Sunday, June 24, 2018

Introducing Show Dog Prep School

I am beyond excited with this new announcement I have to share. For years now I have wanted to create a school that would serve all the people out there looking for more information on training, handling and living with show dogs. There are many online schools for dog training, but Show Dog Prep School is the only online school that focuses on the training of show dogs. Also, Show Dog Prep School focuses on training, handling and living with show dogs using science-based methods with a strong emphasis on positive reinforcement.

Our lineup of instructors is impressive and is growing all the time. Our first group of courses are taught by myself as well as some other amazing dog women. Andrea Stone of UCLA dogs in Seattle and longtime Basenji breeder/owner/handler is teaching courses on Taking the Challenge out of Challenging Breeds and Consent to Care - Trouble Free Nail Trims. Cherie Elkholm of Wrapped Up in Dogs and Bichon Frise owner/handler is a TTouch practitioner and canine massage specialist and is teaching a course on Telling TTouch for Show Dogs as well as a super informative course on Safe Traveling with Show Dogs. Finally, we have Laura Reeves, second generation breeder/owner/handler and the founder of Pure Dog Talk podcast is offering a course on Canine Structure 101 - Understanding Your Dog's Structure and Breed Standard. This course will blow your socks off. Laura will be offering a course series on breeding for the next round of courses and I know those will be amazing as well. Our next release of courses will welcome instructors Michele Pouliot and Jenna Bullis.

Some of our course offerings include Teaching Gaiting for the Show Ring, Teaching Stacking for the Show Ring, Training Your Toy Show Dog, Managing Your Multi-Sport Show Dog, Handling 101, Problem Solving Dog Show Issues and so much more.

On July 1 Dog Show Prep School opens for business! I invite you to check us out! Visit us at on July 1!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Is compulsion necessary for some dogs?

Not surprisingly, I discuss dog training quite a bit. I have discussions with all different levels of trainer from very skilled and experienced trainers to dog owners just learning about how dogs learn. In talking to people about various methods, I frequently have people tell me that they have a breed of dog that requires some compulsion. By compulsion, I mean the use of physical corrections or force. Sometimes from people that feel that some compulsion is necessary with all dogs and some people that feel that some compulsion is required only for certain breeds of dogs. When these comments are made, the dogs that are being referred to are almost always large working dogs or sporting dogs. Although, to be fair I have heard it said of dogs from nearly all of the groups except possibly the toy dogs. It makes sense as many of the dogs from these groups are large, strong, powerful and sometimes quite self assured. I understand where they are coming from, but I don't necessarily agree with this viewpoint.

Many working and sporting dogs (and even dogs from some of the other groups) are large, powerful and committed to their work. Terriers aren't always big dogs, but they are frequently extremely committed workers who are bred for persistence. While some might consider dedication and perseverance the same as being stubborn or hard headed, I would argue that these are necessary traits that we bred into these dogs in order to do the jobs they were bred to do. How can we, in good conscience breed a dog to be a certain way and then punish them for exhibiting those breed traits? Because some of these dogs can be less sensitive to corrections than other dogs it is taken for granted that they can "take it". And, because dogs are the brilliant, honest and forgiving species that they are, they will take it, but that doesn't mean it is necessary or even that effective actually. In fact, I have seen corrections be only mildly annoying to extremely frightening and not have any impact on the dog's training.

A word about Punishment
In learning theory we know that reinforcement causes a behavior to happen more and punishment causes a behavior to happen less or to stop happening altogether.

Positive Punishment (+P) is when an aversive is added which causes the behavior to stop happening or go down in frequency. Examples of intended +P are squirting an animal with water, hitting an animal, giving a leash correction.

Negative Punishment (-P) is when something that the animal wants is removed and unavailable which causes a behavior to stop happening or go down in frequency. Examples of intended -P turning away from a dog that is jumping up, withholding a treat, time out.

By definition, punishment decreases the future probability of a behavior. In other words, if you punish a behavior, that behavior should not happen in the future. If the behavior is "punished" but continues to occur, it has not been punished out, it has simply been suppressed in that moment. There is a big difference there. You could be attempting to punish a behavior repeatedly, but if that behavior is continuing to happen you have not punished it and really, the dog has learned nothing. That is one reason why I don't like to use positive punishment. Punishment needs to be severe enough that you don't need to do it more than once, twice at the most. I understand that when an unwanted behavior is happening and a dog is corrected and stops doing the behavior it may appear that you have been effective, but unless it affects the future of the behavior, you have done little to change the behavior. For instance, I frequently see people use a squirt bottle to stop a dog from vocalizing. The dog barks, they squirt the dog and the dog stops barking. However, unless the squirting was very aversive, the dog usually will bark again and will stop only when you squirt him or perhaps when you threaten him with squirt bottle in hand.

Before anyone thinks that I have small dogs so I must not understand large working dogs, please know that I work with all different breeds and I use the same methods for all of them. I live with Dachshunds, an independent free thinking breed known for being difficult to train and have lived with several Australian Cattle Dogs, Rottweilers and Chow Chows. In fact, the first dog I trained without compulsion was an Australian Cattle Dog that I got as a puppy and committed to attempting to train him without corrections. And, I did start out using what some call "balanced training" where I combined both physical corrections with reinforcement. I have experienced correcting a behavior and seeing that behavior stop in the moment, but I have also learned that it never changed the behavior long term. At best I was managing much of the time. The prong collar was managing the dog, not actually training them not to pull, it simply stopped pulling in the moment, but when I got decent heeling, for instance, it was the reinforcement that built and maintained those behaviors, not the punishment of pulling.

When training dogs, of course  I always take a dog's breed into consideration along with the breeds natural traits and purpose. I may adjust how I get a behavior in the first place or the reinforcement that I choose, but I do not ever feel I need to use compulsion. The reason that I wanted to write this blog is that some people seem to feel that because of their breed some compulsion is necessary and I am saying, using compulsion is a choice. I am trying to choose my words carefully so that it doesn't come across as a judgement call. I am not trying to judge or say that if someone is using compulsion they are bad, don't love their dogs or are a poor trainer, I am simply saying, you could also do it without compulsion if you wanted to go that route. I don't want people to be under the false impression that if they have a certain breed they cannot train without compulsion. I have met many dogs whose owners use some compulsion and it doesn't always mean that the dog is terrified or doesn't enjoy working or doesn't spending time with the owner, however, sometimes this is the case. What I am suggesting is why not try it without correcting the dog? I am suggesting that people look very closely at their punishment and look at the future of the behavior to measure whether or not you are actually punishing out what you don't want. You may find that simply reinforcing and strengthening your target behavior, which should be an alternate behavior to the one you don't like, may get you where you want to go and could do so with less frustration and possibly even faster.

Because we are on the topic of punishment, there are a few other things to consider.

Punishment Callus
After repeatedly using an aversive an animal will develop a punishment callus. This means that the aversive no longer suppresses or stops the behavior. In fact, it pretty much stops making an impact to the animal at all. This is one reason why people will frequently increase the intensity of the aversive because they are ineffectively using it but seeing no results at all. But remember that if the future of the behavior is not being impacted you are essentially doing nothing except stopping the behavior when it is happening, but not necessarily teaching the dog anything.

The effect on the Punisher
This is something that not everyone knows or understands, but it is important when talking about positive punishment. Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher. Sometimes it is because it "works" in the eyes of the punisher. In other words, the behavior occurs, the animal is corrected and the behavior stops so the punisher feels that it worked. Again, suppressing behavior is different than changing the future outcome of a behavior, but still, that suppression can be reinforcing to the punisher. But, here is the uncomfortable part, issuing punishment can actually be reinforcing regardless of the effectiveness. When someone is frustrated or upset by an animal's behavior, they issue a correction and they feel better. It is almost as if it feels good to hurt them because they are frustrated or upset or angry. It is no different than saying something hurtful to hurt someone because they are upset, except that they are using physical discomfort instead of words.

Both the punishment callus and the punishment being reinforcing to the punisher can become a loop of lots of corrections with little affect at all on the future of the behavior. This is sad because it can cause a lot of frustration on the animal and the person and can affect the relationship between the dog and owner.

So, here is what I am proposing. We know that all the quandrants of operant conditioning can change behavior, but generally it is positive punishment and negative reinforcement and the use of compulsion that creates behavioral fallout and relationship damage. If we know this to be true, why not stick to positive reinforcement and negative punishment? Can it take longer? Sometimes, but generally not much longer because you are building the behavior as soon as you are getting it and the more you reinforce it, the stronger it becomes. Give it a shot! You can always decide to add compulsion later on if you really feel you need to, but hopefully you won't.

All this being said, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that poorly executed positive reinforcement can also create frustration, confusion and a fractured relationship between dog and owner. Any poor training will elicit poor results, but the fact that there is some really poorly executed positive reinforcement training out there is not a good enough reason for me to use compulsion.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Handling Advice - Take it or leave it?

One of the most challenging parts of my job as a trainer who specializes in coaching people with their show dogs is preparing them for what they can expect at the dog show. The dog training piece is not always the hardest part. The hardest part can be how to accept and deal with the people who go along with the dog show experience. How a person is treated by judges, by professional handlers and by their peers can make or break whether or not they decide to continue in the show ring. The support of their breeder and friends in the breed can greatly impact if they enjoy the sport or decide it just isn't for them. While some feedback can be helpful, it can also create more stress and anxiety depending on when and how it is delivered.

Many of the clients that I work with are first time owner handlers who are new to the sport and have never shown a dog before. A lot of people are bound by a contract to show their dog and some begrudgingly do it because it was required in order to get the dog, but some people are genuinely intrigued and excited about this whole new world that they didn't realize existed.

My clients range from longtime breeders who have been doing this for decades to people new to showing such as accomplished horse riders who are looking for a less expensive and less dangerous hobby to empty nesters who are looking for something new to do with their free time. With this variety of situation comes a variety of skill and all different personality types.

Some people are excited to show their own dog. They are willing to take the time to learn, to practice and understand that getting skilled at something means starting out unskilled at it! It usually takes a while to be as skilled as someone who has been doing something professionally for 30 years. People don't always realize that many professional handlers started out as kids, literally, in the juniors ring. It is fascinating to me as I watched kids grow up at the dog shows. I saw them start out as juniors showing right alongside their parents every weekend, showing client dogs and growing up into adults with their own clients and now bringing their own kids to the show. So, many have been doing this a very long time. It takes time and sometimes quite a bit of not winning in order to get there. I purposely use the term "not winning" instead of losing because if you are in this to enjoy an activity with your dog, it is entirely possible to have a good time even if you aren't winning. I have gotten to the point where I can enjoy going to a dog show, hanging out all weekend with friends, being with our dogs and supporting one another and having all that matter as much as winning. But, I digress...

So, we have all of these different personality types coming to this sport that while very familiar to many of us, is very new to them. How they are treated by this community will help to determine whether or not they remain in the game. In my own experience, I have to say that for the most part I have been treated so well by professional handlers. When I started out showing dogs I remember feeling that a few of the big handlers were almost protective of me and would remind me that it was okay to make sure that my dog and I were being seen. The biggest issue with unsolicited advice generally seems to come from peers, other owner handlers and friends and sadly, judges. When someone is already nervous one of the worst things you can do is to start shouting instructions from ringside to them. If they have gone into the ring with a plan and are feeling pressure to derail and do something else it is likely going to cause them more stress and anxiety. They may not have the ability and mechanical skill to just bust out a new move that they haven't practiced or learned to do. People should take care to offer advice once the person is done showing and only when it is invited. Running up to someone as soon as they come out of the ring to tell them everything they did wrong is not helpful.

I recently had a few clients come to me with experiences that they had at dog shows from professional handlers and the contrast in approaches is like night and day. Have a read and see what advice you would likely take.

An owner handler is at her first show with her working breed puppy. She is an experienced obedience and rally competitor and is training her new puppy for the show ring. As she is waiting to go into the ring a professional handler approaches her and begins to offer some advice. First, he recommends that she use a choke chain on her dog. She has chosen a different type of equipment that is working for her and her dog and thanks the handler for the tip. The handler then tells her that someone should be teaching her how to tape her puppies ears. She explains that his ears usually are taped and are improving, but that she took them off for the show. He asks her where her puppy came from and she answers him and tells him who the sire is, he replies that he never heard of that dog and thinks she got duped and walks away.

Thankfully, she has enough confidence in herself, her puppy and her breeder to not take this exchange to heart, but this could destroy some people. You could say that maybe he is just a gruff man and didn't mean anything by it, but it doesn't make it okay and it certainly doesn't make it helpful or welcoming.

I have another client who is an owner handler. She comes from horses and understands competition. She is training and showing her own dogs, but has also occasionally used a professional handler. She is waiting to go into the ring with her dog and is struggling with something. A well known and highly successful handler is also waiting to go into the ring and asks if she needs help and proceeds to show her a tip that will help her in the ring with her dog. She finds the tip very helpful and uses it in the ring and in the future.

Another client of mine is a first time owner handler who has a natural ability and has managed to not only put a Grand Championship on her sporting dog, but also to garner specialty wins as well as multiple group placements. She is doing so well that her dog is in the top 10 and she wins her first Group One with him. Waiting to go into the BIS ring she is nervous and unsure. Two top professional handlers who will be competing in the group with her talk her down and let her know that it will be okay, just like any other time in the ring and calm her down.

There is a way to offer advice and a way to accept it. If you are offering advice to someone keep the following in mind:

  • Wait until the person is out of the ring, do not shout instructions from ringside or in the ring
  • Do not offer unsolicited advice
  • Do not be offended if the person doesn't use all of the advice, what may work for you may not be helpful to someone else
  • Speak kindly, not condescendingly
  • Respect it if they decline
Here are some ways to deal with advice that is offered to you:
  • If the advice is welcome but offered at a time that you cannot accept, thank the person and let them know you will talk to them later when you can better focus 
  • If you do not want the advice simply thank the person and move on
  • If you are actively working with your dog or handling your dog and need to concentrate on your dog, tell them that
  • Say and do nothing, simply listen
So, in closing, I want to say to take advice with a grain of salt. Listen to people who you respect, who treat their animals appropriately and put their dogs first, to people who look the way you hope to look in the ring as you improve at handling. Take what you need and leave the rest!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Peeling the Onion - Creatively Solving Show Ring Issues

This past year I changed the direction and focus of my dog training business to work strictly with show dogs. I love helping people shape their dogs into successful show ring competitors.  I offer a Conformation in the Park class which is not unlike a lot of handling classes where we basically run dogs through the show ring paces, individual exams and group work like in the show ring. I also offer a Skill Building and Handling for the Show Ring class where we delve much deeper into training the basics, working on specific issues that students are having and peeling apart behaviors to creatively find solutions. Because my job is to help clients modify or build behavior in their dogs, I can't help but look at every training issue as a behavioral puzzle. Regardless of whether we are working on a serious behavior issue or teaching a show dog to trot on cue it is still behavior and it all works the same way.

When a client is having an issue with their show dog whether it is a gaiting issue or a stacking issue or an issue with the judge's exam I pull it apart using the behaviorist's most helpful tool - a functional behavior analysis. A functional behavioral analysis is a way of looking at the behavior to determine why the particular behavior is continuing to occur. This is sometimes called the ABCs of behavior. It works like this:

A = Antecedent - the antecedent is what happens just before a behavior happens, the behavior will not occur without the antecedent

B = Behavior - the target behavior we are looking at changing

C = Consequence - what happens just after a behavior

If you look at this way, from a behaviorist's standpoint you realize that the behavior is driven by the antecedent and the consequence.  These two things must be in place in order for the behavior to continue to occur. The great thing is that while the animal is control of the behavior, we can change the antecedent and the consequence which will change the outcome of the behavior.  Dogs, like all animals, human and non human do behaviors for an outcome. Most behavior that people complain about their dogs doing are happening because the behaviors have been reinforced, usually by the same people that complain about them.

Here is an example that I have dealt with many times:
A show dog is trained not to pull on the leash but to walk at the owner's side, the dog is reinforced for the behavior of walking and possibly punished for pulling. The owner shows the dog and is frustrated that the dog paces in the show ring. The dog is pacing because he has been taught to accommodate the speed and position of the owner. If they attempt to physically correct the dog they may end up confusing the dog because the dog is only doing what he was reinforced for.  He isn't really wrong, the owner just wasn't clear or effective in teaching the behaviors in context and putting them on cue and with strong stimulus control meaning that the dog does the behavior when asked. Is it fair to correct a dog for doing what has been the right choice in the past?  How is he supposed to know the difference if we don't teach it? If we did a functional behavior analysis, it would like this:

A = owner walks dog on leash

B = dog walks at owner's side

C = dogs gets a treat or to move forward on the leash

In looking at this example it is clear that the behavior has a reinforcement history. The dog is actually doing exactly what he is trained to do but the owner has now decided that they want something else. My next job is to determine how I am going to build the behavior of trotting on lead and reinforcing that so we get it on cue and the dog can either walk on leash when asked or gait on leash when asked. It is simple but not always easy to apply.

I am currently working with a dog who I have been challenged with correcting a behavior that we have actually trained and reinforced similar to the example above. Booker is a very confident and social young French Bulldog. He is being shown successfully by his owner Marcella and she has taught him how to do a very pretty and reliable free stack on cue. If she says "stack it up" he will stomp all four feet into place into a beautiful free stack. However, he will always do it at an angle and attempts to get him to straighten out result in him angling himself again. We used a stacking box and a platform with some of his stacking training and he remains on the box and straight. I am certain this happens because the free stack training and practicing has mostly been with him at her side as if she returned from a down and back with her right hand out for Booker to look at.

Booker always free stacks at an angle
The antecedent is Marcella cuing Booker to "stack it up" in front of her. Again, he is doing it correctly, exactly as he was taught but we have now decided we want to change it up. The first thing we are doing is dropping the verbal cue "stack it up" unless he is doing his pattern and coming up to the judge. He knows the behavior so now we just have to retrain it with him straight and give it a different cue. This is all, by the way, a result of really great training by his owner. 

We have dropped the cue and I also needed to change the "picture" for him. Part of the cue is Marcella saying "stack it up" but dogs are also very in tune to environmental cues. Environmental cues are other things that happen while the behavior happens or just behavior that give additional information to the dog. So, Marcella standing in front of him holding his show lead has become an environmental  cue for him much like you picking up the leash or putting on your hiking boots can cue the dog that you are going to go for a hike. In order to make the picture different for Booker I had Marcella sit in a chair.  We still got an angle so I then added a mat that was large enough for him to stand on square but didn't allow for him to be angled. We then shaped the behavior of coming to the mat right in front of her. 

The mat helps Booker to understand to stand straight rather than angled.

To shape the behavior I had Marcella sit in a chair with the mat right in front of her feet. She would toss a treat in order to get Booker to move off of the mat and reset himself and then when he comes in straight, she marks it with "yes" and then gives him another treat, then tosses another to reset it. The idea is to figure out a way to cause the behavior to happen repeatedly so that we can reinforce it and cause it to happen more.

Once Booker began to understand it we started to put it on a new verbal cue, so Marcella would say the new cue, "front" just before Booker comes in straight on the mat. We then removed the mat and began to cue the behavior with Marcella sitting and then finally with her standing. She practiced a bit at home and in two group classes for fairly short periods of time and are already having success. They will continue to work on it so that it is reliable enough for him to do on cue in the show ring.

Coming in straight with Marcella sitting

Booker is starting to get it and come in straight with Marcella sitting down.

Here is a breakdown of the training plan:
  • Stop using verbal cue "stack it up".
  • Shape the behavior of coming in straight in front.
  • Incorporating the mat to help Booker understand to be straight.
  • Changing the picture by having Marcella sit down so that it is easier for Booker to learn to come in straight.
  • Once we started to get him consistently coming in straight with Marcella sitting, I had her start adding a new verbal cue "front".
  • Once we had him coming in straight with the front cue, we did it with Marcella standing, but I had her position her feet a little bit apart like she did when sitting'
  • We ended the session with Booker coming in straight with her standing!
  • We then continue to give the verbal cue and reinforce for stacking straight in front of her.
  • Success!
I was inspired to write this post because so many times people want to simply make the dog's behavior stop rather than figuring out why it is happening and figuring out the best way for the dog to have success at understanding what we are trying to teach. If an animal is exhibiting a problem behavior or any behavior that the owner would like to change the best course of action is to decide what you would like the dog to do instead, in this case stand straight, and then train that behavior. This way the dog is taught to do what is desirable, understands it and can get it right and have success.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Big Dogs Don't Require a Heavier Hand

There is a common misconception that positive reinforcement training is appropriate only for some dogs, you know small dogs or soft dogs but that other dogs require the use of force. I hear people say that all dogs are different and that "no single method works for all dogs", but the fact is that the positive reinforcement quadrant of learning theory DOES work for all dogs, in fact it works for all animals. The fact is that the larger the animal is the more critical it is to create a cooperative working relationship where the animal actually wants to perform the requested behavior.

I coach people in conformation with all different breeds, of different sizes, with different temperaments and learning styles and I encourage them to use the same basic principle and core philosophy and that is to train primarily with positive reinforcement. It means to adhere to the commitment to "do no harm", not just harm to the animal but harm to the owner's relationship with that animal.  It is astonishing how many times a new client comes to me with a specific issue that they are having with their dog in the show ring whether it is pacing, sniffing the ground, pulling or moving on the stack that when I show them how to change the behavior they are shocked that we change that without corrections. People will actually ask, "you mean you don't use corrections?" That is correct, I don't use corrections, I identify what the dog is doing versus what I want and then I train what I want rather than trying to punish what I don't want.

I am showing an Irish Wolfhound for a friend and part of the reason I am doing that is that I want people to see that positive reinforcement works with all dogs. I know that people may say, "ah, but it's a sight hound, they are soft". People who are used to using traditional methods may find it hard to believe that positive reinforcement can work with large breeds because change is hard and when people are very set in their ways they don't want to accept that another way could be effective. At a recent dog show I stepped in and offered to help someone who I watched frighten and very roughly handle a young puppy, biting him, shoving him to the ground and poking him while he squirmed and cried. She rejected my offer to help and continued what she was doing to him. The attitude was that I have small dogs and don't know how to handle bigger dogs or stronger dogs, but that isn't the case. As I said before, the larger and more powerful the animal the more important cooperation is. It doesn't matter if I am working with a 5 pound dog or a 180 dog, my core philosophy remains the same and my commitment to train, manage and handle the dog with care and respect remains the intact.

Vicki with Rumplestiltskin, 11 month old Irish Wolfhound, trained and handled with positive reinforcement

As we learn more about dogs and how they learn it is important for trainers, handlers, breeders and anyone who works with dogs to stay on top of the current information. While it is true that punishment and force can "work" with some dogs, if there is a way to do it without punishment and force don't we owe it to the dogs to use the methods that work for them as well as us? I want to share a few stories of large dogs trained with positive reinforcement and who I think are doing a great job of showing people that positive reinforcement works in the show world. What better way to prove something works than to do it and have success as these owner/handlers have.

My good friend Anna Bettina is a highly skilled dog trainer and owner of Happy Healthy Pup out of Atlanta, Georgia. Anna is a big dog lover and has lived with many different types of mastiff. She currently has Briscoe, a Bullmastiff and Glaukos, a Neapolitan Mastiff, both of which are trained with positive reinforcement. Glaukos is a model citizen and is welcome in a lot of businesses around Atlanta.

Glaukos hangs out at a local restaurant

Glaukos is Anna's first show dog and I helped her with his conformation training since she had never had a show dog before. Being a professional trainer and a very competent positive reinforcement trainer she trained Glaukos using the same methods she uses to train other dogs. Glaukos would sometimes pace in the ring and Anna was told that he would never finish unless she put him on a choke chain and corrected him. Refusing to use a choke collar or corrections with Glaukos we came up with training plan for helping Glaukos learn to trot in the ring rather than pace. We taught him how to take off quickly so he would go into a trot instead and she would reinforce him when he trotted. He has always been shown on a leather loop lead rather than a choke. I am proud to say that Glaukos finished his championship this past weekend at the Neapolitan Mastiff National Specialty as well as picking up two Award of Merits along the way. A 180 pound dog trained completely with positive reinforcement and without corrections or aversives.

Anna and Glaukos in the ring at the national

The new champion

Olga Maderych is a vet student and a really talented dog trainer who has been training and competing with her family's Great Danes and Goldens for years. Now an adult Olga has her own Great Dane, Spark who she has trained with all positive reinforcement. Spark has his bench championship as well as rally, agility, obedience titles and more and Olga is now showing Spark's son Bright as well. Spark is reliably trained and beautifully presented showing that this team is a great representation of the power of positive reinforcement.

Olga and Spark in the ring

Their connection is clear

Spark does obedience as well

And agility!

In addition to their dog sport accomplishments Olga is also a professional photographer and her impressive training of Spark allows her to get photographs like this one:

An impressive stand stay

Olga and Spark are a great example of how much you can accomplish with positive reinforcement training. Despite what some believe it is not necessary to use harsh corrections or force to train large dogs.

Striking a pose

Sarah had Vizslas before but Remy is the first dog that she has shown in the conformation ring. Sarah was already in a positive puppy class and was referred to me for show ring training. The stars just aligned perfectly for this team as Sarah was a natural, Remy is a beautiful Vizsla and Sarah's husband Rob is completely supportive. As we were training Remy some people thought Sarah used too many treats, but no one could deny their success in the show ring. Before Remy was a year old they were winning not only points but Best of Breed wins and group placements out of the puppy classes. One thing that made my job very easy is that every time I would work with them and give them homework they would go home, practice and nail it. Sarah is now helping out with showing some of Remy's littermates and having success with them as well, all trained with positive reinforcement. Remy continues to have success as a young special having completed his Grand Championship and winning Best of Breeds on a regular basis.

Remy in the Group

A show stopping free stack

The proof is in the pudding

All three of these dogs have been trained without force and so many more of my client's dogs have as well. To those who say that you need to be heavy handed or tough on these large breeds, I'm here to tell you that isn't the case. Large dogs, small dogs and all other animals learn the same way. You can accomplish so much by taking the time to train the dog by setting him up to have success and then reinforcing those choices that you like. It not only makes for a reliably trained dog but also helps to strengthen the relationship between dog and owner.

Briscoe asks, "any questions?"

Friday, August 26, 2016

Holding a Stack with Distance and Duration by Andrea Stone

Your dog stacks and holds position at a distance from you
What it teaches
Impulse control, focus. And a really fancy stack!

Before beginning this exercise, your dog should already self-stack on cue, visual or verbal.
Because we are adding two separate criterion – adding distance and duration – to our dog’s stack, each must be taught separately before they are combined. Dogs (and people) learn best when the goal of the lesson is clear.


So first let’s discuss duration. This refers to the amount of time you expect your dog to hold a free stack without moving. It must be built slowly, adding time as your dog demonstrates fluency at the current level for success.

There are two ways to build duration. One is though delaying your click or marker word. Right now your dog will stack on cue, but may only hold it for a moment or two. Using this method once your dog stacks, silently count “one-Mississippi”, then click reward. During this exercise your bait is to remain in your pocket – no luring!

Alternatively, you may use the “1-2-3 game” to build duration. This option is a great one that is very helpful for young or easily distracted dogs because it makes use of a “keep going” signal – you counting! In the beginning stage of this exercise you will cue your dog to free stack, and then count aloud quickly, “Fifi, Stand. One, two, three,” rewarding the dog on “three”. Again your reward is to remain in your pocket. (For the rest of this exercise we will presume you are using the 1-2-3 game. It’s our favorite!)

Review of Action



During your session, if you have five successful repetitions in a row you are ready to progress. You will now count to “three” slightly more slowly, again rewarding on three. You may find you are able to progress rather quickly if you and your dog are really on a roll. YES!

Next time you train, or if you change locations or the distraction increases during your current session, you may have to go back to the beginning level. The point is to have your dog remain successful, slowly raising the bar as she demonstrates fluency. However each time you are likely to find that your dog progresses more quickly.

Do be aware of your own counting style as you will need to be able to keep track of what you’ve been doing. If you are detail oriented and/or have difficulty remembering how fast you were counting, using a metronome and noting your speed may help. (For you engineers in the crowd!) There are many free metronome apps available for smart phones.

You will really be rocking and rolling when you find yourself getting a bit silly,

“One….one and a half….one point six five…..Two….two and a quarter….two and seven twenty-fifths…”

Don’t try to jump ahead too quickly. It is worthwhile to build this skill slowly such that your dog has a good, solid free stack with duration. Moving a single foot is “breaking”, and means you need to get better at the previous level before moving on.

During the entirety of teaching duration  you are right at your dog’s side or right in front. Now we will discuss adding distance. The length of time you expect your dog to hold her free-stack goes back down to just one moment.


Distance is how far you are or can move from your dog and have her remain stacked. Using a platform may be helpful for some dogs during this exercise but is not necessary.  You will cue your dog to free-stack and then take a step away. Before your dog moves, click and lean or step back to offer her reward – this will help cement for your dog that moving is not needed. However if your dog moves before you reward but after you click, that’s fair – the click ends the behavior. This is where the platform may be of the most help, or for very wiggly dogs. It creates a slight deterrent of movement.

Review of Action




After five consecutive repetitions you are ready to take an additional small step backward. As with adding duration, you will need to be aware of changes in context – location and/or distraction – and account for it. If one element has changed all others must remain the same. Be ready to go back to just one step away from your dog if needed.

When you begin to take two or more steps away from your dog you will need to become the Wiggle Police. Any indication that your dog is about to move – a twitch of the ear, loss of focused eye contact, a shift in weight – means it is time to click and reward before the dog does in fact move. If this happens more than once you have either progressed too quickly or something in the environment has changed. Remember our dogs are far more sensitive to changes in the environment than we are. If you can’t figure it out or rectify it, go back to your previous level of success, get one or two reps and call it a night. Everyone will be happier that way!

Putting It Together

When you have reached at least your interim goal for each separate element – Duration and Distance – you are ready to start combining them.  Ten seconds of duration and three normal sized steps back are good goals to consider but each handler must decide for themselves. Adjusting for your dog’s age, ability and excitement level are key.

When you begin to combine the two, however, you are going to go back to “easy” levels. That is, you will take one step back and drop duration down to a quick, “One, two, three”. You will then build your duration to about ten seconds (A fun and silly, “One, two, three.”) before taking another step back. You are then back at square one for duration. Get it? Each phase must be built clearly and separately.

Review of Action




As the trainer, you will have to use finesse to gauge your dog’s ability on the day and in the moment. When you start adding distraction – such as a real show venue or the outdoors – you are likely to have to take everything back to square one again. Do train each element in different locations and levels of distraction before you attempt to “put it together” in a dog show environment.

Oh, and by the way you CAN do a distance stack on the ramp or table. And guess what – it’s impressive!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dog Training Classes - Getting What You Pay For

As most of the people I know who compete with dogs, I enjoy attending dog training classes with my own dogs. I have attended classes from beginning classes and puppy classes to nosework, rally, circus dog class and so many more. The cost of a group class in my area ranges from about $125 to $260 for a six week class. Usually make up classes are not offered and if I miss a class due to my own schedule, I simply miss that class. There are no credits or refunds for missed classes. I don't mind paying what I do for classes because I am taking classes from colleagues who I know are talented, skilled and have a lot to offer me and my dogs. I understand why they charge what they do because I am a dog trainer myself.  I wanted to write this blog to help people understand how we determine what our classes will cost.

Over the past couple of months I have been making some changes to my business and class offerings. For years I have offered a variety of classes including beginning obedience classes, puppy classes and many different intermediate and advanced classes over the years. As I decided to switch my focus to mainly doing conformation classes, conformation workshops and private lessons for conformation clients I have had to make some changes to my conformation class structure, fees and locations. These changes have forced me to deal with some issues that I have seen over the years but been able to gloss over until now.

Traditionally, conformation classes have been drop in and very low cost. Conformation classes are very often taught by people who have been showing their own dogs but are not necessarily professional trainers with dog training or behavior credentials. If someone teaches a class as a side job or even as a hobby and not as their main source of income they are more likely to offer low cost classes. This can be fine if the class they are doing is simply run throughs meaning that there is no real instruction but more of a practice class where the instructor simply acts as a judge. However, if you are dealing with a dog who has behavior issues such as fear or dog reactivity it can be an issue because the person may not be qualified and trained to properly deal with such issues appropriately.

Currently, I am offering a 4 week conformation class in the park which is 45 minutes long and has been offered for $46, which is considered "pricey" by some. Compare that to the $165 people were paying for my 6 week beginning or puppy classes. So, on average people are paying $27 per obedience class, but only about $11.50 per conformation class. It makes it very hard to cut out my obedience classes which are clearly the bread and butter for my business, but I desperately want to work with show dogs and help show dogs clients. I adore teaching conformation classes, both run through and skill building, but it makes it hard from a business standpoint. Additionally, I recently had to give up my training facility. I am very lucky that one of my close friends has a training facility where I teach classes and she has allowed me to offer my classes there, but her building is about 40 to 60 minutes from my house depending on traffic as opposed to my building which was about 5 minutes from home. And of course renting the space isn't free, I have to pay that as well.

In the past year alone I have spent thousands of dollars on my continuing education. On my website I have a list of the different conferences, workshops, seminars and training programs I have attended. Most of these learning opportunities involve air fare, hotel, food and the registration fees for the conference. The one I just registered for next January cost $645 for the three day conference, three training labs to attend with my own dog and my three breakfasts and lunches. I will also have to pay for either air fare or gas, hotel and other travel expenses. It's a lot of money, but it is important because I owe it to my clients to always be looking for the most current information and learning opportunities from the many experts in my field who can help me get better. I also pay hundreds every year for dues for my memberships to various training and behavior organizations. And there is also insurance, marketing, registration system, equipment for classes etc. On the outside, it may seem like dog training classes are expensive, but when you look at what it costs to be a current, knowledgeable and well informed professional you can see why we charge what we do.

I hope that this helps people to understand how we dog trainers set our consulting and class fees.