How to fix slow reactions to cues

I went to Switzerland to teach last weekend and I decided to bring Squid with me. She hasn’t been on an airplane for many years, but she handled everything like a pro and was an absolute dream to travel with. I really feel like teaching is so much easier when I have one of my dogs with me to show things with. Especially when teaching in another country where my style of training might be very new and different, and also especially when there is a language barrier and things get lost in translation. Another awesome thing about using my own dogs when teaching is that things happen when I show things with them, and that brings up subjects that might have been lost otherwise. On Sunday in Switzerland, I was fortunate enough to have a student videotaping most of my presentations, which made it possible to share one of these great moments in the blog.

Squid was showing some distance control to the group when I found that her “up” cue really wasn’t working the way it should. She was slow to react, sometimes didn’t react at all and didn’t go all the way up in a nice sit. I quickly realised that this was because I have used the “up” cue a lot in her agility starts, trying to get her so sit up better before releasing her in a trial. And we haven’t done formal obedience in a long time. When I started competing in agility, I would wait for her to offer the nice sit up before releasing, but for the past years I have used the cue. Often many times before I’m happy with her sit.

Cues should function as “green lights” to the dog. They should be reinforcing and give the dog permission to start a behavior that they really like to perform. I never want to feel like I have to ask or beg the dog to do something. I realise that I use the term “poisoned cue” in the video in a different way than most people would, and I will stop doing that. A poisoned cue is usually defined as a cue taught with both negative and positive reinforcement. This is not the case here, the hesitation is just a function of poor usage of the cue. It still feels “poisoned” to me, which is why I used that term, but I need to think about something else (“yellow light”, maybe?).

The fix for a problem like this is easy when your dog is used to offer behavior, even if it’s already on stimulus control. I really feel sorry for trainers who never allow the dog to offer behaviors once the cue is added. How do you fix it without nagging more? Regardless of it’s a problem with reacting to the cue, or a problem with executing the behavior correctly, the solution is the same. Get the behavior offered, reward the good responses, fix any problems with execution while the behavior is offered, make sure the dog is really eager to repeat the behavior, and then – add the stimulus control back in and get the cue to function as a green light that allows the dog to perform the behavior she’s now very happy to show you.

I would often go through this process quickly right before and obedience trial, to make sure that Squid was very eager to perform the distance control positions (especially the first one). She always had really good distance control scores.

Here’s the video where you can see the before, the process, and the result. Really quick training with a big difference in before and after.


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.

Criteria continued

Bud learned the jumping stand early. I like to teach it to small puppies because they are bouncy and you can often easily capture it by just standing and waiting for it to happen when the puppy has energy and is playful. I don’t care a lot about perfection at this point, I just click and reward any bounce where both front legs leave the ground until the puppy offers the behavior in order to get a reward. I also like to name the behavior early, because I think it’s good to work on stimulus control with my puppy, and they often learn to love this behavior quickly.

I have not planned for Bud to be an obedience dog, but I love to work on obedience behaviors and think they are great for anything I want to do in the future. I’ve used his jumping stand for cue discrimination, and I have added some staying in position after the jump too. But I haven’t really worked on it, and I realized recently that he always moved his back feet counter clockwise on landing. It wasn’t pretty, and he did it every time. And I had rewarded it every time. Now, I decided that I wanted him to stay straight infront of me when doing the behavior, maybe even be able to keep his back feet still and just bounce with his front feet.

If the dog is always performing the behavior in a way we don’t like, it’s not a good idea to just not reward it and wait for perfection. The dog will probably give up in the process. You could chose to reward the better responses, and not reward the ones where he moves his feet the most – but you’re still rewarding something you don’t really like. Another solution is to think about some other behaviors to train that might help with understanding and hopefully bleed over to the behavior in question. That’s what I started by doing. I worked on backing up straight, offering a stand (not a jump, just four feet on the floor) straight infront of me and some rear end awareness and finishes on my right side (moving back feet clockwise).

This helped enough for me to get much better behavior once I started the jumping stand again. There were a lot of offered jumping stands that I didn’t reward, but he did seem to remember the exercises we’d just done when I didn’t reward, and I could jackpot some jumping stands that were much straighter than before. I still rewarded back foot movement (which I don’t really see as a problem) as long as it wasn’t to his right. If I found that he reverted back to his old style, and rate of reinforcement got too low, I would remind him of one of the behaviors used before (often just standing in front of me, or some clockwise pivoting) and then go back to the jumping stand. But most important was criteria – not rewarding what I don’t want, and rewarding all the good attempts.

I made a little video of our training today. He was doing well and had some nice repetitions where he kept back feet still, and even could go from sit to stand with his back feet planted. When I found myself just rewarding many repetitions in a row, I decided to change something – challenge him. The behavior is nice, but it’s not ever finished. Just changing something small can make it a bit harder for the dog and increase his understanding of what we want. I chose to add an open hand with treats to the left. It made it harder, but he worked through it nicely and came out more confident in what I want. I usually don’t want to use a cue for the behavior when I add a challenge like this, so it would have been smarter if I’d let him offer it freely instead. Noted for the next challenge!

Left turns

Just a short clip of Bud from yesterday. He did have some experience with turning on a perch from before, but yesterday I decided to just try to shape him to my side. I’ve been working on both right and left side, but more on the left, so right will be my focus for today. I’m very pleased with the progression and I’m excited to work some more on his heeling. I don’t plan on doing any obedience with Bud, but heeling is such a great skill to have for agility, body awareness and every day life that I still want to teach it.

Obedience dreams

Last night, I dreamt about really wanting to do an obedience trial with Squid. I even tried entering her in one that had already started and I didn’t have time to warm her up at all. I don’t know how that went, but when I woke up I was still really motivated. We haven’t done much obedience at all since our last trial in the beginning of October. She was in heat, then I went to the U.S. for many weeks, then I just didn’t feel motivated and now it’s just snow and ice everywhere. I still log every minute of training that I do with the dogs, and for the last 4 months, Squids daily average of obedience is 40 seconds…

I don’t really feel motivated to do obedience in freezing cold or on hard or slippery surfaces where she could hurt herself. The time I spend in indoor arenas (all that are heated and with good footing is more than an hour away from here) is spent on agility. So that leaves my living room! I’ve compiled a list of things that I can train at home in a small space, and I’m going to pick a few of them every day. Today was scented retrieve (2 min), long sit stay (2 min) and stand/sit/down from heel with focus on stimulus control (2 min).

Here is a video of scented retrieve and stand/sit/down from heel. Sit stay was too boring to include.

I was asked why I’m so strict in the scent work, not allowing her to work until she finds the correct item. In competition, they do have a minute to find the correct item, but you can get points taken if the dog sniffs the correct one and then doesn’t pick it up immediately. I’d like Squid to start at one end and be systematic even when she’s aroused. She knows the exercise, so our winter indoor training will be focused on getting all the small details right.

What are your best ideas for indoor obedience training? Please leve a comment and give me some inspiration!

Epic’s American Adventure

Epic and I are at Posidog in Columbus, Ohio, teaching obedience, problem solving and trial prep. It’s the first time I’ve brought a dog here (and my fourth time teaching here), and I’m very glad that I did. I chose to bring Epic because I know he doesn’t have any problems with flying. Squid doesn’t really like it, so she doesn’t have t, and Wilco is so young that I have no idea how he would react. I will try some shorter flights before bringing him on a long trip like this.


Epic was happy to get in his crate both before and after the long flight to Chicago. He was glad to see me, but seemed calm and happy when I took him out. I chose to fly to Chicago to get a direct flight from Stockholm. My friend Kristen picked us up and drove us to Ohio. We had a few days off before the seminar started, so we went on nice walks and had good training sessions. I feel that traveling with a dog really deepens the relationship. Being alone with Epic helps too, but I think the traveling is a big part of it.


We haven’t done much obedience before, but this past week has really been a boost to our obedience training. With both my obedience dogs at home, Epic has to step up and learn new skills. And he has! We’ve made lots of progress on heeling, retrieving, stimulus control and distant control. We’ve also played around with some bite work, as our friends here are into mondioring. Epic loved it the first days, but I think we did too much and made him a bit sore. He’s had a few days off and now we’ll try again. He loves tugging, but had trouble with the transition from leg sleeves to bite pants. The concept of clothing and tug toy in one blew his mind.

We have four more days of teaching, and really look forward to it. Then more training and a road trip before we go home.


Switching between behaviors on cue

When training your dog with reward based methods, making the dog thoughtful by coercion is not an option. There are better ways to train your dog to use his brain, really listen for what you’re saying, and to avoid anticipation and keep the level of arousal just right.
Varying what you ask your dog to do in an unpredictable manner makes you keep the initiative.

Therefore I teach my dogs several different reward markers. It’s not only practical in training that the dog knows which kind of reward to expect when, but it’s also allows me to develop a great working relationship where my dog turns to me to ask for guidance. Another advantage is that it is great stimulus control training.

When the dog knows the different cues and reward markers, I test the dog’s understanding by giving the cue the dog doesn’t expect. It’s important that my cues start and end the different behaviors. Anticipating or guessing should not pay off.

Examples of cues in the video (translated):

“Get it” – Bowl of food
“Break” – Release from controlled position
“Ja” – take the toy from my hand
“Out” – drop the toy
“Fetch” – take the toy on the ground
“Back” – take the toy on the ground 180 degrees behind you

Switching between behaviors and a lot other tips on how to develop your relationship in training and everyday life will be covered in the new online class Relationship building starting Nov 1st.

Wilco learning to focus in position

Wilco and I had a fun day yesterday, with a lot of obedience training. Since Squid is in heat, I decided to focus on Wilco in every session with our training group. He is really starting to mature. He was able to focus for the entire day, and he’s got more power and speed than before.

We started experimenting with adding distractions when he is sitting by my side and looking up. I’ve been feeding him in position before, but I’ve never interrupted him for looking away, only for moving. I don’t think he’s been mature enough for this before, but now I really felt that I got exactly the result I wanted. The important thing here is not how he performs the behavior, but rather how he is handling being interrupted and having to try again. I want my dog to be engaged in the interruption, and very eager to try again. It should matter to them when they miss out on a reward, but I don’t want to see any displacement behaviors or avoidance. I want the dog to bounce back immediately and work hard to get it right the next time.

Wilco gets quite intense when I interrupt him, but he is doing a great job in going back to calm and focus quickly. With a dog that struggles more with this, I’d probably be moving all the time, and work on focus in motion (walking backwards or with the dog at heel). Remember that this is a process, and with some dogs, you really have to reward them just for trying again. It could be rewarding the over-aroused dog right away for sitting down after the interruption, shaping the response that you want. Or it could be rewarding the more cautious dog for engaging in the no-reward routine, without asking for anything more than that they don’t give up. When Squid was young, I taught her to steal the toy away from me when I did my “haha”-routine. I worked only on the routine, until I got the right emotional response to it.

Working on the best possible emotional response to different interruptive routines is important! We put a lot of work into creating a great emotional response to our different kinds of rewards, but this is just as important if you want to be able to mark incorrect performances (for example in a behavior chain or when working on duration) and by that increase the likelihood that the dog will try again with great attitude. I mostly use this kind of cheerful interruption (term stolen from Denise Fenzi) in well planned sessions, where the choice is an easy yes/no, and if I use distractions I like them to be planned. I think that the rituals would lose a lot of power if I used them all the time to get the dog to try harder. Most of the time in training, just withholding the reward and waiting for them to try again is the best way to handle wrong responses.

Here is a video of Wilco’s training today (second session on this):

Elite Obedience with Squid

Squid has finally started her career in elite obedience (highest level in FCI). I’m very happy to be competing in obedience again and look forward to many years of perfecting our performance. Our first competitions were two weeks ago. I was brave and entered us in the international, world team tryout trial, indoors in Kungsör. We had some really good exercises, but also some mistakes and bad luck. On Saturday, we failed the send to box because Squid slipped on the floor when I cued “stand” in the box. She fell into a down, and then sat up in confusion as I started to walk towards her. On Sunday, I think she was very unfortunate when she kicked one of the scent articles, and happened to get it in her mouth as she went for the correct one. It fell out after a short while, but the exercise is still failed. Here are some highlights from the competitions. Unfortunately, my camera was out of memory for the last part, so I didn’t get the very good recall and send to square on film:

Last weekend, we went to a regular elite competition, and had a good run. 293,5 points and our first “excellent” score towards the championship title. I’d planned for three more competitions this month, but Squid just came into heat and we have to cancel those trials.

If you’re interested in the way we’re training obedience, you should check out our Foundation Class Online. We’re still on the first lesson, so you can join us and easily catch up if you want to learn more.

Video from Obedience Training

Squid and I had a great day yesterday, training with our friends Louise and Louise and their dogs Snipe and Kite. Snipe and Kite have the same mother as Epic and Squid, and are born here. This month is obedience and conditioning month for Squid. This day was the perfect kick off for our obedience. I have been logging all training time with my dogs since the beginning of May (really since the beginning of the year, but I changed systems in May). Squid gets an average of 5 minutes of obedience training per day (an average that was 4,43 before yesterday’s massive 70 minutes of training). I think 5 minutes is a decent number considering all other things that we’ve done during this time – agility trials, traveling and resting. It’s far from what the best obedience dogs clock though, so I hope to improve that average by quite a lot by the end of this month!

Obedience is a lot of fun right now. Squid knows all the exercises and I really like how she performs most of the behaviors. She has speed, precision and a happy tail. It feels like pay back for years of training sessions. We’re far from ready to be competitive. When you’ve taught the exercises, you still have a long way to go in terms of stability in competition. I’m excited to do our first obedience trials in the highest class this fall, but I’m happy that we still have many years to find stability and flow in competition.

Here’s a video that Louise posted from our training: