worry about leaving the Zisc around. For longevity, the Ziscs outlast any other, and the company will even replace your 1st destroyed one for free (it usually takes us about a year to poke a tooth through, which then becomes a growing split (and you can still play with them punctured!)).


  1. Choose the right shaped, and structured toy for the mode of play. If fetch is really high on your wishlist for exercise, can you shift that game onto a larger item (that doesn’t require severe deceleration and a head dip to pick up) or a totally different style of toy that floats through the air?
  2. Throw less distance. If you toss it or bounce it right near you and your dog, your dog won’t be at much risk of injury and you can still get a little of that satisfying jumpy, bouncy action.
  3. Teaching your dog to retrieve is immensely useful…not just to keep you lazy, but to build an interest and understanding in a productive way to interact. What’s cool about adding this to your games is, if you do this correctly, your dog will transfer the value of the toy chase to the behavior of retrieving. You’ll basically brainwash your dog into thinking retrieve is also super fun, and worth playing even without much of the chase. That’s a skill I’d love to help you with. There are some details to making sure YOU train your dog, instead of your dog training you to go get the toy ;).
  4. And, do I need to mention the hazard of your dog sliding into a wall while chasing? This is a big problem on slick floors. Broken toes are one of the hardest injuries to bounce back from, so don’t take this lightly. Your dog is even more at risk if he has long toes.
  5. If you want more exercise, you can train your dog to send away from you and run around trees and have them race back and toss when your dog is returning. You can retain a little of the chasing fun by throwing the toy ahead of your dog’s line, but now you can decide when to throw, thereby controlling (or waiting out) your dog for a suitable speed and approach. Here you can make the toy more interesting by throwing it in a way that increases vertical action (like throwing it hard at the ground so it bounces more, or lobbing it in time for your dog to slide right under for the catch).
    1. OR, my personal favorite, have your dog run back to punch the toy out of your hands. Hold the toy out so your dog can leap through the air, punch the toy, and keep running (don’t hold it in front of you and slow the dog down by standing behind the toy). Another variation, if you dare, is to hold it between your legs in a wide stance, and let the dog grab it while blasting through. This is not advisable if your dog is taller than your leg clearance.
  6. You can send your dog ahead before you throw, cutting the distance and speed somewhat, and wait for your dog to look back so he gets a good sight-line on your toss. If your dog can predict the path of the toy in advance there should be less threat of injury because there shouldn’t be as many sudden and extreme changes of direction.
  7. The ground can get really hard. Depending on how the weather has been, it might be a bad idea to let your dog run all out on packed, dry earth. Also, dry grass can be really slippery (there’s no running of agility on dry grass in my yard). And have you ever tried WALKING on gravel barefoot, no less running? If conditions aren’t right, then you ought to control the amount of concussive force with which your dog is hitting the ground. That may mean making some hard choices about curbing your dog’s play. Maybe this is the time to find some water for swimming??
  8. Another thing that you may not have heard of or believe, is that tennis balls will destroy your dog’s teeth, especially if your dog likes to chomp on it. I didn’t believe it because it hadn’t happened with any of my dogs for 20+ years. You can get tennis balls for free, so I had a bad habit of losing balls on hiking trails, without much concern, until, one day when it was too late. My youngest dog’s canines, flattened to almost half their size, convinced me to eliminate them completely.
  9. And whatever you do, try to avoid throwing a toy that competing dogs will chase and potentially, unseeingly, crash into each other trying to catch! Have multiple toys so every dog can get one, even if they abandon all but one (in which case, you may need multiples of the same toy). Usually you can stagger your throws, waiting for dogs to get far enough from each other, and throw closer to 1 dog at a time. Hold off when they’re neck and neck. You might even pretend throw various times to get some distance between them. Some dogs don’t see one another, some dogs will use that moment of distraction to jam into another dog, bullying for power. Still others will scuffle over who the toy belongs to once they arrive. None of these are pretty situations, nor or they necessary.

You owe it to your dog to be smarter about the trouble you let him get into! Don’t learn the hard way.

What about the dogs your dog plays with? Well, that’s a whole other subject for us to talk about.

Shrek: 2nd Edition

Don’t let a question about how to enter an event prevent you from getting your entry in on time! After missing my first opportunity to enter RFE Musical Freestyle Worldwide Event in November, I finally got a chance to enter not one, but 2 video events that came up in Feb 2015. For one, I submitted “Our 1st Routine” attempt that is posted on the site. For the 2nd entry, I was ready to try another attempt. Turns out, I’ve learned a lot in the last 4 months! Because the choreography I chose wasn’t as supportive of my little girl as it should be, I redesigned it on the fly. Not only that, I haven’t practiced one of the difficult skills: sitting up at a distance after backing away from me (while I simultaneously back away from her (counter-motion is really counter-intuitive for dogs and requires great confidence)) because I’ve been working on marching and building my next routine. Well, I pulled it off, with the entire second half reworked.

Following that video attempt, that left me again humbled by how hard this sport is (when done well), I started thinking about how this sport and I may just be destined for each other. And I decided to, at literally the very last minute, join another Freestyle organization and enter a live competition coming up in a month. They also have quarterly video competitions, so, I got to work videoing for that. By a half a week later, I got a pretty decent video, especially when you consider that it is pretty raw. Unfortunately, I can’t share that video with you because it is against the rules of their organization (part of my hesitation in joining them).

Before the Freestyle bug bit me hard enough to convince me to invest the time in competing, I’d settled on the idea to surprise and delight the public with demos instead, and hopefully attract students who want to have fun with their dog. So these video tries (and believe me, there were some bomb attempts!) ended up being very handy to get us tuned and and aware of how much preparation we needed for upcoming live events. Although I’ve been working this pup in tough environments and gaining the skills to perform in public, under pressure, around all sorts of distractions, that alone wasn’t enough. An attempt at a video could go horribly wrong without any pressure, in a familiar environment. So, we really are invested in proofing and learning and doing what we can to equip ourselves for this demanding task. And I’m proud to say, I think we’re ready…I wouldn’t bring a dog out if I didn’t do everything I could to help her be. Here’s how it went:

Freestyle is hard!

About our 1st routine: Shrek

Dog dancing, or freestyle, is a sport so packed that it is claimed by many (myself included) to be the hardest dog endeavor there is. The goal is to have the tricks cued by verbals so that you can choreograph and do alternate (and sometimes counter) movements yourself. I’ve videoed this routine a number of times, and each one has some point(s) where something goes other than planned. It’s a fascinating study of behavior and learning.

One of the first little chains I wanted to use was backing away from me and then sitting up at a distance. I chose it because it was solid, and a hard skill (that I wanted to showcase). It was so solid, in fact, that I can back away from her the opposite direction, for a long distance. And sitting up is a trick she’s done since puppyhood. We also practiced the chain regularly and it was pretty fluent. It’s inherently difficult because of the distance, the counter motion, and then the anticipation of the sit up cue, followed by the anticipation of running forward once released from the sit up (which is really a “fancy stay”).

Throughout the evolution of the routine, though, this little sequence of behaviors went through a number of stages. It got so bad it had to be pulled out of the routine and trained on its own, slicing the chain down to its component parts, totally away from where we practice our routine. After trying unsuccessfully to “repair it”, my strategy was to just give it a break. Let latent learning do its thing and remove the pressure. In the routine, we skipped it entirely for a while.

What I learned is: this is common. Now, there are plenty of people pursuing the sport with untrained behaviors. Those will, of course, fall apart. But, at the risk of sounding too full of myself, I don’t think that was our problem. I know how to train, I know when things are incomplete/untrained, I have a good perception of how my position and movement effect a dog’s understanding/perspective (agility remains a huge training focus, and those qualities are inherent to the sport), and how those things can contribute to failures and successes. But she knew these behaviors. Could perform them under pressure, in multiple environments, in different positions relative to me, on verbal cues alone…although anticipating the sit up might waver. Was that enough of a crack to cause it all to topple?

When trying to repair a situation like this, you’ve got to be careful. Push too hard and your dog starts hating it. Some dogs come to hate the song you’re using, might develop an unwanted emotional/biological reaction to hearing the cue, or shut down in some other way. If need be, you might be better off to just permanently remove something and alter the routine. You’ve got to be willing to let things go. That is not a bad idea. But, for me, this was a fascinating degradation of behavior, and experimenting with it was worth more than the routine. I care more about understanding how animals work and learn, and this was ripe for a study.

I had a hard time giving up on the behavior and putting it “on a shelf”, even for a little while. But she was so mixed up, and I simultaneously had a competition coming up where I needed her to perform a single paw lift that I wanted to tidy up to be purely verbal, so I finally shelved it. However, I’d kept pulling it out every now and then to see where it was at. We focused on different things for a while, and then started to ease back into just the backing up part.

Backing up morphed into a behavior that had a limit of about 4 steps. Incidentally, this is generally how an average person trains the skill: dog backs 4 steps, stops, persons marks and rewards. That dog believes the skill is back up AND STOP after __ number of steps, not back up until you hear a mark, when you throw the reward to the dog who’s ideally still in motion. We didn’t begin training the routine with this limit, but it was sure cropping up during our “repair training”. A huge challenge with the predictable number of steps is that if you wait for more steps, and your dog doesn’t ever offer them, they get frustrated and usually stop (maybe run forward/offer other behaviors you’ve been working on), and you have only so much frustration to play with before you have to fabricate or settle on a success. In this situation, some would say ask for an alternate behavior that the dog knows well and reward that. That’s something to try, and probably the only option when things are this far gone. I believe that the problem with that strategy is that you don’t get the understanding about the failing behavior to develop, so it’s not my first response, I employ it rarely. But if your dog is dying for some sort of success, by all means.

Eventually we built her duration of backing back up. But it wasn’t easy. Timing is really critical and can screw things up if you don’t get close enough, often enough. And, ideally, the verbal cue should initiate a non-stop reversing, on a single command. But I leaned on repeating the cue to help get over the hump; uttering it right before she’d usually stop, and then looking for times where she continued on her own and making a huge deal about it (jack-potting). Also, I believe praising in motion helps. It might initially confuse your dog, thinking she got marked and can stop, but hopefully delivers the information about what the right choices are—to keep backing up.

Separately, we needed to address sitting up. Keep it sharp and keep her listening for the cue, not just defaulting and offering it because we were practicing it recently and she’s been rewarded for it a lot. And dare I mention that the sitting up behavior I taught involved the criteria of sticking her front paws in the air? I totally forgave that criteria for a while. That was one battle I didn’t pick, though when you sit down and analyze, you see that there are a lot of options about which battles to pick, and who knows what every best choice is.

Beyond that, sitting up needed to be snapped back into the chain of behaviors. And I’m a stickler for not letting a dog guess what the next piece of a chain is. It wouldn’t be useful for her to insert the sitting up whenever she felt like it. You can let a dog get patterned, but with my agility background, I rather have responses to cues than a patterned dog. So, drills included backing up and asking for alternate behaviors occasionally, not just sitting up. Whew, that’s a lot of work already…and that’s just a few tricks being trained outside of a whole routine! Can you see and appreciate how hard freestyle can be? Even more so if little to none of the routine is patterned, and each behavior is a response to your unpredictable cues!

When the problematic chain started to look strong enough, tested away from the routine, it was time to start working it back in. By the way, in case you don’t know, trainers are rarely supposed to practice a complete routine. The protocol is to train segments thoughtfully. My plan was to reward a really nice backing away, placing the reward BEHIND her. Because it’s already difficult to back up while I move the opposite direction, the last thing she needed was the idea that next she runs forward for reinforcement.

I’d occasionally practice the routine with the reverse into sit up with duration (there’s an expected “Stay”). Then, I’d release her but instead of continuing with my routine, I’d release and send her to a toy behind her hanging on a fence or toss the toy (or hunk(s) of meatball) to her right in position.

In the finished product, the routine involves her being released from that “fancy stay” to come forward, circle around me, then comes a send forward to circle around a prop. Dogs naturally find it much more rewarding to run forward and race around something (especially this dog), and being in closer proximity to the handler makes a dog feel more secure. That was why I picked this super difficult maneuver—I wanted to show off. But, that anticipation of running forward to be close to me, and race around me and then an obstacle was too much to not tear apart that backing away to nowhere skill. It would have been easier if she backed up to a target/mark. But I never ended up experimenting with that for the repair. I have this thing I probably picked up from agility training where I want the dog to be able to follow commands midst changing contexts. I hope I didn’t make it harder than it needed to be. Sorry puppy! I guess I can always go back and add some sort of prop that will be a “landing pad”…it’s not like we’re going to forget our routine. I think that practicing it less will probably keep it from getting sour and might end up in us capturing our best execution yet.

We recently participated in a demo where we practiced the routine with breaks for reinforcement. Demos are great because you can break things up and reward, so take advantage! Anyway, the first time I asked for the backing up, it wasn’t great. After a little “ice breaker” where we played for a sec, I held the toy and went back to that segment, and she shot across the floor backwards with isolated footsteps like a pro. It’s funny how bad it was before and how phenomenal it was next try.

I’ve decided to give it my best but not be too attached. That’s why I’m finally uploading an imperfect video of my routine. You can see her struggle with the sequence we’re talking about. Sometimes that part goes great but we flub something else. In the ending of this shoot, where the arm weaves happen, there are debarked dogs off camera that are clamoring at the front of their x-pen and worrying her. I was upset to lose a few otherwise good video attempts to those annoyances. But, that’s the kind of thing that can happen.

Moving forward, I want to attempt a different style of routine and focus more on dancing. In the very last bit of this routine, I’m so busy cuing circle around, leg weaves, circle around the opposite direction, that my upper body is just dead. Still, not bad for a beginning routine.

I’m really excited about my next routine, but you’ll have to be patient. A trained routine takes a lot of time…especially when things fall apart along the way ;)!

Click on over to where that video is stored.