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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:









Garbage Soup

Not a dog training blog, but a cooking one today for a change of pace!

Today was the right day to make garbage soup. Garbage soup consists of the leftovers in the fridge that are getting to the end of the lifespan and either need to be used asap or throw away.

Today was the right day for two reasons. First, the fridge definitely needed cleaned out. There were lots of bits of things squirreled away in the corners. And it’s time for a big grocery trip to restock basics. Second, the weather is perfect for soup today. Around 60 degrees with a nice breeze and a bit overcast. As summer comes on strong, soup weather will be gone until fall. So now might be the last big soup making of the season.

I’ve been making garbage soup for 40 years. The beauty of it is that there is no recipe. It’s completely based on what you have available. So it’s truly never the same soup twice. But there is a general plan that I follow depending on the ingredients I find in my fridge and pantry.

The general plan includes:

1. All the stuff in the bottom crisper drawer of my fridge. Usually onions, peppers, carrots, greens, mushrooms, and so on.

2. Beans. I use canned. If I was more energetic and thriftier I would use dried. Again, this depends on what I have in the cupboard. Usually black, garbanzo, lentils, white, kidney, and so on.

3. Canned or frozen veggies I want to use up.

4. Grains. Quinoa, rice, barley, couscous, sometimes pasta or potatoes instead.

5. Vegetable broth. When I’m feeling really energetic I make my own and freeze it. But store bought is fine. I also usually add a bit of tomato paste to the broth to give it a richer flavor.

6. Spices. Always garlic, sea salt, pepper. After that it depends on the direction the soup takes.

I never measure anything. That’s the true beauty of this! But somehow I always end up with about 10-12 servings. I usually put 4 single servings in the freezer for lunches or dinners on future lazy nights.


So here’s what I found today: Onions, peppers, kale, carrots, garlic, ginger, peas, garbanzo beans, veggie broth & barley.

Once I look everything over it helps me decide how to proceed. However, there’s no wrong way to approach this. Because I had garbanzo beans I thought I would go in a Mediterranean direction. I had several onions, red pepper, a chile pepper, and some garlic cloves that I chopped up and then sauteed in olive oil.

Unfortunately, I got involved in chopping the carrots and let those all burn :-{


Luckily I still had an another onion and some garlic left, along with more carrots, so I sauteed those again.


Then I added the chopped carrots (4) to the onions & garlic, along with enough veggie broth to cover. I covered with a lid and let it cook until the carrots start to get a bit tender.


Next I added the rest of a container of veggie broth and some tomato paste. This is where I also add the spices. I had some turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, and cayenne, so that took the whole thing in a more Indian direction.

There was some very sad looking kale in the fridge, so I cut the stem out and chopped that up.


I added some leftover peas and the kale. Sometimes I have swiss chard or broccoli or green beans as the green. Whatever I have.



And finally I added the garbanzo beans.


Once I mix it all together I will bring it to a boil, turn it to low, cover, and cook for 2-3 hours. Let it cool and put in the fridge/freezer. It’s really MUCH better when it’s reheated the next day.


Some of the variations I make include:

Mexican: using black beans, quinoa, salsa, peppers. Top with crumbled tortilla chips.

Chili: kidney beans, more tomato paste, beer, peppers. Also top with crumbled tortilla chips.

Italian: minestrone with kidney beans, pasta, zucchini or green beans.

French: lentils, potatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic.

Cream: potato, broccoli, corn, carrot, cauliflower, whatever. Usually add onions, garlic, mushrooms, white beans. All cooked up and pureed in the Vitamix.

Any type of beans along with rice as the grain is quick and easy.

Hope you enjoyed this post and are inspired to make your own garbage soup. It’s fun & easy!

To borrow from the Beatles… But of course, I’m talking about dog training. Learning is a science, but not an exact one. Mainly because every new dog presents us with a new set of challenges. Sure, in the lab we can precisely control all extraneous variables, but not in the living room with the puppy.

So, I’ve got this great new puppy. Helo is very bright and seems to be thoughtful enough, until he’s not. Of course, he’s also 4 months old and that speaks for itself. It seems like I’m training him a lot. But if you added it up it’s likely 10 minutes a day split into 2 sessions, and then the little bits and pieces that happen as you go through the day. Even without that much time investment, he’s learning lots of things. I always forget between puppies how anxiety-provoking and overwhelming it is. What am I forgetting? What do I need to do today so he’s not ruined? Have I missed something vitally important?

I’ve done this a few times and I know what I’m doing, sort of. I’m not 100% convinced I’m the best puppy trainer on the planet, but I have a good idea of what he should learn and the basic order he should learn it in. And I’m confident that he will learn it all in time.

So today we had possibly the worst focus training session EVER. Ever. With any dog, even dogs I don’t own. Focus is my specialty. I know how to teach focus. I write books and teach classes on this stuff. WTF happened? My brilliant puppy jumped at my hands, offered his latest trick (take a nap), leaped up on a stool, then on the sofa, then back to jumping at my hands, over and over so quickly I could not get a moment to simply reinforce focus. I have a feeling I could have done better with a dog just off the street, not the baby that I’ve lovingly nurtured for months. Not the puppy with whom I’ve carefully laid such a thoughtful foundation. Gasp! He’s doing it wrong! Shock and disbelief!

I need to get ahold of myself. I can come back to this later. Time to move on to a different behavior. We’ve been working on foot targeting and introducing the dumbbell. The foot target session goes extremely well. We move from a foot on the furniture slider on the floor to being able to raise the slider, then switching from the slider to a paw pod. Very quick progress in a couple minutes. The dumbbell has been slow going. I can’t recall the last puppy I’ve had who didn’t have a pretty strong natural retrieve. Helo’s got a natural “chase it and run away with it” behavior. That’s not going to work for me. The shaped dumbbell is going very slowly, but today I got teeth on the bar!!!! Yay!!!! Teeth on the bar is a big giant step! A nice huge breakthrough!!!

So my morning training consisted of a crappy focus session. Clearly, I need to analyze and rethink my approach there. Nice progress on the foot target. And a breakthrough on the dumbbell. Not bad for a morning’s work at all. Have to always remember not to just focus on the errors, or give them more weight than they deserve. Sure, they’re not as much fun, but they are very instructive. The problems force me to be more thoughtful and creative. And that can only be good.

My Performance Fundamentals class at Fenzi Academy started Offered Focus this week as well. They are having the typical issues that I have seen and know how to fix. So I ask myself, if this was a student’s dog, what would you do? So easy to fix someone else’s problem! I shared my very bad training moment with them so they would feel better about their own struggles. Nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes, and we all struggle sometimes. Yet it still gets done and we get better. The dogs get trained, sometimes in spite of us!

It’s a good thing he’s so darn cute! That counts for a LOT some days.


It’s not often these days that I’m motivated to put in the time and effort to craft a blog post. I typically say everything I want on Facebook or in my books. But after the Facebook posts regarding the American Kennel Club’s fiasco stating their view on the use of shock collars (first they stated they were not a good choice on television, then retracted that by email) and the ensuing flame war of the past few days I feel like this topic requires a full blog.

So, first things first. If you are strongly in support of using shock collars on dogs there is no point in your reading this post. You will rabidly disagree with me on every point and be aggravated. If you have a more moderate view or are “on the fence” about their use then I invite you to listen to what I have to say and give me the opportunity to explain why I am so vehemently against their use.

This is truly a “hot button” topic with me (pun intended!) I feel very strongly that it is not only ethically wrong to use such a strong aversive device but it is also typically misused and causes more harm than good. Even when used “correctly” the possibility of undesired fallout is huge. So let me address some of the reasons I feel this way.

1. You can call it by whatever name you want (electronic collar or remote collar are common) but the fact remains it works by shocking the dog. Calling it an electronic collar suggests that it works similarly to a DVR or something. And calling it a remote device suggests that it works like a TV remote. No on both counts. It’s a shock collar, it provides an electrical shock and should be called what it truly is. Why quibble over the name if it is accurate? Unless there’s a reason to try and candy coat that fact.

2. If it didn’t hurt it wouldn’t work. Again, calling it discomfort sounds better than calling it pain. Talking about a tingle or a buzz or a nick sounds so mild and benign. But if it is truly so mild then why use it at all? If there are other, less unpleasant to the dog, ways to get the result, then why insist on using this one?

3. I saw this one on Facebook. “You can’t win field trials without it”. If winning field trials is more important to you than the well-being of a living creature then I don’t really know what else I can say.

4. People often say that good trainers use them properly. The problem with this is that everyone thinks he or she is a good trainer. I see people every single day who can’t get the timing of a clicker right. At least the worst thing that happens there is poor quality training. Bad timing on a shock collar can be extremely harmful. And they are widely available for anyone to buy.

5. The use of an aversive device does not build a bond of trust and cooperation between dog and trainer. Just the opposite. Would you truly trust someone who could possibly shock you at any moment?

6. The use of an aversive device suggests that the trainer doesn’t have a very large range of training options. It’s a pretty extreme choice. Why not try other, less unpleasant options first?

7. They are necessary in order to save a dog’s life. People often cite dogs running away or chasing prey as justification for their use. Again, there are a number of less drastic and unpleasant ways to train around these issues. Counterconditioning and systematic desensitization will work well for these problems.

8. If a shock collar is used to punish behavior then it doesn’t give the dog any information about what is appropriate, only what is not. For long-lasting behavior changes it is important to reinforce desired behaviors, not just punish undesired ones.

9. Just because a dog stops reacting doesn’t mean he has been properly trained. He could simply be overwhelmed and stressed, so he shuts down. That’s not training, that’s bordering on abuse.

10. It is often stated that shock collars are “just another tool in the toolbox”. And it is also stated that you have a woefully incomplete toolbox without one. But, as my friend Ken McCort says “I would prefer my dentist use novacaine rather than whiskey.” As we develop more sophisticated tools we leave the old ones behind.

11. Also, in our first book in the Dog Sport Skills series (with my co-author Denise Fenzi) we talk about the fact that we don’t want to add tools to an old outdated toolbox. We are now designing a better, more modern version that doesn’t include archaic devices like shock collars.

12. I don’t think that people who use these devices are evil. I’m sure they run the gamut from perfectly nice to perfectly awful just like the rest of the population. But I do think they are misguided and that they are making a very poor choice. I don’t believe that anyone has the right to shock another creature and I am mystified at how people justify this to themselves. It’s a hard line that should not be crossed.

13. I’ve often been told that I simply don’t understand how shock collars work and that if I did I would change my mind about them. I’ve been told that I’m overreacting. As a behavioral scientist I understand, better than most, exactly how they are intended to work. And, in my opinion, even when used as suggested they are still unacceptable.

14. I read this week that people who are against the use of shock collars are like PETA. They want to take away rights regarding animals. I don’t know what PETA’s agenda is but I doubt that mine is the same. My agenda, not at all hidden, is to make the use of these devices unnecessary and socially unacceptable. I want people to understand that they are dangerous and cause much damage. If I could make them illegal I would. If I ever get 3 wishes that will be my third wish! Right after a long healthy life and the money to enjoy it :-}

15. Dogs are sensitive and intelligent creatures. Using a painful stimulus in an attempt to alter their behavior is simply overkill. They are smart enough to respond well to positive training techniques. Anything more is not necessary.

16. Pain increases aggression. It can exacerbate an existing problem or even cause a problem where none existed before. The idea that a shock collar is an appropriate treatment for aggression is just ludicrous. That aggression can be focused on whoever the dog is looking at when he gets shocked (another dog or a child, for example).

17. We know how to do it better! There are so many really good positively based techniques available. Why not try those first? If you do those properly there will be no need for a shock collar.

I had an unusual childhood.  Not bad, just unusual.  Looking back now I have to say I wasn’t really well-socialized with people.  I was an only child with divorced parents.  Being that I attended Catholic schools in the early 1960s, that was NOT considered the norm.  I was the only one of my kind.  All around me were large families with outgoing offspring.  Combining my introverted nature with the knowledge of being very different led me to be even more self-isolated, I’m sure.  Plus, we lived out in the middle of nowhere with my grandparents.  So there were very few kids around to play with.  Those that were seemed to constantly be moving in and out.  They often lived in old “company” houses from the brick yard close by.  Looking back I realize just how poor they were.  We weren’t wealthy or even close, but we were stable and solidly lower middle class.  We had indoor plumbing and they didn’t.  My friends were often quite temporary in nature.  The constant was the animals.

We lived across the street from a fairly large horse farm.  I wasn’t allowed to go in and ride unless someone was there, so I spent a lot of my time on the outside of the fence, watching and waiting.  I would mentally will the horses to come to me.  And maybe use a carrot or apple as an enticement as well.  I learned to be very patient with animals.  I also learned that waiting quietly was often rewarded.  The horses would come to trust me and get closer and closer, even when I didn’t have a food offering for them.  I would sit and talk to them for hours.  I knew they couldn’t understand or talk back.  But they could still communicate with me.  I learned about their individual personalities.  They let me see who they were.  Some trusting and friendly, some nervous and shy, some defensive and aggressive.  There was a revolving door of horses over there, so I had plenty of new friends.  As I look back I now wonder if the owners were brokers.  The horses weren’t pets and didn’t stay all that long.

Caught one!

Caught one!

*Sorry this photo is so tiny.  Click on it to see a slightly bigger image.  

I never wanted the horses to actually talk to me in human language, that would be creepy.  I wanted to learn “horse”.  “Horse” was much more subtle and elegant than words.  “Horse” required the entire body in order to be spoken fluently.  It was about taking and giving space, turning forward, sideways, or backwards, making eye contact or not, moving slowly and carefully or quickly and deliberately.  There were a lot to learn to be fluent in “horse”.  Horses seemed to read body language and movement so well that they could tell what your intention was, even what kind of person you were, very very quickly.  I watched many adults in their interactions with the horses.  Horses took a liking to some, tolerated others, and violently objected to a few.  The horses didn’t need much information to make these decisions.  But they seemed to be correct in their assessments of who could be trusted and who could not.

If the horses didn’t like a person I would try to figure out why.  What was that person doing, or not doing?  The horses didn’t like loud and pushy.  That might force the issue and gain a measure of control in certain situations, but they certainly didn’t like it or give their best effort.  The horse would do the minimal required and get away from that person as quickly as possible.

They also didn’t like tentative and nervous.  Someone with fear of large animals also made the horses nervous. They wanted space from that person and would keep their distance if at all possible.  They seemed to take the nervous energy as an indication that there was danger close at hand.  Even as a kid I knew the advice “just don’t let him see that you’re afraid of him” was  idiotic.  The horses always knew, you couldn’t lie to them.

I also watched closely to see what those considered “good” with horses were doing.  Their movements were typically smooth and fluid.  They were calm and deliberate in their behavior.  Confident, but not overbearing.

Me and Patches

Me and Patches

*Again, sorry for the tiny picture.  Work off some very old, very small photos.  

Now, I talk to dogs.  Literally, all the time.  Do they understand?  I’m certain they pick up key words and phrases.  Combine those with my behavior and there is a lot of communication going on.  But the communication works because not only do I talk, I listen.  I pay attention.  I watch them.  I notice changes in behavior and typical actions.  I respond to their attempts at communication.

For example, our next door neighbors are getting new siding and windows (I’m very jealous!)  The side of their garage is close to the deck off our living room.  There is a large sliding glass door there.  Star (youngest BC) started barking hysterically one day.  I walk over, look, and see a worker walking on the neighbor’s garage roof.  I tell Star “thank you for telling me” and I really meant that.  It was a good call on her part.  If someone is on the roof or on my balcony I’d like to be warned.  I also told her very calmly “it’s fine, they’re supposed to be there” petted her, and walked away.  They’ve been there for 3-4 days since and she hasn’t made a sound.  Did she understand what I said?  I think she got the message.  I was calm, my tone was soothing, my actions were relaxed.  There was nothing to worry about.  She got that.

Star talks to me, a lot.  She seems to be convinced that I need careful observation and monitoring at all times.  I really do believe that she was a nurse in a former life.  If I get upset, she leaps into action immediately, gets right in my face, and starts licking me.  This makes me laugh, and then we’re both happy.  Star is very clearly telling me “calm down, everything is fine”.  And she’s right.  She’s so sensitive that even if I raise my voice slightly or change my tone, she’s on it.  Why is she so concerned about how I feel?  I have no idea.

I'm Star and I'm here to help.

I’m Star and I’m here to help.

Zen is totally oblivious to my moods.  His communication with me consists of sitting across the room staring at me and mentally willing me to “throw the ball”.  Sometimes it works.  He’s probably convinced that he has supernatural powers and controls my mind.

Throw it again, and again, and again....

Throw it again, and again, and again….

Is it any wonder I became a behavioral psychologist?

I am just wrapping up my first online puppy class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy  I have spent 12 weeks with a wonderful group of pups and trainers.  I am sad to see them move on because I will miss them.  But I am so proud of how far they have come.  And I am very excited about their futures.  

And now I am reflecting on future classes and revisions.  In looking over my lesson plans I feel like I have pinpointed where all pups need to start.  And it’s not necessarily what people think it should be.  We start with concepts, not behaviors.  Concepts are general ideas.  They need to be learned through repetition and generalization of related skills.  

The five concepts are:  focus, impulse control, recalls, being operant, and interactive play.  

1)  Focus:  Focus is so much more than attention or eye contact.  In particular, we want offered focus.  Offered focus is valuable.  It becomes a default.  If my dog doesn’t know what to do or how to act, he looks to me.  This makes everything else so much easier.  A focused dog is ready and willing to work with you.  He has learned how important you are in his universe.  And he knows that cooperating with you is always in his best interests.  

2)  Impulse control:  In particular, we want to instill self-control.  It’s not external.  If I have to physically hold my dog back from something he wants, or verbally remind him constantly to leave something alone, that’s not self-initiated.  A dog with impulse control learns the general concept of looking to us for permission when he encounters something he wants.  He learns to think before he acts.  You can leave your sandwich on the table, walk out of the room, and expect it to be there when you return.  Now that’s a useful skill!

3)  Recalls:  This is a year long process.  If you spend a year consistently reinforcing your recalls (in a variety of ways) while increasing the challenges, you should have 15 years of reliability.  There will be some bumpy spots in adolescence.  But the biggest problem is that trainers take it for granted too soon and don’t push their dogs to a higher standard.  They have a “barely there” recall that is fragile and won’t hold up in difficult situations.  An excellent recall needs to be built over time with repetition.      

4)  Being operant:  This concept can be one of the most difficult (for the trainers).  An operant dog learns that his behavior is directly tied to consequences.  In particular, he learns that trying new things pays off.  In the context of a training session we encourage our pups to try out lots of new behaviors and we pay generously (free shaping).  This concept is very useful in the future when we want to develop new behaviors.  We have dogs that are eager and happy to offer.  

5)  Interactive play:  Positive reinforcement trainers are often considered “cookie pushers”.  And sometimes that is true.  Food is quick and easy and it almost always works.  But there is a world full of other possible reinforcers out there.  And interactive play of all sorts can be extremely useful in later training.  Tug, fetch, and chase are some common examples.  Personal play (without toys or other objects) can have excellent carryover to the performance ring in the future.  These ways of interacting with our pups need to be developed and nurtured.  But they are well worth the effort.

Within each concepts there are a variety of exercises and skills to be learned and practiced.  All of this should come before you teach a sit, down, or any other specific behavior.  All your subsequent training will be so much easier if you have these 5 concepts in place first.

*To learn more about these concepts check out my book ‘The Focused Puppy’ available through Clean Run Productions  

Here’s a trailer for my puppy classes!  I’m having fun with iMovie!  





I had a GREAT day yesterday at Posidog in Columbus Ohio.  They hosted a Cynosport Rally trial, actually 3 trials in one day.  I was in the ring with Zen and Star 16 times.  Yes 16!  Would have been 18 if I hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket on the way there.  Total speed trap.  Anyway, it was a nice, relaxed, enjoyable trial atmosphere.  Chad and Sarah are always great hosts.  And they each have a lovely young dog that we got to meet.  Kristen did a great job keeping things organized.  And Morgan kept us fed with vegan food, including vegan cinnamon rolls!  That was the first cinnamon roll I’ve had since becoming vegetarian.  It was so awesome!  So with all that, even if my dogs did horribly, it would have been an excellent day.  The speeding ticket was a small price to pay for such a great day.  The other price was being stiff and sore and very very tired.  But again, a small price.

But of course, this blog is really about dogs.  Zen and Star both did a very nice job.  Showing eight times in one day would be hard on most any dog.  But they were both rockstars!  

Zen is always ready.  No matter what, no matter when.  When we were in Virginia at Laurie Williams’ place we ended up in the ring doing rally at midnight.  And Zen was just as up and happy as when the day started.  He really is the energizer bunny of dogs.  Zen can barely contain his enthusiasm and excitement for working.  His attitude is always fantastic, but his accuracy can suffer for it.  It’s a struggle to keep him “contained” enough so that he is thinking clearly and not just reacting and overreacting.  

You can see in this video how hard he works to do exactly what I’m asking.  It’s a struggle for him.  More traditional trainers feel that Zen needs to be taught a lesson about control.  They would “crack down” on him to get more precision and less attitude.  I want both precision and great attitude, but if I have to sacrifice something, I want to preserve attitude at all costs.  That’s what makes Zen who he is and I have to work within that framework.  I have worked on impulse control with Zen his entire life, and I will continue to do so for the rest I’m sure.  He doesn’t need the enthusiasm taken out of him.  He needs continued lessons that show him that controlling himself leads to getting what he wants.  

Star, on the other hand, has totally different issues.  She is much more serious about her work, but she can also be more environmentally sensitive and reactive.  She gets worried and nervous rather easily.  So with Star, my job is to help her feel confident and happy.  That’s when she can do her best.  

Star needs to feel safe and secure, then she can let loose and focus on working.  My job is to keep her attitude up by being there for her.  She needs to know that I am confident and relaxed because she is very, very sensitive to my moods.  She takes a bad mood very personally.  Everything about the show environment needs to be good for her.  So, indirectly, the cinnamon rolls helped Star.  Because I was in such a good mood yesterday, she was as well.  She’s my little mirror.  

The day ended well.  Zen and Star each got 2 perfect scores of 210.  They each got four first places, two seconds, and two thirds.  All that was evenly matched so we calculated their average points for the day as a tiebreaker.  They were exactly the same (206.5)!  What are the odds of that?  Two dogs with totally different personalities.  Zen has more training and ring experience, but Star tends to be a bit more careful and precise.  They each blew a bonus exercise as well.  So they are equal in the outcome, but they are not even close to being the same.

In the online puppy class I’m teaching now ( one of the main ideas I’m trying to convey to students is that you need to know your dog and tailor your training accordingly.  It’s important to be clear and honest in your assessment.  Yes, all puppies are wonderful, but they are not perfect.  They will have weaknesses.  Some will find impulse control exercises more difficult (Zen); while others will need to become more confident and outgoing (Star).  Neither one is better than the other; but they definitely need a different focus in training.  It’s fun to practice the stuff that your dog is already good at, or has a tendency to like.  But that typically doesn’t help them overcome their major challenges.  It’s hard to keep at exercises where you struggle, but that’s what it takes to improve.  

Zen and Star were trained using the same basic methodology (positive clicker) but their specific exercises and lessons needed to be tailored to what they needed.  The goal was not to change their basic personalities, that is not possible.  The goal was to help each one reach his and her potential as a companion and performance dog.  Treating them exactly the same way would not have been good for either one.  They need to be respected as the individuals they are.  

And that’s my goal in puppy class as well.  Sometimes people don’t want to see, or can’t see, their pup’s weaknesses as clearly as someone with an outside view.  That is probably something that takes lots of experience with lots of pups.   But telling someone their pup has a weak area isn’t a criticism, it’s an observation designed to help inform future training.  

I am preparing to teach Rally as an online class as well.  This is an exciting time to be a teacher.  I am LOVING the experience of online teaching!  As one of the other instructors said to me in discussing this “it’s what we do anyway”.  Meaning we enjoy spending time watching videos of dog training and talking about them.  We do that for fun, for free, all the time.  (Don’t tell Denise I said the “free” part!)  

It is amazing to me how effective online coaching can be.  It is also surprising to me how well I feel like I know all the teams in my class.  I get to see them change from one video to the next.  It’s a very gratifying feeling for an instructor to get such immediate feedback on how well you’re doing your job.  

So this has been a somewhat meandering blog, tied together only by the thoughts running through my head.  Today I’m feeling grateful for rally, cinnamon rolls, puppies, and online classes!