Let’s be honest for a minute.

As some of you might know, I’m teaching a class on finding time to train at FDSA. It’s about life getting in the way, and how to fit our training plans into busy days.

More than one student has noted that they feel ashamed or guilty about not doing more with their dogs. This got me thinking. It’s quite common in my circle of friends and colleagues that someone will talk about all the things they did with their dog last weekend, and someone else will respond with guilt. It also happens unprompted: “I really should do more with my dog …” I’m not unfamiliar with this feeling myself. I used to think I needed to do All The Things with All The Dogs All The Time lest I be a bad dog owner, unworthy of having such wonderful companions. I’ve gotten better about it in the last year or two. And let’s be honest for a minute: it’s not just that some days, I don’t do All The Things with All The Dogs. The unspeakable truth is that some days, just for a moment or two, I wish I didn’t even have dogs. And, believe it or not: it doesn’t make me a bad dog owner. It just makes me human.

I think our guilty gut reaction stems from the dog training culture we are a part of: “we,” that is me and probably you, too, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog: it’s people who are committed to providing their dogs with as rich and fulfilling a life as possible. People who go the extra mile for their dogs. Social media makes it easy to connect with and follow others who share the same culture. You can join Facebook groups and watch the youtube videos and pictures of friends and strangers. All of this is great and can be lots of fun – until it isn’t, and we feel guilty when our day was too busy to do All The Things other people seem to be doing for there dogs. When we scroll through our newsfeed, we see pictures of people spending time with their dogs: Susan rocked a nosework trial last weekend, Tom is blogging about his agility training journey, Meg and Thunder just got their CDX. We see pictures of dogs posing with trophies, flying over a jump, or indicating a vehicle hide. We also see pictures of people hiking with dogs, announcing they just entered a trial, and pictures of a delicious-looking home-cooked dog meal someone spent at least 30 minutes preparing.

When we meet up with other dog people, this is what we talk about, too: someone’s getting ready for their BH, someone else didn’t have a good day at a show, but stood up for their dog and made sure they felt safe, someone else took their dogs on a play date, and someone else yet tells us about the goings-on at the local obedience club they volunteer at.

Let me tell you a secret: just because people actively doing stuff with their dogs is all we see and hear about doesn’t mean this is all there is. Just because everyone seems to have all the time in the world to meet all the needs their dog may have or develop doesn’t mean they really do this all day, every day. They probably work, in order to be able to afford meeting all these needs. And occasionally, they sleep. They fight with their significant others, teach their children how to brush their teeth, they are stuck in traffic for an hour, visit their parents, and shop for groceries and Christmas presents.

It’s easy to capture and share perfect moments on social media. Every day has some of them, surrounded by lots of mundane stuff that has little to do with dogs, and isn’t worth posting a picture of.

My days have mundane stuff, too, and the part of my life I spend working with other people’s dogs is often bigger than the part that I spend with my own. And still: I’m a good dog owner, and if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure so are you. I believe my dogs have well-balanced, rich lives. They get off leash hikes, R+ training, food toys, cuddles on the couch, and they have social relationships with both humans and dogs. I love my dogs. I’m one of these people who post pictures and videos on facebook all the time.

You probably already know that, so let’s talk about the things that usually get swept under the dog bed instead. I love Fanta, Phoebe, Grit, and Game. And yet, there are days when I wish I didn’t have dogs! Yep – I wish I didn’t have even one of them. I’m a freelance writer, editor and translator, and I own a small dog training business. With rare exceptions, I work 7 days a week. That’s fine – I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But sometimes, when there’s just too much on my plate, when I’m stressed out and tired and my head hurts, I’m trying to finish a book project, see clients, get groceries, write an article for a dog sports magazine, do the laundry, clear my forums, and listen to a friend who just went through a divorce … Then I wish I didn’t have dogs. I wish I could finish the day’s work, get in my car, and drive to a spa. I’d check into a big, luxurious room with a big double bed and a view over something gorgeous. I’d take a steaming hot shower with several ridiculously tiny bottles of hotel bath products. Smelling like vanilla and almonds, I’d get out of the shower (after at least an hour), and slip into one of these incredibly soft, white bathrobes, and I’d walk barefoot, leaving wet footprints on the floor, back into the bedroom. I’d order room service, and I’d zip through the TV channels on a big flat screen TV while lying on my bed and picking on something delicious. I’d watch some romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet – nothing profound, please, but corny enough to make me cry. I’m on vacation. I’d order a lava cake for dessert, or creme brulee, or something else with a French name that sounds much better than it tastes – in this fantasy, it tastes fantastic, of course. And then I’d fall asleep in the big, white, cozy and dog-hair-free bed. It would be so comfortable that I could immediately fall asleep, without thinking about work or life or anything else, like I usually do. I’d have the best kind of dreamless sleep, and I’d sleep in (something else I rarely do). Then I’d get up and splurge on a fantastic breakfast buffet. Later, I’d go to the pool and hang out and soak in the water, and lie in a deck chair and re-read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or something like that: good, yet easy to read. At some point, I’d get up and have a massage. It would smell good and there would be relaxing music in the background, and the masseuse would help me get rid of all the tension and stress in my shoulders. I’d feel wonderful. I’d have lunch, and then hang out in a whirlpool, and then have a nap, and then order more room service, and take a bubble bath in a triangle-shaped bathtub in my huge bathroom under a palm tree.

On days like this, sometimes, I don’t take my dogs for a walk, and I don’t train them. Instead, they get to spend the day running around the yard together and hanging out next to me while I work, chewing on a bully stick. Did anything exciting happen that day? No, not at all. Was it a bad day for a dog? No, it wasn’t – it was just a day where nothing exciting happened. And you know what? That’s okay. Even for a Malinois. (And, which is more surprising, even for Phoebe.)

I’ve never stayed at a spa hotel overnight, by the way – I don’t have time for stuff like this, and I can think of countless things I’d rather spend my money on than spa vacations. I probably wouldn’t like the real spa experience as much as my imaginary one, anyways – I might get bored doing nothing all day. I’m not used to this. It might be quite scary. My imaginary spa vacation is perfect though. I’ve perfected the art of imagining it to the point where I’ll lie in bed and imagine the massage part in so much detail that my shoulders will actually feel better by the time I get up.

The next day, I’ll be back to being a happy dog owner, and we’ll train again, or go for a long walk, or both. I won’t have loved them any less the day before. I just wished, for a moment or two, that I could press pause and step out of my life for a relaxing spa weekend. And that’s okay. We all get to do that sometimes – whether it’s our dogs, our children, or our significant others we need an imaginary break from. And I honestly believe it’s okay to give ourselves permission to do so.

Are there people who never wish they didn’t have dogs (or children, or significant others)? Probably. If you’re one of them – good for you! I’m not one of them though, and you know what? I’m okay with that. And if you’re like me, you should be okay with it, too.

The Development of Game’s Interests and Ability to Stay Engaged in a Class Environment

Time flies! Game is already 17 weeks old today. 17 weeks! That’s more than 4 months! It’s crazy.

A favorite colleague of mine invited us to use his puppy class for training and socializing Game. We’ve been going since I’ve had Game. We don’t participate in the exercises, but just hang out in the corner and work on our own things. It’s important to me that my puppies learn to be able to work in the presence of other dogs, and I really appreciate being able to use the puppies and their owners as a distraction for Game. We don’t join their play and socializing time, and we don’t stay for the entire hour, but only as long as it feels right for Game. The very first time, we were only there for a few minutes, and we stayed behind a fence, at a greater distance. The second time, we added a few minutes more, and so on, until we reached our current class time of between 20 and 30 minutes, which is plenty for any dog.

Since I discovered how to draw pie charts in Keynote the other day, I thought this would make a fun way to show you how the allocation of our class time has changed over the course of the last weeks!

The last two charts were drawn right after class. The earlier ones are reconstructed from my memory, so they are probably not 100% accurate. Still, it gives you an idea of how Game’s attention span and interests have developed!

I’d love to show you a video of how we work in the presence of other puppies, but unfortunately, I can’t film at the puppy class. So I’ll add a written explanation instead. Feel free to comment if you have any questions!

11 to 17 Weeks Puppy Class Pie Charts Game

Let’s look at my categories in a little more detail!

How to read the pie charts

The slices of play, work, sniffing, looking, and check-ins you see in the chart represent the percentage of the class time we spent with each of these activities. However, they don’t happen chronologically and one junk at a time, but we circle back and forth between them. For example, in a 20-minute session, we might spend 3 minutes looking at stuff and sniffing, 2 minutes offering check-ins, engagement, and extended focus, 4 minutes playing and working, 1 minute sniffing and looking, 1 minute checking in and engaging, 2 minutes playing, 2 minutes working, another 2 minutes looking around and sniffing etc.

Play (blue)

Personal play and playing with toys (various tug toys, balls, Kong Wubba …). As for personal play, Game gets to climb on me while I lie on the ground, we play opposition reflex games, I turn away from her and she tries to find my face, and I tease her, trying to grab her paws. As for playing with toys, we work on fetch, tug, out, the beginnings of shoving the tug in my hands, switch between different toys, switch between toy reinforcement and food, and going from high-arousal toy play to a food reinforcer for an easy behavior, and back to toys (switching between states of arousal). We also work on distinguishing different marker cues: tug (strike the tug toy) vs. chase (I’ll throw a toy for you to fetch). (1) Our play also includes engagement elements.

Work (green)

The distinction between work and play really is an artificial one. I try to make “work” and play equally fun. When I say “work,” what I mean is we practice the behaviors we’ve already worked on at home: first, I introduce them in a distraction-free environment, and then, we take them on the road. So far, the skills I have worked on in puppy class include:
+ come when called (verbal cue “Ygame!”)
+ distinguish between different marker signals (good = keep doing what you’re doing; I’ll deliver the treat right into your mouth; click/tongue click = I’ll give you the treat, and the behavior is over; ok, get it = I’ll throw a treat for you to chase; treats = I’ll scatter a few treats for you to search for in the grass). Our work includes various elements of food play in the different reward sequences.
+ hand touch (and verbal cue “touch”)
+ tuck sit (verbal cue “sit”)
+ stand (lured or hand signal)
+ fold-back down (lured or hand signal)
+ front feet on disc
+ touch a vertical target
+ chin target
+ mouth a retrieve object (a piece of garden hose)
+ walk over the A frame
+ climb/jump on a low table (food lure or hand touch)

Auto check-ins/Auto check-ins and extended focus (yellow)

This is me clicking whenever Game offers eye contact/looks in my direction. The first two sessions (11 and 12 weeks), there’s only auto check-ins, but no extended focus: Game would occasionally glance at me, but look away right away. That’s okay – I knew the duration would come.

From her third time at the puppy class onwards, Game has been able to give me extended focus: she didn’t need to look away after the fraction of a second, but could keep her focus on me longer and longer, up until a few seconds. When I saw her ability to do so grow, I started marking not only for looking at me, but for keeping up the eye contact, and I started rewarding several times in a row. This is also when I started going from offered focus to extended focus to a little play. Game stayed engaged when I played with her, starting from her third time at the puppy class. I didn’t have to work hard to keep her attention – she had told me she was ready, and I responded with short play sequences. I always make sure I end the play while Game would still like to continue.

Look at Stuff (orange)

Look at stuff is just that: looking at the world. In the puppy class situation, the world includes the other puppies (an aussie, a lagotto, a dachshund, and two staffordshire bullterriers) and their people (men, women, and a 6 year old girl). It’s an outdoors class, so there’s also the occasional bird to be looked at, and various passers-by outside the training field: people on bikes, hikers with dogs, nordic walkers, cars). It’s not a heavily trafficked area, but there are a few people passing by every time. Plus, of course, there is training equipment in the training field.

You can see in the charts that the first three times, Game had to do a lot of looking. Everything was new – of course she had to look! I didn’t worry about it. We came into the training field (or the adjacent field, in case of the very first class), and I’d just let her look for as long as she wanted. I stayed at a distance where she’d be okay looking and didn’t need to fight the lesh, trying to get to the people or dogs. With Game, I never, not even once, asked for engagement. She’s environmental, and I’m not sure I could win. So rather than trying to compete with the environment, I gave her all the time she needed. Eventually, she’d look back every time, and I could click and reinforce that. The first part of every class we were just hanging out and looking at stuff. Then, there were a few clicks for auto check-ins. The time Game needed to look at stuff before she was ready to check in grew shorter and shorter every time. By the third session, she began offering extended focus after a few auto check-ins. And again, with each new session, the extended focus happened sooner and sooner.

So the biggest junk of looking happens at the very beginning of a new class. Then we’ll go to check-ins, extended focus, and eventually play, and then work. After a circle like this, I circle back to looking at stuff and/or sniffing. Game is a puppy – I don’t expect her to pay attention for several minutes at a time! There’s maybe three minutes of doing stuff, and then I encourage her to sniff or look at the world again. She’ll do that, and once she’s done, she’ll let me know with check-ins. When she gives me extended focus again, she’s letting me know she’s ready for another round of play and work. The time we keep playing and working grows longer the older she gets.

I don’t want to overwhelm the environment, and I don’t want Game to forget her surroundings. That’s why I keep going back to looking and sniffing after each little round of work and/or play.

I stay connected to Game when she is watching the world by her leash. Sometimes, I’ll also sit down with her, calmly stroking her back while we both observe the class together.

Sniff (red)

Game loves to sniff. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a nose-driven dog since Snoopy, my Dachshund. Game can spend a long time sniffing a leaf, or a twig, or an interesting spot on the ground. She can even spend a long time sniffing my pants or shoes when I come home, savoring every scent molecule of information.

Like with looking at stuff, I doubt that I can compete with sniffing, and I don’t worry about it too much. Game is a dog, and dogs like to sniff! So when we get to a new place – such as the training field that lots of different dogs and people have walked through since we were there the last time -, Game gets time to sniff and look around until she lets me know she is ready to work. Every time we go, she has needed a little less time to sniff and look. This reinforces me for my approach and let’s me know I’m on the right track.

In between play and work sessions, I’ll also give Game opportunities to go back to sniffing. Sometimes I’ll cue “Treats!” and scatter a few treats for her to find in the grass. Sniffing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s relaxing and helps to ground the dog because it requires her to breathe consciously, like we do when we do a breathing exercise.

In the first 4 sessions you can see in the pie charts, I stayed in the same general area of the training field for the entire time. There were more than enough new impressions there! The last two times, I’ve walked a few meters around the periphery between our play and work sessions, giving Game time to look and sniff as we strolled forward on a loose leash. She gets to sniff the ground, the equipment, the water bowl … until she lets me know she’s ready for another round of play and work.

(1) If you want to learn more about how to improve your training by means of using different marker cues, check out Shade Whitesel’s toy classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Grit and Game: Similar, but Different …

I just LOVE seeing Game develop and thinking back to Grit at the same age. They are the same breed, after all – but from two very different lines, and two very different personalities. It’s fascinating how much variation there can be within one and the same breed!

Let’s look at them through the categories Denise Fenzi developed in Train The Dog In Front of You:

Grit (Igrit vom Heustadlwasser)
Austrian IPO line

Grit as a puppy

Grit as a puppy.001

Grit today

Grit today.001

In many respects, Grit is exactly what I’m looking for in a dog. I’ve never had a dog I found as much fun to train and live with, and I honestly can’t imagine I’ll ever love a dog as much as her. She has four qualities the person and trainer I am today loves in a dog: she’s a serious dog (as opposed to a goofy one), she is a one-person dog (as opposed to a very social one), she’s got a perfect balance between handler focus and environmental focus, is biddable and has lots of working drive, but medium energy (the perfect combination), and she is able to think when under stress (which can be eustress or distress – she can problem-solve even if her arousal is high because of a toy, and she is able to listen to me even if she’s in a situation she is overwhelmed by). She is extremely smart and learns well by shaping. Puppy Grit really was perfect. The one thing I’m not so happy with in Grit today is the fact that she developed a fear of people. She had one bad experience at a highly impressionable time in her life (when she was 6 months old), and having the wrong experience at the wrong time triggered a general weariness of people. We’re working on it, and it’s slowly getting better – but at this point, it’s hard to imagine her being happy in a trial environment (and I wouldn’t want to take her there if she felt bad). But we’ll see what the future brings. Step by step, I’m trying to help her re-discover her confidence.

Game (Ygame van’t Merlebosch)
Dutch KNPV line

Game as a puppy

Game as a puppy.001

Grit was a self-confident puppy – Game is even more self-confident. She is fearless when it comes to new people and dogs. Unlike Grit, who would challenge new dogs even as a puppy, Game is open and friendly to new dogs and people. Game is also my first environmentally focused dog since Snoopy: Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley, Grit – none of them are environmental. Game is interested in everything around her, particularly all these interesting sights and smells! Currently, the world is more fascinating than me – but we’re working on it, and I can see that she is able to engage better and better. I also haven’t had a nose-driven dog since Snoopy! Game loves to follow her nose and explore the scents of the world. I’ve promised her she’ll get to do nosework! She has more trouble learning through shaping, and learning in general, then Grit had at this age. But we’re getting there and improving a little bit most days. Game is higher power than Grit. That is to say, she is determined to get what she wants – and she’ll complain or fight back if she doesn’t get it. I also suspect that Game is what people call a hard dog (which is not unusual in KNPV dogs). She has a high pain threshold, and she works for the reinforcers rather than in order to please me. She’s still a puppy, so these qualities aren’t written in stone. I believe that biddability is at least partly built by means of the relationship we develop with our dogs. Since I’m plannin gon building a great relationship, I’m positive that her biddability will increase, and her hardness will not. She has already started caring more about my opinion than when we first met. For example, she will now let me redirect when she’s puppy-biting my sleeves or tugging on my pants: unless she’s overly tired and overexcited, she’ll be like, “Oh, I see, you don’t want me to tug on that or bite that? What can I bite or tug on instead?” And I respond by offering an alternative. Her attention span and her rate of auto check-ins has already increased, and I am starting to see her happiness to play and work with me awaken.

Training Challenges

I see two training challenges in Game’s future: her environmental focus, and her lower biddability, which – unless I change it – will make it hard to work when I don’t have access to classic reinforcers. Again, she’s a puppy, so this may well change completely in the course of the relationship we develop! Most of these categories aren’t really suited to be applied to puppies anyways. But it’s fun to do all the same: I’m taking a snapshot of the puppy in front of me right now.

I’m excited about this new training challenge, particularly the environmental part. When I had Snoopy, I really struggled with his environmental focus. I’m excited about tackling the same challenge with the knowledge and greater experience that I have today. I’ll keep blogging about how I work with it, since I think the approach I’m taking is non-traditional (and, like so many things, inspired by FDSA).

It’ll be interesting to see if and how both dogs change in the course of time. Personality traits are a result of both genetics and environment. There is a STRONG genetic component – it sets the frame of what is possible for a given dog. That frame is always a lot smaller than the entire scale – but it’s still a frame, not just a point. What point within this frame the dog falls on can change depending on her environment and her experiences. Think of human traits like introversion and extroversion. You’re usually born an introvert or extrovert and stay that way all your life. However, it’s entirely possible to start out as a strong introvert, and get more and more social in the course of your life. You’ll still be an introvert, but you’ll have moved away from extreme introversion and more toward the middle of the scale. You’ll surround yourself with people more often and need a little less time to recharge.

In Grit’s case, you can see that two values have already changed between her puppyhood and now: both her confidence and her handler hardness decreased. I’ve lots to say about these two factors and how and why they changed – but that’s a post for another time.

Dog sports “just for fun”?

Chrissi Phoebe

The other day, I read a great article by Susan Garrett, and it inspired me to comment on something I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while. I occasionally meet pet dog owners who scuff at people who want to succeed in dog sports. They themselves do it “just for fun,” and they strongly believe that this is the way to go. Tom is one of them – he compares serious competitors in sports like agility or obedience to parents who push their kids, and assumes that dog sports people tend to see their dogs as performance machines rather than family members. A happy dog would rather get to do dog sports “for fun,” but not with the goal of achieving greatness.


I disagree. As Susan Garrett aptly puts it:


Champions in any field [take] what other people find boring or uncomfortable and turn that into a game that they will love to play every day.


And that holds true for people and dogs. If your dog is not having the best time of his life in the ring, he’ll check out. He won’t work. Or if he does, well, you certainly won’t win. When it comes to the teams who win world championships, both human and dog love what they’re doing, and they’re having a blast every time they enter the ring. If either dog or human don’t embrace every second of the time they’re working together, things will fall apart in a competition environment (where you can’t have tangible reinforcers on you to bribe an unwilling dog), and even if they teach their dog that “disobedience is not an option,” their performance will be mediorcre at best.


Truly successful dog sports competitors know how to have fun with their dog. They turn training and competing into a game and into their dog’s favorite activity. And they are much better at reading their dogs than the average pet dog owner: doing things with their dogs is their passion and their calling, not “just a hobby”. And they spend time, money and effort on getting to know their dogs as well as possible, on educating themselves on scientifically and ethically sound training methods. They bond extremely closely.


I’m not one of these people. I like dog sports, but I’ve never competed. I would like to, at some point – but only after finding a venue I’m comfortable with, and once I feel that Phoebe and I are ready for it.


Phoebe Frisbeeee


However, I’d say that when working with my dogs, I definitely feel like I’m doing it not “just for fun”. For me, focus, engagement and fun come first. Once I have these factors, I go for precision and excellence. I don’t necessarily need to be at a dog sports club to work on these things – I like persuing these goals in front of busy supermarkets, at the dog park, at IKEA and at the hardware store. These challenges might be different than the ones that you face when working up to perfect ring performances, but to me, they’re equally intriguing. Can I get Phoebe to be in the game near a playground? Surrounded by people pushing shopping carts and honking cars? Can I get her to focus on me, be in the zone with me, to a degree that neither of us hears or sees what’s going on around us? Can you spend time at a busy place, look into your dog’s eyes, and enter a space where only the two of you exist, and you communicate as well as if you were reading each other’s minds? Can you whisper your cues rather than shout them, and then explode forward into an energetic game of tug? Well – can you? That’s what I’m going for, no matter where I am. There are places where Phoebe and I are pretty good at this, and others where we struggle. There are days when Phoebe tells me she can’t concentrate – and that’s okay. She gets to say “No” whenever she doesn’t feel well, just like me. Training together will always be a privilege for both of us – never an obligation.


And then there are the people who do dog sports “just for fun”. I’ve been going to a “just for fun” agility group twice a week. Why? Because Phoebe likes agility, and the trainer at this club mostly lets me do my own thing, which I appreciate.

As I’ve been watching the other people in class, I often wonder what they’re hoping to achieve. Many of them are clearly frustrated with their dogs half the class time. And so are the dogs with their owners. Neither of the other dogs in class are in tune with their owners. There is a Bearded Collie struggling at the end of his leash, barking his head off for minutes on end. There is a scruffy terrier mix  who, as soon as her owner lets her off leash for their next run, takes off to look for and inhale rabbit poop on the agility field. She’ll run after him, calling, he’ll ignore her, she’ll eventually catch him and drag him behind her on his leash, scolding him while he ducks away from her, lifting a front leg, licking his lips, tail between his legs. There’s a Rottweiler who’ll often just get the zoomies and rush around the agility field, making it hard for his owner to get him back. There’s the sensitive Golden who’s reluctant to go through the tunnel sometimes. The trainer will hold him on one end, the owner will call him from the other end, and if he doesn’t want to go through by himself, they’ll try to push him into the tunnel. As for learning the weave poles, dogs are dragged around them on their leashes.


Are we having fun yet?


I’m not so sure. Owners are frustrated. Dogs are confused and, well, yes, they’ll have a fun run or two every once in a while, but at least half the class time, they would rather be doing something else. The owners are not reading their dogs’ body language, but standing around the field, complaining about their stubbornness.


Phoebe, on the other hand? Well, she’s there with me. She wants to be there. She can’t wait for me to give her the next cue. Her eyes are locked into mine. When we don’t run, we do other things. We practice fronts and finishes, proof tricks, and work on longer and longer down stays. Yes, I’m not teaching her to be ignored and be okay with it in this class environment. That’s okay: two hours a week, we get to train at a club. Around other, mainly crazy and unfocused dogs, some of them will uncontrollably rush up to her. It’s a perfect challenge, and we savor every minute of it. I’m not there to chat with the other owners. I’m there with my dog. She’s not there to look for rabbit poop. She’s there to work with me. We are not great at agility (and we’ll probably never be, because I don’t have my own agility playground, so I don’t get to shape and practice stuff as often as I would like), but we’re the only true team in this group of people who are there “just for fun”. And I think we’re pretty much the only ones who are having a good time every time, and from start to finish.


Phoebe lachend


It hasn’t always been like this. Phoebe is almost 3 years old now. I’ve repeatedly taken her to various group classes. In the beginning, my RoR had to be extremely high in order not to loose her, and I usually left after 20 to 30 minutes of class-time. Sometimes, I’d just spend the time outside the training field, playing look at that or settle on a mat/in your crate games, then go home again.  Phoebe, who’s focus is brilliant in most places today, was a crazy and all-over-the-place adolescent from 6 months to 2.5 years. It got better and better (and sometimes worse again), but we were never in a hurry. The dog sets the pace, and the dog determines what games we play, and what she’s ready for. I love a good challenge, and Phoebe has certainly been one.


From day one, she has been the perfect puppy for me, and she kept being the perfect puppy for me all through her phases of fear, of child/dog reactivity, of wanting to chase joggers, of having zero concentration, of being hyper-vigilant and overstimulated in public … I’ve always loved the dog in front of me; the individual I woke up to on any given day, and I’ve enjoyed figuring out the best way of getting through to her today.


I think one of the most important things I did, though, was that I always stuck up for her. If I didn’t feel comfortable working somewhere or doing something, I politely thanked the person, took my dog and left. I made sure she could always feel safe. She wouldn’t have to stay at an environment she wasn’t ready for, she wouldn’t have to be forcefully held by a groomer when she was scared of the clippers, she wouldn’t be lifted up on the vet table by a scary-smelling vet if I could do it myself, I did not let other dogs bully her, and whenever I joined a class or trainer who turned out to not be a good match for Phoebe and me, we left.


Phoebe and Moon


And however crazy she was in her adolescence, there are two things – just two things, the two most important things for me – I always insisted on: she had to have a bomb-proof recall in order to be off leash. And she had to walk nicely on a loose leash when on leash. Not doing the former meant being confined to the leash, going back to kindergarten in that respect and re-explaining what a recall meant, or staying home. Forgetting about the latter meant staying home, going back to kindergarten in terms of re-explaining LLW, or wearing the one harness I let her pull on. (Sometimes, you need to get from A to B. It’s useful to have a piece of equipment where you don’t care about pulling in order not to ruin your training by means of intermittent reinforcement.)


Today, I have a dog who’d work for cardboard. A little workoholic. She’s still an impatient dog, but that’s alright. She’s the perfect dog for me. And while we’re having fun together when we train, we don’t train “just for fun.” We train because we both love it. It’s our game, and we take it seriously: It’s what we do, the way we bond. Every shaping game is an conversation with the complex little person in front of me. And she’s challenging me to keep learning and growing with every look from her dark-brown eyes. There are no perfect dogs. But there is the perfect dog for me – and I’ve got her; she’s spending her life with me.

Do you ever wake up to a wet nose in your face and marvel at how lucky you are?

Co-Parenting is hard! Part 2

What’s next? Tom and Hadley are becoming more and more of a team. Twice a week, they’re attending adolescent dog class, and I think they are having fun together. They’re also trying out new things and had their first mantrailing session the other day. Hadley likes using his nose, so Tom thought this might be something for the two of them. Furthermore, Tom has started playing with the thought of actually giving herding a shot. This might be very exciting for the little rascal, since he’s been trying to herd birds for a while, and both his parents are working sheep. I also know that his brother, who is still with the breeder, is showing good herding potential. So chances are Hadley will have fun with sheep as well.


As Tom got more involved, I stepped back and resumed the role that was originally supposed to be mine: Hadley’s dog-sitter while Tom is at work. Since I mostly work from home, Hadley gets to hang out with Phoebe and Fanta and me and joins us on our long afternoon walks and hikes. Due to The Adolescence sending his recall out the window, Hadley has lost his off-leash privileges with me and goes for walks on a 10-meter-leash unless we’re in a safely enclosed area. And that’s it – no more training for Chrissi.


It has been really hard to step back, because I had been quite involved in the beginning. I have seen how fast Hadley learns by shaping, how fun he is to work with (for example, he’s less body pressure sensitive than Phoebe and getting him to heel nice and close is so easy; I love it! He’d be great for precision obedience work!). I also love how gentle he is – it’s easier to channel his energy into drive rather than frantics than it is with Phoebe. Yep, I miss having a BC pup to train! Even now that he’s turning into an adolescent brat who conveniently forgets what a recall is, I’m chomping at the bit to take on the challenge and work through this difficult time in a growing dog’s life. But – no. It’s Tom’s job now, and that’s good.


Clearly defining our roles has definitely been good for our relationship, and for Tom’s and Hadley’s relationship as well. Tom’s approach to many things is different from mine, and while it’s sometimes hard to step back and trust that he and Hadley will find their own way, I think I’m slowly getting better at it. I also think that giving your partner the freedom to do things their own way is a healthy skill to have – so this is a good learning opportunity for me.


It’s interesting – different couples develop different startegies for dealing with multiple dog households without driving each other crazy. I’ve met people who fight about the right training method all the time, people who share one philosophie and train all their dogs together, people who strictly separate between “your dog” and “my dog”, people where one person is in charge and the other one follows their instructions, and people who’ve defined separate jobs related to the same dog (e.g. one person does obedience and the other person herding, or one person does anything related to training, and the other person takes the dogs running and mountainbiking and feeds them dinner). Tom and I have tried a few methods, and for now, the “your dogs” vs. “my dogs” approach seems to be working best for us. I’m responsible for Phoebe and Fanta, and Tom is responsible for Hadley. We don’t get into each others’ way (well, it’s mostly me learning how not to get into Tom’s way), but, of course, still stick together and help each other out when needed.


However, from seeing Hadley grow up and getting to do lots of the early socialization work, I now know for sure that I love BCs as a breed, and that I want another puppy of my own to train. I want a competition obedience dog, a performance puppy. And I want a herding breed. Not necessarily a BC, but definitely a herding breed. Not right now, no. But next fall, when Tom and I are getting a bigger place, there should be space for a new pup. So … 😉

Read Part 1 of Co-Parenting is hard.

Co-parenting is hard!

Holy shit, that stuff is hard, and hard is a euphemism for impossible!  So we’ve decided to go back to the original plan: Hadley will mainly be Tom’s responsibility – he is his dog, and the more I do with Hadley, the less Tom gets to do. So while I will still keep Hadley company when Tom is at work, take him on walks and fun outings with the rest of the crew, and love him just as much as Phoebe and Fanta, all other training and mental stimulation will be Tom’s job. And of course, we’ll keep working together to solve the potentially obsessive floor-digging riddle and help Hadley become as happy and OCD-free as he can be.

Up until now, I ended up doing most training. I’ve spent a lot of time with Hadley during the day, since I mostly work from home. This way, I got to know him well – probably better than Tom, who has an office he goes to every day. I saw what Hadley needed and provided it for him: desensitizing and counter-conditioning to scary stuff, getting him used to various challenging environments (city, public transport), socializing him with dogs and children and people in wheelchairs, providing him with enrichment, shaping games and walks.

When Tom got home at night, a content puppy was waiting for him, ready to have some cuddles with his dinner and then fall asleep. For the most part, Tom didn’t need to worry about training, mental stimulation, or exercise, since I had already taken care of this. Consequently, he worried about other things that nobody else was taking care of instead, like work and finishing his phd. However, Tom still got to call the shots as far as Hadley was concerned – after all, Hadley is his dog. And this turned out to be more and more frustrating for me: because I was investing a lot of time and effort in raising Hadley, he felt more and more like “my” dog. I was doing more with him than I had ever planned on doing, but did not get to raise him the way I would if he had been “my” puppy.

Now that Hadley is an adolescent, he has started needing more activities to engage his BC smartness, so my investment grew even further – and to a point where I got angry at Tom and felt like he “ruined” my cues when he was using them differently than I was. This clearly wasn’t working: Hadley was turning into my dog, which was frustrating for Tom, and I felt that I had somehow ended up with all of the responsibility without getting to do things my way. Luckily, in contrast to other species, the human animal can reflect on its actions. We decided to change what we were doing, because the current approach hasn’t really been working for us. Clearly defining our jobs regarding Hadley has already made things easier and gotten rid of conflicts, and has brought Tom and Hadley closer together, and it has also taken the frustrating parts out of our relationship again. I’m really relieved – Tom’s my favorite person and sharing a life with him feels different than any past relationships. I want us to be happy together and kiss at red lights when we’re riding in a car together rather than fight about how to raise a puppy!

When it comes to dogs, it turns out, we have different ideas and approaches, and I don’t think we’ll be training together anytime soon. That’s okay, it just means that it has to be clear who is responsible for what.

It is nice to see that Hadley is now really turning into Tom’s dog, and in the 7 or so days that Tom has been spending more time training, walking and playing with him, I think they’ve already grown closer. After all, that’s what it should be like to have a four-legged best buddy. That’s what it’s like for me with Phoebe and Fanta, and I want Tom to have the same kind of relationship with Hadley.

Right now, the two of them are taking their first 1-on-1 lesson at AHA. I hope they’re having fun – I’m not the right kind of trainer for the two of them, but I’m glad that Tom found someone to help him out with BC adolescence related things, and help him train. Maybe he’ll even find his own community of dog people there and get into agility once Hadley is old enough.

While I’m glad we talked about this and decided that I would take a step back, training-wise, it also makes me a little sad that there won’t be any more fun shaping session with the little black-and-white rascal. I’ve done a lot with him these last months. Not as much as I would have done if I had brought him in to raise him as my puppy – I want my next puppy to be a performance puppy and would place a higher focus on teaching engagement and focus in any environment from an early age, and I’d do a lot more shaping, balance and body awareness exercises, and introduce him to group classes while still a puppy … But Hadley and I still did a lot together. I socialized him to dogs, children and people in wheelchairs and on skateboards and scooters, introduced him to city sounds and riding public transportation, got him used to wearing a muzzle and husbandry training … I shaped lots of tiny little throw-away behaviors, just to teach him to offer behaviors and be creative … I made sure we rode the car for a few minutes every day so he’d get more comfortable in it … I crate-trained him and made sure to reinforce calm behavior throughout the day in those early puppy days, and worked on Dr. Overall’s relaxation protocol … I did lots of food puzzles and fun recall training, and reinforced voluntary attention and good choices on walks, and worked on Hadley’s leash reactivity … Well, you know: basic puppy stuff and then some.

So on the one hand, I’m happier now that I don’t feel frustrated anymore – Tom is taking the responsibility for his puppy that initially, I had somehow ended up with. But I’m sad at the same time, since it was fun to have a puppy to train! Oh, so much fun! But that’s okay – I know that some day, there will be another puppy – the one I’ve been thinking about for about a year. I hadn’t decided what breed she would be yet. Border Collie was one possibility – I’ve been keeping an eye on the Firehillborders, and particularly on Uschi’s Border Collies von der Saußbachklause ever since I met Tina’s red merle girl Anny, and on Lene Simonsen’s beautiful and talented BCs. Another option was a Kelpie, or perhaps a working-line Aussie … Or maybe something completely different. We’ll see – once Hadley is a little older and I have a bigger house. For now, I have time to focus on Phoebe again. We’ll give agility another chance: while the group classes weren’t for us, Phoebe and I will be taking private lessons with Angelika Heitmann in February. We can’t wait 🙂

I’m going to stop documenting  Hadley’s and my training adventures, since they are about to end. So you’ll be reading more about Phoebe and Fanta again. In any case, here’s a few more glimpses at the things the little rascal and I did together in his first 3 months with us. A few newer videos, and some older ones I hadn’t uploaded before. I think I did a nice job helping Hadley have a good start as a city dog, and overcome his various fears. But now it really is Tom’s turn!

FDSA Performance Fundamentals with Deb Jones and Judy Keller at Bronze, Weeks 2 & 3:

More settle on your mat training at a department store:

Working on off-leash encounters with dogs:


Recall training via Premack Principle – using leaves as reinforcer, and using playing with other dogs as reinforcer.

Shaping “Head Down”:

A session of the relaxation protocol (Day 2):

What Should a Puppy Learn in His First Year?

Well, what should a puppy learn in his first year? You’ll probably get as many answers as you ask trainers and handlers, and there is no single right answer to this question. With every new puppy I meet, my own philosophy gets further refined, and as science discovers new truths about the development of animals, my ideas change, sometimes subtly, and sometimes radically. Let me share the puppy and young dog training answer I’d give you today.

Nayeli Phoebe Puppy

I believe that every dog is an individual, and the amount of exercise and action needed on the one, and relaxation needed on the other hand varies from dog to dog. I also believe there are general things that are true for most puppies of a certain breed, and there are other things that are true for most puppies of any breed whatsoever – and there are also things that differ from dog to dog, from one individual to the next. The things I’m going to focus on today are the ones that I consider important for every puppy and young dog, no matter whether big or small, working or toy group.


The first level – a foundation for behavioral health.


  1. A dog should learn to be comfortable just “being in the world”.

1A. Being confident and curious around people (adults, children, quiet ones, running ones, people on bikes, skateboards etc.), and not startled by their touch.

1B. Being confident and curious around other dogs (off-leash and on-leash, big ones and small ones, calm ones and active ones etc.)

1C. Being able to relax at home even when not tired and exhausted.

1D. Being able to relax out in the world even when not tired and exhausted.


  1. A dog should learn to be comfortable in his own skin.


These are the two single most important skills – everything else, in my opinion, is secondary. Everything else (from basic pet dog manners to dog sports skills) can be taught to adult dogs as well as to puppies. However, being comfortable and confident “just living” is something that should be taught during puppyhood – the longer you wait to socialize your dog, for example, the harder it will get.


The second level – greater life quality for the human & greater freedom for the dog.


The next important level increases the life quality for the human part of the team by means of making her dog easier to handle and an eager partner in crime, and the amount of freedom her four-legged partner can be allowed in a safe way: the more reliable your dog, the greater his freedom.


  1. A dog should learn how to learn, and that learning is fun.
  2. A dog should learn basic everyday skills:

4A. Peeing outside.

4B. Staying home alone.

4C. Walking on a loose leash.

4D. Coming when called.

4E. An appropriate way to greet people.

4F. An appropriate way to ask for attention.

4G. Riding the subway/wearing a muzzle/settling under a restaurant table/relaxing in a box if you’re planning to travel etc.

  1. A dog should learn things related to the kind of husbandry he will have to experience on a regular basis. (Brushing, clipping, trimming, cutting nails, getting a bath etc.)



The third level – foundations for sports and work.


Then there is nothing for a really long time, and then we come to the specific skills you expect of your dog. These can, but don’t have to be started in the first year. If you start them later – no worries. Even adult dogs can learn to excel at them. If you have a scared or anxious puppy, don’t worry about these skills at all, but spend 90% of your training time on points 1 and 2, and 10% on points 3 to 5. However, if you have a confident, happy-go-lucky puppy, now is a good time to lay the foundations for the future:


If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll want to build numerous reinforcers (food, toys, personal play etc.)

If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll work on building value for attention and motivation to work with you in distracting environments.

If you want to do agility, you may want to work on general body awareness and rear-end awareness in particular.

If you want to do pet therapy work, you might place an extra strong focus on enriched environments and introducing your dog to small kids, people on crutches, wheelchairs etc.

If you want to do obedience, you’ll make sure to not only teach a rockback pet dog sit, but a separate clean tuck sit, not only a relaxed hip-bent down, but also a sphinx down with a separate cue etc. from the very start.


Things handlers should learn in the first year with their dog.


  1. General canine needs – how much sleep, how much exercise, how much mental stimulation do dogs in general and your breed in particular tend to need?
  2. Get to know your dog as an individual: what does he like? What doesn’t he like? What games does he enjoy, what’s his favorite food, what’s his favorite sleeping spot, his favorite spot to be petted?
  3. Read your dog well in specific situations to predict and avoid stressful situations before they escalate. What does it mean if his body stiffens? If he wags slowly/fast? If he pricks his ears? What kinds of noises does he make, and what do they mean? etc.
  4. How to train animals in a scientifically and ethically sound, force-free way.


… This is it for the handler, in my mind – and believe me, this is a lot for first-time dog owners – and even for experienced ones!


I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences in the comments – what has worked for you in your puppy’s first year, and what hasn’t worked? I also hope to find some time to post videos about Hadley’s first months and the skills he acquired in those days in the next days/weeks. I’ve taken what feels like a gadzillion videos, but haven’t found the time to edit, upload and share them yet!