Crate Hater: Changing his mind one day at a time.

Gambit hates the crate, passionately hates it. It’s a problem we’ve had since I first brought him home. We’ve compromised and with a lot of work he is now able to relax in an x-pen when I am not home. If we are going to trial one day and also for attending some classes and seminars, Gambit will have to be able to relax in a crate either in my car or in a building. Up until this past November I mostly avoided working on crating Gambit because it was the opposite of fun.

But now we are finding ways to have fun with crating. We started out very simply. In the beginning I just rewarded Gambit for going in the crate and coming out for his release word. We built up a strong reinforcement history in the crate where going in the crate meant he would get some food and then be released to something fun such as a game of chase or his favorite ball. Soon Gambit was quickly running into his crate. Then we started practicing with the crate in other places.

This is a short video of Gambit working on going in and out of the crate on cue away from home.

We also practiced at home with Gambit remaining crated while his best buddy, Clover, trains. We started with Gambit being rewarded and released frequently and built up to longer training sessions with Clover working for longer periods of time and Gambit being rewarded for calm behavior.

We have been incorporating the dreaded crate into our everyday training. I’ve stopped avoiding working on it and Gambit has learned crate training is very similar to mat training and his job is to relax in the crate until released. Every time we train at home we use the crate. Every single time. Even when I don’t feel like getting it out, I do. And using the crate as part of our regular training routine is paying off.

This video is not very exciting but shows Gambit calmly relaxing while Clover works. I occasionally reward his good behavior.

But again, just like with the x-pen, Gambit and I have compromised. You may notice that every video and picture I post of Gambit relaxing in his crate, the door is open. This is not a coincidence. Our compromise is that Gambit goes and relaxes in the crate until I release him and I will leave the door open. Part of Gambit’s crate hatred persists. Having the door closed makes him very uncomfortable. And we have worked on it. He just really hates it. So we are finding a way to work together.

Last Friday, we took our show on the road and Gambit did fabulously. For the first time he was in his crate at the training facility while another dog – not his everyday partner – trained a few feet away. And I forgot to mention, this other dog that was training is extremely cute and a dog Gambit thinks he should spend every moment with. I was so proud of my boy. We still have a lot to work to do before Gambit will be able to relax in a crate at seminars and trials but this is a lovely start. Our everyday practice is producing great results.

This is a picture of Gambit relaxing in his crate at a training facility while his girlfriend, a super cute Toller trains close by.
Gambit relaxing in crate

Clarity is Kindness: Helping our dogs understand what we want

Lately, when I’m training Clover, Parvene Farhoody’s phrase, “clarity is kindness,” comes to mind. Parvene announced this phrase at a seminar I attended last year.* She instructed her audience to write it down.

When working on heel position with Clover, I need to find a way to provide clarity. I want Clover to remain standing when she pivots on the pivot platform and when we rotate around a cone. I want her to shift her weight to her rear but not sit. This will help Clover learn to drive the movement with her rear and allow for more powerful and accurate heeling. Clover is convinced sitting is better. How can I help Clover understand what I want without overly frustrating her? For clarity, I added a rear foot target behind the pivot platform. First, I reinforced a skill she is familiar with, rear foot targeting to a foot target, and then I added the pivot platform back in. We are still working on pivoting around the cone but Clover now remains standing on the pivot platform instead of sitting.

Focusing on providing clarity to Clover has greatly improved our training in the last few weeks. Clarity is not only kindness, it is essential to good training.

*Workshop mentioned: Out of the lab and into the field: performance dogs in the real world; Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody; 4/30/2016-5/1/2016.

Fetch is overrated! Try Soccer!
There are lots of ways to exercise your dog

Roka outside with ball

I don’t play fetch very often. I’m not against fetch. I just think soccer is often better. It takes a lot of effort for a dog to chase a ball and not all dogs find it equally rewarding to run back and give their precious ball to someone. If there is enough room to play fetch, then there should be enough room for soccer.

With soccer, there’s no conflict. I kick the ball, my dog runs and he gets to keep the ball he has. The main difference with soccer is it involves me moving around, which is probably not a bad thing. After I finished playing soccer today my phone informed me that I had walked for 12 minutes. That’s not too shabby. I walked half a mile, just walking around my back yard kicking the ball for my dog, playing soccer. My dog got exercise, I got exercise and he got to hold on to his ball. Everybody wins.

My young dog Gambit likes to run very, very fast and is not as good at deceleration. With soccer, the game is a bit more controlled and Gambit is less likely to hurt himself. I’ve trained Gambit to return the ball to my hand but soccer is still a fun activity for us.

My older dogs, Roka and Kira, are typical possessive German Shepherds and definitely prefer soccer or retrieving with 2 balls to returning and releasing one ball. My Golden Retriever, Clover, is mostly blind and playing ball is very arousing for her. She does much better when she holds the ball in her mouth and I kick a second ball that she runs toward by locating through sound.

Exercise solutions can be different for different dogs and soccer is only one solution. It just happens to be one of my favorites.

Here’s a super short video of Roka and I playing our version of soccer and Kira cheering in the background.

*Some dogs like to play goalie so be careful when kicking the ball and in some cases it may be helpful to teach your dog to back up before kicking the ball.

Slow is Fast: Taking Extra Time for Foundation Skills


Gambit and I are trying to move at his pace. In August, I wrote about how that meant repeating the Agility Foundation 2 class and not moving forward with some of our classmates. I am happy to report that this was the right choice for us.

By choosing to repeat the Agility Foundation 2 class and concentrate on our foundation work and focus, Gambit and I’ve become a stronger team. I can feel the connection – one of the main reasons I love agility – and his ability to focus on what I am asking him to do has improved greatly over the last 2 months. He nailed his contacts in class when we back chained them for the first time on the dog walk. Gambit held his position when I ran by him for a blind cross. When I moved laterally away, he pressed his nose more firmly on his target.

The times we practiced contacts on Gambit’s platform in the kitchen led to this moment. Using the toy as reward helped increase Gambit’s enthusiasm and helped him work through distractions. Teaching the sustained nose touch helped him understand to hold his position with his head down. And I got better at following instructions – I began to only release him when his nose was pressed firmly to the target. The extra time helped.

When we worked on sequences, Gambit was fast, as fast as I could want. He drove to the new and longer tunnel confidently despite its length and darkness. He flew out the other end ready to move into the next jump. The extra class time helped improve Gambit’s focus around other dogs. And my handling improved. All of this increased his speed. I also increased my rate of reinforcement, frequently rewarding offered attention and offered downs. And I began to use “treat magnet” to set him up for the next repetition.

In the extra two months we continued to work on Gambit driving back to me with his toy. Baby Gambit only wanted to chase but not return. Teenager Gambit runs back, slamming into me with his front paws, shoving the toy at me. When we worked on baby weaves in class I was able to toss the ball ahead of him with other dogs working 5 feet away. And the biggest difference is that 14-month-old Gambit worked off leash the entire class. He couldn’t have done this in October.

The cute terrier girl from August also repeated the class. But in Monday’s class Gambit chose to face me and lie down with his back to her, requesting to work. The time we have spent watching squirrels and deer and reorienting to me are starting to make other dogs less exciting.

My beautiful red boy has made great progress. I am excited for Foundation 3 and so glad Gambit and I played at these skills a bit longer before moving on. We are more connected now and I am excited about our team. Going slow is now helping us to go fast.

Ow! That Was My Finger! Helping Dogs Take Treats More Gently

There are a lot of details and techniques for treat delivery and reward placement. I want to specifically address keeping your fingers. Having a sharky dog that chomps down on your finger when he takes a treat can use up a lot of Band-Aids and make training a bloody and not very fun sport.

Gambit and Clover waiting for a treat

So, if you have a dog that is making you yelp in pain when you give her a treat, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Is your dog stressed or excited? Take a look at your environment. Gambit has a soft mouth 99.5% of the time. But every once in a while, I feel teeth. I felt them today when he saw my neighbor’s donkey and I offered him a treat. Donkeys are exciting and Gambit’s mouth was harder when he took the treat due to his excitement.

2) Is there another dog around? Some dogs will take treats very roughly when there is another dog next to them also wanting a treat.

3) Are your treats too good? Steak or hot dog may not be the best reward for all dogs in all situations.

4) How are you getting the treat to your dog’s mouth? Does your dog have to reach up for the treat or are you bringing the treat directly to his mouth?

Stressed or Excited
If you think your dog’s hard mouth is due to stress or excitement, dropping the treat on the ground or dropping a few treats in the grass can help lower your dog’s arousal level and save your fingers. You can then assess the environment and see if it makes sense to move further away from something that may be stressing or exciting your dog. You may need to take a break and train in a different environment that is less exciting or stressful for a while.

Other Dogs
If you notice your dog is particularly careless with your fingers in a group training class then you will want to consider the environment (see above). If you have other dogs or are with friends’ dogs and notice your dog is particularly sharky when taking treats, you can try saying each dog’s name before giving them their treat. Saying the dog’s name first and then delivering the treat helps each dog know what to expect and they will know when the treat is intended for them. This can eliminate some anxiety on the dog’s part. It also has the added bonus of creating a strong name response.
*If you think any of the dogs are serious resource guarders or likely to fight, please put the treats away and consult with a trainer.

High Value Treats
We often hear that we should use high value treats when training, however, with some dogs this doesn’t work out very well for our fingers. If your dog is chomping on you when you use hotdogs or something high value, try switching to kibble, cheerios, carrots, something your dog is a bit less enthusiastic about but will still work for. Some dogs are able to focus better when the treat is something they like but are not completely crazy over.

Treat Delivery
How you move the treat to your dog’s mouth can also be an important piece of the puzzle when trying to get your dog to stop giving you bloody knuckles. You can always have your dog lick food out of a food tube or take a treat off of your flat open palm to avoid feeling his teeth. You can also toss treats on the ground, but keep in mind that tossing a treat is different from dropping a treat. Tossing a treat can cause a dog to move quickly away from you and the movement can cause excitement, which can make a hard mouth harder.

To keep your fingers, you can also focus on how you deliver the treat to your dog’s mouth, how you hold your hand, where you put the treat, how you let your dog have the treat. This may sound very persnickety but focusing on how the treat moves from your hand to your dog’s mouth can improve your training and save you money in Band-Aids.

I hold the treat between my index finger and middle finger right at the point where my palm and fingers meet. I then cover the treat with my thumb and cup my hand a bit. When I deliver the treat my hand goes in a scoop toward the dog’s mouth and when I want the dog to have the treat, I move my thumb out of the way. It is very hard for a dog to put my entire hand in their mouth. It is much quicker and more effective for a dog to use his tongue to get the treat. I have had good success with this with a wide variety of dogs. However, keep in mind, that any dog that is stressed will have a harder bite.

Here is a video of how I hold a treat and how I let my dog have the treat.

*This technique is my version of trainer Michael Ellis’ food delivery. I am a positive reinforcement trainer and there are lots of things I disagree with Michael Ellis on but he also has a lot of good techniques and I think this is one of them.

Happy Training!

Sniffing out the Secret to Polite Leash Walking

Dogs’ noses are designed to grant them access to an entire world we cannot see or smell. And maybe herein lies the secret to polite leash walking. Maybe walking a dog is not about attention and checking in and a trained heel position. Maybe it is not about carrying tasty treats a dog finds irresistible.

All of these things are helpful and good but none are the magical solution, the silver bullet we all long for. Perhaps the walk is really about honoring the nose. Having the patience and finding the time to allow a dog those extra sniffs in the long grass. Taking a deep calming breath as he strains to the very end of the leash, nose quivering, soaking in every bit of scent from a few strands of grass. The same strands of grass we would have gladly walked past captivate him as he inhales the scent of previous journeys and creatures that have traveled the same path.

Gambit sniffing the grass

Dogs’ noses work very differently than ours and an animation found on TED-ED by Alexandra Horowitz provides a fabulous demonstration:

The moistness of dogs’ noses is not an accident but by design. It helps to capture the various scents traveling on the breeze. And dogs don’t exhale through the same path they take scent in, as we do. Rather, they exhale through slits on the side of their nose.

Maybe the secret to polite leash walking is finding a way to honor our differences and the dog’s nose, including a section of our walk that allows our dogs to be dogs, sniffing as much as they like, for as long as they like. And maybe that’s why podcasts and smartphones were really invented, to give us something interesting to do while our dogs sniff out their own TV show.

Gimme Paw! A Great Trick to Improve Fitness

Paw is a very cute trick that a lot of dogs are taught as puppies.

As dogs get older, paw is sometimes a trick people wish they hadn’t taught. Often dogs enjoy paw or shake a bit too much, offering it at inopportune times, such as when you are trying to watch TV or are wearing shorts.

But paw is more than just a cute or annoying trick; it is an easy way to help your dog stay fit.

When your dog is standing and lifts a front paw, he naturally offsets his weight to his opposing hind limb. This can help with building muscle and improving core strength, while at the same time helping your dog improve his sense of balance.

Teach your dog to give you paw from a stand as well as a sit to get the maximum benefit. You can have your dog offer paw before eating, before he goes outside, after a walk. Find ways to work it into your every day routine.

Here’s an example of Roka doing paw from a stand. Since he is on a platform it is more obvious when he shifts his weight. His right rear leg is a bit weaker and you can see how he moves off the platform to adjust after he has done paw with his left front paw.

Be sure to only reward paw when you’ve asked for it so you can watch TV in peace, but try to practice a few times a day. This is a great way to utilize a skill your dog may already have to improve his balance and strength. If your dog is a bit too crazy about paw, check out our training tip video on being picky:

And, if your dog doesn’t know paw or shake and you are interested in teaching him paw and other fun tricks, check out our self-paced online training class beginning September 12:

Happy Training!

Going Slow to Go Fast

Fanny Gott had a good blog post recently about letting your dog tell you when he’s ready to work on differently agility skills and she said, “Every dog has their own timeline.” I have definitely found this to be true with Gambit. Sometimes easing up and working on other things for a bit helps us move forward.

We are not in a hurry. I want Gambit to be strong and confident. I want his body to be ready for what I ask him to do and I always want to put his safety first. Gambit turned 12 months at the beginning of August. For now he is still jumping 8 inches in class and usually just running through jumps on the ground at home. We are not in a hurry. I want to be sure I am making progress with my handling, communicating with him the best I can to indicate which jump and turn I want him to take next. I want him to learn to do most of the obstacles independently, without needing to look back at me. I want Gambit confident and strong. We are on his time.

I decided to repeat the Agility Foundation 2 class we are taking. He could move on but I think he will be stronger and we will both be better if we wait. It’s hard to hold back and not move forward with other members of the class but it is the right choice for us. Gambit is often brilliant in class but I want to be sure he is comfortable focusing on me and on task before we move up. I don’t want him getting hurt because he is distracted by the cute terrier girl in the corner on the teeter while we run across the dog walk.

I am thrilled with how well Gambit is doing and how well he focuses in an exciting class. But I want him to be even better. Sometimes waiting allows us to move forward faster.

*Fanny Gott’s blog:

Gambit running agility

Stealing Shoes

There’s a shoe in the middle of the room. I looked up when I heard the thunk as it hit the floor. Gambit dragged the heavy work shoe from the laundry room into the family room. As I got up from sitting in front of my laptop, picked up the shoe and retrieved a piece of kibble for Gambit, I smiled the whole way. Any time we forget to close the laundry room door there is a shoe in the middle of the floor that is traded for a piece of kibble.

We got some good advice years ago, and it has served us well. “Never take anything from your dog’s mouth; always trade.” The advice seemed a bit crazy at first. Never take anything? What if it’s my expensive shoe? What if my dog could get hurt?

But really, how many serious situations are there? Generally, if Gambit has an item that is worth $100 or less and the item will not cause his immediate death, there is time to get some food for a trade. Gambit just turned 12 months and he came to us 10 months ago loving to put absolutely everything in his mouth. So far, we have never needed to pry open his jaws.

Along with trade, I have taught Gambit “out.” Which in our house means, immediately spit out whatever you have in your mouth. But it all started with trading.

Just this morning on our walk we got to use our “out” cue. The neighborhood fox left a large chunk of chicken wing along our morning path. With a single out cue, Gambit immediately spit the chicken wing out. He has done the same for chicken bones, horse poop and other items he considers precious; gross disgusting things.

When Gambit first arrived at our house as a baby he would find something precious and run off with it. But now he likes to bring his treasures into the TV room to examine them on his bed and often look at me expectantly.

So, does he find items to pick up just so he can get a reward? Maybe, sometimes, maybe. But Gambit already loved picking things up and now he quickly and happily drops them, no growling, no prying open his mouth, no hiding under the bed, no gulping down inappropriate objects as someone screams and runs toward him.

Now, when I give Gambit a new precious bone, he comes to snuggle next to me on the couch and ask me to hold one end so he can chew with his back teeth. He likes to be near me when he has something he thinks is important. And if his bone starts to splinter, I simply say “out” and reward him with a piece of kibble.

Trade, don’t take, is likely the best dog advice I have ever been given.


*Gambit has been traded for items since the day we got him; some dogs will need more incentive than kibble. If your dog is growling at you or stiffening when you approach and he has something, please step away and contact a dog trainer.

Life Lessons From Kira

As we enjoy today’s sunshine, it seemed appropriate to share some life lessons from Kira 🙂

1. Don’t Give Up
Bloating is tough and so is becoming completely paralyzed and unable to hold your head up on your own. It’s also rough to be told your gall bladder has ruptured and you should be euthanized immediately.  But there are still people that love you and will help you through the dark times. They will prop your head up with towels and cook you meals. Just because things look bad on paper, doesn’t mean you are done.

Kira in her cart in December 2015

“If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done yet.” ~~ Elizabeth Gilbert’s Mom

2. Keep Your Friends Close
Friends are entertaining to watch chase the ball and bark at the deer. They will keep you company when you feel vulnerable.

“I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

3. Take some time to sit on the hillside.
Don’t forget how beautiful it is outside and how much it can lift your spirits. A beautiful day is such a gift.

Kira and Roka 20160324

“To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace.” – Milan Kundera

4. Chase the Ball
Even if your legs don’t work quite the way they used to and it’s more of a galumph then a gallop, make the effort. You will find a way to get the ball. It’s worth it.

Kira with her ball

“What if I fall? Oh my darling, what if you fly?” – Erin Hanson

Sunshine and Tail Wags,