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And How Does That Make You Feel?

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

The phrase “and how does that make you feel?” is pretty much a stereotypic response that you’d expect from a therapist.  But as a dog trainer you probably don’t use that phrase very often.  It’s particularly unlikely you’d address it to your dog.  But that’s exactly what we should be doing; keeping a close eye not only on what our dogs are doing, but more importantly, on how they are feeling.

Dog trainers spend countless hours working on training specific and precise behaviors.  They obsess endlessly over small details, plan out session after session, and troubleshoot solutions when problems arise.  They understand and implement training plans based on operant conditioning principles, splitting behaviors into small parts and providing appropriate reinforcement.  And yet, for all that care and attention, things still go wrong.  The dog doesn’t learn the desired behavior as easily or well as expected.  The trainer becomes frustrated and unsure of what to do next.  The problem is that we trainers are often ignoring the other part of the training equation, classical conditioning.  We are totally focused on the actions, but we aren’t giving enough attention to the related emotions.  

In my newest online class Achieving a Balance Between Motivation & Control one of the issues we consider has to do with whether a behavior is not being performed correctly due to lack of skill, lack of emotional comfort, or both.  Typically in dog training when a dog does not perform as expected people look to issues related to the skill.  Has the behavior been trained to fluency?  Is the dog capable of performing the behavior with a variety of distractions?  Many times the answer is “no”.  The skill has truly not been well-trained and will fall apart when there is any sort of pressure from the trainer or the environment.  The path to fixing this type of skill building issue is very clear.  Go back and strengthen it with more practice.  Then move it into more challenging environments and continue to reinforce well for good performance.  Build the behavior up to make it stronger and better able to withstand challenges.  

Sometimes, however, things simply do not progress as we think they should.  Even with lots of skill building our dogs continue to have issues performing behaviors that we have worked very hard to develop and strengthen.  So what could the problem be?  

Thinking over these types of situations reminded me of something that fellow FDSA instructor Amy Cook said at our annual Camp several years ago.  The phrase has always stuck with me.  She said “every time you teach your dog what to do you are also teaching him how to feel”.  Behaviors and skills cannot be separated from emotions.  In fact, we are building emotional associations every single time we train our dogs.  It’s just that most people don’t realize it, or don’t realize how powerful it is, so they don’t give it enough attention and consideration.

This idea of paying attention to emotions as well as behaviors falls under the realm of classical conditioning.  Classical conditioning addresses how we come to associate emotions with particular environmental stimuli.  In general, classical conditioning tends to be ignored by many dog trainers.  But it shouldn’t be.  It is the secret to building strong and lasting skills that your dog is happy and excited to perform.  

In order to highlight the importance of emotional comfort, one of the first exercises in my Balance class was to consider several of the dog’s behaviors (could be already trained or in process) and determine where they fall in the following set of stages.  Emotional comfort is an umbrella term that refers to the dog’s feelings of security, confidence, stability, enthusiasm, and success.  These are vitally important factors to forming a great association with a behavior.  

Skill x Emotional Comfort Stages:  

Stage 1: Can’t do skill / Uncomfortable

Stage 2: Can’t do skill / Comfortable

In Stages 1 & 2 the dog cannot yet perform the skill.  This would typically be a brand new behavior in the early stages of training.  Our goal here would be to make sure the dog feels comfortable and confident in the training sessions and that he is successful early and often so that he develops a positive emotional association with the behavior being trained.  If the dog is anxious, stressed, or frustrated while training, those emotions attach themselves to the behavior.  So we really want our dogs at Stage 2 in early training sessions.  

Stage 3: Can do skill sometimes / Uncomfortable

Stage 4: Can do skill sometimes / Comfortable

In Stages 3 & 4 the training is now a bit more established.  Your dog is starting to figure out what you want and is managing to do it sometimes, but not yet regularly.  In these stages your dog needs plenty of success and support from you so that he doesn’t become confused or feel pressured when the behavior isn’t solid yet.  Pushing your dog by reducing reinforcement too soon or too abruptly, or adding challenges your dog isn’t ready to handle, will leave him in Stage 3.  We would really like to see him in Stage 4, where even though his understanding of the behavior isn’t quite there, he’s more than willing to keep trying.  If you establish a history of only providing your dog with reasonable challenges he will become more persistent at happily working to figure out what you want.  

Stage 5: Can do skill regularly / Uncomfortable

Stage 6:  Can do skill regularly / Comfortable

In Stages 5 & 6 the skill has been well-learned.  It is performed correctly in almost all situations.  In fact, you’d be surprised if it wasn’t done well when you cue it.  However, there is still room for variation in emotional comfort level.  You will likely notice that your dog is performing the behavior properly, but something seems ‘off’.  There may be unexpected variations in the way the behavior is performed.  For example, your dog may move into a position just a bit more slowly than usual.  Or there may be small signs from your dog that he is not completely comfortable; maybe a yawn or lip lick or ear flick before and during the performance of the behavior.  These things are easy to overlook, but they are often the sign of a bigger issue looming just ahead.  Recognizing Stage 5 earlier rather than later is going to be key to fixing the problem before it becomes worse. 

The stages are fluid and strongly influenced by changes in the environment.  When you start showing your dog in trials you are likely to start seeing changes in emotional comfort levels (Stage 5 in particular).  Don’t ignore those little signs from your dog!  Recognizing them early gives you a chance to address the pending problem before there’s a total breakdown.  

So what’s the best way to address issues related to emotional comfort?  First, pay close attention to your dog’s ‘tells’; those small subtle changes in behavior that are the first step in indicating discomfort.  Be a careful observer of your dog’s behavioral changes.  The sooner you notice a ‘tell’ the sooner you can change what you’re doing.  Things like ears rotating away from you, tail dropping, lip licking, moving more slowly, taking treats more roughly, vocalizing, and glancing away more often than usual, are just a few possibilities.  Learn your dog’s ‘discomfort lexicon’.


Star’s ears are her ‘tell’.  They rotate towards the direction that she’s concerned about.  She can be looking at me and even responding to cues, but her ears always give her away.  If I don’t have the ears I don’t have 100% of the dog.

Second, be proactive in raising your dog’s confidence level while training.  Confidence comes from your dog knowing that he can figure out the training puzzles you present to him.  Set your criteria so success builds on success for your dog.  Increase challenges just enough to lead to more effort, but not to frustration or giving up.  There’s plenty of space between babying your dog along at every step and leaving him to work things out on his own.  Aim for the middle ground where you are there to help him when he needs it, but also there to challenge him to problem solve.  Recognizing when your dog needs your support and when he is capable of working through something on his own isn’t always easy, but it is very necessary.  

Third, educate yourself more fully on the topic of classical conditioning.  I typically recommend the college level textbook Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance as an excellent resource for solid scientific information on learning theories.  Get an older edition, they are much cheaper!  You might also want to join me for my upcoming webinar Pavlov: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?  This webinar will run live on Thursday March 1, 2018 at 9 pm Eastern time.  You can watch it live and ask questions, or you can watch the recorded version later.  But you have to buy it before it runs live even if you plan to watch later.  Here’s a link:

I plan to cover a LOT of ground in this presentation.  Everything from scary clowns to slobbering dogs to the perils of flooding.  It will be packed full of information related to classical conditioning!    

And finally, while you are training remember to ask your dog “and how does that make you feel?” quite regularly.  Teaching behaviors is only part of the training equation.  Being sensitive to your dog’s emotional state is vital to excellent training as well.  



See Ya on the Other Side Smudgie!

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Monday we said goodbye to Smudge.  Smudge was a 14 year old blue merle Sheltie and had a very active and healthy life, then a very quick decline the last month after a severe bout of pancreatitis.  We knew he was old and had increasing health issues, but you always think you’ll get another reprieve.  Somehow, we always think we’ll have more time.  Until we don’t.

Making the decision about when it’s time is a horrible one and we’ve had way too much experience with it lately.  No matter what the circumstances it’s the choice you never want to make.  You don’t want to be a minute too soon or a second too late.  How do we make quality of life decisions for a being who can’t talk to us?  We debated endlessly about whether Smudge was having more good moments than bad ones.  We watched him with hawk-like intensity for every little change in his behavior.  Is he eating slower than usual?  Did it take him longer to stand up this time?  Do his eyes look a bit more blank than they should?  Was he drinking too much; not enough?  

We fed him tiny meals 4 times a day, supplemented with lots of medications and eventually, baby food to make it more appealing.  Getting him up and down the stairs to go outside became a huge struggle.  Between his failing eyesight and his arthritis, the steps became insurmountable without lots of coaxing and help.  And of course he needed to go out lots because old dogs can’t hold it very long.  

He slept that deep deep old dog sleep, then startled when you tried to gently wake him up.  He paced and panted.  Was he in pain?  Should we increase his medication?  Was the pancreatitis coming back?  Was he just hot?  He couldn’t hear and his vision seemed quite impaired.  

When Smudge was resting we didn’t move around much so we wouldn’t disturb him.  We constantly watched the other dogs to be sure they didn’t accidentally jostle or annoy him.  He was so wobbly on his feet he could have easily been tipped over.  He was so very skinny and had to be on a low fat diet.  There was no way he could take in enough calories to ever make up the loss.  He lost all his muscle and fat.  

I realized tonight that I don’t need to turn on all the lights in the house to help him see as much as possible.  And we can put away the baby gates we had up to keep him from wandering off and getting lost.

But he still wagged his tail when we touched him and he still gave us kisses.  He wanted to be on the sofa next to me, but couldn’t jump up on his own any more.  We kept a balance sheet in our heads of what he could still do and what he couldn’t.  It was very lopsided.

Decisions about when to euthanize a dog are very personal ones.  But for us, realizing that there was never going to a ‘better’ for Smudge was the deciding factor.  He wasn’t going to bounce back.  There might be a few good moments now and then, but the majority of his existence was not good quality and would never improve. Someday I’d appreciate it if someone could make that same loving decision for me.  


Our vet is beyond wonderful in these situations.  We talked for a bit and gave Smudge time to walk around the room and be comfortable. We had brought him french fries from McDonalds.  The day we brought him home from the breeder I fed him fries on the drive and I always said that’s how we bonded.  So it seemed appropriate to begin and end with fries.  He ate a few and seemed to enjoy them.  Judy held him in her lap and I held a jar of chicken baby food for him to lick.  The vet gave him one injection and he was out mid-lick.  Then she gave him the second shot and it was over.  I can’t think of a better way for him to go than in the middle of enjoying his baby food.  

I didn’t realize how much we had started to organize our days around his needs.  We put away all his medications and his food bowl.  The house echoes with the empty and quiet.  For most of his years here on earth Smudge was pure energy and love.  He truly was full of life; always ready for the next adventure.  We were lucky to be the humans to  share that life with him and we will certainly miss his presence.

Anyone who knew Smudge in person could see the joy in him.  And did he ever love agility!  He never held back anything out there.  Of course, we struggled to keep up with that speed and intensity, and usually failed to do him justice, but he didn’t care.  Being out there running was enough.  



This past summer he was still running and playing in the yard, but the slowdown was evident.  He spent more time wandering aimlessly sniffing around and less time chasing the ball.  One thing he really loved was being out on the balcony watching the world go by.  He’d lie on the bed out there for hours.  Luckily the day before his last it was nice enough to let him go out for a bit and have one last good look at his world.  

It doesn’t matter how old they get, saying goodbye always comes too soon.  You made our world better Smudgie, and we will surely miss you.  

The One Easy Secret for Getting Your Dog to Focus on You

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

With a title like that my guess is that most dog trainers are still reading.  Even though your logical brain tells you there is no single easy secret you’re still hopeful, right?  Maybe I’ve been holding out on this one little crucial detail for all these years and now I’ve finally decided to let the cat out of the bag.  But you know that isn’t how dog training works.  

That being said, if there was only one thing I could tell people about focus training it would be this “you can’t expect what you haven’t trained”.  Instead of saying “my dog doesn’t focus on me” it would be more accurate to say “I haven’t taught my dog to focus on me yet”.  So the easy secret is “teach focus”.  Actually, that’s a lie.  It’s not easy and it’s not a secret.

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How do you teach focus?  Like any other desired skill, training proceeds step by step, starting easy and adding challenge as you go along.  The first roadblock to teaching focus is that focus is a concept rather than a behavior.  Concepts are tricky slippery things.  Focus is really a wide range of ideas, knowledge, and skills.  It’s multifaceted, which makes it more complicated to teach.  I’ve spent 15 years thinking about and expanding on the topic of focus training for the animals we work with.  And I’m still learning new things all the time, which means I’m constantly tweaking and adjusting exercises.  However, I feel like I’ve developed a fairly comprehensive program for teaching a basic strong focus foundation.

Each individual exercise we teach moves us closer to our goal of a focused enthusiastic training partner.  We start by showing our dogs that we are willing to be generous and provide valuable reinforcers to them.  Then we begin capturing their offered focus and highly reinforcing it.  As we move along we begin to combine known behaviors with the focus we are developing.  And then we add more challenges in terms of distance, duration, and distraction.  It’s a step by step building block process.  We nurture and strengthen focus in many small steps over time.  

Here’s a sample exercise from our Get Focused! online class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  At this point in the process I am working with Smudge on teaching him that focus pays off even when I clearly have no classic reinforcers on me.

I say all the time that training without focus is so much harder than it has to be.  Focus training is a way to get “buy in” from our dogs and make them active and eager partners in the process.  Once you have focus teaching everything else is going to be so much easier.  Do yourself, and your dog a favor, and spend some time focusing on teaching focus.  You’ll both be happier!

Our next Get Focused! class begins February 1.  Come join us as we present our entire focus training system, step by step, and give comprehensive personal feedback to our working teams.  Take a look at our course description, syllabus, and sample lecture (with videos) here.


Toss Your Cookies!

by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Throwing cookies on the floor for your dog is a great training technique. Really, it is. Really. I know, it sounds kind of ridiculous. But trust me, it’s really a sophisticated and effective way to train your dog. It sounds so simple. And yet, it becomes complicated very quickly. So let me explain why you should be tossing cookies and how you should toss them.  

Why toss cookies?

We use a tossed cookie or cookies in training for a number of possible reasons.  The treat toss release is used to break up repetitions within a training session or to end a session.  In the middle of a session I may reinforce 4-5 times in position to build value there, then do a treat toss to break out and release pressure, then repeat the process.  When ending a session some trainers and dogs feel it is too abrupt to just stop, so tossing a handful of cookies gives the dog a nice way to transition away from the session.  

Cookie tosses can also be used to encourage distance and add speed to an exercise.  They prompt the dog to drive forward and away from the trainer, which is good for confidence and independence.  

A cookie scatter (dropping a handful of treats) is an excellent way to lower anxiety or stress levels.  This encourages the dog to sniff and hunt for the treats, which is a very nice way to add an interesting distraction activity if your dog seems mildly uncomfortable or uncertain.  

How should you toss cookies?

When you toss cookies think of it as bowling rather than throwing.  You will want to toss underhand and low to the ground.  If your dog is facing you toss the cookie off to the side at an angle, not directly over your dog’s head.  This will keep your dog from leaping up to try and catch it, and twisting in mid-air, which could lead to injury.  If your dog is parallel or perpendicular to you then you can toss the cookie straight ahead.  Bend forward as you toss so that the cookie travels low to the ground and in your dog’s line of sight.  

Use treats that will contrast with the floor surface.  If a treat blends in then your dog will need to search for it by sniffing rather than visual tracking and that can break the flow of your training session.  If your dog is having trouble finding a cookie help him.  Go point it out if you need to.  Also, choose a treat that tosses easily and will travel a bit of distance.  Things like chicken or cheese are not good choices for treat tosses.  They stick to your hands and also tend to crumble into tiny bits.  Some cereals work well, but others are too light to travel very far.  You’ll need to experiment a bit to find the right thing.  Finally, be sure that you’re working on non-slip flooring.  We don’t want our dogs slipping and sliding as they chase the treat.  

In order to make cookie tossing predictable for your dog always use a consistent verbal cue indicating that you are going to toss a cookie now.  My cues are not very creative so I use “get it!” before I throw the cookie.  Any unique verbal cue will work.  

Here’s a video tutorial showing proper cookie tossing mechanics:

Once  your mechanics are in good shape here’s a fun and useful discrimination to teach your dog:

What could possibly go wrong?

The biggest concern trainers express about tossing cookies is the fear that it will lead to increased floor sniffing.  But this is not what happens at all.  In fact, just the opposite occurs and you’re likely to get less floor sniffing.  Typically, sniffing is more about relieving stress and pressure than it is looking for food.  If your dog is sniffing rather than working this likely means you have a confidence or motivation issue to consider.  

When you use cookie tosses in a thoughtful and predictable way you are purposely lowering any possible stress that might build up during a training session, which takes away your dog’s need to do so on his own by disengaging from you.  It’s a way to be proactive in protecting your dog’s mental well-being by giving him frequent mental breaks during a training session.  

By using a consistent verbal cue for cookie tosses you are putting it under stimulus control.  This will make searching for cookies less likely when the cue is not given.  

To learn more…

Want to learn more about the hows and whys of tossing cookies?  This topic will be part of my newest class offering at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy  The class is titled Achieving a Balance Between Motivation and Control.  In it we will identify your dog’s core temperament characteristics and consider how those should inform your training approaches and decisions. We will explore a variety of training techniques for helping our dogs train in an optimal level of arousal, with just enough self-control to be thoughtful while still encouraging sufficient motivation and enthusiasm.  We will consider when and how we need to encourage more control, as well as when and how to encourage more motivation.  Our ultimate goal is for our dogs to be happy, enthusiastic, focused training partners.  


Teacher vs. Coach:  Making a Real Connection

Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in classrooms and teaching settings.  It took me nine years start to finish to get my Ph.D. in psychology.  And I loved most of it!  Those last few years were a bit tough, but overall, I really enjoyed my role as a student.  It suited my personality and interests to be a passive open vessel for knowledge.  I could sit back and just let the information pour in, and it was fantastic.  Throughout that journey though, there were a handful of professors who were more than teachers to me.  They became mentors and even friends.  Anne Crimmings and Marion Cohn were two standout psychology professors when I was an undergrad.  I’d like to think they saw something in me, possibly my determination and persistence, and went out of their way to offer help and encouragement.  Their guidance and belief in my ability to succeed supported me through very hard and scary times of change in my life.  More than anything, they helped me by being good role models for what I hoped to become as a person and as a psychologist.  

Once I became an actual professor I spent lots of time spouting information at packed classrooms.  Some of my classes had 500 students registered!  I could pontificate at them all day, but I didn’t really have a chance to know any of them.  They were like cattle, herded in and out.  I lectured, they took notes and exams, and I gave them grades.  They were a nameless faceless neverending mob.  I absolutely hated it.  It was a one way communication and it felt like a dead end.  

Luckily I was able to move full time to a smaller branch campus and into classrooms where 30-40 students was the norm.  Often I saw the same student in 4-5 of my classes over the course of several years.  I got to know some of them quite well.  My teaching style changed from being simply an information delivery system to a much more interactive back and forth conversation.  Every so often I would write letters of recommendation for students interested in graduate school.  They would tell me that I inspired them; mostly after I brought my dogs into class for demonstrations!  But hey, I’ll bask in the reflected glory of my dogs.


Zen being the best teaching assistant ever!

All the time I was teaching college students I was also teaching dog training.  I discovered quickly that spouting knowledge at someone with a wild and crazy adolescent dog at the end of the leash was not very helpful, no matter how solid the information.  My scientifically impeccable explanations of classical conditioning did not help the person frustrated beyond belief with their dog’s destructive behaviors.  In addition to giving solid information in an understandable way, there needed to be something more in this 3 way relationship of owner, dog, and me.  There needed to be a real human connection.  The owner needed to feel like I was on her side, that I would be there for support, and that I truly believed they would be successful in reaching their goals.  

As many animals lovers will tell you, I’m naturally good with animals, not so much with people.  But the people are the gateway to helping the animals.  Finding a way to develop authentic connections with the owners was really the only way to truly improve the dog’s life.  And to me, this is the heart of the difference between teaching and coaching.  Having that personal connection with the dog owner and making sure they know I’m on their side and believe in their ability to be successful is absolutely necessary, in addition to having helpful information and training ideas.  It’s the same difference I found between the packed but fairly lifeless classroom and the interactive and much more exciting one.  

It’s been over four years since I started teaching online classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  During that time my approach to teaching has evolved more and more towards a coaching model.  Even after all these years of teaching experience, I’m amazed at how much more satisfying it is to become a true partner in the training process along with the owner and the dog.  It’s about so much more than sharing information and knowledge.  It’s about truly investing myself in the challenges and successes that my students face.  I’m honored when they trust me to be part of the process.  

If you’re looking for dog training instructors who can coach as well as teach then check us out at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  This is the finest group of colleagues I could ever imagine.  Each and every one of them is not only extremely knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate.  Take a look at our upcoming schedule!  Browse through our course descriptions and take a look at the video trailers and sample lectures to get a feel for each instructor’s style.  You won’t be disappointed in what we offer.

Thanks to Amy Cook for suggesting the topic.  

Got Focus?

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

As a dog trainer there often comes a point in your work with any particular dog where you realize that focus is a real thing and you don’t have it.  You have behaviors on cue and you have a dog that will work for food and/or toys, but you still have a problem.  A BIG problem.  It feels like you are doing 90% of the work to keep your dog in the game with you.  You may resort to bribing and begging and cajoling and cheerleading and acting like a clown on crack to keep your dog interested in training.  At this point you need an intervention.  A focus intervention.  You’ve neglected a key component of your working relationship with your dog, and now you are seeing the fallout.  Luckily, it’s never too late to develop focus.  

Focus is one of the cornerstones of good foundation training.  The problem is that trainers often don’t realize that something really important is missing until they try to work in less than optimal conditions.  That’s when your carefully constructed training house of cards collapses.  Your dog suddenly becomes a stranger to you.  His beautifully trained responses under perfect conditions crumble under the weight of distraction and reduced reinforcers.  What you thought you had was an illusion because you didn’t have focus.  

A focused dog always meets you halfway; often even more than halfway.  He wants to do what you want to do when you want to do it.  He is eager and enthusiastic and becomes resilient against distraction.  He can work with reduced reinforcers because you have built in a tolerance for long chains of complex work.  He doesn’t just tolerate training; he insists on it.  So, how do you train for this mythical focused creature?  Carefully, thoughtfully, and systematically of course!  We have developed a series of exercises and games designed to help you teach your dog how to focus.  


There is, however, one magic bullet solution to gaining a focused training partner.  Are you ready?  It’s simple, and incredibly difficult at the same time.  The number one rule to get focus is this:  Never train an unfocused dog.  Early on in the focus training process we introduce this rule.  It’s not complicated.  Never train an unfocused dog.  It’s an absolute.  There are no exceptions to this rule.  Never train an unfocused dog.  There will never ever be a situation in which it is okay to break this rule.  It is the most important focus training commandment.  Never train an unfocused dog.  If you can stick to this rule, we can show you how to get all the rest.  

Want to know more?  Join me on Thursday December 21 at 9 pm Eastern time for a Let’s Get Focused! webinar.  I’m going to talk about both the general concept of focus as well as present specific focus exercises to help you get started.  There will be plenty of time for questions at the end of the presentation.  If you can’t make the live version a recording will be placed in your Library to watch any time.  

Click the link below for information on how to sign up:




To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver


To Love What is Mortal

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.


We know the deal when we get a dog.  In all likelihood that dog will die before we do.  We will enjoy the warmth and total joy of puppyhood, survive a typically rocky adolescence, and develop a lifelong relationship that gives us happiness and pain over the years.  And then some day they will be gone.  


Those of us that are trainers form even stronger bonds.  Our dogs become our working partners, our teammates, our travel companions, our walking advertisements for our work.  We know that even though we think we teach them, they teach us so much more.  Every one is a different unique individual with something new to show us.  


We also know that every so often a really special one comes along.  People often talk about a ‘heart dog’.  That one that you will have the hardest time losing.  The one you will think about and talk about for years.  The one where the pain of loss stays with you forever.  Personally, I think they’re all heart dogs, yet still, some do make a much stronger impression than others.  

When we love another living creature we willingly open ourselves up to pain and loss.  There’s no way around it.  We might try to deny it or ignore it, but it comes with the love.  We can’t avoid it.  Yet we seem to be continually surprised at the strength and depth of every loss.  Every person’s grief is their own to carry through the rest of their life with them.  We can try to ignore or deny it.  We can distract ourselves in a huge variety of ways to try and avoid it.  But grief is a patient creature.  It will outlast your feeble attempts to pretend it doesn’t exist.  

People will try to minimize your grief and pain.  “It’s just a dog”.  “Go get a puppy and you’ll feel better”.  “There are more important problems in the world than this”.  “Are you STILL upset about your dog?”  These people, either consciously or unconsciously, really don’t get it.  We love who we love and the grief over losing them is real and strong.

Sometimes we have to actually make the decision to help our dogs die.  What a horrible and wonderful ability that can be.  To release a dog from pain or fear is a blessing.  To hold that power and make that choice is a horrible responsibility.  In my case, to make that decision due to serious aggression was the worst choice to make and yet the only choice that could be made.  Every day I regret that choice and every day I know it was the right one.  It’s a special kind of hell that I relive over and over.  

I assumed that I would outlive Helo.  But I never would have guessed that on a sunny summer afternoon he would kill his housemate and I would have to make the decision that, at 3 years old, he was not safe to live in this world.  



In the beginning I didn’t want to love him.  I was so broken and depressed after my son’s death that I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone or anything.  But he was there, he seemed destined to be mine, and he needed me.  Apparently I needed him just as much.  He helped me in ways I could never have imagined.  He helped me find a way to keep living when I didn’t want to.  He was my silent companion for hundreds of miles of forest trails.  I started to heal as we hiked.  I was sure we had many more years of companionship and adventure together; until we didn’t.  

I have no idea why this horrible thing happened to us.  I have no idea why two of our dogs died within 12 hours on a normal beautiful day.  I only know that if I had to do it all over again, I would still love Helo like my life depended on it.  It did.  And I know that letting him go was awful, but had to be.  Something else I also know is that there is no moving on or getting through this.  There is only carrying it with me as I keep living.  

The What, Why, and How of Dog Training

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

As a dog trainer, especially with a puppy or young dog, you have an overwhelming task.  You need to decide what to train, determine how you will motivate your dog to work with you, and consider the constant question of how your dog feels about working with you.  People err on the side of doing too much all at once (flooding), doing random bits and pieces when they think of it (scattershot), or analyzing ideas endlessly in order to avoid mistakes, then doing nothing (paralysis).  

So where do you begin sorting all this out?  It can really help to have a template or guide to follow.  I’ve spent lots of time thinking about just these issues in training my own dogs.  With every new puppy came the panic “what if I forget something really important?”  In order to quiet this anxiety and keep myself on track I developed a structured way to approach training.  It works for me and it can work for you.  In this blog I’ll address the three main components of my approach: what, why, and how.


This is typically the thing that concerns most trainers “what do I teach and what order should I teach it in?”  But in my view, this is actually putting the cart before the horse.  Teaching specific behaviors is not high on my list of training priorities for most of my dog’s first year.  I’m much more interested in teaching concepts instead.  Concepts such as developing a working relationship, becoming operant, focus, and learning how to learn are best instilled first.  Once those are in place, learning specific behaviors is pretty straightforward.  

There are a number of exercises and activities that can help develop and strengthen a concept.  For example, to develop a strong positive working relationship with my dog I establish clarity and consistency in the way I provide reinforcers.  Using specific markers and reinforcers in a clear and structured way makes me predictable.  I also work very hard on discovering the types of play and games that my dog enjoys and make myself part of that activity.  I will be mindful of pairing myself with all the good stuff my dog loves and receives so that my dog develops a strong positive emotional response to me and the chance to interact with me.  I’m fun!  I have good stuff!  And the route to all the great things comes through me.  


The why refers to your dog’s motivation to work with you.  Why does he do what you want?  We can motivate through the attainment of something that is desired or we can motivate through the avoidance of something unpleasant.  Both can work, but I know which one I would prefer as both the trainer and the trainee.  

With positive reinforcement based training we teach our dogs that cooperating with us in training is definitely in their best interest.  It can lead to outcomes that they really want.  Our superpower is in the thoughtful and sophisticated use of reinforcers.  It’s much more complex than “throwing cookies”.  Though sometimes throwing cookies is exactly the right thing to do!  

Each dog is a unique individual and our training must take that into consideration.  We need to customize our general approach to take advantage of our dog’s desires and use them in a skillful way.  Done well, training based on positive reinforcement is complex and subtle.  And it leads to an eager and enthusiastic student.  




In this case the question is not “how do I train a specific behavior?”  There are a huge variety of ways to teach anything.  That’s actually the easiest part of dog training!  

This how refers to the question “how does my dog feel about what we’re doing?”  The emotional experience of my dog is of the utmost importance to me when we train.  Just being able to perform a behavior is not enough, particularly if there is anxiety or stress involved.  That behavior can easily be poisoned.  And if I train often when my dog is in a less than optimal emotional state, I can poison the entire experience of working with me.  

You will often see some subtle, and some not so subtle, signs that your dog is not in a good emotional state or has combined a negative emotional state with training.  It may be as easy to overlook as scratching, yawning, sniffing, or an increased interest in distractions, or as obvious as leaving the training area if given the opportunity.  


Not sure how all of these ideas come together to help you develop a step by step training plan?  Then join us in Performance Fundamentals at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  Classes started December 1, but are open for registration until the 15th.  See the week to week progression we recommend to help your dog become a well-rounded, eager, enthusiastic teammate.

I remember when I first attempted shaping with a dog; about a thousand years ago.  I followed the general description of the training game in Karen Pryor’s ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog!’.  I had a box, a clicker, a dog, and treats.  And I waited, and waited, and waited.  My dog stared at my treats.  I stared at my dog.  Nobody looked at the box.  I did, however, manage to teach my dog to whine and drool.  Brilliant.  Not an auspicious beginning.

These days, however, shaping is my favorite way to train.  When I say that I get all the typical responses “I don’t have the patience for shaping”, “my dog gets frustrated with shaping”, “I don’t want my dog throwing out a bunch of random frantic behaviors”, “my dog shuts down and stops working if I try to shape”, and so on.  Like Shrodinger’s cat, these statements are both valid and invalid at the same time.  They are true because that is the experience these trainers had; but they don’t have to be true.  These outcomes and subsequent negative associations with shaping come from a simplistic and unclear view of the value and subtleties of the technique.

As a trainer, this outcome is not your fault.  If you are taking the purist paradigm of being perfectly still and letting your dog struggle to figure out what in the heck you want, it’s probably because that’s what you were taught to do.  There are ways to prepare for and set up shaping sessions so that you can tip the odds in favor of your dog having quick success, which then builds on itself.  With success comes confidence and enjoyment, for both of you.


Here are a few ideas for making your shaping attempts more successful:

1.Keep all shaping sessions to 30-60 seconds.  Use a timer because it goes a LOT faster than you think.  When the time is up toss your dog a few cookies to end the session.

2. Practice with a new unique shaping object each day for a couple of weeks.  I do this with all my puppies.  Reinforce ANY acknowledgement that the object exists.  Looking at it, moving towards it, sniffing it, all count.  Don’t worry about a specific target behavior; your target behavior is interaction of any sort.

3. Look at the object, not at your dog.  A mutual staring contest isn’t what we want here.

4. If you haven’t reinforced anything in 3 seconds do a treat toss for your dog to chase.  Watch closely to see if he looks or moves towards the object as he returns.

5. Use jackpots to make particularly good repetitions memorable.  I do one cookie for a normal behavior, but 5-6 for something much better.

6. For dogs that tend to get stuck reinforce body movement .  Mark and treat every ear flick, weight shift, and tail swish.  We want to make them “twitchy” so they come to understand that offering behavior is good.

7. Location of treat delivery matters quite a bit.  Feed where you want your dog to be for 4-5 repetitions, then do a treat toss to reset.

Shaping is a complex and sophisticated training technique.  It can allow us to train things  that would be difficult to impossible to get any other way.  A dog that understands how to shape is much easier to train than one that isn’t.  He’ll meet us halfway in our training efforts.

I have so much to say about shaping that I have developed an online course that begins December 1 called Beyond the Basics: Shaping Advanced Skills.  Working (Gold) spots are filled with a variety of excellent trainers & dogs.  If you want to follow along you can observe all the teams as we work through shaping challenges.  You also get a huge amount of lecture material and video demonstrations.






Rocky is a Moluccan Cockatoo who belongs to my friend, Lara.  Before I met Rocky I had a fairly healthy fear of large birds.  Those beaks and feet seem pretty dangerous to me.  They move fast and I have no idea what any of their body language means.  Are they happy, excited, annoyed, feeling homicidal?  I have no clue.


Hello Rocky!

After 25 years working with dogs I feel pretty confident that I can read canine body language quite accurately.  After years of close observation I see all those subtle signs that many others miss.  That slightly lowered head or ear flick screams out to me.  But birds?  Not so much.

Over the last several years I’ve had a handful of opportunities to work directly with Rocky.  I still have a very healthy respect for the power these birds possess.  And also for the fast changes in attitude and emotion they can display.

I’m learning that what I do so naturally with dogs can be the exact wrong thing to do with a bird.  My rapid fire marking & treating can make them nervous.  Quick movements put them on edge.  Simply figuring out the safest and most efficient way to present treats can be complicated.

I’m also learning that these animals are brilliant.  Not just smart, scary smart.  My ridiculous training plans are no match for their cognitive skills.  I need to up my game.

I regularly tell my students to keep their training sessions short and stop before the dog wants to stop.  And I think that’s very good advice, in general.  The idea of keeping sessions short and interesting is a valid one.

But here’s what I learned from Rocky…

Arbitrarily ending a session when the animal is highly engaged is punishing.  No matter what I think, if my animal is enjoying the session and wants to continue working I should respect that desire.

The last two times I worked with Rocky things were going well and I decided it was time for a break.  When I went back to begin a new session Rocky said “no thanks”.  He said it by sitting in a high perch and ignoring my offer to interact.  His behavior was clear.

Being a rather clueless primate it took this happening not once, but twice, for me to realize what was going on.  To anthropomorphize a bit, I was rude to Rocky.  I basically walked away in the middle of a conversation with him, then came back later and expected him to pick up again just because I was there.  That was definitely not in line with my desire for cooperative training.  To my credit at least it only took two of these experiences, highly aversive to me, until I figured it out.

The next time I worked with Rocky I decided to keep going until he showed signs of wanting the session to end.  I was working on teaching him to target a block of wood attached to the side of his cage with his foot.  I broke the behavior down and worked first on orienting his body to the block.  Then I started working on foot movement.  Within a few minutes he was regularly raising his left foot.  Then he stopped, turned towards me, slowly raised his foot and held it there while staring intently at me, for at least 30 seconds.

Rocky foot

If you look closely at this photo you will see his raised left foot.  

He stopped taking his pine nuts out of his dish (I provided his reinforcer by dropping them in a bowl) and just stood there, foot raised.  And I just stood there, staring back at him.  Never have I wished so much that an animal and I could share the same language, just for a minute or so.  Even though we were working so well together, the divide between us was so vast.  I felt like he was showing me “yes, I get that it’s the foot, now what?”  And I wanted so much to be able to say “touch the block of wood”.  How easy would that be?

But animal training is never that easy.  It’s always challenging to communicate with another species.  Heck, it’s challenging enough to communicate with the same species!  As I stared at Rocky in that moment I was at a loss.  He asked me a question and I had no answer.  I don’t remember an animal ever clearly asking me a question before.  I wonder if he thinks I’m stupid.

Here’s one of my early meetings with Rocky.  He’s a fun loving guy!

After spending time with the birds, and some other species as well, I’ve concluded that dogs are so incredibly easy to train.  They are still fun and challenging, but they are typically fairly straightforward and cooperative.  We don’t appreciate them nearly enough for meeting us more than halfway in our training efforts.

I have to thank my friend and fellow training geek Lara Joseph, owner of The Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania Ohio.  She has a wonderful facility and has been very generous in allowing me the opportunity to learn from her and work with her animals.

You can learn more about what Lara has to offer at: