Sunday, July 24, 2011

Denise Fenzi Seminar: Work is a Privilege

I've heard competitive sports people say that they don't care if a dog likes an activity- they give their dogs a great life, and in return, he can pay them back by performing in the ring for five to ten minutes. I've certainly seen lots of miserable dogs and stressed handlers at trials. And while I believe the vast majority of dog people have only good intentions, the joy of working together is often missing in the ring.

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!


megs said...

I think this idea is definitely an interesting one and quite possibly could help Roxy and I. We have been doing agility and there are some days that I can see she is definitely going through the motions. She gets "tired" mid-way through class, but the energy level is there. The second we leave the building or when we get home, she is running around with the other dogs or off in the yard hunting for and chasing squirrels with a lot more enthusiasm than she had in class. Prior to class, I ask if she wants to go to school, and she gets all sorts of wiggly and excited. So the reality check for me is that Roxy is probably bored, or just going through the motions to some extent.

I'd love to try something different and this idea of treating work as a privilege could be a great place to start. What exactly does one do in order to make this type of transition -- is it as simple as not training unless the dog is very engaged and having fun? Or is there more to it?

andrea said...

LOVE it ... do it with Brody (I think)
He isn't allowed to work unless he wants to work and has that ever helped him pick up his RPMs:)

Crystal Thompson said...

Megs, my immediate thought is that an hour long class might just be too long, especially since you describe her as getting tired mid-way through class. When we had our working spots with Denise, none of us worked our dogs longer than 20 minutes, and even 10 was a long time for some dogs.

I'm not sure what your class is like, but you might consider ways to give her a very clear break at class- a crate maybe, or even going out to potty.

K9Partnership said...

I would be very careful by pushing/challenging a dog as you mentioned. I much prefer Leslie McDevitt's approach to keeping training sessions short and ending before the dog 'gets bored' leaving him/her wanting more. Denise's approach to challenging a dog doesn't work with a lot of dogs. Some hit their frustration point and learning could stop at that point. Also...Susan Garrett brings up a point that if your dog disengages from you and wants to investigate other things or looks bored - then there is another issue going on. Not enough value with you the 'trainer' in moderate distraction areas.

Crystal Thompson said...

I completely agree, K9, that you don't want to challenge a dog to the point that he gets frustrated. I think Denise would, too. Perhaps I didn't make that clear, but it's what I was trying to point out when I wrote that you need to watch your dog for stress and give him a break before he disengages. Denise actually really likes the GMAB game, but I think she would say that when you're using it, you should raise your criteria quickly during the work sessions.

Christine said...

I think that figuring out if you need to expect more or expect less is one of the facets of dog training that is an art.

I have several dogs who are crazy smart and motivated and I have to up my criteria quickly and we move forward quickly.

But, as I have only too recently realized, I have a couple of other dogs who just turn off if I up the criteria too quickly.

So, figuring out what each dog needs is important--there is no "one size fits all" solution in dogtraining--and you have to be experiment to see what works best with each dog.

Crystal Thompson said...

So true, Christine. I think I picked up on and emphasized Denise's point about "challenging" dogs because I do have one of those smart dogs, and because I'm not good at raising criteria.

Denise said...

FWIW, I've never met a dog that didn't benefit from being challenged. Even the softest, most fragile dog wants to use his brain, if the activity is presented in a way that is interesting and in small enough increments that the dog can succeed. There is a world of difference between challenging a dog and overfacing him. It's the trainer's job to figure out what's an appropriate challenge for a given dog. For some dogs an appropriate challenge might be teaching something relatively simple (like sit) and then offering new challenges to that (can you sit on a dog bed? On a plank? On a metal platform? When other dogs are nearby? And for other dogs, it might make more sense to move on to a whole new exercise - let's work on "down", for example. And as a personal aside, I find dogs enjoy their work best if it alternates between clicker training (dog does the thinking) and work with more active movement or handler involvement (heeling, recalls, fetch, etc.). Each build up their own type of stress, and switching to the other eliminates much of it.
Regardless, I'd agree that short sessions are far superior to full length classes with a bored and distracted dog.

megs said...

Thanks for the idea Crystal. It is an hour long class, and although we do some breaks in the crate (while other dogs are running), I am usually working her a little while she's in the crate because she can be reactive in there, so I'm going to start taking her outside for a few breaks and see if that helps any. I feel sort of silly, like, "I should have thought of that!" and I'm willing to bet it will help.

Also, your post on choosing the right tug toy, I'm still talking about it to people. I finally got Roxy to tug with me by picking a longer more "bunny-like" toy, so I am really excited to start using that in training, as well. I'm hoping it'll help make agility more fun overall so she's more engaged in general.

Crystal Thompson said...

DENISE- And herein lies the difference between the teacher of a seminar and the student. ;)

Your point about switching between brainy and brawny exercises is really nice- it makes a lot of sense to me.

MEGS- If I had a dollar for every time I said, "Why didn't I think of that?" I'd be rich.