Category Archives: TRAINING TIDBITS

Thinking about dogs…


This cooperative behavior is forever useful, so, it is worthwhile to invest training time building this skill. For a dog that likes toys, always encourage the retrieve after sending the dog to the toy. Tugging is the perfect reward for retrieve…for dogs that enjoy tugging. 

But what about the dog that doesn’t like to tug, or doesn’t care for toys at all?

I fully realize that not all dogs are excited about toys. Obviously, such a dog will not be rewarded by a game of tug. Dogs can be taught to retrieve for a food reward, but, the caveat is that the dog needs to spit out the item to eat. That’s a conflict that will cause the dog to prematurely drop the item to collect the reward. To get around this conflict, dispense the treats in a way where it seems like the treats are coming from the retrieve item itself, not your hands. Ideally, you can find a container that the dog can pick up and carry but that he cannot extract the treats from without your help. This may need to be a velcro or zippered pouch, or you might find things in your recycling bin that will work (like a hard plastic vitamin jar) (more ideas below). Choose items that are easy for your dog to carry (so a small pill bottle for a tiny dog, for example). Use appropriately sized items for larger dogs so that it is comfortable in a relaxed mouth. Of course, practice at your own risk. You must be fully in control of the situation so your dog doesn’t swallow and choke on the item. If your dog will abscond with the item and you do not understand how to get the item from the dog, find a trainer to work with (and be sure they know how to help, many won’t) and do not try this alone.

If your dog is really tough to convince, you might need to use things that your dog can start to tear open: like several sheets of newspaper with a delicious morsel wrapped inside, twisted up like a Christmas cracker. You can try this with a dog that is difficult to convince to retrieve:

  1. Work in a very small space: a closet or a bathroom devoid of other distractions.
  2. Find a tantalizing morsel, attractive enough that you have your dog’s attention and let your dog know that you have it by waving it just out of reach under his nose.
  3. Take your wrapper (5 sheets of newspaper), and, while your dog is watching, wrap that food up, twisting both ends so the dog can’t easily get the food out.
  4. Get down on the ground and toss the item just a few feet away towards the wall.
  5. Encourage your dog emotionally with your dialogue. Remember, dog’s prefer playful, not pushy. Try taking a deep breath of awe rather than shouting. Tap a corner of the item or start to tear at the paper to get the dog interested if you need to.
  6. Once your dog is investigating, move back a little. Do not move towards your dog. Sit still and encourage your dog to come back to you (patting your legs, drumming on the floor in front of you, clapping your hands, etc).
  7. If your dog doesn’t even pick it up, but puts his paws on it to try and begin tearing it open, help him by tearing into it, too, getting to the reward in the middle. Make it appear as if the paper is delivering the treat.
  8. Repeat. As your dog’s interest in the game grows, see if he’ll pick up the bundle. Encourage the dog to come back to you as soon as he gets his mouth on it. Resist the temptation to meet the dog and instead ask the dog to come to you. If you are already very close to the dog and in a confined area, the dog is more likely to make it back to you.

Start with very little distance and throw the item next to a wall so your dog can’t move farther away. You may have to start by clicking your dog just for picking it up with his mouth, at which point you’ll move in and deliver the reward from the item, NEVER FROM YOUR HANDS DIRECTLY. The idea is to convince the dog that there’s a prize inside and if he hurries up and brings it to you, you will use your hands to help him get it out faster.

As this dog progresses, stick the paper bundle inside of a sock so the dog can’t tear it open as easily. Transition to using just the sock with a meatball inside. When your dog brings the sock to you, flip open the cuff while still holding part of the meatball. As the dog is grabbing for the meatball, present it directly from the sock while backing slowly away from the dog. As it starts slipping out of reach the dog might start biting for it. You want to hold the meatball inside the sock so part of it is accessible and the other part is covered. This can make the dog try to bite down to grab a hold of the retreating item. You may even be able to turn on your dog’s interest to tug if you practice this enough. 

Other containers you might try are: a cardboard tube (like toothpaste comes in), a travel container for a toothbrush, and there are lots of toys that you can stuff with food (the lotus ball, pouches, discs, covered or lined with fur and squeakers, with bungee cord handles). Sometimes you can find household items that are perfect. In the picture you see a lunch bag that folds up and has a strong Velcro closure. Whatever you use, find something that the dog can’t open without thumbs.

A lot of dogs are much further along in the process. Adjust accordingly but be aware of the distance and distractions.  You will definitely have an easier time with this exercise if you use items that are long enough for you and your dog to both have your “hands” on. Pouches should have straps. Most toys become more attractive with a strap because you can activate the prey drive by dragging it (like you would for a cat to pounce on). If it’s too small (like a ball), it is hard to snake and tease along the ground. It’s also easier for your dog to run off with the toy if it doesn’t have a handle. Always encourage your dog to return to you. If you cannot get the retrieve, put a long line on the toy! That way if your dog picks up the item and runs it becomes a tug game rather than something destructive, like keep away.  

If your dog likes to tug, play a little and then let go and dance away playfully from your dog.  Ideally, when you let go the dog will run after you and pounce on you, begging for you to tug (or to open up the pouch) to immediately restart the game. If it’s OK with you, let your dog jump on you (dogs are context oriented and you can easily teach them it’s allowed in play and not during daily life). My dogs try to shove the toy into my hands, usually with their paws on my belly.

Finally, before the dog spits out the item, say your “Give/Drop it” cue. Getting a dog to hold onto a retrieve item until you say let go is another entire undertaking. Often, dogs will eject the toy at your feet or prematurely when you reach for it. It’s a worthwhile training task to teach your dog to deliver it to your hand. If you are interested in competitive sports, service dog tricks, or you just want your dog to do the bending down and picking up for you, you should already be aware of the challenges the complete delivery to hand presents and be mindful of that component throughout your training. I’ll write another post on that topic soon.

WCFO International Competition 2015

At the end of August, the World Canine Freestyle Organization held their International Competition in Federal Way, WA, which was close enough to commute to from home. What an opportunity! I’ve really fallen in love with the sport and was looking forward to meeting more like-minded individuals, and seeing their creativity at work.

So, in Spring of 2015, my new routine was under construction. Some people continue to amend the same routine as they progress up the levels. But, with so many great ideas waiting to take shape, my plan is to develop a new routine after giving each routine to a chance to get fleshed out and to successfully perform it a couple times. That probably gives each routine a run of at least a few showings. With only a little bit of freestyle experience, this would be my first attempt at putting together everything from start to finish completely on my own, with no outside input. Thankfully, between Rally-FrEe, agility, and trick training, my knowledge added up considerably, and it was a lot of fun to put everything I know to work. It’s quite a process and deserves its own blog post (coming soon).

The event was a combination of 2 different shows back to back, plus a conference and workshops. Our local freestyle club:

A hilarious costume of Carolyn, Secretary Treasurer of Emerald City Club and "her shadow".
A hilarious costume of Carolyn, Secretary Treasurer of Emerald City Club and “her shadow”.

Emerald City Canine Freestyle Dancers, did an outstanding job dressing the place up with the Wizard of Paws theme, including a yellow brick road of photos of everybody with their dog and lots of sparkly decorations (freestylers are a little addicted to the glitter;). Events like these demand that generous folks contribute inordinate amounts of time organizing, preparing, hosting, and handling everything from start to finish, and so many people contributed. This is not uncommon to most dog sports, but, as always, these people deserve lots of praise and enormous gratitude! Without them, quite literally, the show would not have gone on.

The event proved to be very challenging for most teams. I was sitting next to an old tracking instructor who kept reveling in how stressed many of the dogs were. I was partly embarrassed that she said it out loud, but, agreed. For me, it’s not a surprise. Seeing dogs unable to thrive under the pressures of competition is something that turns me off from attending more competitions (it can even sully enjoyment of group classes). There are a large percentage of people showing dogs that aren’t far enough along in their training to be easily performing what’s being asked. That said, anyone can have a really “off” day, and even the best of us have felt the burn of bombing. It’s an important lesson and we all have to learn how to recover from, while doing what you can to keep your disappointment from bumming out your dog. Some dogs are much more resilient, and some dogs are really difficult to work in strange environments, regardless of how well you train and prepare.

Since it is such a trial, I really think that video competition should be a mandatory first step for something as difficult as freestyle (it could be very helpful in many dog sports). I continue to learn so much from various attempts at capturing good video. It allows us to solidify a new routine from the comfort of our own home, with the luxury of being able to break things down and reward when necessary BEFORE adding all the extra pressure performing in public and in a strange environment. It lets a dog “tell you” what parts of the routine are too hard, and you can alter your routine to work with your dog, finding behaviors that are more rewarding, or better understood, or that flow together better in a sequence. It can be very enlightening, extremely humbling, but it definitely is not just an ordinary training session.

Because it’s so challenging, when a freestyle team succeeds, the crowd goes wild. Even just succeeding partially will earn compliments from the highly supportive crowd. If you get out there and do awful, people sympathize, and offer kind words. That’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of: people will support you! WCFO also goes a long way to support their junior handlers, of which, there were some exceptional competitors. And the whole community kicked in and donated all sorts of awards and prizes. Although, similar to other dog sports, it seemed that the meaning behind the prizes and this whole event were so heartfelt. It really was a wonderfully inclusive community.

My puppy and I actually did great. My youngest dog (3 years now) has years of experience working in strange environments, and we practice sections of our routine regularly, and all over the place. I’ve sought out various training opportunities, performed demos, train beyond just freestyle, and, of course, benefited greatly from our experiences capturing video. We took 2nd place in this International event each day, and, most importantly, succeeded in my biggest goal: performing with a dog that loved doing the work itself (and it showed)! It was great to meet and see people, too. Legendary performer, Michelle Pouliot was there. One of her routines moved me so much I cried, both times! That’s the thing about freestyle. There are lots of routines I can watch that are mildly entertaining, that I wouldn’t spend too much time watching online, however, there are some routines that are so special they literally move me to tears. Unfortunately, video at WCFO events if forbidden, which is a huge tragedy not only because I can’t share clips with you, but also because I find videoing the pre-run through to the post-exit interactions to be invaluable training feedback.

As for the workshops, I was interested in becoming a judge for WCFO, and took the judging workshop. Anna Schloff, President and head of the judges, tried her best to not only provide important information in the workshop, but also invited us to ask her for help. This workshop was only about an hour, and I’d been expecting at least a few hours, judging by the schedule on the entry form. This hardly scratched the surface.

The organization leading up to the timing of this day was a disaster. There were changes less than a week before, which were then not honored, unnecessarily costing me money for daycare, wasting half a day. Also communicating “move ups” is surprisingly a major difficulty for this organization, which normally is as simple as communicating to the trial secretary the night before or morning of the next run, resulting in an update in the computer and writing in your new placement in the day’s running order. This is rumored to be pretty typical for WCFO, and a number of people have extra legs in levels they should have graduated from. Understandably, some of the challenge comes from video entries. They format all runs (coming in worldwide on different formats) onto a single video disc to distribute to the judges. Then, it has to be looked through (for free) by 3 separate judges, with scores then sent back (all snail mail, if you can believe it), so it will be months upon months before you hear back from such an entry. If a live show falls in between, you will not be able to move up.  Supposedly, you can let them know if there’s overlap, and they can make an adjustment. But, my personal experience trying to do so resulted in, and I’m not exaggerating, literally HOURS of talking with people to try to get it to happen. I felt like such a pest, and I am not in it for the titles. However, in this day and age, I just don’t have the time, money, effort to spare putting so much time into an entry to have it turn out to be a practice run.

Although I’d like to support this community further, there are other venues out there that provide clearer judging criteria, quicker feedback, and don’t prevent competitors from videoing at events or posting videos of your runs, so, I’ll be taking my future investments of time and energy elsewhere. If you are just looking for a great community and want to support a venue that needs more fans, get out there and help the sport grow with the association that got it all started and compete with people all over the world!

Off leash or not?

Ah, a worthwhile meditation topic. There are additional factors to consider beyond the poignant points that Patricia McConnell just posted (or reposted) on her wonderful blog, “The Other End of the Leash“. Certainly, the average person has little to no actual impulse control training on their dogs. I’ve taught recall classes where people who regularly let their dogs off leash couldn’t even recall their dog successfully in a small, indoor, gated area. Add to that the need to train these skills (impulse control, distance position(s), and recall, to name a few) under arousal, and you’ve lost the majority, by far. They want that degree of, I hesitate to call it “control”, but they won’t bother to put the time in to train even half of it. The real tragedy, IMO, is that these can be some of the most fun exercises to train (when executed well;)! There are obvious requirements, that few could meet (and if you can’t meet those requirements, ask yourself if you have any business letting your dog off leash!). But, beyond that, there are a couple of other factors to consider, right?

I’m a “free bird” sort, and I relish in letting dogs exercise themselves, leaping and bounding through the woods. I grew up escaping with our family dogs, taking them to run off leash in natural areas, and I attempted, in vain, to recall half the time. The science of behavior wasn’t what it is today and so much time working with those dogs bore little fruits. But I did observe and learn about the nature of dogs. Our Jack Russel would run off only to be found miles away attacking someone’s sprinkler heads, waterfalls, all sorts of dangerous, unhealthy, you name it situations, and had been arrested more than once. Maybe Jacks, like cats, have 9 lives. That was over 20 years ago, so, please don’t hold it against me. My dogs were off-leash much like I was a child left to my own devices. (The beauty of this, though, is when I was a teen, I sought sanctuary by running around with the dog gang rather than getting caught up in naughty teen traps).

These days, I still seek refuge in nature and hunt for the right places, and the right times, to let my dogs run. How else are you truly going to condition agility athletes? You can’t just work fast-twitch muscles chasing a ball/disc.  You need to let them build their relaxed trotting muscles, bending and stretching without extreme speed. Dogs need to bounce and play and wrestle and move all the ways that nature intended. It’s imperative you invest inordinate amounts of time developing “control” so you can give your dog more freedom, and, if you don’t, you have a conundrum. Dog parks, where you can find some of the most out of control dogs, and, sometimes aggressive, or sometimes socially retarded dogs who usually value playing with other dogs over their owners is out of the question for my dogs. I don’t believe it to be safe. Once in a while my dogs will go to a select dog park, usually to practice training around the distractions of obnoxious dogs, and even then, only at certain times of day (low-volume).

But here’s my biggest problem. One of my dogs is a hyper prey focused rescue. It took him 2 years before he’d eat food or play with toys when out in nature, because he was so distracted by every movement (literally, a leaf falling would distract him from the simplest request). He is tough because his heart’s desire is tracking (in hopes of a chase). My other dog is glued to my side (or, more specifically, facing me ahead on trail while staring at her toy), and her biggest failure is being highly social with people. The social piece, that’s just who she is, which I support. She’s harmless, albeit usually a bit dirty (or wet), so I manage her and haven’t meticulously worked on her greeting behavior (I’ve got other priorities and interests). The toy and handler focus, I capitalized on that. I brainwashed her, directing all her prey and herding interest into toys, which I control (so much more cooperative than those squirrels!). It is easier with dogs with certain aptitudes. But, you still have to sculpt and direct those behaviors to manifest in a constructive way.

Add to the challenge, I used to take a couple of client dogs with me to the woods in addition to my 2. My favorite protocol is to collect my whole group when anyone approaches, with or without dogs, and sit everybody in a cluster off the side of the trail with me in between my dogs and the passing party. The huge challenge is other people respecting the effort the stay requires (hardest for the client dogs with less training). This is where fights can happen between me and other dog owners. If they allow their dog(s) to “say hello”, and crash into the pile, I will head them off while trying to verbally get the owner to assist, and when that doesn’t happen in time, I will remove the offending party in whatever way possible (not always pretty). All the while, my biggest focus is on my reactive rescue, who, won’t seek out a confrontation, but will hold his ground (he had to fend for himself in the rescue yard with a load of BCs so he’s serious about boundaries, and very fair about them (but people tend not to understand this well)).

For instances when a dog might not heed the recall, consideration of temperament comes into play. The goofy flat-coat that doesn’t listen well when she sees other dogs is bombproof, sweet, passive. So, not too big of a worry. But, my reactive rescue is always being trained and can down at a distance while chasing squirrels, and is at the top of my priorities. I can manage it, but, honestly, few have the dexterity to juggle and manage such a feat. I’ve encountered dog walkers who had too many dogs to handle, each of which would probably be difficult to control verbally alone, and they have a gang of them off leash. This becomes an altercation where I start demanding that they “call their dogs” as I attempt to back away while organizing my group. They usually can’t catch their bunch, but I can usually manage their dog and send them back to them. Because my group is already anchored in a tight cluster in a sit-stay, I have the freedom to body block and handle the incoming dog that isn’t responding to her walker.

But, it could all go wrong. Nothing is certain with animals. For that reason, I wouldn’t bring multiple difficult dogs on the same outing. I rely on the rest of the group being under good to excellent verbal control so I can focus on my one loose cannon (who will spend much more time on leash, possibly entirely). I don’t recommend other people attempt this sort of thing. I have over 20 years of professional animal handling experience. And still, there’s risk. But, the benefits are too great to play it perfectly safe. I’m sure to discuss with clients (and have them sign off on paper) about what can go wrong. A dog could get lost chasing a deer or a bear. Or attacked, by a wild animal or by a rude dog that shouldn’t be off leash! There are poisons and dirty water, holes to break legs in, etc. It is a gamble.

So, what are your options?  What everybody really needs is good instruction. Not the kind you get from a pet dog class. The kind where you take private lessons with someone well-versed in working with dogs WHEN THEY ARE EXCITED. Most “professional dog trainers” try to manage a dog’s arousal level so that they don’t get into the zone where they are aroused and find it difficult to listen. That is a big mistake, in my opinion. It’s a much better idea to train for the most challenging situations, the real life situations, and progressively build to the point where your dog can function (i.e. listen and respond) to you while exciting stuff is happening. This is a skill set that pays of handsomely in quality of life and has benefits beyond just the recall. I believe it’s THE most important thing and if you only work on 1 thing with your dog, this should be it.

I’ve taught group recall classes, and may not offer this material beyond a one-on-one setting again because the class attracted people with lively and excitable (some may call them naughty) dogs. Of course, these are the dogs and people that need the most help. But, to really trigger the arousal that makes it so hard for a distracted dog to come when called is extremely difficult in a room full of high-wired dogs. It certainly is a goal to get each dog to the place where they can see this kind of excitement and not lose their head, but that takes months and months (maybe years) of training, and is not the ideal starting point to build these skills. And, working privately, you can always find real life situations or strategically arrange some to trigger and challenge your team when you’re ready for that.

And your battle may be easier or very, very difficult. It depends on your dog. It depends on what your dog has learned, how he was raised to understand the world, what genetic predisposition is ruling his brain, how you respond, what you address, etc. But, it is your responsibility to prepare your dog with good training if you plan on ever letting your dog off leash. Some dogs may not be candidates to enjoy such freedom. And, for those that are, there’s a time and place to take the associated risks. Realize that you are an ambassador for us all, and if somebody deathly afraid of dogs gets greeted with a happy nuzzle from your off-leash dog, you are not serving our community. Don’t assume anybody wants to greet your dog. Try to collect your dog whenever you encounter others. Once you have your dog under control, you can ask if they’d like to say “Hi”. As a dog-lover-for-life, I am not interested in your unruly dog jumping all over me when we meet on trail. I once had a new pair of shoes ruined when I “wasn’t asking for it”. Someone’s bouncy, happy, clueless and untrained puppy slid down my pant legs and stepped all over me on the way out. I wouldn’t have minded a wet “nose stamp” while the owner was trying to recall, but they just watched and laughed, thinking their puppy was cute. All of these little trespasses are what takes our right to let our dogs off leash away. But, nobody minds my off leash dogs when I call them and they circle tight around my body and all lay down and stay while I greet a passer-by. So, please think about everything involved with letting your dog off leash before deciding to do so.


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 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 and possibly a dog that does the work but it’ll be riddled with emotions like anxiety that will degrade many aspects of your training and performance world). 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: