It's probably obvious at this point that Denise Fenzi's style is different. It places a lot of emphasis on having fun, from making the work interesting and engaging to giving her dog her undivided attention to using tons of play as a reward. I love this concept, but Denise took it to the next level when she said that work is not something the dog is obligated to do for the handler, but rather, that it is a privilege that the human allows him.
It sounds a bit weird at first, but it makes sense if you consider that her goal is to build value for training in and of itself. If you've done that, then the dog should want to work. More than that, he should ask and even beg you to train.
The implication is that if you aren't both enjoying what you're doing, you're probably doing something wrong and need to adjust your approach. This doesn't mean abandoning a fun-centric style; one of the things that I love about training is its creativity. Even when you limit yourself to using only positive-based techniques, there are still many ways to teach a given task. Denise demonstrated this well- I was absolutely amazed by her ability to size up a team and create an individual training plan that might be the polar opposite of how she instructed another team to work on the same task.
That's not really the point, though, because Denise said you should actually refuse to work with a dog who isn't interested. If work is a privilege, then it's only given to dogs who are willing to put forth some effort. If the dog is only humoring you for the sake of a cookie- don't work him! Sure, he's willing to work and get paid, but as Denise pointed out, there's a huge difference between the job you get paid for, and volunteer work. Although I enjoy my job, there are days that I go only for the money. When I volunteer with my dog club, though, it's because I want to do it. My motivation is internal rather than external.
So what should you do if your dog is going through the motions?
Stop working. Denise advised us that we should never reward subpar effort with the opportunity to work. You might stop for a few minutes, or you might stop for a week- that's up to you, but during this time, you need to figure out what you should change in your approach. You might need to teach the skill in an entirely different way, but often, Denise said that if your dog is bored, it's because you aren't pushing him hard enough. Make the job harder.
I was initially surprised by this advice because I've always followed the clicker rule of splitting, not lumping, but what Denise was getting at was the fact that while many trainers are great at breaking tasks down, they don't raise the criteria fast enough. Sticking around at any given level too long often results in a dog who thinks that step is the finished behavior instead of simply a stepping stone on the way to the final product. Making the task more difficult makes the dog think, and when he's thinking, he can't be bored. Denise said that this is especially true with smart dogs, who can work beautifully with only 5% of their brain engaged.
Better yet, prevent ho-hum behavior by being observant for signs of stress that might result in a displacement behavior like sniffing. It's much better to tell the dog to take a break than for him to disengage from you on his own. That said, it is unreasonable to expect that your dog will never experience stress- learning is, by definition, stressful. Nor should you protect him from all stress. Instead, your goal as a handler is to learn to recognize when your dog is feeling unsure and support him through that. This results in a dog who can continue to work in the face of stress. (As a side note, Denise did say that you should never try to work through stress caused by “safety issues.” Address the fear or anxiety separately, outside of an obedience context, before returning to training.)
In addition to using your voice to support your dog, Denise also recommended that handlers always honor the working space. Since dogs are very contextual, it's important that training and trialing spaces be about interaction with you, not other dogs. You will never play as good as another dog can, so don't even try. You should make it clear to a dog when and where he's expected to perform.
This handler is honoring the working space by making it clear
to her dog that he is on a break. Photo by Robin Sallie.
Like I said, I really like this approach. It really meshes with my desire for dog sports to be about something fun that I do with my dog. I have ruled out entire activities that I'm interested in simply because I know that Maisy is not well suited to them. But I also think that treating work as a privilege helps create a certain amount of desire and enthusiasm in the dog. I'll admit, though, I don't have a ton of practical competition experience to apply to this idea though. If you do (or even if you don't), I'd love to hear what you think. Does the concept of work is a privilege work for you? Leave a comment and let me know!