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Competitive Obedience Enthusiast

Competitive Obedience Enthusiast

We want to see you bring home the gold, so we have included some additional tips and resources to help aid you in your dog’s competitive training. If you have any questions or think you would like to register for one of our Competitive obedience classes, contact our office today!

Heeling: Teaching and Maintaining Attention

As I travel around the country teaching and giving seminars, it has become clear that teaching a dog to pay attention during the heeling exercise remains the most frustrating aspect of dog obedience. A dog that doesn’t pay attention is unable to maintain an accurate heel position and achieve the heeling scores of his attention paying counterparts. How do you get your dog’s attention, and more importantly, how do you maintain it?

Shaping the Behavior

Most trainers begin the heeling exercise by bribing the dog to pay attention. This is an important first step. However, there are lots of acceptable heeling "styles" as some dogs make eye contact with their trainer and some look sideways, keeping an eye on their handler’s body.

Having your dog walk next to you and look at you at the same time seems easy enough. However, it’s not easy for every dog. The following video has several dogs that are just learning to walk and look up at the same time. There are several techniques demonstrated that might help you get your dog’s attention.

No matter what technique you choose, when you begin to lure your dog into heel position, do so at a slow pace. Shape the correct behavior by using your voice to praise him when he is looking at you, and stop praising when he looks away. As he becomes comfortable performing the behavior, increase the speed and the distance that you go.

Some dogs are simply not motivated to look up, no matter what the bribe. With those hard to motivate dogs, it is tempting to give up the goal of attentive heeling. If luring will not illicit the behavior you desire, don’t change your goal, change your technique! Try using a "hands on" approach and hold your dog’s head in the position you desire. You can do this by holding the dog’s head up with your hand or by using a head halter.

Currently, it is fashionable to spend tremendous amounts of time bribing the dog into a hackney pony or dressage horse gait. Before you spend an inordinate amount of time creating an unnatural style, consider your dog’s conformation. Even if your young dog can maintain an artificial "prance" as you lure him, is it realistic to expect him to be agile and athletic enough to perform the same gait when he is older? Taking advantage of your dog’s natural style and body shape will make attentive heeling easier to achieve and maintain over the course of his career.

Requiring the Behavior

When your dog willingly allows you to bribe him to walk and look at you at the same time, it is time to require the behavior. Employing two aspects of operant conditioning - positive and negative reinforcement, will turn your bribe into a reward, and your dog will understand that he has a job to do, and that doing his job is lots of fun.

The definition of reinforcement is that it makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Instead of using your treat as a bribe, you need to teach your dog that when he pays attention, something positive will occur. He will earn the treat. Likewise, if he does not pay attention, something unpleasant will occur. It is a simple process to teach your dog that a quick tug on the leash will occur any time he fails to pay attention (negative reinforcement). More importantly, your dog can learn that he can stop the tug on the leash by looking at you. Furthermore, h"e can avoid having you tug the leash again by refusing to look away.

When you start your car without putting your seatbelt on, something negative occurs. The annoying buzz or beep begins. As soon as you buckle your seat belt, the sound stops. You are trained to stop the unpleasant noise. Furthermore, you can avoid ever hearing the noise if you buckle your seatbelt before you put your car in gear. You control the negative reinforcement. You know how to make it stop (buckle up!) and you know how to keep it from happening again (buckle up sooner!).

Just as you have learned how to control the buzzer, with some instruction, your dog can learn to control whether you ever need to tug his leash. Let’s review the steps used to achieve attention in heel position.

Step 1: In Front

Begin with your dog sitting in front of you. Praise him when he looks at you. If he looks away, give a tug on the leash. If he looks back, praise, and reward him because he has just stopped the correction. Don’t stop there; you also want evidence that your dog knows how to prevent the correction. This will be evident when he has heard something or is distracted by a toy or touch but refuses to look away.

Step 2: In Heel Position

If your dog successfully can stop and prevent the correction when he is sitting in front of you, move to heel position. Continue with the same drill. Your dog should look up any time you give a quick tug on the leash, but more importantly, he should refuse to look away with distraction because he knows he can prevent that annoying tug from happening again.

Step 3: Moving in Heel Position

Finally, start walking with your dog in heel position, bribing him to look at you. When he looks away, give a quick tug up on the leash. If you have done your job, he will understand how to make you stop by immediately looking back at you. When he does, praise, and release him and then give him the treat. You have just successfully used both negative and positive reinforcement. The pop on the leash starts the desired behavior of looking at you. The treat rewarded the correct behavior.

It won’t be long before your dog is trotting next to you looking up. He will completely understand that he is avoiding negative reinforcement and earning positive reinforcement. It’s simple and it works!

10 Ideas for an Effective Warm Up

How do you warm your dog up before going into the ring?

I believe that 30% of our success at a show is dependent on an ability to coach our dogs on the day of the event. If you agree with me, then you need a plan!

If it will help, print this message — fold it up — put it in your training bag— bring it with you to the next show!

The following 10 ideas come straight from my training bag. Experiment with them until you discover the ones that bring out the best in your dog. Your goal is to elicit the attitude of a bright, alert dog that is paying attention to you.

10 Ideas for an Effective Warm-up

  • Before you start, walk around the ring. Give your dog a chance to look around.
  • Your first goal is to engage with your dog. Perhaps you should start with a fun game your dog enjoys, or a quick retrieve.
  • If your dog seems really excited, give yourself plenty of time for your warm-up. If your dog seems dull or disinterested, consider handing him off to a friend while you disappear for a few seconds!
  • Heel in a straight line for 25 to 30 feet and halt. Establish a rhythm; require attention and a prompt sit just like you would in training.
  • Add a change of pace to your straight line heeling to emphasize attention and rhythm. Expect your dog to slow down and speed up when you do. Avoid the temptation to do an about turn.
  • Try a few fronts. Let your dog move toward you as you back up. Your goal is to have fun and maintain your dog’s attention.
  • Try a few finishes. Require your dog’s attention and accuracy just like you would in training.
  • Practice the "find heel" game (Tricks that Transition to Obedience Exercises) and use a conditioned reinforcer to reward him for effort and accuracy .
  • Heel at a slow pace as it gets closer to your turn in the ring. Heel slowly in Figure-8 sized circles. Remember, keeping your dog engaged and attentive is your ultimate goal.
  • If you find you have extra time, put your dog in a down and stand at a leash-length. Using the principles of "ready, set, go," have him jump up from the down and "find heel."

Try these ideas. You may discover that focusing on your warm up and the choreography of your performance will not only provide you with a bright, alert dog, but may also give you confidence and help to control the ring nerves you are feeling.

The subject of "ring nerves" is an important subject for another message — stay tuned!

Meanwhile, explore these ideas for warming up so you can develop a strategy that will bring out the best in your dog on the day of the show.

As always, let me know if you have any questions.


A Simple Rule to Train By

It is frustrating when your dog makes a mistake and you don’t know how to respond. Think about the errors that your dog makes. Much of the time, especially as you teach your dog the advanced exercises, he simply attempts to execute an exercise incorrectly. When that occurs, apply this simple rule; "Tell him he’s wrong, go get him, take him back to where he was last right and simplify the task."

Tell Him He’s Wrong

This is critical. Your dog deserves to know that he made a mistake. You should say something. Doing so at the moment that he makes the error helps your dog understand what he did wrong. Any noise of displeasure will do such as "no," "uh-uh," "yuck," "stop." You cannot expect the dog to know exactly when he made an error if you don’t tell him.

The tone of voice you use when you tell him he’s wrong depends on whether you think your dog is trying or not. If you think your dog is genuinely confused, your tone should be gentle and matter-of-fact as you indicate to him that you are displeased. You’re not angry, and you can say "no," or "uh-uh" without sounding so. You are trying to communicate that the decision he made is wrong, you do not want him to think you are angry.

However, if you think your dog is not trying, that he got distracted or was disinterested as he made his mistake, then your "no," or "uh-uh" should sound displeased because you are!

It seems rather fashionable these days to say nothing when a dog makes a mistake. Imagine that you have a young child in a classroom, and the teacher asks him the sum of two and three. Your child responds "six." How long would you keep your child in the classroom if the teacher said nothing in return? You would expect the teacher to give feedback such as "no, that’s not it," or "try again." You would also expect the teacher’s response to be affected by your child’s effort level. If your child is trying hard, and having trouble, the teacher’s tone of voice should be encouraging. If your child is fooling around and not trying, you’d expect the teacher to use a tone of voice that lets him know he should try harder! The same is true when communicating with a dog.

Go Get Him

The next step is for you to go take hold of your dog. Taking hold of him will help indicate to him that you are not pleased, especially since this is so different than your enthusiastic response when he performs correctly. It might seem easier to call your dog to you when he makes a mistake. Don’t! Many dogs are sensitive and upset when they make a mistake. If you wait for that sensitive dog to come, he will undoubtedly come, slowly, head down, "wallowing" in his error. You are not interested in having him act like a dying lamb in a hailstorm. You want him to get over the mistake quickly and be ready to try again. Go to him quickly and with a matter-of–fact attitude that says, "you were wrong, now come back here and try again."

Not long ago I was giving a seminar and a participant’s dog ran around a jump. The owner stopped the dog and I asked her to go get him.

She responded, "He’ll run from me."

"Well," I said with some hesitation, "then call him to you."

"He won’t come; he knows he’s in trouble…"

The reality is that if he won’t come and you can’t catch him, you can’t train him. If you don’t think that your dog will come or allow you to catch him when he makes a mistake, then he needs to be dragging a rope or a leash so that you can. If this means that you can’t do jumping exercises for fear that the leash will get hooked on the jump, so be it. You have no choice until he learns both to come and to allow you to catch him. Take Him Back to Where He was Last Right

Competitive Obedience Enthusiasts in Fountain Inn, SC - pix1Now that you have him by the collar, take him back to where he made the wrong decision. For example, if he left your side on the retrieve over the high jump and headed around the jump, bring him back to the start, sitting next to you. This is where he was "last right." If he went over the jump, picked up the dumbbell and then started around the jump, you should go get him and take him back to where he picked up the dumbbell (Photos 1 & 2).

Competitive Obedience Enthusiasts in Fountain Inn, SC - pix2How you lead him back depends on his effort level. If your dog is genuinely confused and unsure how to perform, then you gently lead him back to try again. However, if you think that he is distracted or not trying, it is legitimate for you to give his collar a "pop" to signal to him that he should be attentive and give you his best effort.

Competitive Obedience Enthusiasts in Fountain Inn, SC - pix3Simplify the Task

You will never get in trouble by simplifying the task before starting again. In the high jump example, you may want to sit him where he picked up the dumbbell, return to your side of the jump, and give him a directed jumping signal to help him understand that he should jump on the return (Photos 3 & 4).

Competitive Obedience Enthusiasts in Fountain Inn, SC - pix4If your dog takes the wrong jump on the directed jumping exercise, take him to the go-out location and place him in a sit. Return to the start, then take a few steps toward the correct jump and send him again. If your dog steps in or on the broad jump, return him to start again, but change your location so that you are slightly beyond the last board before you send him again. Be careful. "Simplify the task" means make it a little easier. Don’t feel obligated to go "back to the beginning" by calling the dog straight over the jump or pushing all the broad jump boards together.

Simplifying the task is appropriate whenever your dog executes an exercise incorrectly. However, it is not appropriate if your dog fails to execute the exercise at all. For example, imagine doing a recall. Your dog comes part way to you and stops to sniff the ground. Your dog has failed to execute the exercise. Go get him and make him finish the recall by putting your hands on him and backing up with him. However, if this same dog, when called on a recall heads for a nearby jump on his way to you, he has not failed to execute the task. In this case, he is executing the task incorrectly. Tell him he’s wrong, go get him, and take him back to the start. You can simplify the task by calling him from a shorter distance or by moving him a little further from the jump.

Your dog has failed to execute the exercise if, when practicing directed jumping, he heads for the correct jump, and then cuts inside the jump, choosing not to jump at all. Take him by the collar and make him jump. In this case, do not give your dog another opportunity to refuse to jump. When he jumps the wrong jump, he is executing the task incorrectly; refusing to jump is not executing the task at all.

The next time you ask your dog to perform and he fails, you may not know why he failed. You may not be sure whether he is confused or inattentive, but you can be sure of how to continue. Tell him he’s wrong, get him, take him to where he was last right, and simplify the task.

Are You Ready to Show?

Why is it that some dogs look fabulous outside of the ring, but perform poorly in the ring, or worse yet, fall completely apart?

There is more to achieving a stunning performance than simply teaching the exercises.

I believe that 70% of our preparedness comes from teaching our dogs the obedience exercises, and the other 30% is determined by how we conduct ourselves as our dog’s coach on the day of the event.

Interestingly, after writing an article titled "The 70/30 Split," I asked my Dad, a lifelong coach, how much of his team’s success depended on "practice," and how much depended on how well he coached his team on the day of the event. Without prompting from me, he replied, "70/30."

So, what does that 30% look like?

You are no longer the teacher on the day of the show, you are the coach. Your responsibility as the coach includes:

1. Planning your warm up.

You are not guaranteed a lot of space nor are you at liberty to do all the things you might do on a normal training day. Have a plan that will put your dog in a frame of mind that is animated and accurate.

2. Managing your anxiety.

No coach ever tells his team or an individual athlete that he is nervous about the event! It is impossible to be a good leader when you are overcome with performance anxiety. As coach, you are leading the team, you don’t have time to be nervous!

3. Choreographing your performance.

Decide ahead of time how to move around the ring from one exercise to the next. Create a plan to keep your dog engaged in what you are doing together.

10 Ideas for an Effective Warm-up

No athlete jumps off the bench and runs on to the field, so you and your dog shouldn’t do that either. How do you warm your dog up before going into the ring?

The following 10 ideas come straight from my training bag. Experiment with them until you discover the ones that bring out the best in your dog. Your goal is to elicit the attitude of a bright, alert dog that is paying attention to you.

  1. Before you start, walk around the ring. Give your dog a chance to look around.
  2. Your first goal is to engage with your dog. Perhaps you should start with a fun game your dog enjoys, or a quick retrieve.
  3. If your dog seems excited, give yourself plenty of time for your warm-up. If your dog seems dull or disinterested, consider handing him off to a friend while you disappear for a few seconds!
  4. Heel in a straight line for 25 to 30 feet and halt. Establish a rhythm; require attention and a prompt sit just like you would in training.
  5. Add a change of pace to your straight line heeling to emphasize attention and rhythm. Expect your dog to slow down and speed up when you do. Avoid the temptation to do an about turn.
  6. Try a few fronts. Let your dog move toward you as you back up. Your goal is to have fun and maintain your dog’s attention.
  7. Try a few finishes. Require your dog’s attention and accuracy just like you would in training.
  8. Practice the "find heel" game (Tricks that Transition to Obedience Exercises) and use a conditioned reinforcer to reward him for effort and accuracy.
  9. Heel at a slow pace as it gets closer to your turn in the ring. Heel slowly in Figure-8 sized circles. Remember, keeping your dog engaged and attentive is your ultimate goal.
  10. If you find you have extra time, put your dog in a down and stand at a leash-length. Using the principles of "ready, set, go," have him jump up from the down and "find heel."

This week, pick a day to practice a "warm up."

  • Pretend you are outside the ring.
  • Think about the space you might have available and what you will do to prepare for your turn.
  • Practice a warm-up and then do the first two or three exercises of the class you will be competing in.
  • Evaluate how you did.
  • Make a list of changes you can make to address the problems you encountered?

Try these ideas. You may discover that focusing on your warm up and the choreography of your performance will not only provide you with a bright, alert dog, but may also give you confidence and help to control the ring nerves you are feeling.

What are the best strategies for controlling your nerves?

It’s rather a fascinating conundrum. We love our dogs, we love training our dogs, our goal is to get obedience titles, yet when we get to a dog show, our own nervousness interferes with our ability to perform.

Competing is, and should be exciting. The goal is to feel the thrill of competition, not gut wrenching, sick to your stomach, I can’t breathe emotions. How do you do that?

Prior to entering the ring, consider these five tips:

  1. Arrive on time or early to give yourself time to set-up, and get yourself and your dog comfortable.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the ring procedure. Close your eyes and picture yourself performing as if you were watching a video of your best performance. Do not imagine your dog failing!
  3. Avoid watching other dogs in your class. If another dog does poorly, we tend to think, "My dog might do that too!" If another does well, we think, "My dog can’t do that!" Do not scrutinize the performance of other teams if you think it might impact your confidence.
  4. Practice your very best posture. Stand up straight, relax your shoulders, put your hands on your hips, and take deep breaths rather than slouching and putting your hands in your pockets.
  5. Gently remind yourself that you are at a dog show and the worst thing that can happen is that you might fail.

In the ring, remember these five tips:

  1. Step into the ring with confidence.
  2. Smile, act relaxed and confident. If you act relaxed and confident, you will start to feel that way too. In turn, your dog will react confidently as well.
  3. Your mantra should be, "One exercise at a time." Don’t let your mind wander to the exercises yet to come.
  4. Stay in the moment. The easiest exercise to fail is the one immediately following the exercise you thought you might fail.
  5. If you do fail an exercise, immediately tell yourself you will not fail another! Make it your goal to have the best performance possible, even with an NQ on the scorecard.

Examples for Choreographing Your Performance

Choreography involves knowing where you are going and how you intend to get there just like a good actor knows his lines and where to move on the stage. The ring is your stage. Every dog is different. Some dogs need you to be relaxed and enjoy the moment with them. Others need you to keep them focused and attentive. What is the temperament of the dog you are showing, and what does he need from you?

I recently showed both of my dogs in Utility B. As I was leaving the ring with the second dog, the judge said to me, "That was like watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You don’t look like the same handler when showing those two dogs!"

The judge was correct. I plan my warm-up and choreography based on the temperament of the dog I am showing.

Micah needs me to be relaxed and focused. Watch how I move from one exercise to another with him in the following video. I treat the heeling and figure 8 as one continuous exercise. I sometimes move formally and sometimes less formally.

Contrast that to my other dog, Nate. I move around the ring purposefully to keep him calm. Watch this video of Nate winning the Novice class at the AKC Obedience Classic in 2015. When I take a break, I’m touching him. Nate is a dog with a lot of energy and my goal throughout this performance was to help him maintain his composure. At one point, I pause to regain my own composure! Can you identify the technique I use to check my own nerves? You may notice that I put my hands on my hips and took a few deep breaths after the figure 8. Even an obedience veteran like myself has to control her ring nerves!

I believe that 30% of your success depends on the ability to coach your dog on the day of the show. You will become the coach your dog needs by mastering the skills you need to warm-up, control your nerves, and choreograph your performance.

Ring Preparation:

The Day of the Show includes: 6 modules with extensive videos covering all aspects of preparing for and performing in the obedience ring; and 3 one-hour webinars.

Puppy Obedience

Puppy Obedience: A 6-Month-Old Beagle Learning Obedience Skills

I started publishing videos of my Labrador Retriever puppy, Nathan several years ago. Nathan is now a full-grown dog. He received his Utility title this year. As of this writing, I am having fun competing with him in the field and the obedience ring.

I remember those early days when Nate was a puppy. I had this wild idea about introducing him to every obedience exercise before he was 6-months of age. This experiment was either going to provide Nate with a head start on an obedience career or just be a lot of fun.

The experiment was a success. Nate and I both learned a lot. I had completely underestimated the ability of young puppies to acquire foundation skills. Nate learned the basic skills necessary for heeling, jumping, retrieving, scent discrimination and field work.

Shortly after I’d started this experiment, my friend, Karlene brought home a new Beagle Puppy, Deuce. Karlene was excited about what I had done with Nate, and she didn’t believe the naysayers who claimed she had a "non-traditional" breed and shouldn’t expect as much from Deuce as I had from Nate.

Deuce is a poster puppy for what a motivated owner can teach a puppy if they start the day they bring their puppy home. Here’s a video of Deuce at 5 months of age. In this video, Deuce is being introduced to directed jumping, retrieving, scent discrimination among other obedience skills. In another video of Deuce at 7 months of age, you will see how quickly his skills have improved.

There are very few digital products available for people that want to get their next obedience puppy started. Karlene inspired me to gather my videos and share what I had learned from my experiment with Nate.

The Performance Puppy Primer provides a progression of skills for your performance puppy. Your new puppy will be introduced to heeling, retrieving, scent discrimination, jumping, go-outs and, field skills. It includes written text and videos of Connie working with her puppy, Nate.

Principles & Techniques: Attentive Heeling

Most of us are no longer competing in just one venue. Our choices have grown from obedience, fieldwork and tracking to include rally, agility, breed specific instinct tests, nose work, and more. As your knowledge expands, and your dog acquires the skills to compete in these other venues, stop for a moment, and understand how all your dog training is related. The principles of dog training are the same, regardless of the venue. As we discover new skills that we want our dogs to learn, we often fail to understand the underlying technique. How do I teach my dog the broad jump, contacts, weave poles, blind retrieves, nose work? How, how, how?

Be Guided by Principle Not Technique

You will save yourself countless hours if you understand that no matter what you are teaching your dog, you should be more interested in the principle that is behind that technique than you are in the actual recipe, or steps that are going to take you there. In fact, as my husband Pat Nolan so eloquently said, "If you don’t understand the principles, you are a slave to technique." In other words, you will need the written instructions, the step-by-step manual, and the instructor standing over your shoulder forever.

Recently, at a particularly memorable seminar, I had three participants tell me that they intended to teach their dogs how to do obedience without a leash. I was confused. Using a leash is a technique. Leashes are not a principle. I was unclear as to why the leash had become the forbidden technique. I was further confused when I dug deeper into the situation and learned that all the dogs in question were learning to compete in hunt tests and the owners were using electric collars, as is customary in that sport. The message I received from these participants was that they wanted to prepare their dogs to compete in obedience without using negative reinforcement, but were very comfortable using negative reinforcement to train their dogs in the field. You should not be guided by a principle in one venue and then ignore it in a different venue?

Principles Do Not Change, Techniques Do Change

Write this down and memorize it: Principles do not change, techniques do. If a principle makes sense to you in one area of your dog’s education, it should make sense to you in all areas of his education. My conversation with the three participants at my seminar reminded me how we so easily abandon principle and become slaves to technique. What principles should guide you as you traverse through the land of dog training? If you start with the following four principles, dog training will become quite simple:

1. Dogs can solve problems- mindless repetition is out.

Dogs are Problem Solvers. In a world of tag lines and marketing, I have inadvertently branded myself with this statement. What does it mean?

On the first night of beginner’s class, I explain to pet owners how dogs solve problems. I use this example: If you put your dog outside, and he doesn’t want to be there, he will solve his problem. He will start by barking at the door. If you ignore him when he barks, he will scratch at the door. If you don’t want your door scratched, and you quickly go to let him in, he will learn that barking does not solve his problem, but scratching does. In other words, he will continue to offer different behaviors until he finds one that solves his problem.

Every time you pick up a handful of treats, you are getting your dog to solve a problem. His problem? You have the treats and he wants them. He offers behaviors, sometimes incrementally closer to the behavior that you desire, and he earns treats. He is solving his problem.

Understanding that "Dogs are Problem Solvers" will guide you into a world of dog training that embraces your dog’s ability to "figure it out," and steers you away from techniques that embrace mindless repetition. If you believe that your dog can solve a problem, you will challenge an instructor or technique that states, "Do the following 1000 times and your dog will finally start doing it himself."

Think about the skill you are currently teaching your dog that is giving you the most difficulty. Are you treating your dog as if he can solve a problem, or do you believe that if you "do it long enough," your dog can learn it? I believe that if your dog sees the skill as a problem, he will find a way to solve it. He may first make an error but eventually he will find a solution.

2. Dogs make two kinds of errors- effort errors and lack of effort errors.

Please don’t pick up the leash until you understand this principle: Dogs make "effort errors" and "lack of effort errors." Every time you ask your dog to do something, and he fails to perform, you need to ask yourself the question; was my dog trying or not?

"Effort Errors" are characterized by confusion and fear. If you look down at your dog and sense that he is worried, confused, or acting hesitantly, you need to gently and firmly show him what to do. You should not give a second command, beg, plead, hope, or pray. You should have one of two responses; either, you physically show him what to do (e.g. if he failed to sit, gently but firmly move him in the correct direction by pushing him into a sit, or if he chooses to take the wrong jump, set him up to try again (e.g. on Directed Jumping exercise).

"Lack of Effort Errors" are characterized by a dog who appears distracted or not interested. Your expectation must be that your dog remains engaged, trying to learn what you are trying to teach him. If you look down at your dog and he is not paying attention to you, you have a fundamental problem that requires a response.

3. Negative reinforcement can be used to address lack of effort errors.

Before using negative reinforcement, you must teach it. If you do anything to your dog that he does not like, you must have taken the time to teach him how to make it stop and how to prevent it from happening again. Read that sentence again --- Negative reinforcement is something you know how to stop and you know how to keep from happening again. Consider the seat belt buzzer in the car. When it goes off, you know how to make it stop. You also know how to prevent it from happening the next time you get into the car. You are in control. You are not bothered by the seatbelt for fear it will randomly start chiming at you. You completely control whether that negative event (the annoying chiming) will occur. Likewise, you must spend time teaching your dog how to control any type of correction that he perceives as negative.

In response to every questionnaire, at every seminar, with every group, the exercise that causing the most problem is poor heeling. In general, when I encounter a dog that heels poorly, and I ask the handler to get out a treat and try again, the dog looks practically perfect trotting next to the handler with enthusiasm. What is missing? The handler has started with the first principle, "Dogs Are Problem Solvers." He has given the dog a problem to solve by offering a treat. The dog has figured out that he gets a treat when he trots enthusiastically by his owner’s side. However, when the treat disappears, the dog no longer has a problem. There is no longer a problem for him to solve. There is no treat and therefore, no reason to be attentive. What is missing is a consequence for not paying attention.

What does your dog think a quick tug on the leash means? If he could talk, and you asked him "What should you do when I tug on the leash?" His response should be "look at you!" It’s simple, and unbelievably straightforward to teach your dog that a tug on the leash means pay attention. Every time I give a seminar, someone (more often many people) want me to help with their heeling. The dog heels beautifully if the reward is visible, and stops when it is not. In almost every case, I fix the problem by showing the handler he has a tool to use that can easily communicate to the dog that he must pay attention. The tool is merely a quick tug on the leash.

Try it. Stand in front of your dog with the clasp of the leash under his chin and talk to him. If he looks away, stop talking, and give the leash a quick tug. If he looks back, praise him, and then give him the treat. You are giving the dog a problem. Every time he looks away, something unpleasant occurs. You are teaching him how to stop it. He solves the problem by looking back at you.

Please don’t miss this point! Just as you stop the chime of the seat belt when you buckle up, your dog can stop the quick tug by looking back at you. Furthermore, just as you can prevent the annoying chiming noise by buckling your seat belt before you start the car, your dog can prevent the tug by maintaining his attention on you. Try this. Have someone move around you, talking to you and your dog. Every time he looks away, you give a tug. Every time he looks back, praise him. Be sincere. Praise him from your heart. You are excited. He is learning how to stop a negative event when it occurs. Let him know how happy this makes you.

Watch carefully. Soon your dog will acknowledge that there is a person moving around you, but he will not look. He may flick his eyes or his ears, but he will decide to solve the problem by not looking away. He will prevent the negative event from occurring. Praise his good decisions. Get excited. Watch the principle at work. Your dog is learning how to stop and how to prevent a negative event. He is learning how to control negative reinforcement. The principles are starting to make sense to him.

4. Dogs are situational.

On the first night of beginner class, I teach my students that dogs are problem solvers, and that they are situational. What this principle means is that when you teach your dog a skill in one location, under one set of circumstances, he may not perform the skill in a new location or under a new set of circumstances. If you understand this principle, you understand that you need to change your location, position, or circumstances to determine if your dog still understands that a tug on the leash means "pay attention." Understanding this principle is the answer to every student’s lament: "He always does it at home!"

So, change your position relative to your dog. Stand next to him in heel position instead of in front of him. Proceed through the same process. Praise him for looking at you. Stop talking and give a quick tug if he looks away. Praise him when he looks back, enthusiastically, genuinely, and sincerely. Still having success? Try changing your situation again. Try walking with your dog in heel position. If he looks away, give a quick tug on the leash. When he looks back, sincerely praise a job well done, take a break, if you feel compelled, and give him a treat. The important thing is that he feels how excited you are that he is figuring this out. If you have a dog that is willingly trotting around the ring, looking at you when you have a treat in your hand, but not looking at you when you don’t, you may work through these steps in one training session. You may be stunned to learn that even though you were not sure what your dog thought he should do if you gave a tug on the leash, he already understood that you wanted his attention. Soon you will be moving around the circle, dog in heel position, cheerfully looking at you most of the time, and if he gets distracted, a quick tug will regain his attention and you will continue to heel.

Sound too easy? It is easy if you understand the principles behind the technique:

  1. Your dog can solve problems.
  2. Your dog will make two kinds of mistakes, effort errors, and lack of effort errors. You can use negative reinforcement to stop lack of effort errors (lack of attention) but you must first spend time teaching your dog how to stop and how to prevent the negative reinforcement from occurring.
  3. Your dog is situational, so you will practice in numerous positions relative to his body, and ultimately, numerous locations.

The techniques you choose should be guided by the principles in which you believe.

When I cook, I am a slave to the recipe, because I don’t understand the techniques. I can read, therefore I can cook, but not really, because if I am missing an ingredient, I have no skill to replace it. In fact, if something goes wrong while I’m cooking, I not only don’t recognize it, I certainly can’t save it. The entire meal is ruined. Even though I have played the piano all my life, and I can play beautiful pieces of music, without the music, I am hopeless. Having never learned the principles behind the music, I am a slave to the notes that others have written.

Techniques are devised by breaking the exercises we are trying to teach into manageable pieces. If you understand the principle, you will not be a slave to technique. In fact, when your dog starts to respond differently than you expected, guided by principle, you will be able to alter the technique. (See the Flow Chart in the article How Dogs Learn.)

Connie Cleveland 2017©

Training and Showing Must Look Alike

Why Does Your Ring Performance Fall Sort of Your Expectation?

One of the greatest frustrations for obedience competitors is watching your dog perform poorly in the ring when he consistently looks better prepared in practice.

What causes that? I have several ideas for you.

Are you helping your dog too much in training?

Minor Adjustments:

Pointing to front, turning your shoulder on the finish, guiding back on the leash of a forging dog or encouraging the lagging dog to move forward are all examples of subtle help. If you are doing the work in training, your dog will not feel responsible for performing those details in the ring.

Today, start changing that habit. When your dog comes to front, let him sit, if he’s not straight, make him fix it. Far better that he gives you his best guess, and then find out if he’s right or wrong and needs to try harder, than that you help him be right every time.

Second Commands:

If your dog hesitates, do you quickly (without even noticing?) give him a second command? Second commands can become a habit, for both you and the dog, without your even noticing that you are giving one.

Today, refuse to give your dog a second command for any reason. Instead, physically touch him to make him do the right thing the first time you ask. If you call him and he fails to move, go get him. If you send him and he only goes part way, go put your hand on his collar and push him in the right direction. You don’t have to say "no," or get angry, simply make him do what you ask on the first attempt.

Are you depending on treats, toys, and games in training?

In our efforts to be motivational and fun, we often train with hands full of treats and toys in our pockets. When these are gone, and we are in the ring, the performance suffers.

In the Digital Obedience Guide: Tricks that Transition to Obedience Exercises, in the last module in a section called "Find Heel," I talk about secondary reinforcers (a word or a clicker) and how they cause a dopamine release in the pleasure center of the brain. Tricks that Transition is available free on my website.

Your dog can learn to enjoy the activity leading to the toy or treat as much as he enjoys the reward offered. Watch the dogs in the "Find Heel" section. You will see dogs learn to enjoy the game of finding heel position. I want you to understand that your dog does not have to be working to earn a toy or a treat; he can enjoy the activity that leads to the toy or the treat.

This is a complicated idea. We are all guilty of believing that our dogs need the toy or the treat to perform.

Try teaching your dog to "place," and then "find heel." Be mindful of how often you help your dog perform during training, and eliminate second commands. Watch him start to enjoy the activities, not just the reward.

Are you training like you show?

You must be able to practice for 8-10 minutes without a break.

All the obedience classes can be completed in less than 10 minutes. Typically, our training sessions are longer than that. Most of us take multiple breaks to offer treats or play games. Have you ever tried to practice for even 5-6 minutes, moving from one exercise to another, offering the praise and enthusiasm that you can offer in the ring, but nothing more?

You must perform each exercise the first time, not after multiple attempts.

A typical training session might involve you repeating one exercise several times, then moving on to another. Have you ever tried to practice several exercises, one time each, making sure your dog will perform the first time he attempts it, not after several repetitions?

You must be able to move between the exercises smoothly, going from one to the next.

Are you going to ask your dog to heel from one exercise to the next, or move around the ring in a more relaxed fashion? Practice several different strategies and decide what works best for you. You can talk to your dog while moving in the ring, so do so in practice, but do not let him go to the location of a new exercise in a distracted or uninterested fashion.

What does "training like you show" look like?

Does every training session need to look like this? No. Sometimes you will need to concentrate on a single exercise to improve your dog’s understanding of that exercise. However, you need to practice this way often enough so that when you enter the ring, your dog feels as if he is being asked to perform in a familiar way. You want your dog to believe he is doing exactly what he does in training.

Last night in class, four students were preparing to go into Graduate Novice. I asked them perform eight exercises in a row without taking a break. There are four exercises in the Graduate Novice class after the heeling; the drop on recall, recall with a dumbbell, recall over the high jump, and recall over the broad jump. I wanted each student to try to perform each exercise twice, but not to repeat any exercise twice in a row. You guessed it; no one made it through eight recall exercises without the dog anticipating at least one of them. The students received helpful information about their dog’s weakness.

After everyone had finished, we split up and worked on anticipation by giving the dog a command to "Sit," or "Stay," before asking him to "Come." They acted as the judge for one another, exaggerating the "Call Your Dog," command. This training session did not resemble showing, but it was appropriate to spend time concentrating on the problem we had encountered.

Set up some training sessions that looks more like showing by training for 5 or 6 minutes without a break; move between exercises like you would in the ring; try to perform each exercise just one time. As you do this, you will discover that some exercises need more work before you can confidently send in your entry.

Are you able to achieve a perfect performance on the first attempt?

I’m often asked if I fix my dogs mistakes when I am trying to make training and showing look alike. The answer is yes, consider the following scenario.

Imagine that you have thrown the dumbbell over the high jump. Your dog picks up the dumbbell and then returns around the jump. Tell him he’s wrong (stop him), take him back to where he was last right (put him in a sit in the location he picked up the dumbbell, with it in his mouth), return to where you were standing, and then give him a command and signal to jump.

Follow up with a different exercise and then return to the high jump to try it again. Purposefully throw the dumbbell off center in the direction your dog came around the jump. Can he do it right this time?

If you think you are ready to enter a show, it is important that your dog do the exercise correctly on the first attempt. By leaving the exercise and returning to try again, you are setting up another "first attempt."

Imagine, that when you come back to try again, your dog fails a second time. Sometimes, as you try to make training and showing more similar, you discover that your dog simply does not have the skills you thought he had. You will discover that your dog is not thoroughly prepared.

Preparing for Your Ring Performance.

Teaching the exercises and preparing for competition involves three stages:

  1. Shaping the behavior.
  2. Performing each exercise in many different locations.
  3. Teaching your dog how NOT to perform.

For your dog to understand how to perform each exercise, he must also understand how not to perform. In the above example, this dog needs to know that the retrieve over the high jump involves jumping over the jump, retrieving the dumbbell, and returning over the jump with the dumbbell. If your dog has never tried coming back around the high jump, he probably does not understand that doing so is wrong.

Teaching a dog how not to perform is what "proofing" is all about. Although this article does not cover proofing, you can learn more about it from the video, Proofing is Not Hard or in the Digital Obedience Guide, Proofing: The Benefits of Mistakes.

We’re proud to be partners with organizations that supply service dogs to people in and around the Fountain Inn area.

Service Dogs for Veterans
After his 4 year enlistment in the US Navy, Bill was discharged as an E-5 and went on to earn a BSME degree on the GI Bill. He then spent 27 years with a Fortune 500 company as a licensed Professional Engineer. Bill began rehabilitating dogs in Pennsylvania in 2005 with the PA Humane League. After moving to Greenville, SC in 2013 he founded Service Dogs for Veterans in 2014 with training partner Connie Cleveland, owner of Dog Trainer's Workshop. This made it possible for Upstate & western NC Veterans to obtain a service dog locally. Learn More
The Service Dog Institute (TSDI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of the differently-abled by providing trained service dogs to boost confidence, provide comfort and perform skilled tasks that enable partners to lead more independent lives.  We are proud to have partnered with Dog Trainers Workshop to train all our dogs since 2011.  Dog Trainers Workshop has provided the highest in quality dog training for our service dog program. - Melissa. | Learn More