Posts in category Gambit

Just throw the ball!
Make it fun and the rest will come

When in doubt, throw food. In Gambit’s agility training so far I’ve really tried to apply some very good advice I heard from one of my favorite trainers, Hannah Branigan.

Melissa Breau: So, what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Hannah Branigan: Oh, that one’s easy. So, Leslie Nelson: “When in doubt, throw food.”

And I fall back on that all the time. Whenever there’s a question, something weird comes up in a training session or even at home, I don’t know what to do right now, that was a very weird behavior and I have no idea how I should handle it, throw a handful of food on the ground, and while they’re gobbling the food, I can think about my solution, and it turns out that there’s a whole lot of behavior problems out there in the world that we can solve in very practical ways by throwing a handful of food at them.

Melissa Breau: Both to give ourselves five minutes to think and to give them something else to do?

Hannah Branigan: Exactly.


Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast: Episode 03: Interview with Hannah Branigan,

I’ve adapted this advice for Gambit’s training. He’s not very food motivated and would much prefer a toy reward. So for us, it’s when in doubt, throw the ball or toss the Frisbee. This has served us very well so far.

Often when I go back and watch videos of our agility training sessions I am very glad I threw the ball. Gambit is almost always correct, or he really thinks he is, which is equally important. In agility I want Gambit to cue off of what my body is telling him to do, move the direction my feet are pointed, take the jump or other obstacle I am indicating. Video often reveals that I am not indicating the jump I think I am or Gambit thinks I am asking for a blind cross when I’m not, etc.

Gambit and his ball

Throwing the ball and rewarding even when I think Gambit is incorrect means that he stays in the game. He loves agility and really loves running fast. So far, I think my greatest agility accomplishment is that Gambit just turned 2 years old and still wants to go very fast. My bumbling handling has not significantly decreased his speed.

If I told Gambit he was wrong all the times I initially thought he was wrong he would have slowed down and eventually stopped enjoying the game that is our training. He’s rarely actually wrong and when he is it’s my job to find another way to explain things. My handling is slowly improving, very slowly, but my boy still loves to play agility with me as we both improve.

This short video (0:22) shows Gambit and I working on sending to the tunnel. I want him to take the far entrance. On the first try Gambit takes the “wrong” entrance and uses the entrance closer to me. At the time, I wasn’t sure why he didn’t take the far entrance but I went ahead and rewarded him anyway since I wasn’t sure what had happened. When we tried again a few moments later I made the entrance a bit easier by moving a bit closer toward it and he went in the “correct” entrance and did so with speed. Watching the video later I was glad I rewarded both entrances. My feet were pointing toward the tunnel closest to me on the first try. What I thought I was telling him to do wasn’t what my body was actually indicating. Gambit wasn’t “wrong” the first time and by rewarding his initial effort he was still very enthusiastic when we tried again.

My most important job is to keep Gambit in the game. We want to be fast and have fun and play at agility. The best way to make that happen is to when in doubt, throw the ball or toss some food.

Teaching Retrieve to Hand:
Playing outside and getting your dog to place the ball directly into your hand

Gambit placing ball in my hand

I watched enviously as my friend’s dog retrieved the ball and dropped it into her outstretched hand. My dogs always dropped the ball at least 5 feet away and I had to go pick it up.

I wanted my new dog to actually return the ball to me and place it directly into my hand. Previously, I taught Clover to retrieve a dumbbell to my hand so it seemed like a similar method might work with teaching my puppy Gambit to retrieve a ball to my hand. (Clover’s mostly blind so she can’t retrieve to hand with much distance.)

There was a snag in my plan. Initially, Gambit didn’t want to retrieve at all. Half of the time he didn’t even chase after the ball as it rolled away. The Facebook video of one of Gambit’s littermates taunted me. It showed the puppy retrieving multiple times on the very same day he arrived in his new home. But Gambit was on his own schedule. I had to have faith that eventually he would learn to love retrieving.

First Step: Returning to me with the ball
I worked a lot on throwing the ball and running away, encouraging Gambit to chase me. Sometimes he would run after me and sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he ran after me but dropped the ball. We practiced in small spaces inside and then gradually worked up to playing with 2 balls outside. Shade Whitesel’s toy class through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy was very helpful.

I often played with Gambit without touching the ball when he returned to me. I never took the ball from his mouth and I always traded him for anything he picked up. Separately we worked on an “out” cue, which meant spit out whatever is in your mouth and I will reward you.

Picking up various objects
I also worked on clicker training Gambit to pick up various objects, keys, a fork, chopsticks, etc. We also worked on hand targeting so Gambit was used to coming in close to touch my hand with his nose. And I think the most important skill I taught Gambit, besides running back to me with the ball, was chin targeting.

Chin Targeting
One of the first skills I teach new dogs is chin targeting. I find it to be a super useful behavior. It helps the dog think about targeting with different body parts. I can use chin targeting to teach a dog to hold a dumbbell, move into a stand, side step, find the correct position for front and I’m sure I can come up with several other uses. I also found I could use chin targeting to teach Clover to bring a dumbbell to me and teach Gambit to return his ball to my hand.

Putting it together
For some dogs, you can use a hand touch to get them to come closer with their ball but I wanted the toy or object actually delivered to my hand.
Once Gambit was happily shoving his chin into my hand we then worked on this skill in different locations and from varying distances. We were also separately working on him running back to me with his ball. When Gambit was performing both skills reliably, we started putting chin targeting and retrieving together.

As Gambit moved toward me with his ball I would cue him to put his chin in my hand. With the chin cue my dog is delivering his chin to my hand so it’s easy to add the next step of putting the ball in my hand. I started to say my drop cue – which for Gambit is “out” – when his chin was in my hand and then began to say it a bit earlier, just before he put his chin in my hand, so the ball dropped into my palm. I would then mark the drop with a “yes” and reward him with a ball toss. Eventually I changed the cue to “pick up” so Gambit would know he was picking up an object and delivering it to my hand. Subsequently, I no longer needed to cue chin and then the drop/out separately.

I’m very happy with the results. It is clear to Gambit when he is returning the object to my hand and he understands the reward is that I will throw the ball again or we will work a bit and then I will throw it.

How did you teach your dog to retrieve to your hand?

If you’d like help teaching chin targeting, retrieving, retrieve to hand, or another skill, Mica Dog Training is now offering live online lessons. Work with our trainer in the comfort of your home. Find out more here.

*Some dogs naturally return the ball to your hand if you just put out your hand and some dogs can be easily transitioned from a hand touch to placing the ball in your hand. Utilizing chin targeting with retrieving has worked well with my dogs and several client dogs.

Letting Go and Holding On

I almost missed it. There’s a seminar next weekend with a trainer I really admire and she rarely does seminars on the east coast. I came very close to signing up this morning. I was actually looking at the registration information when my phone rang.

It was my friend calling to tell me she needed to cancel our dogs’ play date for the afternoon. Her 12 1/2 year old dog was mysteriously lame. He’d gone to the vet yesterday for a Rimadyl refill; it seemed his arthritis was acting up. This morning he had gone out to use the bathroom and walked around a bit in the grass. Suddenly, he was horribly lame, unable to put any pressure on his rear leg and seemed unable to move the bottom half of it.

My friend rushed her dog to the emergency vet clinic by her house and texted a short time later. X-rays confirmed the vet’s suspicions. The leg was severely fractured and an aggressive bone cancer was spreading. My friend would have to let her sweet dog go within a few hours.

I was stunned. Her dog was getting old but he still seemed in good shape; he’d just enjoyed a trip to the beach and I saw him just the other day in pictures with her other dogs. He was one of the first dogs I introduced Gambit to as a puppy and one of Clover’s first dog friends. He was a sweet, gentle soul and he will be greatly missed.

Gambit and Louie

Prim, Louie and Clover

My friends’ day and mine ended very differently then I thought it would when I woke up this morning. I thought I was getting ready to go hang out and let our dogs play. I had no idea she would have to say good bye to her wonderful boy a few hours later.

It seems that even when we lose our dogs they leave us with a precious gift, their constant reminder to be as present as possible and to enjoy the moments together.

So, I’m not going to the seminar next weekend. It’s Kira’s birthday weekend. We’ve been through a lot this past year. It was a close call, but I’m not missing Kira’s birthday for anything.

My heart aches for my friend and I will miss her boy. Thank you for the reminder to hold on to these moments.

*You can read more about Kira’s story here:
We have a sit!, Enjoying the Sunshine, Life Lessons From Kira, Kira is getting old, and it is mostly wonderful

Trusting the Process:
Moving forward with training one step at a time

Hold the vision. Trust the process. – Author Unknown

He’s going to look flat and uninterested, maybe even wander off. As a trainer you stress about these things, you are aware of all of your dog’s shortcoming – as well as your own – and you see them magnified, envision how they will undo you in the ring, especially the obedience ring.

Gambit is brilliant and funny. He’s a thoughtful dog when he’s training. He can move blazingly fast but only when he wants to, when he feels it’s worth the effort. Gambit’s not very food motivated. He eats, but he doesn’t live to eat. Clover goes nuts when I train her with kibble. Gambit is mildly interested when I train him with liver flavored treats. He quickly loses interest in hard treats, those take more effort. Gambit is also a crate hater and dislikes riding in the car. And Gambit is a teenage boy.

Gambit sitting

Some days training feels very discouraging and difficult but Gambit is definitely making me a better trainer. And most days, it is quite fun. I am learning to always consider how much Gambit likes an activity, what his current arousal level is and how much enthusiasm I need from him to perform a specific task. Planning out my training times is also more important with Gambit, including utilizing our “crazy training time.” Crazy training time is when I first let him out from being confined and he is the most enthusiastic and revved up.

I try to break our tasks down into small steps, try not to be too overwhelmed by all there is to work on and all the things I think we aren’t doing quite well enough. I try to focus on that smiling face looking up at me when we heel. It is quite an accomplishment to have Gambit looking up at me with intensity, eager to take the next step. And Gambit enthusiastically smashing in to me when I call him for front is something I wasn’t originally sure we could get.

It is the process that is getting us closer to our goal. Showing up and practicing, thinking about how I can find a different way to explain a task or how I can build in some extra motivation for something Gambit isn’t sure is worth the effort. Baby steps, but we are getting there. I just need to hold on to the vision and keep Gambit’s smiling face in focus.

Things I do when I am frustrated and feeling stuck:
*Train for 3 minutes – I can do anything for just 3 minutes. Often I wind up training longer but this helps get me started when I am in a slump and just not feeling like training.

*Shape something goofy – Shaping Gambit to target a back leg to a cone, for instance, is very low stress and not a skill we will need for anything. It’s a chance to give him lots of reinforcement for training and to make sure we relax and have fun.

*Just play and hike for a few days – Sometimes just taking some time off and doing other things, like playing more soccer, helps.

*Play date – Scheduling play dates with Gambit’s dog friends and seeing him happy and having fun is good for me.

*Moan to other trainers – Asking my friends’ advice for my particular training problems is often helpful and gets me to look at things from different perspectives.

When I am really stuck and feeling discouraged, remembering how stubborn I am often helps.

Magic happens when you do not give up, even though you want to.

The universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart.
– JmStorm

But mostly, I try to smile at my dog. I adore Gambit, sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that.
Gambit in heel position

We Don’t Find Time; We Make It:
Making time for doing nothing with our dogs

I was reminded just the other day of how important it is to make individual time for doing absolutely nothing with my dogs. Clover was scheduled to go to a class with me so I got Gambit out for a bit to exercise him since he wasn’t going. I let Clover sleep a bit longer. Since she is mostly blind, it takes her a lot of energy to process what is going on in her environment and class is very tiring for her.

Gambit and I played soccer outside and then we hung out for the next 40 minutes. We snuggled on the couch, we sat on the floor, we played with a toy, and he rolled over for belly rubs. We hung out.

I often schedule time to do things with Gambit individually, such as taking him for a private agility lesson, hiking with a friend and her dog, meeting up for a play session with another dog. And all of these are things Gambit and I do together and both enjoy.

But they are not the same as just hanging out together. Rolling around on the floor and just being silly together is highly underrated. And that was my favorite part of the day. We all hang out as a family but I hadn’t realized how rarely it’s just the two of us. It’s just as important to schedule time for us to just be silly together, just Gambit and I, and of course separate time for Clover too. After all, hanging out and just being silly are the best parts of having a dog.

Gambit and me on couch

Stop Bothering Me!
Our patterns of behavior shape our dogs’ predictions

Identifying patterns and predicting what will happen next can help our dogs feel good and more comfortable. As Steven Kotler writes in his book,The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, “So important is prediction to survival, that when the brain guesses correctly-i.e., when the brain’s pattern-recognition system identifies a correct pattern-we get a reward, a tiny squirter of the feel-good neuro chemical dopamine.” Unfortunately, sometimes we find our dogs’ predictions of our behavior annoying and inconvenient.

At my house, Gambit will go to the back door and look at me eagerly in the morning. He’ll wait for me to go play soccer with him, or if the weather isn’t nice we train inside. But once we are done with soccer and our walk, that’s it. There’s no whining and obsessing over the back door. Inside my house Gambit amuses himself with chewing on one of his many bones or playing with my Golden Retriever, Clover.

But when we visit at my friend’s house, Gambit whines incessantly at her back door until I go outside and play with him. His whining is very annoying.

Why does Gambit whine to play ball at my friend’s house but never at home?

Gambit with ball

Similarly, my German Shepherd, Kira continually paces and pokes at my husband when he tries to work on his computer at night. She makes it very difficult for him to get his work done. When I came home from teaching the Mica Dog Sports Club Class the other night, my husband asked if I had exercised the dogs as much as usual. I’d given the shepherds their usual walk in the morning and trained them and played soccer with them in the afternoon. When I’d been home with them earlier, before leaving to teach class, they’d been relaxed and laying around. Yet, they’d been pacing and poking him.


So, what is the difference? Why does Kira harass my husband endlessly but fall asleep when I sit down to read a book?

The answer lies in our patterns of behavior and our dogs’ predictions. Kira and Gambit are predicting what will happen next and the majority of time they are correct. We have built expectations with our patterns and created whining and harassment.

Gambit knows that I sometimes play a second or third round of ball with him at my friend’s house. If he waits long enough at her back door I will go back outside. At my house, after we exercise in the morning we are done until the afternoon. There is no reason to whine because Gambit has no expectation of playing ball again.

Kira’s pattern is to continually convince my husband to get up to get her things. And it is hard not to give Kira whatever she wants. We have almost lost her several times to serious illnesses and she is 12.5 years old. My husband enjoys giving her ice cubes, cucumbers and other treats. Kira has learned that if she pokes him enough his pattern of behavior is that he will get up to give her something and that he will usually get up more than once.

If your dog is persistent and continually harassing you to play ball, feed them, etc., try taking a look at your patterns of behavior. How does your dog predict when food or play is coming?

My husband acknowledges his pattern of behavior but he is unlikely to change. He likes seeing Kira happy so he will have to put up with her pacing and poking at him as he works. If Gambit’s whining at my friend’s house truly annoys me then I will have to be clearer about when we are and are not playing ball. We will both need to change our patterns of behavior to subsequently alter our dogs’ predictions. Our behavior patterns are the key to quiet visits and sleeping dogs.

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

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.

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