Stacy Winkler's Keen Dog Blog

Finding the fun in creating great dog agility behaviors



keenthe-perfect-pictureIn training are there are so many details that it is easy to let some pass by the wayside. But as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” This is definitely a truism for dog training. Although we may get frustrated by the amount of details and the clarity that is required to create great behaviors or even decent skills, the fact remains that whether we embrace these facts or choose to dismiss them, they are facts that exist regardless.

If we agree that there are many facets to the behaviors that we want to create, and that dogs learn best when we are clear and consistent with our training, then would it not make sense to state that if we do not totally understand what we want out of the behavior or a session, then it will be impossible for us to communicate that clearly to our dog? If we don’t totally comprehend it, than how the heck can we teach it to someone else??

Some of the basic points I always make to my students is that before you take your dog out to train a drill you need to:
*Have a plan!
*Know exactly what you want the dog to do.
*How you are going to begin.
*How you are going to end the drill.
*What to do when the dog succeeds.
*How you are going to react if there is failure.

While analyzing reasons why students struggle, I found that that there was one simple component to training that most were neglecting: They did not have a complete vision of what the behavior and session they are trying to create looks like. I call the visualization of what your training session should look like your Perfect Picture.

If you can’t envision exactly what you want the behavior and session you are training to look like, then how you can you possibly tell your dog accurately when they are right and when they are wrong?

Even more importantly, if you don’t have a Perfect Picture of your session, how will you notice when undesirable things are occurring? Ummm, you can’t. And guess what happens when your dog rehearses behaviors that you don’t want? THEY CAN GET REALLY GOOD AT THEM!!!

Now you may be thinkin’, “ Wait a minute, that is so not me.” Oh, but very likely, yes it is you. I’ll just go ahead and tell you why :-).

Having a Perfect Picture isn’t just about the big details of the behavior. I am talking about the whole training session – every little bit. Most people miss the nuances. You know, those pesky little details that are so vital to giving our dogs a clear understanding of what we want them to do.

To qualify, my ultimate Perfect Picture (when the training is perfected) may not be what I am working on at the moment. My current Perfect Picture can partly be about what I want to accomplish in this drill, but the most vital part of that P.P. is that I visualize the entire session start to finish. The drill is only a piece of the whole. My P.P. begins the moment I approach my dog and is complete when the session ends and the dog is in their crate.

If I am not clear about what all the pieces of that drill should look like, one piece of training may be accomplished while I may inadvertently be creating failure somewhere else that could cause big problems in the future.


Let’s break down my Perfect Picture of a simple sit-stay in front of a jump. What should that look like? You could be sitting there thinkin’ “ Hey, it’s a sit-stay. The dog should sit and stay!”

But what does that sit-stay really entail? What should that really look like? Close your eyes and imagine what you want to see when you set your dog up at a jump.

My Perfect Picture for that sit-stay has many components. I try to keep it simple, but I need to know what is desirable and what is not. I begin at the beginning:

  1. I connect with my dog as I approach them in the crate and create a state of anticipation and arousal.
  2. I release my dog dynamically from the crate with focus and drive and reward with play or food.
  3. I maintain a connection as I bring my dog to the start line. When I set my dog on the start line they should be engaged and working at a high level of intensity.
  4.  They should sit quickly when asked, ready to jam.
  5.  They should hold their sit no matter how much they are pumped up and they must have no foot or butt movement. (I will reward accordingly)
  6. Their eyes should stay on me the entire time until I tell them to look for their line.
  7.  They should leave only when I give them their verbal cue and not a moment before.
  8.  I work my drill with attention to all the details.
  9. I make sure to keep my connection throughout the skill work particularly as I finish one repetition and begin another.
  10.  I manage the session, maintaining intensity and drive until my dog is back in the crate.

If anything deviates from this picture, I need to train the issues. Break behaviors down, add more intensity, focus and value..…

If this feels overwhelming to you in any way, take into consideration that the bulk of the Perfect Picture is exactly the same for every session. The only thing that really changes is the actual drill that is the focus of the training. The rest should look the same every time I train. I always want connection, attention and a desire to work. I always want to manage my sessions and so forth. Sometimes my sessions are extremely short . Or I may just be building on, strengthening or creating the skills and attention that will be the core of my training sessions, such as with a puppy or a new dog. I am not saying that this needs to be perfect immediately, just that you know intimately what your goals are so you are able to work with clear intent towards those goals.

I use the start-line as an example because it is the biggest point of failure in most people’s training. And I feel it is also the biggest point of stress for dogs. Not only can it be very confusing and produce a ton of failure, but it is also how most sessions begin.

For instance you take your dog out to work, put them on the start-line, they pretty much immediately leave. Then we give some sort of verbal or physical correction. Verbally I am referring to some sort of non-reward marker ( UHUH or AAAAAAGNNNNN) (I have no idea how to write that and hopefully you get the idea). Physically I am referring to slumping our shoulders or looking disappointed; I do not mean beating on the dogs with a stick.

Even though these corrections may seem minor, they are often the lead-in to your skill work. NOT A FUN OR MOTIVATING WAY TO BEGIN TRAINING! We are starting drills that should be exciting and fun with some NOT very happy campers. This of course makes everything more difficult to train. After all, the dog’s motto is “if it ain’t fun, why the heck do it!” You are beginning your training session in the hole.

Getting on a start-line soapbox here, almost all start-lines issues I see have to do with a lack of clear criteria. Too many releases on an “almost.” It always pains me to see trainers get pissed-off at their dogs for start-line failures. Especially when on the previous repetition they allowed the dog to leave early. Training 101, yes I know, but is it fair to correct a dog one moment for what you said was just dandy the repetition before??? Now to be reasonable, many trainers have no idea that their dog left the start-line early in the first place. But unfortunately, just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And because it has happened, the dog is likely to learn a lesson from it. I frequently tell my students it is just as easy to teach something incorrectly as it is to teach something correctly. Yes, it’s a bummer. Removing feet from soap box.

As I mentioned earlier, when we concentrate on an aspect of training, some things may get by us. We all know that the need to always be consistent can suck, but whether it sucks or not, it is a fact. If you don’t know comprehensively what your session should look like, important pieces of training will be missed. If you are not detail oriented you can inadvertently cause issues that may take a great deal of time to resolve.

By looking deeper into your training and considering the session as a whole, not simply one facet of the session (the sit-stay), you will be elevating and progressing a much more extensive amount of behavior all at once.

I will use my foundation contact training for one more example of the need for a Perfect Picture. I do most of my contact training on a baby A-frame. It is 2’x4’ on each side rather than the standard size.

When a young dog has a training session, I always emphasize the importance of the trainer taking time to imagine a comprehensive Perfect Picture before they begin their session. Most folks are only concentrating on the contact work ( the drill) itself: such as will I work distance? Speed? Where will I lead out to and so forth? That is usually where the picture begins and ends for most folks. Unfortunately by simply focusing on one aspect of the session, the drill itself, rather than the session as a whole they are missing a ton of important training details that can negatively impact the success of your training .


First I will plan what I want to accomplish on my repetitions, always prepared to adjust my session if the dog is struggling, and knowing that if I struggle, my best Plan of Action is to give the dog a break and figure out how to proceed.

My P.P. will then include:

  1. Get connection, desire and drive from the dog in the crate.
  2.  Release the dog dynamically from the crate and play.
  3.  Keep my connection with the dog to the start line (can be with play or treats)
  4. Put the dog on the start line with drive and intensity.
  5. Keep my connection while I lead out (rewarding successful connection and the stay).
  6. Raise my arm to get focus on the obstacle and release the dog on my verbal.
  7. Implement my training plan.
  8. Make the reward an event if the dog does well, then release the dog dynamically from the contact.
  9. Maintain connection and enthusiasm with my dog from the conclusion of one drill to the beginning of the next drill.
  10. End the drill by running the dog back to their crate.

Of course I am not going into the minutia of the actual drill here, but hopefully you get the idea.

Remember most aspects of the P.P. are the same in every training session. I am not reinventing my whole P.P. every time I train. Principally, especially once my connection foundation and play training is where I want it to be, only the details for the individual drills change.

Therefore, my P.P. will always contain pieces concerning focus on me and intensity out of the crate; connection from the end of one drill to the beginning of the next drill or to the crate; enthusiasm from the moment the dog comes out of the crate until the moment they return. The variations include having a comprehensive plan for the individual drill and knowing what to do when the behavior is going well and what to do if there is failure.

Without a Perfect Picture, what I frequently see are sessions with some attention to detail but one where many other vital bits fall by the wayside. Connections are frequently not maintained and session pieces are not managed. While the handler focuses on the most central aspect of the training (in this instance the contact) their dogs get distracted, leaving their handlers to sniff the ground or have a pee. They beg for rewards by continually trying to jump onto the contact (or cookie machine) without being cued and at the same time ignoring the handler’s body language and so forth. But when the handler has a comprehensive picture of what the whole session should look like these issues can be minimized or erased completely because the session is clearly defined and directed.

To recap, remember that your dog is always learning so you must visualize your Perfect Picture from beginning to end. If you do, you will know exactly when your training is on the money and when there are problems.This knowledge will propel your training sessions to new heights. Not only will you train more successfully but you will get more accomplished in a fraction of the time. It’s worth it!! Embrace the P.P. concept and if you need help, ask your instructor, or for online help with me, contact me at for private or group classes. Yes that was an extremely shameless plug 🙂

Have fun training!!
Stacy Winkler




“Proofing to an extreme”

What if there was a very simple way to improve all of your dog’s trained skills and/or skills yet to come? What if, by making a couple of changes, you could massively improve your dog’s connection, attention, speed, desire to work and so much more? Would you make those changes? Well then, read on!

When I get new clients, either in person or by the internet, I frequently find that there is not only a lack of connection between the handler and the dog, but the dog’s skill levels are often weak.

The similarities that exist between these trainers are pretty much the same at the core. Somewhere in the trainer’s education they had been taught that rewarding the dog too frequently was a very bad idea and that it was also important to add duration to behaviors very quickly. In a nutshell I am referring to duration as the ability for an animal to preform a behavior for a length of time without reinforcement.

The big problem with this is that trainers attempt to add duration to behaviors before the dog has little more than a cursory understanding of what that behavior is supposed to be. That means that the whole foundation of that individual behavior is weak. This creates a ton of behavior failures that ultimately stem from a lack of value and an extreme lack of understanding. Believe me, although this may be very frustrating for the trainer, imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be for their dog; especially when they are assumed to be failing, not because they don’t understand what they are expected to do, but because they are: “stubborn,” “ naughty,” “ failing just to spite me,” “hardheaded”……. Crazy right :-)?

The fact is that if in our first experience with dog training we are convinced by the trainer that this is the way things should be, it is very hard to shake that perception even years later when we know better.

For instance, we take our first dog to pet training school and the instructor tells us that we shouldn’t treat our dogs too much because it will spoil them and they will start to expect rewards all the time. They may make the argument that if you reward frequently and don’t get them off the treat train, they will constantly be begging you for treats and that there will be no peace in your house! Well shoot, that seems to make sense. I don’t, after all, want to deal with all that yucky begging. So it begins, and we unfortunately absorb that instructor’s Kool-Aid right down to our marrow.

Seems silly, yeah maybe, but I have seen this in action hundreds and hundreds of times. Many trainers carry those first lessons in the back of their mind and getting rid of those perceptions can be very, very difficult. Rewarding their dog frequently and jack-potting for great choices can be completely foreign to them and many struggle with it. Even when they do get better at rewarding their dog and see the dramatic results, it is still a bit of a battle to get them to continue to add value to behaviors through rewarding.

Now of course I am speaking from my own experiences and observations after being a dog trainer for more than 15 years, but I find it very commonplace for new students, either at my home field or in my online classes, to be resistant to methodically building a strong foundation on their behaviors. They want the fast track. Get the basic behavior and move on. Building value and generalization into their behaviors does take a lot of training time and requires elevated understanding of building behaviors. Seems like a ton of work. Ick!

“Focus and criteria despite high distraction level”

To illustrate the importance of not adding duration prematurely and without enough value, let’s look at the simple sit stay. When working a stay, many trainers tend to reward frequently in the very beginning, and then as they get small successes, reward less frequently, expecting that the dog knows its job. Of course the dog doesn’t understand the behavior at this point, except in a very simple form. Teach a dog to sit stay in the living room and then try again in your backyard and they probably won’t be able to stay at all.

Most savvy trainers know that dogs need to understand how to generalize behaviors, so they work the behavior in a couple different locations (living room, kitchen, bedroom, backyard, on their walk…), but they are still missing a ton of pieces in the “understanding” puzzle. What about the dog’s ability to stay when they are highly aroused, when there are distractions, in a strange environment? What if they are in a new environment, are distracted and excited? If your dog can perform a sit-stay in their backyard should you expect that they can do it at: Petco, a skate park, when your back is turned, if you leave the room, at an agility trial, when a squirrel runs across their path or another dog races to grab a thrown ball……? Probably not. Is now the time to reward less and add duration? No way!!! But they do! Before they have barely touched on bringing the behavior to any type of fluency, many trainers reduce the amount the dog is being rewarded. No wonder the behavior is so weak.

It seems wrong for them to give their dog so much reinforcement. “They should just want to work with me!!!” is a lament I have heard many times. “Seriously?” I say with a smile. “Why?” Then they are right back at me with “Because…..ummmm……they love me?” “ummmm, ok, not much reason there.”

My favorite lament (I keep meaning to make a t-shirt with this on it) is: “ But they are perfect at home!!!” “Oh yes” I say with a smile, “ I know they are.” And I do know, that to some extent, they ARE perfect at home because at home they are comfortable and familiar with the routine. I do this, I get this and so on. Unfortunately the challenges are minimal so success is more likely and that gives the trainer a false sense of security.

When the environment changes and the challenges change, the failure rate becomes very high. How many times have you been to class and spent 5 minutes fixing your stay and 45 seconds working the drill? How often have you said “Wait” or “Stay” and your dog immediately scooted forward, stood up or adjusted their paws? So the cue “wait” means…?

I have always embraced the concept of “The dog does what is rewarding for them.” I find it to be very true and that those are words to live by in the art of dog training.

There are a few concepts that, if you follow through with them, can make huge differences in your dog training. They will help you create a better relationship and therefore a better working relationship with your dog, they will improve your dog’s desire to work and how engaged they stay during work and will exponentially increase your dog’s understanding of their behaviors. With the added bonus that if you have a dog that is distracted either in general, in classes or at shows, these concepts can change that behavior dramatically.

Before I begin explaining the details of how to avoid the pitfalls of adding duration prematurely, let’s relate the concept to a human perspective, and hopefully, it will illustrate how important rewarding can be.

Let’s say that I am working in an architectural firm and one day the boss comes up to me and says, “Stacy, you have been doing excellent work here. Here is $5, go take an extra 15 minutes and grab yourself a Starbucks.” “Hey, thanks!” I say, beaming at him, not bothering to share with him that the drinks I order cost $5.50. Just sayin’. Well, whatever, that experience felt great! I was proud of myself for a job well done!

Now let’s say 2 months later I feel I am stagnating at that firm and decide to leave there and join a newer firm that is making huge inroads into the architectural market. I am one year on the job, working diligently at my desk, when the president of the firm comes up to me and says, “ Stacy, you are absolutely excelling at this work and have become quite an asset to the firm.” “Oh, thanks.” I say, “It’s been my pleasure to work here.” While I am worrying that I might get canned, he clears his throat and says, “Listen, as a thanks for all the great work you have done, here’s a $200 dollar gift certificate to Starbucks, get yourself a drink on us when you take a break today.” “ Thank you!!!” I say, beaming up at him. He smiles at me and says, “You really have become an integral part of our operation, so as an additional bonus, we have arranged for you to have an all-expenses paid vacation to Jamaica.” Looking slightly stunned, now I begin “Well thank…” “And,” he interrupts, “there will be an additional $10,000 in your Christmas bonus. Keep up the great work!” I stammer, “Yes! Thank you sir, I will work very hard.” And you bet I will too!!!
Moral of the story; by rewarding me copiously for a job well done, that firm has given me a huge incentive to continue working hard and even step it up. I am going to make a big effort at this firm to excel because they have made it very worth my while to try!

The same approach works brilliantly in dog training whether for a pet or an agility dog. The more valuable you make yourself and the work, the more easily your dog will stay engaged and the easier it will be to create brilliant behaviors. At the end of the day a great deal of success in training is all about a plan, the value of your tools and how you use them.


At the beginning of this article I mentioned that there would be a simple way to improve everything you do with your dog. It is simple but it ain’t easy, YET! I say yet because the more familiar you get with training in this style the easier and easier it becomes.

The primary progression we are working begins with figuring out what tools ( food , toys….) your dog loves or go about developing more value for your tools. If your dog doesn’t love what you are rewarding them with, you are handicapped from the start. You can’t build value for behaviors using rewards your dog doesn’t want. I discussed the concept of a reward actually being a punisher in one of my early blogs. It’s very important for you to be savvy about the rewards you use. After establishing huge value for our tools we will then move on to build the basic behavior, generalizing the behavior, increasing the difficulty of the behavior or “proofing” it. For proofing to be effective you need to be thorough by beginning with simple proofing and then gradually adding difficulty until success becomes extremely difficult for the dog. If you have been rewarding copiously throughout your training, this ensures their thorough understanding of the behavior as well as creating enormous value. Lastly you need to make sure you maintain the dog’s value for the behavior. Keep that sucker loaded!!!

All of this work is very formulaic. Things do need to be modified for the individual somewhat. Some dogs require more focus work, some really need to work on elevating the tools they are using… It depends on the dog and the trainer.

“Consistency in Performance”

This is the first half of an article that I wrote for Clean Run Magazine,, which is scheduled to be published in August, 2015. The rest of the article goes into detail about the steps to take to assist you in bringing your training skills to the next level and includes video examples. It will get you on the road to creating elevated behaviors and to increase the intensity in your dog’s performance.

This is first of many articles I will be writing for Clean Run. Following the duration article will be a more comprehensive version of my Mirroring Blog and then I will be writing a number of articles covering topics such as: creating intensity, connection with your dog, improving play, elevating your tools, and control in drive. So if you are interested in more training information regarding the topics I have mentioned, you can find the information in Clean Run.

All of these training concepts are also addressed extensively in my online classes. There are detailed explanations and drills along with video examples. The classes are available to audit or for more hands on training with me, working spots are available as well. The classes are ongoing there is no need to wait for a session to start, join anytime! You can visit my online classroom for more information .





We have probably all heard of the use of mirroring to promote success in business dealings. It is a tool used the world over. However, after teaching people and dogs for so many years I have consistently found that the power of mirroring is not something that is given consideration by most dog trainers. In fact, for the most part, they are not even aware of it!

Whether you are a person inadvertently mimicking their dog’s energy or a dog mirroring their person’s energy, the impact on the dog’s behavior is, in my opinion, immense. In fact, it is one of my favorite concepts. It is something that I give a lot of weight to in my online classes, seminars and everyday teaching. Oftentimes, if trainers are aware of mirroring, it is only on a subconscious level. When they grasp the enormity of how mirroring has been effecting all of their training, it can be a huge revelation and completely change their approach to training.

The old saying “The devil is in the details” is a truism here. It is often that a small adjustment to your attitude can have a huge effect on your dog training.

An example that happened recently was: A client with a small Chihuahua mix was taking a lesson with me because the dog is a seemingly timid little thing. Without thinking much about it, she was being careful with how she handed him treats, careful with her play and careful being handsy with him to encourage play. Everything was subtly careful.

As they worked through the drill, the dog put forth a decent effort and even though she was frequently rewarding him, having fun and really doing a nice job with her dog training, the little details; the careful treat delivery and her soft manner were keeping and even fostering the dog’s timid demeanor.

So I went over to them, “Let me give it a shot.” The little dog looked at me and I immediately said “Good boy!!!” (for giving me attention) and delivered a bunch of little treats very quickly one at a time. Delivered with absolutely no allowance for his apparent timidity, firing them in, fast and fun. “Are you ready??!!!” I said in an excited way, revving him up and getting him jazzed by getting in a play crouch and creating some intensity by stiffening my body language as if I was about to leave the start line of a 100 yard sprint (those of you who know me are laughing at this point because no way am I doing a 100 yard sprint ) :-).

At that point he had no idea what was going to happen, but I could see his excitement start to build. I gave him a couple play taps (not hard, I didn’t want to send him flying, easy to do when they weigh 6 pounds), but with vigor and energy. Did he run in fear? Scared of this crazy lady? Nope. Actually he started wagging his tail and then went into a happy blast of zoomies, then powered back to me for treats. Very cool!!

The student’s reply, “What the……Holy Moly!????” 🙂

Now I am not saying you should go right to 10 with a dog that is timid, but the first thing you should never do is be timid back . Never!!! Kiss of death, right there. When you are careful with a careful dog you are supporting their belief that there is something to be careful about. That is the last thing you want to do.

You can pull punches while being dynamic and fun, but you want to be dynamic and fun!!! I usually blow off the dog’s fear, pretending it isn’t there and just get on with the having fun part.

Now, to qualify, I am not going to rush in and get crazy with a dog that has a difficulty, is a rescue and has had a history of abuse or a similar situation. I am going to have a plan of attack and be thoughtful and methodical about my approach, but I am still going to be very careful not to fall into the rhythm of that dog’s energy. I am going to be confident and fun and convince the dog that life is awesome!

I will tell you that I did almost the same thing the next evening in class with a toy fox terrier, also with a fear history, and guess what? Yup pretty much the exact same reaction. Rather than being afraid of my big talk and dynamic treat delivery, she loved it and came back for more! This stuff works and is very effective!

I believe my background in acting and voice-overs has given me a sensitivity to the effectiveness of dynamic energy and vocal tones in dog training. I think that being so aware of that early training has been one of the keys to my specialty, building drive.

To build on this, one of the training concepts that I emphasize in everything I do is the effectiveness (in a bad way) of the “sweetie pie” voice. The use of the “sweetie pie” voice when rewarding your dog is a huge problem when you are trying to create great drive and focus. Unfortunately, it is most people’s “go to” vocal tone when they are rewarding their dog.

Sweet talk and caresses are super great when you are snuggling on the couch with your pup, but they truly kick your butt when you are trying to train your dog.

When you are rewarding your dog for a great behavior and you say something like, “Good boy, what a good job,” in a soothing, nurturing tone, and then to cap it off you deliver your rewards in a serene and deliberate way, you are basically giving the dog calming signals. Effectively sending most of the energy you had built during the exercise, right into the toilet. Not a great place for it to be ;-).

If, however, your dog gives you a behavior and you reward them with a fun voice and dynamic energy, “Great job!! What a good fella!!, Superstar!!!” and then fire those rewards at them in a fast and fun way, you will be creating a feeling of excitement which your dog will respond to, mirroring your enthusiasm.


When you are calm, you influence them to be calm, when you are jazzed up, it will be infectious and they will get jazzed up!! Your reward delivery and the manner you use to speak to your dog can take a treat from a level 4 on the 1-10 scale to a 10!

Please note that in order to be exciting to your dog, you do not have to be loud. It doesn’t matter if you whisper as long as that whisper is super fun!!! You can experiment and play around to find whatever tone your dog responds to best. You can create as much excitement with a whisper as a shout.

Yes, there are those dogs that come wired and are crazed to work, but whether the dog is placid, timid or hyper, it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls of mirroring and the benefits, so you can use them to your advantage. With a high dog, remaining cool and confident rather than feeding into the dog’s frenetic energy can go a long way towards creating controlled behaviors you want without losing any of the drive you want.

Although I could give you examples of this all day long I will just hit you with one more, toy play.

Oftentimes, when trying to build toy drive, a student will get their dog on the toy and then tug, but they will tug carefully. You can see they are not really going for it because they are afraid the dog won’t maintain their grip. Basically, they think if they tug too energetically the dog will let go. Although that may seem very logical it is that exact thought that will likely keep the dog from ever engaging in vigorous play.

When you play with your dog carefully, they will be careful right back. They are not going to play hard when you are not. Mirroring.

To solve the play problem I’ll have them use a number of tools, but at the core, the trainer’s intensity and commitment to the game will have the biggest impact.

Another qualification :-): This does not mean that you need to play so aggressively that you rip their neck off. There are techniques for creating great play. You can look and play dynamically without being too rough, but in a way that the dog believes you are truly invested in the play!

As you go out to train your dog in the future, take a step back and see if you have been sucked into the mirroring vortex without being aware of it. If so, change things up and use the concept of mirroring for good not evil!

Dueling Puppies

Stacy Winkler is an agility trainer in Southern California.

She teaches online classes at:

And can be reached at: and on Facebook under Stacy Leah Winkler


NEXT UP: The Timing of Adding Duration and its Pitfalls. How to improve everything you train!


It’s All About You

me and thrill

Ah, responsibility.

Taking ownership of it can be quite uncomfortable. Although, I must say that when you do take responsibility, it can be empowering.

Owning up to our responsibilities can make us feel somehow noble? Sounds silly, but deep down……….true.

By admitting we are responsible when something goes wrong in our training we can take our power back knowing we have the opportunity to take a problem and solve it .

In my life as an agility instructor, getting others to realize that they must take responsibility for their dog’s behavior is a huge part of my job. Dog training is truly “All about me!”

I was inspired to write this after talking with my friend and student Helen King. She recently posted a note on Facebook pertaining to people blaming their dogs loudly at the agility shows for their dog’s failure at a behavior in the ring.

There are those (not you of course) who leave the ring after a problem they had in the ring, obviously pissed off; striding purposely towards their set up as if they were a General about to dress down the troops for a battlefield failure. As they walk briskly to their set up, they loudly berate their dog for the dog’s failure, exclaiming, “No cookies for you, you are a bad bad dog!!!”. Not cool.

In a sport as complicated as agility there are so very many places for people to struggle: poor handler timing, lack of behavior generalization, lack of value, lack of control, vague criteria (one of the biggest)………many many more.

Creating a high level of understanding is the core of all my agility training. I want to get understanding for the basics of a behavior and then go about adding huge value and understanding to that behavior to generalize it and ultimately to create a stellar behavior that can be duplicated in any location in a myriad of situations.

When I give seminars or teach a new student, one of the first things I make clear to the students is that they must take responsibility for what their dogs understand.

I always make this a positive, never a negative. Looking at the situation in a proactive way not only serves the dog in the long run, but also the trainer. There is no advantage to feeling bad about your dog or about yourself!

I will explain that I do not judge them for what their dog does or doesn’t understand. My only goal is to look at their dog’s behaviors and their mechanics, access any problems and then come up with a plan to fix them.

There is no room for judgment in this, negativity is counterproductive. We are all a product of what we have learned and what we understand.

When you ask your dog to do a behavior and there is a failure, rather than blaming the dog or yourself, look at the problem objectively and problem solve. Take responsibility for the failure in a proactive way. Always attack the problem, don’t be a victim by blaming your dog or others!

This will make you feel empowered, rather than crappy about the situation; a much healthier state of mind for you and your dog.

To berate your dog for a behavior that is ultimately your responsibility is completely counterproductive and often cruel. As evidenced by the handler that leaves the ring, marches their dog back to the crate and then proceeds to tell the dog how awful they are. WHAT???

If that person actually thinks that the dog understands that they are getting punished for something that happened in the middle of the course 4 minutes ago, they are sadly deluded.

What about the folks who get angry at their dog for something in the middle of the run? Let’s say the dog knocks the 7th bar and then proceeds to finish beautifully nailing their remaining contacts and weaves, and as the handler leashes up and walks away from the ring looking unhappy and we hear them telling their dog how bad they were for knocking the 7th bar??? Seriously???

Often I will get a new student, give them a task and as soon as there is failure, the student’s response infallibly is “He knows how to do that!”

Case in point, a new student comes to my school and I ask them to put their dog in a stay and do a simple recall so I can see how they work with their dog.

They put their dog in a stay, walk away, the dog gets up.

“ummm your dog is up.”

“Huh” They turn around, “Hey! Sit!!”

The dog sits. They step away, the dog is immediately up.

“Hey, You Sit!!!!”

They take 2 steps away, dog gets up.

“What the??? He knows how to do a stay”

“Really???” I say (I am often accused or praised, for being blunt and slightly sarcastic. it’s all said with love 🙂 ).

“Yes!! He absolutely knows this!!”

“So” I continue, “If you ask him to sit stay in your kitchen while you put his food down, he stays?”

“Yes, of course, I make him do that”

“OK” I continue, “Would you say he could hold his stay if you are at a park and a bunch of dogs run by?” (You can’t see me but I have a very innocent look on my face).

“Well, no.” They laugh, or look chagrined or embarrassed or perturbed (depending on the student- this conversation happens a lot!).

“How about if you get your dog very excited, put them in a stay and then suddenly take off running, or what if you threw your toy hard forward while they were in a stay? Could they maintain the stay?”

“Wellllll, probably not”

“OK” I say, “Let’s clarify; your dog does understand a stay in certain situations, when there is little distraction or when it’s in a situation that you have practiced repeatedly like having him stay when you put the food bowl down.”

“Hmmm, Yes”.

“So, I would say his understanding would be classified as situational”

“Hmmmm, OK, yes.”

And so the beginning of the human understanding the animal begins.

Creating a high level of understanding is the core of all my agility training. I want to get understanding for basics of a behavior and then go about adding huge value and understanding to that behavior to generalize it and to create a stellar behavior that can be duplicated in any location in infinite situations.

Another large contributor to training issues is the trainer’s ability to critically observe what is going on with the dog. I am referring to maintaining criteria.

Oftentimes failure is caused by the trainer not noticing when their dog is not maintaining criteria. This leads to rewarding a wrong behavior. Or the issue may simply be that the trainer does not understand the importance of clear criteria or even understand the basic concepts involved.

Although with best of intentions most trainers try to maintain criteria, often they simply miss seeing that the dog has failed.

The most frequent example of this is the broken start line. The handler puts their dog on the line and leads out. As they turn away from their dog the dog scoots forward a bit. They look back, the dog is sitting. This pattern is repeated; often with the handler exclaiming “Good Girl!!” as they head back to the dog to reward the stay or they release them off the line.

From that handler’s perspective the dog was successful and was rewarded with a treat or release into work. Unfortunately the reality is they just told the dog that breaking the stay is just the ticket! “Good breaking the stay, Fido!!”

This little scooting will, of course, lead to some major broken start lines. And then we hear the old lament ring out “Hey!!! What the heck!! You know how to STAY???”

Me: “Really??”

Whether we like it or not, dogs are learning 24/7. This applies to whether we see the mistakes or not. We may not like that aspect of training but we best embrace it cause it ain’t going away.

I have seen people celebrating and copiously rewarding their dog for weaves when the dog missed 3 weaves in the middle but came out the correct way so since they weren’t watching their dog they didn’t notice it.

I have had students come out of the ring exclaiming how awesome their dog was for nailing all their 2 on 2 off contact positions when in actuality the handler pulled the dog off the bottom of each contact before the dog had a chance to stop. They will come to me and brag about it and I have to tell them that there was no stopping involved on any of the contacts. They will look at me, completely shocked, “No way, I know they stopped!!!” The truth is, they believe they dog did stop on the contacts. Unfortunately their perception was incorrect. In the heat of battle they were rushing and saw what they wanted to see. And whether we like it or not that will create a criteria problem.

Being a good observer is definitely a learned skill, as is your ability to understand what clear criteria is and how to maintain and nurture it through rewards and building understanding.

It’s all about the black and the white. When behavior criteria becomes grey (is no longer crystal clear) we take away our dog’s ability to understand exactly what our expectations of the behavior are.

Back to the trial situation:

Probably, most likely, yeah ok, my dog’s failure is my fault.

I am often asked by competitors if they should take their dog out of the ring if they break their start or come off a contact? My only answer is “I can’t tell you because I have no way of knowing exactly what is going on in your training or at trials.”

I have no idea if they have been diligent about maintaining criteria: if they have built the behavior to the point that the dog has value and understanding for staying at the start line when they are in a high level of arousal, if they have had failures that they have either allowed or have not seen and therefore allowed, their criteria not clear enough…so many possibilities.

It is not fair for you to take your dog on the walk of shame out of the ring when you are the root cause of the problem.

One last awesome example. Or I think it is awesome :-).

A handler says ”My dog won’t do their contact behavior correctly at the show but they are perfect at home or in class.”

“Well that could be that you haven’t generalized the behavior enough, but most likely because you have not maintained your dog’s contact criteria at a show and you always maintain your criteria at class.”

“That can’t be, I always make sure my dog gets their contacts at a show.”

“All-righty, then let’s say you have a Double Q on the line and the final obstacles are a dog walk to a jump (very frequent occurrence in Southern California). Your dog drives down the dog walk without stopping and then rather than marking the behavior you let them fly over the last jump and celebrate the run. That has never happened?”

“Well I wanted the QQ.”

“I totally get it, but you just gave the dog the understanding that it is not only just fine, but awesome to run off the end of the contacts in competition. You wouldn’t have done that in your class. I bet you ran out of the ring and gave your dog a load of cookies for earning that QQ. Correct?”

“Well, yeah.“

“Ok. Now you see you just handily taught your dog that their criteria are different at a show than at home.”

And as simple as that, we have created a problem.

Once again I am not judging the handler for their action, but want them to realize that they must take responsibility for the dog’s failure because in actuality, they trained it.

The only thing that berating the dog will get you is a slower dog and one that probably doesn’t like you a whole heck of a lot when you get around an agility ring.

Now, all is not lost and these things are fixable, although admittedly some dogs are easier to retrain than others.

Remember, failure is what it is, and it happens to everybody from the beginner up to the best in the world. The most proactive thing we can do is put on our thinking caps and figure out the problem, or get help and work it through.

I love me a trainer who takes responsibility!

Stacy Leah Winkler

Online Classroom