Building Value for the Treat&Train

It’s a busy time for me right now with a lot of traveling. I was in France last weekend teaching a seminar, and I’m in Ohio tight now. I love teaching at new places, but the traveling takes a lot of time. France was 14-15 hours each way and yesterday was 19 hours from my home to the hotel in Columbus. I had a couple of days at home this week. I used the first to mostly rest and Wednesday to catch up on things, like training my dogs! The dogs and I spent two hours in the dog training hall close to us and had a great time. Epic has to stay at home still, which is breaking my heart. He makes a lot of improvements and the surgeon was very happy with how he looked when we took the stitches out last week. He moves normally and is ready to start some rehab and longer walks on a leash.

I have been reluctant to try the Treat&Train (remote controlled treat dispenser) with Spy because I thought she’d think it was scary with the noise it makes. She’s also much more into toys than treats which makes it harder to overcome the noise. I use the Treat&Train sometimes for running contacts training and I think it would be a good choice for a dog like Spy who is very motion sensitive, so I decided to try it this week. We started in the house on Tuesday night. In the first session I put a high value treat in the bowl attached to the machine, restrained her and sent her to it. We have worked on sends to treats on the ground before, so she knew that. As soon as she ate the treat I gave a reward marker and moved the other way and let her chase a new treat (lower value) along the floor. For the second session I started by first checking her reaction to the machine when I trained Bud and had her in the other room with the door slightly open. She was fine, so I brought her into the training room and just gave her treats from my hand when it made noise. After a few repetitions of that I went back to the original set up with a high value treat in the bowl and restraining and sending, but this time adding the beep and noise of the machine before my “go” cue. She did great! Ending each repetition with her chasing me and a new treat the other way kept the session active and fun for her.

On Wednesday, I brought the machine to the training arena, where she usually is very excited and happy to work. I used the same setup, but had her chase a toy in my hand after eating the treats in the bowl. I want to build a lot of excitement for the machine even if she’s not that interested in food – especially not the dryer food that goes into the machine. I use a high value reward with lots of energy (chasing me to a tug toy) and classical conditioning to increase the value of the machine. There is also an element of operant conditioning where she learns that she has to engage with the food in the bowl in order to get to chase me. The session went well and she would go to the machine at other times (like when I was packing up and getting ready to leave) and look in the bowl. At this point I think she’s mostly enjoying the game and getting used to the machine. I don’t think she understands the beep and noise as a marker signal and a call to action (“get the food in the bowl!”) so that will be the next step before I can use it to train other things.

Here’s a very unedited – I didn’t intend to make it public – video of our second session on Wednesday

This weekend I’m teaching agility in Columbus, Ohio (at PosiDog, where I’ve been many times before). First session tomorrow is about Speed and Motivation for agility dogs. It’s a subject that I like and that I have a lot of experience with working with dogs like my cocker Shejpa and more recently Spy. It’s also a subject that I think a lot of handlers need to consider more. Agility needs to be fast and fun before you try to teach anything else. Some dogs just love agility right from the start, but most need good training to reach their potential.

If you want a more motivated dog in agility, our Foundation Class (for all sports) is a good start. I have also for the first time added an agility class to our online curriculum. Agility Handling Foundations Online will start on April 9th. This class will also help a lot with motivation and clarity (which leads to speed) for agility dogs at all levels.

Caudal Cruciate Ligament Rupture

It’s been two weeks since Epic’s injury and yesterday was the day of his surgery. He’s been a good boy taking it easy for two weeks, but his energy was sky high when he finally got to leave the house and go for an adventure. During the initial check with the surgeon, he was surprised to see how well Epic was moving. I showed him in a walk and a trot and he did not show any signs of lameness (which he hasn’t at home for about a week either). This made the surgeon question his original diagnosis of a CLL injury, because dogs don’t usually recover so nicely from that. I left Epic for an arthroscopy and possible surgery in case it was a CLL injury after all. I took the rest of my dogs to an indoor arena for training while I waited for the vet’s office to call me.

I came to pick Epic up six hour later and he was very happy to see me and still very energetic even after anaesthesia and arthroscopy. He didn’t have surgery on his knee since the arthroscopy showed a total caudal cruciate ligament rupture, which is not helped by TPLO or TTA. The caudal cruciate ligament is much less common to rupture than the cranial, and it happens with a specific type of trauma (most often when a dog for example is hit by a car). The caudal cruciate ligament has the opposite job to the cranial. With a CCL rupture, the femur (thighbone) slips forward since the ligament is not keeping it in place. The caudal cruciate ligament keeps the thighbone from slipping back or sideways. Epic shows some slipping sideways when provoked when the stifle is flexed but is very stable with his leg straight.

Arthroscopy also showed that all other structures in his knee looks great and that inflammation is minimal. Our orthopaedic surgeon did not recommend any surgery on this type of injury as he thinks it might create more problems than it solves. It’s a very uncommon injury to only rupture the CaCL and not have any other injuries in the knee. In the cases that he had seen before, dogs had come back to work with rest and rehab and no surgery. This is our plan for now – six weeks of rest and then gradually building muscle and proprioception. I’d love to hear from others that has suffered the same injury with active dogs.

Epic in his new apartment when he got home yesterday

Epic this morning, ready to party. He also jumped out of his enclosure and onto the kitchen table once…

Epic’s CCL injury

On Sunday, I was enjoying a sheepdog clinic at our farm and talking to a friend about all the things that can happen to a dog, and about injuries that had happened recently to dogs we know. I was thinking to myself that I had been so lucky to never have had an acute injury on any of my dogs. At lunch, I brought Epic out to switch the sheep out, and I sent him to fetch sheep in an area that is quite full of small trees and roots. We also have a bit of snow and the area is probably a bit slippery. He fetched them nicely and I let five of them out. As I tried to recall Epic the rest of the sheep bolted out away from the gate and he decided not to listen to my recall, but to catch up with them and bring them to me again. As he was coming around the sheep he suddenly changed to a much slower pace and I could hear him whimper. I quickly got him and he was on three legs, in obvious pain. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I got the impression that he got his leg caught in something that stopped him abruptly. We also found a scratch/burn mark further up on that leg, which probably happened at the same time.

I gave him painkillers and just kept a eye on him for the rest of the day. He seemed to get better during the afternoon and would sometimes use his right back leg and put weight on it, but then he would go back to hopping on three legs. I took him to our local vet the next morning, and she concluded that it was his knee that bothered him and sent us on to an orthopaedic vet. We were lucky enough that he could fit us in and have a look at Epic already today. Thomas brought him there (it’s an 80 minute drive) because I had to work. He was diagnosed with a CCL – Cranial Cruciate Ligament – tear, and will need surgery. Fortunately, there is no indication of any degenerative damage on the ligaments. The left knee was stable and there was no arthritis in the right knee. We were probably just unlucky. Very sad considering the great year we had last year, and how much I was looking forward to tryouts and competitions with him this spring.

He is scheduled to have surgery on February 19. The surgeon hasn’t decided on TTA or TPLO as the method. I was under the impression that TPLO was “better”, but I realise that my google skills are not as good as his surgical skills, and that I should let him decide what is best for Epic. The worst thing about injured dogs is that it’s so hard to know what is the best for your dog. Unless you have a surgeon and a rehab specialist that you trust fully, you’ll have doubts. Have we found the best surgeon? What is best practice in the two weeks before the surgery? Who should I take advice from regarding rehab after surgery? I’m glad that this is a fairly common injury in dogs, and that there are lots of resources online. But that also means that there is a lot of information to sort through and decide on…

Please keep your fingers crossed for Epic, and let me know if you have any useful information. I will keep you updated on this new part of our journey. Also – this is expensive – you can help me out while learning a lot by joining our online classes that started yesterday.

Free Working Spot For A Young Dog Trainer

Our next set of online classes start on Monday, and we’re excited to get to know new trainers and their dogs from different countries. You can still sign up if you want to join the fun.

I often think about how lucky I’ve been to have had grown ups who helped me out when I was young and wanted to train and compete with dogs. From my parents who always supported me by driving me to classes, trainings and competition –and bought dogs for me, to the well known instructors that took me under their wing and helped me access training that I could only dream about with my budget as a young adult. I am so grateful for that.

Twiggy and I at the Swedish Youth Championship.

I feel like passing this favour on. I want to give a young dog trainer and their dog the chance to join our foundation class for free. If you are 25 years old or younger, this is what to do: Like the page on Facebook. Write a comment on the post on our Facebook page and tell us why you want to join our Foundation Class Online. We will wrap the contest up on Monday at 15:00/3 pm CET and let you know the result during the evening.

Are you too old for this competition? Think about how you can help a young person. Give the a ride to a competition? Ask them to come along to a seminar? Train together? It means so much.

One Year With Spy

Today, Spy has been a member of our family for one whole year! On February 1st 2017, I woke up early, took Bud and Epic on a walk along Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, and then drove across the border to Donegal in Ireland where I met Spy. She was living in a pen in a shed along with some other border collies. By all means a nice shed compared to how a lot of sheepdogs live, but she was not at all used to the family dog life that our dogs live. It was a big change for her coming to Sweden, and it’s taken longer than I thought to become a team with her. 

When she came her, she wasn’t used to looking to humans for support or for fun. She didn’t understand or want to take food from my hand, she wouldn’t play. If something scared her, she would run away. It took longer than I had thought to get her excited about training, and we had some setbacks. Of course, making every day work was much more important than training for sports, and she made progress in that department too. She started to look to me for comfort and she could listen to me even when she was excited. It was difficult to create that good relationship with a dog that wouldn’t take rewards, especially not if she was upset or excited. I’m used to always rewarding good behaviors and using rewards to counter-condition scary things and teach good manners. Rewards make everything so much easier!

We had a setback in training around September, where she decided she didn’t like the training field and didn’t feel safe enough to play:

We made some progress and then I sprained my ankle and couldn’t run for a month, so we had to take it easy. Getting Spy to play involved a lot of running on my part. We made a lot of progress in late October and November, and she started to both go crazy about toys and about the little agility training we did. It took forever to convince her that tunnels are okay and actually fun, but she can now do a short, straight tunnel and likes it. Once we master all entries, I’ll try a longer tunnel and then gradually start to bend it. It’s funny how something so simple as a tunnel can become such a project. The nice thing is that she now really enjoys training and I actually have to bring out food to get her to slow down a bit and think. I think she’s the fastest of my dogs through a straight line of low jumps. This is a short video from our session yesterday. What a difference!

Spy teaches me a lot and I really enjoy her as a part of my pack. She’s happy, friendly and fun. I’m so excited to see what our second year will bring, now that we know and trust each other.

If you’re interested in more training tips, or need help with engagement, rewards and planing, check out our online classes that start on February 5th.

Relationship Buildning suits dog owners who wants to develop a great relationship with their dog. You can join with a puppy, a young or adult dog of any breed. A great relationship is the foundation that makes both everyday life and (training for) trials fun and easy. Dog training and ownership is so much more than just training behaviors. Training behaviors is part of it and is quite easy in an environment without distractions. A great relationship makes it so much easier to have success even in more challenging situations. Thomas will guide you in this class and use his experience in reward based training for field trials. 

Foundation Class is great for anyone that wants to become a better dog trainer. Learn how to develop great rewards, shaping skills, foundation behaviors, self control for your dog, and much more. This class is great for dogs at any level.


Better Online Discussions

This is a blog post that I wrote for my Swedish blog last January. It’s now translated because I think it’s so important. Please add your own advice in the comments below, or let me know if you disagree on something. We might have a good online discussion about it!

I’ve been active on dog forums of different kinds for 15 years. Through them, I’ve made friends, learned new things and most of all – discussed most subjects on dog ownership and dog training with all kinds of people. Today, we have these discussions in Facebook groups. They have taken over the role of the forums I used to visit in the past, and the discussions are more intense than ever. We used to think that anonymity – lots of people were anonymous on the old types of forums – made people say things they wouldn’t if people knew who they were. I think we were wrong. Very few are anonymous on Facebook, but the tone is more aggressive than ever. Some subjects are more infected than others, like training methods and the type of relationship we have with our dogs in everyday life. Dog breeding is also a subject that seem to engage and divide.

I think we all win if we can be better att discussing. Regardless of if we want to convince others of our training methods or if we’re trying to cooperate in a breed club. Here’s my best advice for better discussions online:

  • Assume that everyone that you’re discussing with loves their dog (or the sport, or the breed) and are trying to do the best they can. It’s very likely that others care about their dog as much as you care about yours, and that their opinions also are based on wanting to make the best choice for their dog (or sport, or breed). Even if you’re convinced that your way is the best way.
  • Assume that others also are knowledgeable – even if they don’t share your opinions. Be humble and realise that there are people that know less than you (and need someone to teach them in a nice way – harassment won’t help) AND that there are people with more experience and more knowledge, that know things that you don’t.
  • Try to inform yourself about other points of views and interpret them as generously as you can. Do a thought experiment where you try to make a case for the other view as well as you can. Don’t argue agains a vulgar version of what the person you’re discussing with is promoting. Always give the benefit of the doubt and ask “do you mean *generous interpretation of the opposite view*” before assuming the worst.
  • Be ready to back upp your claims with relevant references if you’re claiming to present facts. It’s not enough to say “google it yourself” is someone is asking. Separate facts and opinions and don’t present your personal opinions as facts if they are opinions.
  • Remember that there are a lot of people that don’t engage in discussions. They still read them. You might not convince the person your discussing with, but if you’re nice, factual and present good arguments, you have a much better chance of changing the minds of people that are just reading and not commenting.
  • Be open minded about learning new things. You will benefit from understanding other ways of doing things and understanding other points of view, even if you’re not using everything you learn. It’s also very boring to discuss with someone who isn’t able to ever change their mind or learn from someone else. This might be even more important in real life than in online discussions. If someone does something that I don’t see the point in, I like to understand why they do it (especially if they are successful). I will be able to use that knowledge later on, even if I’m not incorporating it into my own training.

Time to head out in the snow for some sheepdog training with a friend!

Better Dog Training Sessions in 2018

We all have limited time and energy for training our dogs. Life gets in the way of training all the time. Make sure that the time you spend training your dogs is spent in the best way possible. Very small adjustments to what you’re already doing can make a huge difference in how successful your sessions are. Take your training seriously and consider these simple points that will improve your training if you’re not already doing it.  Yes – you have to spend a little more time and energy before you can start training, but you’ll get much better results and a more focused dog.

  • Prepare the area before you start your session. Set the stage for training by making sure that the environment you’re training in doesn’t have unnecessary distractions. Make sure that your rewards and props are in place.
  • CUT UP YOUR TREATS! It’s worth it, i promise. You don’t have time to pluck that hot dog apart with your fingers while you’re training. If you do, you’re not rewarding often enough. Pick treats that are easy to administer and that your dog likes. If you’re using a toy – make sure to pick one that works well with what you’re teaching. Rewards are not only about the dog liking them, but also about being able to place them where you want and to be able to move on to the next repetition quickly once the reward is done.
  • Make sure your dog is pottied and warmed up. Are you at your best when you really need to pee? Or when you’re just woken up from a nap? Probably not, and it applies to your dog as well. Make sure he’s well pottied and awake before attempting to train.
  • Know what your goal is and train one thing at a time. Training is always less efficient if you don’t have a goal and a plan. Your goal should be specific to that session and easily measured. Make sure to articulate it if you’re training with a friend or instructor. If you’re training by yourself it might be a good idea to write it down.
  • Always check to make sure your dog is engaged before starting your session, and before moving on to a new repetition. Is your dog excited by the reward? Does he focus on working as soon as the reward is finished? If not – you have to address that first. All other training has to stop while you figure out why the dog isn’t engaged. Is he scared? In pain or discomfort? Is something too distracting? Is the reward not reinforcing enough? Are you putting pressure on the dog without realising it? Fix the problem or change the environment before doing any other training.

These guidelines apply both to short sessions in your house and to when you’re in a class or seminar. People seem to be just as sloppy with their preparations when they pay money for training, which is partly why I’m writing this blog post. Make sure you get the most out of your time with an instructor. It’s so unnecessary to spend that time with a dog that gets distracted because of your poor preparation. 

I hope this doesn’t sound harsh. I just want people and dogs to have more fuvn and less frustration in training.

If you’re interested in more training tips, or need help with engagement, rewards and planing, check out our online classes that start on February 5th.

Relationship Buildning suits dog owners who wants to develop a great relationship with their dog. You can join with a puppy, a young or adult dog of any breed. A great relationship is the foundation that makes both everyday life and (training for) trials fun and easy. Dog training and ownership is so much more than just training behaviors. Training behaviors is part of it and is quite easy in an environment without distractions. A great relationship makes it so much easier to have success even in more challenging situations. Thomas will guide you in this class and use his experience in reward based training for field trials. 

Foundation Class is great for anyone that wants to become a better dog trainer. Learn how to develop great rewards, shaping skills, foundation behaviors, self control for your dog, and much more. This class is great for dogs at any level.

Agility Year of 2017

We did our last agility trial for the year this Saturday. The arena is five hours away from where we live, but I don’t have many weekends to compete in the spring due to a lot of travelling and working. When we decided to pick up a new car in Gothenburg, it felt like a good idea to drive a couple of hours further south from there to do 3 x A3 with 3 dogs. Nine runs in five hours! And it went really well. Epic won his first run. Bud won his second and became Swedish Agility Trial Champion. Squid ran two clean runs and placed fourth in both.

This is a summary of our agility year:

Squid did one weekend of competition in January, but we didn’t get the result we were after even though she felt great. After that she had nine months off from agility. First, she had puppies. Then I probably let her run too much too early in the forest, and she showed some lameness and didn’t move well. It took some time to get an appointment with our physiotherapist, but we were back on track after two treatments in August and September. She hadn’t lost a lot of muscle as she was able to swim and walk on leash in the forest all summer, but I was nervous to start jumping and agility training again. It went well, and agility seems to only do her well. We entered our first competition in the beginning of November, and my dream goal for this year was to place top 5 once so that she would be eligible for Swedish Team Tryouts in May if she’s still fit then.

The first run was a bit weird with a few bars and miscommunication. The following two runs felt great and she ran both clean. Her times were not as good as I’m used to, and we were only fast enough to earn a leg for nationals in the last one. I had entered all dogs in a much bigger weekend trial two weeks later, but I had some trouble leaving the farm with Thomas working away that week. I went on Sunday afternoon and Squid had one standard run. I did not expect her to place since the classes were big, but she actually place fourth and our goal for the year was met! We did three runs the weekend after and Squid ran clean and won two of them. I had some handling errors in the first two runs in our next trial, but we ran the last one clean and placed fifth. And then this Saturday we had two clean runs with fourth place and one elimination. We’ve had 13 runs since she came back in November. Eight were clean, seven of them with a leg for Swedish Nationals (we need another jumping leg to be qualified for next years National Championships) and six top 5 placements (my dream was to get one).

Results are great considering we haven’t really trained agility (right now we’re focused on conditioning and jumping skills only, the rest seems to just work), but the most important thing is that Squid is back in business! I was so afraid that the lameness that came after her puppies would be the end of our agility career. Squid turned nine this September and every run with her is a gift! She’s so happy when she gets to come along to training and trials, and when I take her out of the car and she knows it’s her turn. I’m so incredibly happy to have the privilege to compete with her and feel that she does her very best at all times. All faults are mine. Squid would have had many more clean runs if I’d done my job as well as she does hers. We’re now focusing on strength and conditioning to come back even stronger and faster during next year. I’m sure that we’ve got more to do and Squid does not in any way think that she’s old.


Here’s a run from Saturday:

Epic has also had a great season. We’re a good team and our runs are often very smooth. Our problem has always been dropped bars, but I think we’ve improved this year and had more runs where all bars stay up than we’ve had before. We’ve collected eight legs for Swedish Nationals and need one more in standard agility to be qualified. We also finally earned our final agility certificate, making Epic champion of both jumping and agility. We’ve actually had even more success in bigger competitions than the normal ones. I did not have any big expectations on National Team Tryouts in May, but I worked hard in preparation for it. The feeling was amazing! We’ve never had such a good weekend of trialling and those bars stayed up until the very last run. We ran clean and fast enough to earn a spot in the Swedish team for European Open and the Nordic Championships.

We made team finals at European Open and we ran our part of the final course clean! We had a great time at the Nordic Championships. We had a bar in every run, but no other faults and we placed fairly well in total. Norwegian Open in October was another great competition for us with a lot of clean runs and a ticket to the final where we also ran clean! Epic (and I) seem to run best indoors on difficult, fast courses with big distances.

Here’s the run that qualified us for NO finals:


Bud did his first trial about a year ago and quickly progressed to class 2 in jumping. We started 2017 with a small injury and had to get some treatment and gradual build up before competing again. We started in standard agility in May and he earned his first leg with a clean run and a win. He quickly progressed to class 3 in both jumping and agility, even though that last leg in A2 took a few tries.

We’ve had some more luck in standard agility once we got to class 3. We’ve only run one J3 clean (and won it with a certificate), while we’ve ran three A3 clean and earned the Agility Trial Championship title this Saturday. Bud does a lot of great things, but there’s often something that goes wrong in a run. If we have a great flow on course he often drops one bar, which he doesn’t often do otherwise.

Bud is somewhat a different type of dog than Squid and Epic. He is very well trained and knows a lot, but he does get easily frustrated and doesn’t cope well when something goes wrong. It might just be a little hiccup in our communication that gets him frustrated. He forces me to become a better handler – I need to run fast and trust him while still maintaining communication and clarity. Bud is still very young (turning three this Christmas) and I think our communication will grow a lot during the coming year.

I’m very happy with my decision to have Bud run the large category in Sweden. This is the first year where we have five jump heights, and dogs from 43 to 49.99 centimeter can chose to compete in large and jump 40-50 cm jumps, or to compete in extra large (where Squid and Epic compete as they are about 53 cm tall) with 50-60 cm jumps. I like that I can take it easy with preparing him for 60 cm (which he has to jump internationally) and I haven’t seen any fallout from competing on lower jumps. I even like that I have to run faster to keep up with him. We now usually train on the same height as Epic (55-60). Another benefit is that I don’t have to run all my dogs in the same class since some trials are small with maybe 30 dogs or less in XL.

Bud’s clean run and win from this Saturday:

My only wish now is that I get to continue to train and compete with three sound dogs during 2018! It’s so important to really appreciate and enjoy every training session and every run with them. My thoughts are constantly with friends who lost their dogs too early, and with those that have to end their dog’s careers early because of injuries. I promise to not take anything for granted, to tell my dogs that I love them (which actually was what I did on the start line before the run with Bud above) and to take care of them in the best way possible.

Dog Training and Understanding

“I can’t believe it! Another session where I wanted her to turn right, but I gave the cue for turning left over and over without realising”. One of my friends was very upset with herself after an agility session yesterday. I think many agility trainers and handlers have been in this situation. Always giving the right cue is hard! This is interesting to me, because we expect our dogs to respond correctly to our cues at all times, and to always perform according to criteria. If they don’t, we often conclude that they “don’t understand”.

Understanding is a vague concept, and also maybe not as important as we think. There are a lot of things that I as a human “understand”, but still manage to get wrong a lot of the time. Like giving the right cue while running agility, not pulling on a door when there’s a sign that says “push”, not eating that piece of chocolate cake that I understand is bad for me, and so on. On the other hand, there are things that I do that are driven by reinforcement or punishment that I don’t understand. I might not even be aware of them. Change in behavior often happens long before we consciously are aware of how we changed something, or even why. I suspect that many of the behaviors that I perform without understanding – or even awareness – are stronger than some that I understand I should perform…

Understanding and teaching new beahviors

When teaching new behaviors, some people are reluctant to reward behaviors that happen without apparent intent from the dog. When I ask why the (correct) behavior wasn’t rewarded, the answer often is “But he didn’t do it on purpose!”. My answer is always to not worry about what the dog is thinking, instead only focusing on what the dog is doing. Reinforcement builds behavior, whether the behavior is deliberate or not. Grab any chance to reinforce the behavior that you want! It’s really cool to capture behaviors with a puppy or a dog not used to training. First, you’ll see the behavior becoming more frequent without any apparent “understanding” from the pup. Second, you’ll see the lightbulb moment, where the dog goes: “Really?! If I do this, I get a treat?” and they do it again with more obvious intent. With more experienced dogs, the “understanding” part usually happens much faster, as they are used to the concept of training and are deliberately looking for understanding in a different way. That said – just because the dog seems to “understand” that a behavior leads to reinforcement does not mean that we’ll have a solid understanding every time.

Getting a solid performance – What’s understanding got to do with it?

So why is it that we often experience that our dogs does not perform like we think we have taught them? There’s one type of dog trainer that will say: “I’m sure that he knows it, he just choses do to otherwise”. This is often associated with a more traditional training style, where the dog should perform because we say so, and failure to do so is a sign of the dog giving us the finger. At the other end of the spectrum, I find friends and clients who will say “He made a mistake, so I don’t think he understands at all”. The notion is that if the dog just understands, he’ll be perfect every time. And superficially, that makes sense. If the dog knows that x leads to reinforcement and y leads to nothing – why wouldn’t he chose x every time? There are many reasons why our training fails to produce perfect performance every time. I could probably write a book just listing things that we often do wrong, or fail to consider. And I still wouldn’t have all the answers.

I do think that it is possible – maybe even productive – to talk about the dog “understanding”. There is a difference between knowing what you’re doing and just doing it without ever thinking about it. I think that is true for dogs as well. The first layer of understanding might be that “lightbulb moment” where the dog seems to deliberately perform the behavior in order to get reinforcement. The next step could be when we see the dog fixing a mistake after a no reward event. Third layer could be when the dog is able to use the “understanding” to perform the behavior when we change the setting. I definitely feel more confident in my dogs understanding if I see that they have the ability to correct a mistake that they make and to figure out how to perform the behavior in a different setting.

Reinforcement still trumps understanding

It’s important to remember that “understanding” is a vague term and that it in no way is a guarantee – or even a requirement – of solid performance. It doesn’t matter if the dog understands the behavior if it isn’t important to him. Reinforcement makes the behavior important. The dog must want to do it for understanding to even be a factor to consider. Understanding without motivation is worthless. And there’s another thing: Even if the dog both wants and knows, it must be important to him to get it right on the first try. Let’s talk about human behavior again:

There are lots of things that I know how to do and am motivated to do. Like writing right now. I know that the letter “K” on my keyboard makes the letter k appear on the screen. And I want it too, because I want to write “keyboard” and I also like it to be easy to read. I still quite often hit the “L” when I try to write keyboard. It’s not a big deal, because just as quickly as I hit that wrong key, I can correct it with the back space key and keep on writing. I do that a lot. Not because I don’t know how to do it, but because it’s easier to make a few mistakes and correct them as I go, than to try to be perfect on the first try. Now if I had to find correction fluid to fix my error, or maybe start the whole blog post over again, I’d be much more careful with my fingers (and a lot slower).

I think the same often is true for dogs, especially dogs that are highly motivated and like to do things fast. It doesn’t matter if they miss that weave entry the first time, because we’ll call them back and send them back in in no time. It doesn’t matter to them if they sit when we ask them to “down”, because we’ll repeat that cue in a second and they can fix it really fast. If we want them to care about getting it right the first time, we have to make it important to be correct on the first try.

Also: Sometimes I just forget things. I know that I absolutely know the answer to a question, but I can’t seem to retrieve it from my mind at that moment. This happens most often when I’m really stressed and short on time. Sometimes I make a mistake with something I’ve done a thousand times without problems. Sometimes I forget things. It’s human. And dogs are human too in this regard.


What is understanding to you? Which factors are most important in creating a reliable behavior? I hope to be able to get back to you with more ideas on what should be considered during the weekend. I sprained my ankle quite badly yesterday, and might have to spend more time in front of the computer than I’d like.

More on Engagement – Pi

Writing about my early training with Spy and teaching engagement made me think about Pi. She is an English Setter that moved in with us 10 years ago (she is now living a spoiled and active life with Thomas’ sister in Oslo). She came at a time where I was really excited about training a new puppy, so even though she was bought for hunting, I started training her with obedience in mind. She was such a fun puppy to train – very focused and deliberate in her actions. She learned lots of tricks and behaviors for obedience and we had a great time.

She was born in summer, so we spent most of our training time in the kitchen during the winter when she was half a year old. As spring came, we started to train more outdoors. She went from puppyhood into adolescence and hunting drive kicked in. This coincided with lots of spring birds competing for her attention. I fel like I didn’t have that focused dog from the kitchen anymore, and I decided that I probably needed to interrupt her looking at the birds, as it might be very reinforcing to a young setter. So whenever she was disengaged and looking for birds (and sometimes just staring at the horizon, as setter do) I’d call her back to me. I’d use her name or a cue like “heel” to bring her to me, and she always responded and started to work.

A few months after that decision, we held an obedience seminar away from home, and I used Pi as a demo dog for down from motion. She started out a bit disengaged and split her attention between me and the magpies on the ground. I then decided I wanted her to offer a down without a verbal cue and started waiting her out. She didn’t quite understand what I wanted, but tried lots of other things. As I remembered it, she worked for several minutes without a reward, and without ever looking away from me. She was the same dog that I usually had in the kitchen when we were working on tricks. And then it dawned on me. She wasn’t “distracted”, “hunting dog” or “teenager” – I had created a less engaged dog outdoors because I’d shown her that she never had to be attentive to me. I always told her when it was time to work.

When I realised this, we went to a dog training club to train. We were travelling, so it wasn’t where we usually trained and I didn’t know any people there. It was mostly older men with GSD:s and they looked at me very strangely as I started my session. I kept her on a leash and let her stare all she wanted at things. When she finally looked back at me (after what felt like minutes), I threw her a party with the best rewards I had and then waited again. She stared away from me again, but checked back sooner this time. She got the idea after a few rewards and turned back to me immediately once I stopped rewarding. I could increase my criteria to coming to heel position and then heeling for longer and longer stretches.

This session was pivotal to us. From thereon, everything went smoothly. Pi did her first obedience trial at 11 months old (still the youngest dog I’ve ever trialled in obedience) and did great. She immediately qualified for the next level and we had a great time in the ring despite birds everywhere. My experience with Pi changed my outlook on engagement a lot and made me realise that most dogs that are distracted are so because we allow it. It doesn’t matter if we use lures, cues or corrections – the outcome is often the same. Only when we make it the dog’s responsibility to be engaged in order to get rewards will we have true and lasting engagement.