Take a moment to think about your closest friends. What do they have in common? For me, there are three main things. First, my friends and I often do fun things together- whether it's a silly board game or tubing on the lake. Next, I find them endlessly interesting. We come from all sorts of backgrounds, so I'm always learning something new from them. Finally, and most importantly, my best friends are the ones who support me when I make mistakes, who encourage me to try harder, and who celebrate with me when I succeed.
My good friend Sara and I talking to Denise Fenzi.
Photo by another good friend, Robin Sallie.
While my answers are honest, they're also convenient, because many of the things I saw Denise do (or that she encouraged us to do) fit into these three categories. The way she trains lends itself well to developing great relationships with dogs, and I really think this is the part of the seminar that will change my training life.
Let's start by talking about play. Part of the reason Denise spent so much time talking about tugging is because it's a great way to play with your dog. But you can't take toys in the ring, so you need to find ways to play without them. On day two of the seminar, Denise had each of the working teams play without toys. This was easy for some, and harder for others, but Denise coached each pair on how to have fun together.
For example, she played a tag and chase game that many of the dogs loved- when the dog got into heel position, she would lightly touch his shoulder or chest, and then turn quickly and run away so the dog would chase her. She also encouraged the dogs to be physical; running and jumping is rewarding to most dogs. She did this by using things like the opposition reflex (where she pulled the dog back and then let him shoot away towards a jump or dumbbell) or hand touches in order to get the dog to jump in the air.
Play is a great way to reward the dog, but you need to make the work itself interesting, too. Simply drilling the exercises is boring, even if it is interspersed with play, and most dogs will droop under the weight of endless repetitions. Denise encouraged us to think outside the box- you don't need to train the exercises in a set order, nor do you need to do the full exercise every time you train. Instead, she recommended mixing things up each time so that the dog never knows what to expect. Sometimes you might recall the dog to sit in front of you, and other times you might have him run between your legs. Do signals backwards, or start from a down instead of a stand. Have the dog sit on recall instead of drop. The opportunities are endless.
While most people don't think about it this way, heeling really is just one long drill. Walking in straight lines? Not that exciting. Your job as the trainer is to mix it up, and Denise does this by walking erratically. She drifts left and right, makes frequent turns, and spins in circles. She does serpentines. She keeps it interesting by being unpredictable. And when she goes in the ring and walks in a straight line? Well, since that's so unusual compared to what she does in training, her dogs find it interesting too.
Finally, a good relationship will be supportive. One of the things that was so absolutely revolutionary to me was the way Denise used her voice in training. She is always talking to the dogs she's training. I am often rather quiet while training- that's what many of the leading clicker trainers recommend you do, after all. But one of Denise's cricitisms of clicker purists is that it uses silence as a “No Reward Marker.” In other words, clicker trainers tend to allow silence to let the dog know he hasn't got it quite right yet, and uses a marker- either a click or a verbal word like “Yes!”- to let him know when he's got it right.
This can backfire in the ring, where the handler must remain silent, even when the dog has it right. Denise's solution is both brilliant and obvious, and it makes me feel a bit stupid that I never thought of it myself. Simply put, she talks to the dog when he hasn't quite met her criteria yet, and then falls silent when he's got it right. After a few seconds (or longer, depending on the dog's level of training), she'll break the silence to reward him with praise and play. Thus, the silence begins to act as a secondary reinforcer by predicting exciting things. Genius.
But remember what I said about being supportive? It's important to note that she isn't scolding her dog or using a stern tone- she said that suppresses behavior instead of increasing it. Rather, she's encouraging the dog to try harder by being his own personal cheerleader. As I've begun to incorporate this into my heeling training with Maisy, I find myself saying things like, “Where's my puppy? I know she's around here somewhere! She should be right by my side!” in a very happy, upbeat tone. When she gets there, I'm quiet for a moment, and then BAM! I throw a verbal party.
In order to help the dog understand the difference between "you're almost there" and "you've got it," Denise said that you need to have two different levels of tone and energy when you're praising your dog. The “encouragement praise” is cheerful talk meant to keep the dog in the game, while the “party praise” should be over the top excitement. Both will be happy and positive, but it should be obvious to the casual bystander when the dog has gotten it right. In other words, Denise praises the dog for his efforts, and rewards the dog for success.
When the whole package is put together, what happens is that working becomes interesting and engaging because the handler is keeping things fresh and unpredictable. The dog remains motivated to keep trying because he's encouraged to do so. And when he gets it right, his reward is to celebrate with his trainer. Sometimes that means he is told how amazing he is, sometimes he gets a bit of food, and sometimes he gets to run and play. The common thread is that he always gets 100% of his person's attention, and the reward becomes more than just the tangible item he's given. It's about the interaction and relationship with his person.
Look, I know it sounds a little crazy. I don't entirely understand how it works myself- and I certainly can't explain it all in scientific terms- I just know that it does. Not only do Denise's accomplishments speak for themselves, but in a few short training sessions, I'm already seeing improvement in Maisy's enthusiasm and performance in both heeling and her dumbbell retrieve. Better yet- Maisy and I are having fun together.
What do you guys think? Do you talk during training, and how or when do you use silent? What troubles have you encountered? Do you think some of these ideas would help, or are you a bit skeptical? I'd love to hear your thoughts!