With Patience and Time …

Grit has been nervous around strangers since she had to stay at a vet clinic at 6 months of age. We’ve been taking it slow and focused on doing the things we enjoy.

For the first time since her surgery, I took her to a workshop last weekend. The presenter was Denise Fenzi, which made it a perfect opportunity to see how Grit would do in a training building. I wouldn’t have taken her to an indoors seminar in a small space if it had been a different trainer, but with Denise, I didn’t need to worry about being pushed to work Grit even if she was overwhelmed. Grit ended up having a really good experience, and so did I. I’m really happy with how she has started to improve! Day 1 of the workshop was about engagement and play … So going from acclimation to engagement to a little personal play worked nice for us, and Denise’s guidance was very helpful. The second day was Handler’s Choice for Obedience. I didn’t know if Grit would be at a good place to do work, and Denise said it was okay if she didn’t – then we’d just stick with acclimation and engagement. Grit did well and got to work and play a little on day 2 – she had really improved! I’m so happy she is regaining confidence around strangers!

I don’t have a video of the first time I took Grit into the training space – the first time was very brief, just a walk-through before everyone had arrived.

2nd time in the training space. I have no food and no toys on my body.

3rd time. I have food in case I need it, but Grit doesn’t know.

4th time. I have food, but Grit doesn’t know.

Day 2

5th time. I have food and a toy, but Grit doesn’t know.

The only goal here is to give her the opportunity to acclimate and feel comfortable. I don’t care if I will work or even play with her, but I want her to learn that nothing bad happens in this room full of people. Yes, the space was small, and yes, Grit was obviously nervous – but she improved quickly. This is because she is given all the time she needs.

It would be easy to ask Grit to do things for me, or to play with her right away. I’ve tested this – she is able to respond to cues even when she is quite uncomfortable and stressed, and she will play even when she is desperate and scared. She is drivey, and it is easy to overwhelm her fear with toy play or work. But she’d be tense and on edge, and she’d have moments of checking out and then back in again. I don’t want to build these negative emotions into training or play, so I choose to not go down this road. In scary environments, I want to give her the opportunity to look around, explore, and see that the world is a safe place. I want her to learn that I won’t let bad things come near her, and that I won’t let her go near bad things. In environments that aren’t scary, on the other hand, I work with her, play with her, train her, and have fun. And as time goes by, there will be more and more overlap between these two kinds of environments.

Dogs – and insecure dogs in particular – need leadership in order to feel safe. It’s easy to confuse this with not giving a dog the choice to keep her distance from the things that scare her, or forcing engagement and not allowing her to look around at all. Appropriate leadership depends on the situation as well as on the dog in question. In the situation you see in my videos, leadership means mainly that I prevent Grit from making bad decisions and getting closer to a stranger than she can handle. I don’t need to jerk on her leash to do this, and I don’t need verbal commands to control her – I just use the leash to stop her when she gets too close to someone she shouldn’t get close to. I should probably have kept the leash even shorter and prevented her from jumping up on her friends, too. But she did okay.

You can see that I’m not leading Grit by intimidation or force … Quite the opposite, actually. I’m not big or scary; I’m just myself. I try to forget about the other people in the room … It’s just me and my dog, and Denise’s guidance. We’re in a new space, but unlike Grit, I know it is a safe space. So I act like I do in safe spaces: I’m relaxed (once I have managed to forget about the audience), I talk to her about the people in the room, the smells on the floor and the objects she investigates, and I tell her she is a good girl. (You can’t hear me because the camera is so far away that it only picks up on Denise’s microphone, and I’m not talking loudly.) I let her investigate the room whichever way she wants, as long as she doesn’t put herself in a situation she can’t handle. I sit down and scratch her ears and her chest, like I know she enjoys. I am gentle and playful, like we are in our own living room.

You can see how my relaxation eases her worries, and that she comes to me for comfort. She has learned that she is safe with me, and when she gets stressed, she asks for emotional support.

All dogs are different. Some don’t like to be touched when they feel insecure. Grit likes it – emotional support and our invisible connection are huge for her. This is what gets her through the situation and helps her relax more and more. It’s not something we just did for the first time in this space. We have built this connection since her puppyhood – not because I expected to use it in this way, but because it is one of the ways I like to relate to my dogs. I make sure to maintain this kind of relationship throughout a dog’s life, and not stop interacting this way as soon as she is grown up. It gets woven into everyday life, into cuddles on the couch and morning rituals. It’s strong enough that we can take it with us to a new space like this. I’m happy with what Grit gives me here!

(If you want to improve your play and handling skills, check out Denise Fenzi’s Relationship Building through Play and Amy Cook’s Bogeyman class at FDSA!)

Ken Ramirez: a Seminar Review (1)

Last weekend, I got to attend a brilliant seminar with Susan Friedman, Ken Ramirez, and Helen Philipps. Phoebe and Fanta got to join me for a four-day training vacation in Puchberg am Schneeberg.



For the first time, I got to attend a lecture and learning lab with Ken Ramirez of Shedd Aquarium and Karen Pryor Academy fame. He talked about a number of fascinating training topics, four of which I want to share with you:


  1. Concept Training
  2. Training Multiple Animals
  3. Building non-food Reinforcers
  4. Shedd’s Dog Project


  1. Concept Training


Concept training is a specific kind of generalization or abstraction. For example, the concept “bird” does not only refer to the prototypical sparrow, but also to flamingos, ostriches, ravens, chickens and macaws. Understanding a concept means being able to apply a mental category to a novel situation, e.g. regognize a winged animal you’ve never seen before as a “bird”.


Examples for concepts we can teach to our dogs include modifiers (right vs. left, round vs. square, colors, numbers), space conceptualization (e.g. a guide dog knowing how tall his owner is and being able to guide her around low-hanging obstacles like tree branches or ladders sticking out of the back of a truck), matching to sample, adduction (the combination of well-known cues to form a new behavior), and mimicry.


What distinguishes the understanding of concepts from other kinds of cues is that in traditional training, dogs are taught to associate a praticular cue with a particular object (“ball” = this tennis ball) or a particular behavior (“sit” = lower your rear end to the ground). A dog who understands a concept, on the other hand, is able to apply a set of rules to a context he has never encountered before. He would, for example, be able to pick the ball out of a number of new toys – or he would be able to show you the bigger (or smaller) of two objects he has never seen before. He hasn’t simply learned the name of one particular object or behavior, but formed a mental model that allows him to draw inferences about novel situations.


It blows my mind that we can teach our dogs not only the names of things, but also abstract concepts. I was particularly happy about the opportunity to learn from Ken since I had just missed getting a spot in Claudia Fugazza’s seminar a week ago!




Concept training is a fun way to hone our training skills and our dog’s thinking skills. It’s not a necessity for most pet and sports dog owners, but a grand prix level behavior, as Alexandra Kurland would say.


Ken points out that before attempting concept training, our dogs should have a background in creative learning games and free shaping. They should also have good generalization skills; i.e. they should have experience not just with the fact that “down” means “down,” no matter whether you’re inside our out, at the dog park, in your living room or at a restaurant, but that “down” still means “down” when you’re out of sight, when you turn your back to your dog, when you’re lying on the floor, or when the cue is given by a different person. Furthermore, it helps to have a well-established default behavior that allows the dog to patiently wait and observe as you set up a training scenario, show your dog something, or give a set of cues.


Modifier Cues


Ken distinguishes 3 types of modifiers. Internal modifiers are objective and remain constant. An example of internal modifiers is left vs. right: they are always viewed from the dog’s perspective, and there is no confusion from the dog’s point of view – left always means her left, never someone else’s. External modifiers are variable and subjective, e.g. “big” vs. “small”: when compared to a golf ball, a tennis ball is big. However, when compared to a soccer ball, a tennis ball is small. Abstract modifiers are the most challenging ones. An example for abstract modifiers would be teaching numbers (counting).


Before you begin


Ken advises us to think about a number of points to consider before we start our concept training sessions:


Do you have your target behavior solidly on cue? That is to say, let’s assume you want to teach left vs. right. It’s best to not start with a new behavior, but use a well-established one. So before working on the differentiation of left and right, make sure the behavior you are planning to use – go into your crate, paw shake, retrieve, or target – is well established.


Ken further advised us not to dwell on one step too long: the longer you stick with one step, the more difficult generalization becomes for the animal. In concept training, we want the animal to recognize that she’s never done learning – the situation is always going to be different. Furthermore, Ken advises training in pairs from the beginning (i.e. using two rather than one objects from the first session onwards), and making sure to train in a relaxed atmosphere. If we’re going to adduct cues, Ken suggests deciding on the syntax first – it should always be consistant. An example would be Noun – Modifier – Verb: Ball – Large – Retrieve. In his own training, Ken uses the action cue (e.g. Retrieve) last. This eliminates the need for a a release signal, since as soon as the animal hears the action cue, he is off to do the job he has been told to perform.


Ken walked us through an example of internal modifiers and showed us a video of Coral, one of the rescue dogs participating in Shedd’s dog project, learning to discriminate left from right:

Photo 07-05-16 9 57 50 am

Coral learns to touch either the right or left target stick on cue.



Steps for teaching internal modifiers: 

1 Teach right and left with known behavior […]
2 Fade prompts
3 Increase distance
4 Change targets
5 Change behavior
6 Add obstacles
7 Increase complexity


Coral had “Target” solidly on cue, and had a default sit + eye contact. This allowed Ken to introduce the cues “left” an “right” from the very beginning. He sat Coral in front of the two targets, cued “right” and pointed to the target on the right target while saying “target”. Once this worked, he started fading the hand signals. Next, he increased the distance, and finally, he moved to a new set of objects (two kennels: “right kennel” and “left kennel”).


Of course, I had to try this with Phoebe! The behavior I chose is one she knows well: targeting a paw light. Here’s our first session:



Steps for teaching external modifiers:


Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 18.10.58


1 Determine objects to be used [Ken’s example was 4 cylindrical blocks as shown in the image above)]
2 Start with one of the extremes, either the smallest or largest size available.
3 With subjective, variable modifiers it is usually helpful to make sure one extreme is well understood before teaching the opposite modifier.
4 Pick a pair to begin with focusing on one extreme […]
a Vary location of objects
b Switch the non-target object often (in other words, if focusing on large, keep changing the small object so that it’s not the same – but always smaller. And the large object remains the same and constant)
c Once animal reliably understand [sic!] the extreme (largest of the objects), change it so that a smaller version of the object is now the large.
d Switch objects and vary which is large as soon as animal demonstartes that he is ready.
e Use errorless learning (error reduced learning) if needed.
5 Once first half of the modifier pair is well learned, move to the opposite extreme.
6 Switch regularly between the two – while also changing focus and non-focus objects and position.
7 When your animal is recognizing those two modifiers reliably well with one type of object, transfer to a second type of object.

Of course, I had to give this a try as well. I don’t know whether I’ll have the patience to truly teach the concept of size, but at least I started, and we had fun. Here’s a video of our 5th session:




Abstract modifiers: counting.


Ken told us about a project he’s been working on with rescue dog Coral: counting! Fascinatingly enough, Ken has taught her to count up to 14 (!) objects – and to do so faster than we could count them ourselves! Here’s an older video that shows the beginnings of the counting project with Coral:



Of course, I’m going to try this with Phoebe, too! I’m not ambitious enough to teach her to count up to 14, but counting up to 3 would be quite nice! In theory, it should be easy enough – probably easier than size discrimination: 1 object in a tray becomes the cue to touch target 1, two objects in a tray become the cue to touch target 2, 3 objects in a tray become the cue to touch target 3, and so on. I’ve already found myself a tray, a couple objects, and a number of targets. I’ll keep you updated as we get started.



Matching to sample 


Matching to sample is one way of using adduction. It is a concept that has always fascinated me: animals learn to point out an object identical to the one you indicate, and can even do so with novel objects.


Let me show you my favorite matching-to-sample video. It gives you a good idea of what matching to sample looks like. Plus, there’s a poodle in it!





Mimicry means observing another animal (of the same or a different species) and copying its behavior. Research on mimicry has been done with dolphins by the US Navy (1991), and with dogs by Claudia Fugazza (Do as I Do, 2014) and Ken Ramirez (2013). Interestingly, Ken and Claudia Fugazza didn’t know that they were both researching and working on mimicry, but independently, both came up with very similar protocols for teaching it. Ken taught dogs to copy each other’s behavior while Claudia taught them to copy a human’s behavior.


Ken showed us videos of dogs and marine mammals learning to mimic a known behavior they saw another animal of the same species perform, and then even mimic a novel behavior – one they had never performed in their lives. Wow – this is extremely impressive. Unfortunately, none of the videos Ken showed us are on youtube, so you’ll just have to go and visit his next lecture yourselves if you want to learn more about this fascinating topic. However, to get a little glimpse at what mimicry looks like, here is a clip from Claudia Fugazza’s latest Austrian seminar – the one I unfortunately didn’t get a spot at:



I’m already looking forward to Ken’s upcoming online course on concept training (probably at Karen Pryor Academy in 2017).


That’s it for now – I’m going to hit publish and save the remaining reviews of Ken’s topics for my next post. Stay tuned!





Seminar Dogs: settling, focusing, working.

Last weekend, I got to attend a brilliant seminar with Susan Friedman, Ken Ramirez, and Helen Philipps. Phoebe and Fanta got to join me for a four-day training vacation in Puchberg am Schneeberg.

I’m very proud of my puppies: they’ve come a long way since the last time we went on a seminar together.


When I adopted Fanta with about 2.5 years; he obviously had never lived in a house or attended seminar-like events before. After building a foundation of trust, we practiced: when I attended an event that allowed dogs, I’d bring him to my seat in the seminar room for a few minutes; he’d get a tasty snack inside; I’d protect him from people wanting to pet him or stare at him, and a few minutes later, we’d leave again and he’d get to go back and relax in his car crate. Just a small amount of exposure paired with high-value reinforcers, and then back to his safe space. I didn’t expect him to lie down back then; he wasn’t ready for that step yet.

This time, after thinking a lot about acclimation (thank you, Denise Fenzi!), I made a point of bringing Fanta in about five minutes before the lectures started. We’d walk through the room, he got to sniff the floor, investigate people’s bags, say hi to a dog or two. I had not done this much acclimation in this context before, and I think this was part of what made it easier for Fanta to settle. By the time we made it to my seat where his familiar mat was already waiting, he had had a few minutes to take in the room. I didn’t cue him to lie down. This choice was his – it’s not an easy environmrnt, and if you lie down between rows of chairs, you don’t see what’s going on around you! I wanted him to be able to freely make that choice when he was ready. If it turned out that he wasn’t ready, we’d leave and I’d bring him back to the car.


On all four days, he’d spend about 3 minutes looking around (he is so tall that he can look over the tables at the presenters and the screen), and then put his head in my lap so I could massage that particular spot behind his ears. He’d also approach our friend Kati, who was sitting next to me, and solicit a little massage from her, too. And then, about 3 minutes in, he’d lie down on his mat, put his head on his paws, and relax.

I am aware that this is still not Fanta’s most favorite environment, but he’s getting better and better. The time he took to settle and relax on his mat also became shorter every day. And once he was lying down, he was perfectly relaxed, licking the toe he likes to lick before falling asleep, assuming a relaxed posture with his weight shifted onto one hip and his legs stretched out to the side, and eating the occasional piece of hot dog that would materialize before him. I’m very, very proud of my big black boy. He’s come a long way.


Phoebe is an extremely active dog. She loves attending training events with me – the most challenging part for her is to relax rather than constantly offer behaviors. The little white workoholic used to have little frustration tolerance and a very hard time to just lie next to me and do nothing while in an atmosphere vibrating with the possibility of training.

I’ve been taking her to seminars ever since she was a puppy. And when she was a puppy, relaxing there used to work well enough. She was an excellent seminar poodle at Katie Sdao and Emily Larlham and the first rounds of my dog trainer course with Anne Lill Kvam when just a few months of age. Knowing how important it is to be able to switch from work mode to settle mode, I had practiced Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol, I exercised her before entering a seminar room, and I brought Kongs for her to chew and help her settle. She kept being a perfectly settled puppy at work, where I took her from an early age: she’d lie on her mat in the classroom for 3 hours while I taught German as a second language, chewing her Kong or sleeping. This behavior never deteriorated – I’m pretty sure because all we ever did in the language classroom was relax. However, in the seminar rooms where she was required to take turns working and relaxing, the onset of adolescence challenged her excellent manners.

Adolescence kicked in, and our beautiful settle-everywhere behavior went right out the window. We’ve been working hard to get it back, and at 2.5 years of age, we started getting it back. Last weekend – a month before Phoebe’s third birthday – she proved that she could be a perfectly well-mannered seminar dog again.

Another thing I’m pretty sure has helped is that we’ve been practicing settles in between agility runs, which is an even more challenging environment than a seminar room. Furthermore, this time, I made sure I let Phoebe acclimate before expecting her to settle. Like Fanta, she got a few minutes to explore the room, sniff the floor and the objects in it, take in the other dogs and people from a safe distance before we made it to her settle mat that was already waiting. Like Fanta, I didn’t ask her to lie down, but let the mat itself work its magic and cueing her to settle. And it’s been working wonderful.

On the days where our friend Kati, who was sitting next to us, didn’t bring her dog, the occasional reinforcement was all that was needed to do the trick. On the days that Kati had brought Phoebe’s playmate Jana, I reinforced her frequently for lying patiently on her mat: first, every 30 seconds, then every 45 seconds, then every minute. I gradually increased the time and used higher-value reinforcers when Jana was lying right next to Phoebe. I am aware that when doing this, Phoebe wasn’t entirely switching off – she was lying there in a relaxed body posture, but her head was up. She was looking around, but not about to fall asleep, and part of her attention was with me. But that’s okay – having Jana next to her and not being able to play or work is much harder, so the level of relaxation I’m expecting was lower.

Apart from taking her to the seminar room (with 80 human participants, some of whom had brought their dogs with them, too!), Phoebe and I also participated in Helen Phillips’ learning lab. I’m particularly proud of how well she dealt with this situation: there were about 40 people and 6 dogs in a relatively small room. People were clapping, laughing and clicking each other. Treats were being thrown into bowls, frequently missing and landing next to Phoebe – who didn’t try to go for them. An unfamiliar dog was right next to her. Wow, she did SO well! She had calm, focused attention on me, assuming a relaxed position on her mat and waiting for her turn:

When it was our turn to work with Helen, Phoebe kept doing a fantastic job: she gave me patient attention when waiting her turn. She focused on me, ready to work, not bothered by everyone around her. She didn’t impatiently throw behaviors at me. It was as if her and I were the only ones in that room.

Helen’s learning lab was about going back to the basics and fine-tuning our clicker skills and our treat delivery. My task was to neither use a treat bag nor hold the treats in my hand, but to put it in the pockets of my pants, wait for Phoebe to offer eye contact, and then throw her treats so she would break eye contact. Upon turning back, she’d have the oppprtunity to offer eye contact again. First, I used hot dogs, but since they were hard for Phoebe to see on the broun carpet, I switched to different treats in the second round. The second round, Helen instructed me to take the treats out of my other pocket and switch the clicker to the other hand.

It was a fun learning lab – particularly because I got to practice a simple behavior in a challenging environment. I’m proud of Phoebe, she’s done really well all weekend.

Only on the last day – day 4 – she had a bad start: there was a big big picture of a Border Collie on the screen, and she was looking. directly. at. her. Phoebe growled and barked at her, unable to take treats. Even after the background image was changed, she kept looking up as if she had to make sure the BC hadn’t come back. A little later, she noticed a Collie lying behind her, and jumped again. It wasn’t her day, so I took her back to the car to relax.

However, all in all, I’m very proud of my two four-legged friends. They have both come a long way, and it’s easy and fun to take them new places!