Good Training Decisions Are Obvious With Experience

I’m now a month into the Silvia Trkman course and beginning to crack open the 3rd set of bi-weekly lesson plans.

One of the new exercises I’ve been working on is the 2-on 2-off, which is where a dog learns to go onto a platform, and only have the front two paws come off. This is, as I understand it, used for coming off of obstacles like the A-Frame or Teeter so that the dog doesn’t jump off prematurely, but completely walks off the obstacle.

I started working on the 2-on 2-off, and my first session looked like this (go to the 1:08 mark)

Silvia said it was going fine but I should vary my position, so I kept on working on it, and started working on building distance and some duration. By the third session a few days later I had something like this (starts at the 1:08 mark):

Class was on hiatus for about a week so no comments or questions. So I did a couple more sessions like that. Something dawned on me after the fact though. I was creating a superstitious behavior chain of overshoot the platform and then back up on it! Woops, duh, that should be obvious right? The dog would come off the A-Frame and then back up onto it again.

So today, humbly, I went back and started working on it again. The next clip is a bit on the long side (6 minutes) so you can jump around, but now I’m only c/t if Petey finds the 2on2off position on the first attempt (jump ahead to the 2:35 minute mark):

Fortunately I didn’t get too far along the path before getting back on track.

The other thing I have been working on in this program is perchwork and hind end rotation. If you’ve seen my YouTube channel, you might know that I first taught Petey to perch and rotate for Finish a year ago. But, there’s a problem! I only taught counter clockwise, so he could not go clockwise! This course is forcing me to deal with that, so I am working on a clockwise rotation.

His clockwise rotation is still weaker than counter clockwise, but, it’s coming along nicely. I don’t have much footage of when I first started working on clockwise, but let me tell you, it was like trying to get the toilet bowl to flush the opposite direction. Counter clockwise was so heavily reinforced it was incredibly difficult to get the first movement towards the other way.

Last year I was just greedy and wanted the perfect finish fast, and I got it. But, I should have been thinking about developing Petey symmetrically, because equal awareness for left and right would be important for exercises like cik and cap for faster jumps in agility.


Cik and Cap
Cik and Cap

All these considerations – should be obvious with experience. Having no experience in serious competitive agility, they weren’t obvious to me!

I’ve always felt this way, but these little roadbumps in my training really confirmed that what I already knew. There is a reason why Mirkka teaches our Rally-O class – she has trained dogs to Competition Obedience standards (which are much higher), and why Julie teaches our Tricks class – she has choreographed, trained, and performed full Canine Freestyle routines, and why Emily teaches our Canine Good Neighbour class – two of her dogs are CGN titled dogs.

There’s no such thing as overqualified when it comes to selecting your instructors because only with experience do good training decisions become obvious.


Good Shaping is Stress*-Free

Today during new student orientations, When Hounds Fly welcomed a new student with a 16 month old English Bulldog. Their owner had completed three levels of classes at another dog training school (a typical Toronto dog training school – mostly positive, old-fashioned lure-reward type school). She had watched a lot of our videos and was excited to come to our school and do our Foundations Skills program, even though her dog probably knows many of the behaviors taught. I was really happy to hear that, as it was clear she knew that she was coming to learn how to be a clicker trainer!

“We’re really anal here about good training. You came to the right place.” I said.

“Great, because I don’t want my dog to be confused, wondering what he’s supposed to do, yawning and stressing out anymore.” she replied.

What a brilliant observation. Being a sloppy trainer is not just detrimental to you, in terms of lack of progress. It is highly unfair to the dog. They feel stress and anxiety with poorly timed clicks, low rates of reinforcement, or confusing criteria. Being a great clicker trainer means the dog should seldom, if ever, feel stressed during training.

When you train your dog, what kinds of signs of stress do you observe? For Petey, the first sign is stress lines around his eyes and mouth. If it continues to worsen, he whines quietly while moving frantically. At its worst, he stops moving and lays down, panting and whining. Other dogs bark at their handler in frustration. Some lay down and look depressed. I knew of one that would start growling. None of these feelings are helpful as we are trying to condition good feelings about training.

In my previous post I mentioned I had just enrolled in an online distance course. The first exercise I’ve been working on is to train Petey to put four paws inside a food bowl. The instructor does not give very explicit training plans – figuring it out yourself is part of the learning process. In the below video, I have taken snapshots of the four sessions I did over three days:

In the series of four training sessions on video, I started with a US postal service box, then a black ikea box, then a cardboard box that housed my kettle, and finally the water bowl dish. In each session, Petey never showed signs of anxiety or stress. While he sometimes struggled to get his paws in the container, he knew what he was doing.

Good training means the dog is never stressed or confused. A good training plan is needed first. This four paws in a food dish exercise is a great exercise in thinking about how to shape properly by splitting criteria. It’s so easy! Start with a giant box and work your way down to progressively smaller boxes until you get to the final size you wish. Move down a size/raise criteria whenever the dog hits a certain success rate (80% typically). Box dimensions (length/width/height) are easily quantifiable, so criteria is black and white. Instead of starting with a tiny box, or a food bowl, and getting frustrated, I just spent a lot of time finding perfect size boxes. Then the training went quick!

Unfortunately, not all behaviors have criteria so easy to split and identify as the dimensions of a box. That’s the skill of a great clicker trainer – determining how to split criteria to the smallest increment, devising ingenious ways to setup the training environment so criteria is easy to identify, and ensuring the rate of reinforcement is high enough that the exercises are easy for the dog.

In my earlier videos and training sessions a year or more ago, Petey often got confused and would lay down and get stressed out. I kept on training and pushed through. From now on, if any dog I train shuts down that way, it’s time to stop training and go back to the drawing board.

Always be asking yourself – how can I make this easier for the dog?

Nesting Dolls
Answer: Split Criteria Like Nesting Dolls

*Update: A mere hour after I posted this on our Facebook Page, Casey Lomonaco posted a really great comment: “I partially agree. Learning is stressful, but there is a big difference between eustress and distress.” Thank you – yes – learning is stressful, and I think during a great training session, especially when you are raising criteria, our dogs are buzzing and feeling eustress. And that is a good thing. Thank you Casey!

Don’t Phone It In – Make Class Count

In the previous post in my series on being a dog training school student, I covered everything I do leading up to actually attending class.  So now this post will cover how I make the most out of an hour long dog training class.

The biggest change and improvement in how I train has to do with how I view the structure of a class.

An hour long class = Thirty 1-minute training sessions with thirty 1-minute breaks

An hour long class is a VERY long time – not only for the dog, but for the handler as well.  It’s impossible for both you and your dog to maintain maximum focus and intensity for 60 minutes non-stop.  If you try, your dog will slow down, and you’ll slow down – you’ll get winded, your mind will wander, you’ll get sloppy with your criteria and mechanical skills, and your dog will get frustrated and confused.  As your dog gets confused, he’ll start checking out and you’ll lose his focus.

A dog training class is very much like a workout routine.  Some of you might know that I am a huge fan of interval training and also a huge Jillian Michaels fan.  Her 20 minute workouts are intense, well structured, and never let you zone out.  You do a set of cardio moves, then a set of strength moves, then core, then repeat, until after 20 minutes you are done.  Each set is only 1-2 minutes in duration so that during each set you maintain focus, intensity, and good form.



While it’s possible for you to do 7 minutes of skip rope, 7 minutes of weights, then 7 minutes of crunches, your skipping would end up being sloppy, you’d end up with poor form on the w?eights, ?and you would probably start trying to get away with sloppy crunches.  Short duration bursts allow you to perform with intensity and also recover for another set.  One of my favorite quotes from her 30 Day Shred DVD is:

“If you want results from a 20 minute workout, you can’t rest.  This will save you hours of phoning it in at the gym.”

So that’s what a 30 Day Shred workout looks like.  Here’s what the equivalent can look like in dog training.



Your Dog’s Station – Off Duty and On Break

As soon as you arrive in class, prior to actually beginning work, put your dog at their station.  This can be their crate, or their mat (hence the need for a fluent Go to Mat behavior with a stay).  When the dog is stationed, this is when you can think, plan, refill on treats, take notes, or listen to or talk to the instructor.  You can borrow a mat from the school, or bring your own (this is best, since it’ll be a constant no matter what training environment you go to).  Reinforce your dog randomly for holding a down-stay at their station.

Ready to Train?  Wait Just a Minute!

Before you release your dog… make sure you can answer these questions:

  1. What is the behavior I am training?
  2. What is the criteria for which the dog will earn a click/treat?
  3. What is the shaping plan? (What are the additional steps of criteria beyond the first level of criteria?)
  4. Where will I keep the reinforcers (treats, toys, etc.)?
  5. Where will I place the reinforcement?
  6. What could do wrong?
  7. What will I do if everything goes horribly wrong?
  8. What will I do if the dog advances their behavior to higher levels of criteria quickly?
  9. What will I do if I forget what I am doing?

There are a lot of different answers to all these questions (and there are probably more questions!).  The point of this exercise is to at least have a training plan ready in your head, even if the whole exercise goes horribly wrong (#6).  The possible answers to #7 and #9 are a) Keep working anyways or b) Send the dog back to their station.

Hit It!

Pre-count the # of treats you will use in a session so that you don’t run the risk of training for too long.  In general, I try to make each session last about one minute in length.  This is because a training session should be short enough that the handler can remember the entire training session.

Three more, two more, last one… When you’re down to your last treat, send the dog back to their station.  You can use the last treat as a reinforcer for going to station.

Dog at Station – Time to Think and Plan

Now that your dog is back at station, you can take a moment to review the training session you just completed.  What went well?  Was the rate of reinforcement high enough?  Is it time to increase criteria for the next training session? Or, if it went poorly, what went wrong, and how can you lower criteria to increase the rate of reinforcement?

This is a great time to take notes, record data in a notebook, get more treats ready, and reset the training environment if required (obstacles, props, etc.)

Some Other Notes:

  • Putting the dog at a station builds anticipation, which can increase the motivation and enthusiasm of the dog once they are released. This can build some speed in your behaviors.
  • Staying at station is training in itself.  If the dog breaks station, send them back and make them hold it until released.  This is a stay exercise and letting the dog break station and then proceeding to train them will cause your stay behavior to deteriorate.
  • If the instructor comes to talk to you and you are in the middle of a training session, send the dog to their station before engaging with them.  It’s OK to be rude to the instructor and ignore them for a few seconds while you wrap up.
  • If the instructor starts lecturing, also send the dog to their station so you can give your undivided attention to the instructor while giving your dog a break.
  • You can also station your dog while waiting for class to begin – if you’re early for class, put down your mat and have them stay on it while waiting for class to begin.

Hope you enjoyed the post!  On a side note, making this video was helpful for me as well.  I spotted a bunch of sloppy training errors I made and I’ve broken them down and will be working on improving my own training skills as a result.  If you watch my video and can see errors I’ve made, comment below!

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, to Train with Maximum Intensity

This post is all about preparing for class to maximize the efficiency, effectiveness, and intensity of your training.  As an instructor, it is clear to see which students come fully prepared for class, and in general, those that are well prepared do better both in class, and overall.

Since I am a dog trainer by profession, I may take preparation to a level that is beyond that of an average family dog owner, and I know there are people who are more disciplined than I am, but certainly everyone could make minor improvements in their preparation.

Prepare The Day Before Class

  • Exercise, exercise, exercise the dog – not to the point of exhaustion, but so they can sleep well that night.
  • Ensure the dog has a lot of uninterrupted sleep – having a house party that goes on till late at night will keep your dog from resting well.
  • Avoid stressful events (i.e. grooming, vet exam, being taken to somewhere new).
  • Avoid excessive feeding the day before so they are hungry on the day of training class.
  • Make sure you have high value treats ready for class.  I keep ample tubes of Rollover and Natural Balance around the house.

Prepare The Day of Class

  • Prepare multiple types of treats, freshly cut, and separated into zip loc bags.  All of them should be of fairly high value, but of course, some more than others.  Currently I am bringing one bag of Turkey Rollover, and one bag of Salmon Rollover.
  • Prepare all equipment needed for class.  Clicker, target stick, mat, tug toy, treat pouch loaded with some treats, extra treats in ziploc bags, etc.  The mat is very important (to be covered in the next blog post in this series)
  • Avoid excessive exercise for the dog that day.  Too much, and the dog will be too tired to work.
  • I do not feed my dogs any food until class starts.  That may mean the first food of the day is in the evening. They’ll live.
  • I block off the two hours preceding a class, so that I can relax and not feel rushed.
300 Reinforcers
300 Reinforcers
Bagged and Ready
Bagged and Ready

If we are to demand 100% of our dog’s attention during class, they deserve 100% of ours.

Prepare for Leaving Home for Class:

  • At home – walk the dog to allow them to fully eliminate and burn off a little energy before leaving.  My dogs are older, so they don’t need to burn off steam prior to class.
  • Arrival time:  I aim to arrive at the front door of the school 10 minutes before class.  Too early, and the dog can get impatient waiting for class to start.  Too late, and you won’t have enough time to walk the grounds to let the dog eliminate one more time.  I would err on the side of arriving early vs. late.
  • Training starts as soon as I get to the car.  Going into the car is a HUGE reinforcer, so the dog must hold a sit before being cued to hop in the car.  My clicker is on me, my pouch is on me, and I am ready to click/treat from this point moving forward.
  • During the drive there, I reinforce calm behaviors.  Every time the dog lays down and relaxes, I click, then treat.
  • When we arrive at the school, training continues.  The dog must offer a sit and hold sit as I open the door – and release the dog.  At this point, the dog gets 100% of my focus.  Phone is off, no idle conversations with anyone – I am here to pay attention to my dog.

This is what I do to prepare so that both Petey and I arrive to school focused, energized, and ready to work.  The opposite looks like:

  • Coming to school late – the dog is anxious because the handler is anxious about being late, and often is rushed from the car to the school without having a chance to eliminate.  Dogs have had accidents minutes after arriving to school because of this, which further stresses both the dog and handler.  The handler also misses out on instruction so the next 10 minutes of class is also a writeoff.
  • Not having treats cut and prepared – the dog is left in limbo while the handler has to spend 5 minutes cutting treats – that is 10% of the class wasted, and the dog’s mind is allowed to wander.
  • Not having enough treats – the dog is left in limbo as the handler has to somehow get some treats (take from the school, or buy from the retail store in front).  The dog gets to practice disconnecting from the handler, again.
  • Equipment buried deep in a bag, not readily available.  The dog’s good behavior during the leadup to class (sitting, eye contact, waiting at a boundary, etc.) go unreinforced, so the dog just pulls around and sniffs aimlessly entering class.  Training MUST begin the minute the dog is released from the car and the dog should not be allowed to do his own thing until after class ends.
  • Not exercising the dog enough (in particular, the day before) – the dog is hyperactive and can’t focus in class.

What’s the Point of All This?

The point of all this is to make all the details and particulars around getting to and functioning in class easy, so that 100% of your attention is available for the dog.  Clicker training is hard enough as it is!  I often tell students in my classes – If we are to demand 100% of our dog’s attention during class, they deserve 100% of ours.  With that foundation in place, we can eliminate opportunities for a dog to be left in limbo, drift off, get distracted, and lose focus.  In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about how I work inside the classroom to maintain a very high level of intensity and focus from the dog.

Wax On, Wax Off (Foundation Skills Are Everything)

After nearly a year hiatus, I’m taking dog training classes again as a student with Petey.  Renee at All About Dogs is offering daytime agility classes, so finally, I was able to sign up and enroll in classes that didn’t conflict with when I teach in the evenings.  Because of this, I’m inspired to start a short blog series on my experience as a dog training student in a mainstream dog training class, and share my approach to maximizing my dog’s ability to learn and perform.

The Story Begins a Year Ago:

Petey’s story with agility class actually starts a year ago, when I originally enrolled him for classes.  After his rescue and transfer to our home (as a foster dog), he had completed a basic obedience class at Who’s Walking Who (where he was awarded the “Top Dog” award; I didn’t mention that I was a professional dog trainer – I just needed a place to train him around other dogs), and he was my Karen Pryor Academy dog.  I imagined him taking agility classes, being focused and motivated (as he had been up till this point), and having him flying through weaves and tunnels in no time.

On the night of his first original class a year ago, we were early and settled into class.  Renee had the dogs in class lay down on mats and work on stay exercises.  Everything was going grand until after ten minutes into class, a late arrival entered through the doors.  The late arrival was an adolescent male (intact I think) Portuguese Water Dog.  For some reason, Petey was fixated on him and extremely frustrated by his arrival.  He was desperate to go check out the dog, but of course, as class had started, dogs could not meet (like they originally had in the waiting area).

Quickly, Petey’s arousal levels increased to the point where he would no longer take food.  He was visibly stressed and began howling and lunging, and if I recall correctly, he began air biting in frustration.  In despair, I ran out of the classroom to give Petey some fresh air (not even having time to put my shoes on) and was outside in the rain in my socks.  Coincidentally, I ran into Julie who had arrived early for the next class with her dog, Delilah.  When she asked how I was doing, embarrassingly, I replied,

“Umm… I’ve been better.  Petey is having a meltdown!”

After class one ended, I pulled Petey out of class immediately, and I’ve been at work ever since.

Lesson Learned:  Wax On, Wax Off – Foundation Skills Are Everything.  Without Them, You Have Nothing

At this time last year, Petey knew a ton of cool behaviors, like his jump in a box trick, lots of targeting behaviors, and we had even begun working on object discrimination exercises.  He knew how to target post-it notes, sit pretty, jump over, through my arms and legs, and much more.  Big deal!  He was unable to focus in class as soon as a curly, black colored dog with testicles came into the room.  Prior to this, in his limited experiences in different classroom settings, perhaps I had just been lucky that none of the dogs were black with curly hair, and were all neutered.

Over the last year, Petey has actually learned very few new behaviors.  Other than hind-end awareness exercises, which I just did over the winter recently, I have only been working on a single behavior:  Eye contact.  This is the first exercise we work on in puppy class at When Hounds Fly.  I spent a year on this single exercise with Petey, the dog that learned all the behaviors taught in the Karen Pryor Academy curriculum.

In class at When Hounds Fly, I make my students do a ton of eye contact exercises.  It is boring and repetitive, but it is important.  Focus and attention work is the “Wax On, Wax Off” exercise of dog training.  If you struggle to get your dog’s attention in class, or in other environments where your dog must perform reliably, it is absolutely critical to get that focus first before you even begin teaching any other behavior.

In Karate Kid, Daniel had to do four exercises before his karate training began.  They were:

  1. Wash a parking lot of cars and wax them.
  2. Sand a huge wood deck.
  3. Catch flies with chopsticks.
  4. Paint a fence only using his wrists.

Over the last year, here are some of the eye contact exercises I have been working with Petey on:

  1. Long duration eye contact (1 minute+ duration built up)
  2. “Look at that” exercise with every single dog he has seen while on leash in a year (average of 6 dogs per day, which means over 2100+ repetitions in the last year)
  3. Zen, with food thrown right next to him, while holding position and reinforced for eye contact.
  4. Remedial socialization at the dog park, using protocols from Jean Donaldson’s FIGHT!
  5. Generalization – training on our walks, at multiple dog parks, on the street car, bus, and subway, at Pawsway, at pet supply stores, at the vet’s office, at When Hounds Fly (hence the purpose of Petey Needs Training classes last year) – everywhere, and anywhere.
Eye Contact at Pawsway


In case you didn’t watch Karate Kid, here’s Daniel doing his foundation skills work:

This time around, we were ready for classes again.  It was a year of prep work.  In preparation for our first class, we moved onto the next foundation skill Petey would need to succeed in class – a fluent Go to Mat behavior – retrained at the dog park, with dogs, children, and adults milling about.

Lesson Learned:  Get Real! (Expectations)

Last year in puppy class at When Hounds Fly, a student just finishing puppy class asked me whether it was necessary for his dog to take our basic foundation skills class, since he had already taught his dog a stay, and the dog knew how to sit and lay down.  He emphasized how smart his puppy was and how his puppy should be doing agility.

Meanwhile, his dog was straining at the end of his leash, desperately trying to go visit the other puppies in class, and was completely unresponsive to his handler’s calls.  Absolutely no sign of cognitive dissonance – just the blinders that go on when you’re a proud puppy parent, I guess.

Agility is new to me, but I get the feeling that agility instructors must get a lot of phone calls and emails from proud puppy parents asking to allow their dog to enter their agility programs, even though their dogs have had absolutely no foundation training.  Or, they take agility classes, but disregard the foundation exercises (zen, mat, hind end awareness, etc.) and believe their puppy should be doing weaves and a-frames on first class.

Walking around a wet parking lot in my socks was the best thing that could happen to me.  That experience gave me the motivation to spend a year on a single behavior.  I estimate I have reinforced Petey over 10,000 times for eye contact in the last year, if not more.  It forced me to get real with my own expectations on how much foundation work must be done before one even begins actually training a dog for a specific purpose.  For example, in Bertilsson/Vegh’s Agility Right From The Start, the first time any specific agility equipment is introduced in their book is on page 263 (of a 440 page book).  Everything prior to that is foundation skills.

For giggles, and to develop a little sympathy for agility/rally/obedience instructors, check out this video of a “proud puppy parent” and an agility instructor:

“My dog is far too brilliant to be in a beginner’s foundation class! Let’s just put him on the equipment and let him figure it out himself. All I have to do is point at the equipment and he will do it.”

Next Post:  Preparing for Class

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I prepare for classes to make the most out of every second I’m there.  And.. in case you’re wondering, Petey did great when he finally made his return to All About Dogs last week.  And, very appropriately, the dog that was next to him in class was another black, curly furred Portuguese Water Dog, that Petey couldn’t care less about.