Distractions as cues, day 8 – the first outside pre-recall hesitation!

Session 1, breakfast in location #2: we’re celebrating the first slow-down pre recall cue!!

Today is the first time I get a moment’s hesitation – Game’s body or her mind (but probably not both) consider turning around before I call! Watch closely to catch that moment. The slow-down happens right between seconds 00:02 and 00:03. This is amazing and shows me that we’re moving in the right direction!

In the commentary of the video, while Game is eating, I mention that this session was extra difficult because we just saw the intermittent neighborhood cat, which likely upped Game’s arousal. But! Retrospectively, I wonder if seeing the cat actually made things easier rather than harder.

Here’s why: I do a lot – A LOT! – of recalls reinforced with access to chasing critters (mostly alley cats who don’t care or will jump out of reach and then give Game the finger, squirrels, and birds). She already knows that the fastest way to get to chase, which she loves, is to first check in with me and perform … whatever I’m asking, but usually a recall, a hand touch, middle position, or a sit. There was no cat recall reinforced by chasing today, but the cat thoughts on Game’s mind may have put her into more of a mindset of “distraction – check in with handler” than she’s used to having around food.

(As I mentioned in an earlier post, I allow Game to scavenge freely and rarely require behaviors of her when she finds food in the street. She scavenges every day, because finding food is very common here. I’d guesstimate that every day, she encounters between 2 and 5 steet meal. There is more free scavenging than kibble recall cue transfer training).

Going straight for food has a long and strong reinforcement history – but going after cats doesn’t because I never let her go after a cat without giving me a behavior first! It’ll be interesting to see what happens in our next session, when there is no pre-meal cat!

Session 2, dinner in location 2 (no cat, and no slow-down)

We didn’t meet the intermediate cat before this session, and Game didn’t slow down before I called her. We’ll see what tomorrow brings!

In today’s video, I explain my game plan for now:

+ Immediately release to the distraction with “okay” after the recall …
+ Unless Game predicts the “okay” relase. In that case, click or “Get it.”
+ If I do not have to recall her at all, but she turns around on her own, I will mark the moment of turning with “okay” (not requiring her to complete her return to me).

I’ll stick to this plan for the next few sessions.

If you want to work on this or similar behaviors with your own dogs, join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy! Or check out any of our other classes … Game and I, for example, will be doing Nicole Wiebusch’s Heeling class at Gold this term! And we’ll be following along with Sara Brueske’s Bomb Proof Behaviors at Bronze!

Distractions as cues, day 7: “okay” release to the kibble right after recalling

Session 1, breakfast at location 2:

I’m calling Game, and immediately releasing her to the kibble with okay. This is to drive home the point that the fastest way TO the distraction is to come back first. Breakfast is a little smaller today because I’ve got a few more training goals for today, and more food will be had in other contexts later on! Also, some more neighborhood cat talk (and searching!)

A little remedial marker cue work:

Just sharing this session since I already mixed various marker cues into the earlier sessions here, and commented on them. Here, we’re doing remedial marker cue work on day #7, just using a click followed by a chunk of hot dog right after eating a single “free” treat from the floor.

Session 2, dinner at location 2:

Another evening, another round of training! Again, I follow the recall cue directly up with a release to the kibble.

In the video, I explain that this is a balancing act: On the one hand, I want Game to believe that the fastest way to the kibble is to come back to me first. On the other hand, I don’t want her to predict the release (not come all the way back). This will eventually happen if I always release her right away. I can either prevent it by alternating marker cues (recall – click; recall – get; recall – okay), or I can stick with my immediate “okay” release to the kibble for a few sessions, but switch things up again as soon as I see the self-release creep in. I think I’ll go for another immediate “okay” release tomorrow morning – but we’ll see. I might just change my mind after sleeping on it!

Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

Distractions as cues, day 6

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

Hot dog chunks for “Get it” and the click, and then just a release to the pile of kibble. In this clip, I also explain what makes location #2 extra challenging: the intermittent neighborhood cat!

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

I explain why I’m leaving the plastic bag (the bag that held the kibble) out there with the food: for better visibility. And I reiterate why it is so important that the new cue (the visual/olfactory stimulus of the kibble) precede the old cue (the recall). I’m using hot dogs for the click and “get it” again.

Wanna learn this or lots of other fun skills with your own dog? Check out the FDSA schedule for the current term!

Distractions as cues, day 5

Session 1: breakfast at location 2

I’m using hot dogs for the click and the “Get it,” and not interrupting her when eating the pile of kibble.

Session 2: dinner at location 2

More of the same: hot dogs for “Get it” and the click, and then I let her finish dinner in peace. I switch around the order of things here: first “Get it,” then the click. This morning, I did it the other way around. I’ll also go straight to an “Okay” release after the recall soon, to keep things interesting.

By the way, the reason I keep letting Game get really close to the kibble before calling is that for this particular exercise, I want to be sure she is seeing and smelling the distraction first (cue transfer), and I want to give her as much time as possible to think of coming back before reaching the pile of kibble.

Wanna learn this or lots of other fun skills with your own dog? Check out the FDSA schedule for the current term!

Distractions as cues, day 4 – upwards and onwards to location #2!

Session 1, breakfast at location 2:

We’re at step 4 now:

We want to only increase one criterion at a time rather than several criteria at once. We also know that dogs don’t generalize well – so we are going to need to train this behavior in several locations, and with all kinds of different food distractions (in our example). In the training phase, you will only either change the food distraction, and keep the location the same, or change the location, and keep the food distraction the same. In the example videos I’m going to show you, I’ll use the same food distraction (kibble), and show you how to get to the goal behavior (the distraction becomes a recall cue) in two locations. You will want to train this in more than just two locations (3-10, depending on your dog, should get you location generalization), and you’ll want to use more than one food distraction (again, 3-10, depending on your dog, should get you the desired results). I am guesstimating that most dogs will need around five kinds of food in five different locations to generalize.

This is our first session in our second location. I keep the distraction (kibble) the same, but change the location. The reason I’m leaving the yellow bag next to my pile of kibble is to further ensure Game is going to notice the distraction. Why is this important? Remember we are using a cue transfer process here: the new cue followed by the old cue. The new cue is a visual/olfactory cue: a food distraction. The old cue is the recall cue. Eventually, the new cue (the food distraction) will become a reliable predictor for the old cue (the recall), and end up serving as a recall cue itself.

Here, the reinforcers I have on my body are the same value as the distraction again (kibble). That’s no problem for my recall cue because I know Game’s recall cue is excellent.

I am not heeding my own advice from our last session, and am still sticking marker cue interruptions into this session rather than working on them separately. I’ve learned not to use the click while Game is eating for now, especially when I only have kibble – but I can still do “Get it”s. Well … you’ll see Game take her time to chase the treat, and me explain that “Get it” is not up to my standards out here anymore, either. I want these marker cues to be really sharp: Game should stop eating and look at my hand to see where I’m going to toss the treat as soon as she hears the cue, not only after she sees it flying through the air. Chrissi, repeat note to self: work on this separately, and really dedicate time to it! Working on it separately is going to ensure I’m giving my marker cue behaviors the attention they deserve, and really thinking about how to set up the session so both Game and I will be successful.

You’ll see me also test Game’s “Leave it” in the middle of this session (00:15). It’s sharp as ever, and I reward it with a click and treat from my hand. This click is easy for Game because there is no food right in front of her nose that I’m clicking her away from!

Once Game is searching for her last two or three pieces of kibble, you’ll see me use another marker cue (simply because I happen to still have part of her breakfast in my pocket) you haven’t seen me use in this series yet: “Treats,” which is my marker for a treat scatter (01:11).

Session 2, dinner at location 2:

I’m using a chunk of hotdog for my recall click here, just to start getting Game’s hopes for post-click hotdogs back up. Then, I “okay” her to release to the kibble, and let her finish dinner in peace.

Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

Distractions as cues: day 3 – yabadabadoo!

Session 1 (breakfast):

Remember I’m still at step 3: I will stay there until Game predicts the recall on the first rep of a new session. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. It is the first rep of a session that shows you whether learning has occurred! If the first rep doesn’t show cue prediction, but the third one does, we are not there yet. Why? Because it’s easy to repeat what just got rewarded (rep 3). It’s hard to remember 12 hours later (rep 1)! But it’s the 12 hours later memory that we’re interested in building!

In the session below, you’ll see that “Get it!” (my cue for a tossed treat) is higher value than my click: Game has no problem interrupting her feast in order to chase a single piece of kibble! But I fail when trying to insert a click later. In the end of the video, you hear me think loudly: I should probably use a higher value treat for the click for a few sessions to help sharpen the take-food-from-hand behavior back up to the point I want it to be!

Session 2 (dinner):

She’s got it! She’s really got it! Yabadabadoo!!

In this video, Game predicts my recall on the first rep of a new session. This is my black-and-white criterion for moving on to step 4 – which I will show you tomorrow!

In this session, I also finally use a higher value treat (a chunk of hot dog) for my click. Even though I try to combine it with an opportune moment at 00:54, Game keeps eating the kibble on the floor. I’m going to have to work on this behavior separately.

This is a good reminder that ideally, in our training sessions, we will focus on ONE behavior at a time. Here, I should be focusing on my cue transfer from verbal recall to sight/smell of kibble! Which Game just accomplished in this session for the first time!! Note to self: let her finish her food in peace, and work on marker cue interruptions separately.

(The treat Game gets in the end for free is a piece of kibble, not hot dog – just something I found in my treat pouch.)

In any case, we’re celebrating our success with a little toy play in the end of this session. On to step 4 tomorrow!

If you want to work on this or similar behaviors with your own dogs, join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy! Or check out any of our other classes … Game and I, for example, will be doing Nicole Wiebusch’s Heeling class at Gold this term! And we’ll be following along with Sara Brueske’s Bomb Proof Behaviors at Bronze! There’s something on the schedule for everyone this term! It’s going to be a fun one!

Distractions as cues, day 2

(We’re at step 3 of our training plan.)

Day 2, session 1: breakfast

I put down rugs today to prevent sliding on the tiles.

This video doesn’t only show Game being a brilliant learner – it also reveals a hole in my marker cue training: my click is not strong enough to get her to leave the food on the ground. (I know that a recall cue or leave it would get her to leave the food behind, but I need to sharpen up that click!) Marker cues are cues, just like other cues. My tongue click is a cue to eat food from my hand. In order to do so, the previous behavior (in this case, eating food from the floor) needs to be interrupted.

In this session, the treats from my hand are the same as the food on the floor (kibble).

Session 2: dinner

In this session, you’ll see me work on the click by using it at opportune moments (right when there is no treat left in front of Game’s nose on the floor).

I’m setting myself up for success in this way even though the treats from my hand are the exact same as the treats on the ground. I’m re-establishing the habit of immediately responding to my click.

You’ll see the session end in personal play, and looking for a toy. That’s how Game expresses joy and pride in her own work!

Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!

One Wild and Precious, E7 Dog geekery: pet dogs or free-roaming dogs … who’s got it “better”?

Listen to this episode on any other major podcast player – just look for “Our One Wild and Precious Lives (and Our Dogs).”

Link to Apple Podcasts.

Link to Spotify.

Injured free-roamers referred to in E7:

1. The free-roaming dog with the big wound on his leg – pictures:

To give you a face to go with the pictures of the wound below – we’re talking about the dog who looks like a Mal mix. He’s Game’s and my friend, and the young Husky mix next to him is his buddy. You may have seen both of these dogs in some of my videos already:

Picture of the wound on this dog from January 27, 2022:

A better pic I managed to take on February 1st:

The wound starts looking smaller – the picture below is from February 8, 2022:

And below, 2 pictures from February 14: now there’s no way of denying that he’s healing up!

I didn’t take any pictures after this, but a few weeks later, you could hardly tell there had ever been a wound!

2. The dog with the dangly leg I saw near a freeway on my road trip:

By the way, if you want to roam and ramble with your dog the way I (Chrissi) do with Game – who’s not free-roaming, but has a lot of freedom when the two of us are out together – join me in Out and About at FDSA! Registration is still open, and class starts on October 1st. Gold students tend to work on a large variety of eclectic topics related to being out in the world with their dogs. It’s always an interesting and rich class to follow along with, even if you’re only reading along at the Bronze level!

Sue doesn’t teach a class in October, but the spay/neuter webinars she and Jessica Hekman presented on September 22 may still up for purchase on the day this podcast episode airs! I attended both of them live, and highly recommend them. Grab ’em while you can: https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/self-study/webinars

PS: For a weekly glimpse into the life of free-roamers, subscribe to my latest passion project: my Free Ranging Dogs Youtube channel! I discuss their behavior, body language, interactions and various ethological concepts in the video description, and release a new video each Sunday afternoon. My goal is to build a free resource and share the free-roamers Game and I encounter on our meanderings with anyone who’d like to learn more about them.

The 3 Ts of working with marker cues

There are three things we’ve seen FDSA students struggle with over and over again – even advanced students and excellent trainers! We’ll call them the 3 Ts: Timing, Tautology, and Treat Placement. This post gives you an overview. If you’re going to delve further into marker training for precision behaviors, the 3 Ts are something you want to print out and tape to your fridge!


The marker cue needs to happen before you deliver the primary reinforcer.

Example: click – pause for a split second – treat.


You want a single marker cue before the primary reinforcer.

Example: “Get it” is my marker cue for tossing a treat for the dog to chase.

“Get it!” – pause for a split second – toss treat.

Do not add a click before or after your verbal marker! “Get it” itself is your marker – and it’s the only one you need.

Treat (or toy etc) placement

This is a subcategory of timing related to location specific marker cues (LSMs). If you use location specific marker cues (i.e. you want a different marker cues to indicate different modes of treat or toy delivery), you MUST say your marker cue before reaching into your treat pouch or moving your toy. “Otherwise,” to quote Shade Whitesel, who says it better than I ever could, “you are just teaching the dog that 5 different marker cues all mean the same thing: look at the hand to see where and what you will get.”

Whether the 3 Ts are obvious or not in any exercise or class you are working on; whether they are being addressed directly or lingering in the background: they will always be by your side. Keeping an eye on them will make you a better trainer, and take your dog’s understanding of what you are trying to teach them to the next level!

~ ~ ~

Registration for the June term at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy opens on May 22! Check out our schedule to pick your class!


The last week of this term’s pandemic challenge!


You’ll play 5 days a week – whichever days you want. Complete any task on the list to play.

Complete the tasks in any order, and check them off when you do!


Follow this link to make your own pandemic challenge sheet for next week, using the Canva template I’ve used for the Finding Five challenge series. You can also find the template by searching for “Pink Artsy Weekend Checklist” on canva.com.

Click here to download and print a larger version of the week 6 challenge sheet!