Acclimation and Engagement

The concepts of acclimation and engagement are the 2 things that changed my dog training the most in the last 5 years.  At that time I didn't really have any words to put to it and I muddled my way through it with Vito.  But it was game changing.  And painful.  Really painful actually as I spent more sessions not working than actually working Vito and often questioned if this was the right path.

Those 2 words were also a core concept last week at the Fenzi Dog Sports Camp.   If there is one topic I wish all teams would understand it would be this concept.  And yet is really hard to understand!

So what is it?

Acclimation is the easy part.  It is simply allowing your dog the choice to look around and get comfortable with an environment.  This may be done through a formal down stay or more commonly it is done by taking the dog on a walk through the environment while letting them see and smell the world.  

This is SO important for many teams.  I think it is a rare dog who is ready to start work in a new place without knowing where they are.  Some dogs have such a high love for their motivators that it can seem like they are ready.  Indeed Lance is one of those dogs.  He loves his cookies so much that I could ask him to work the second I got somewhere and he would, even without seeing the reward since he has been trained well to know that offering work usually pays off.  And with Lance I was lucky.  He's not a nervous dog and the fall out from working him right away would be minimal.  Thankfully I rarely did that.  Lance didn't need much acclimation time to truly give me his all, but giving him just 2-5 minutes would really pay off huge.  No little glances away in his work as he already knew what was around him and felt safe.

With Vito I could also work him right away if I had his magical ball.  And I DID do that years ago.  I tried the advice of getting Vito to go straight from the crate to work.  And if I had his ball nothing else mattered.  But with a dog like Vito who has anxieties about people pressure and who drastically loses motivation without an obsession to focus on, there was no way that approach was going to hold up in the ring when the rewards were gone.  And for some dogs it could backfire big time if they suddenly got too close to a trigger they didn't notice because they were obsessing about their reward. 

I took Vito's lessons and am now applying them to Zumi.  Zumi is more of a normal dog compared to Lance and Vito.  In a new place she wants to look and walk around a bit, but she also wants to check in frequently.  She can fool me into thinking she is ready to work before she really is.  Indeed she demonstrated this at the Camp this past week as Zumi offered sustained eye contact and even tried to further engage me a little bit just a few minutes in.  But I knew better.  I knew that if I didn't immediately shove a toy in her face that Zumi would very quickly go back to looking at the environment and that she needed to do so.  And I knew that if I did choose to shove a toy in her face and play that I could get a bit of work in, but that as soon as the action stopped and we worked on less intense behaviors then she would feel the need to look around some more.  At Zumi's stage in training I want more.  Just forcing her to walk around a bit and get more comfortable in her environment gave me the picture I wanted.  She felt comfortable and was capable of giving me her all.

Acclimation takes as long as it takes.  Some dogs are fast and are ready to work in under 5 or 10 minutes.  Other dogs might need a good hour in a difficult environment in order to feel safe and confident enough to work.  And often with Vito, well we might never get to that working piece.  And that's ok.  I know that in the long run it will pay off.  As dogs get used to the idea that they will get enough time to truly acclimate, it not only will take less and less time for the dog to do so but their work performance skyrockets as they don't feel the need to check out once work has started.

What about dogs getting ready to trial?  I still use acclimation to get my dogs used to an environment.  The difference becomes that everytime I go somewhere to work I acclimate my dogs outside of the ring, or designate an imaginary line that become my work-no work line.  My dogs can walk around and sniff in a designated area and then we work in a place they got to see but not actually walk in.  And that concept transfers perfectly to an actual trial where the dogs do not get to acclimate in the same ring they will work in.

Engagement is a more tricky concept.  It looks different with every dog and is hard to pin down.  But in general it is dog driving the work.  Denise Fenzi has written that "Engagement training is the process of moving responsibility for enthusiasm, focus and desire for work from the handler to the dog."  In early stages all the dog has to do is focus on the handler before the handler can start a party.  But the eventual goal is for the dog to work hard in order to get the handler to start play/work, all without seeing or knowing a reward is available.  That is some deep stuff!  

As I mentioned earlier, engagement looks differently from every dog.  Some dogs may just stare at you and wag their tail, others may jump up and maybe even bark.  The key with most dogs is getting them to move at you.  If you back away from your dog do they follow and keep focus?
The lines of engagement and personal play often start to blend.  If you don't reach for your rewards right away once the dog chooses to engage the question becomes will the dog continue to try and interact with you?  Can you use just yourself and no formal work cues to keep up your dog's focus and energy?  The dog making the true choice to work is thrilling and goes a long way to getting the same focus and energy you have when your dog sees your classical rewards to more advanced training when the rewards aren't on you.

In the ring you are stripped of all rewards.  There are no food, no toys, and certainly no corrections.  The only reward you can take in is yourself.  But if you've made it that far in your training there's a good chance you have a great relationship with your dog already!  Your dog chooses to work not just for the external rewards but for the whole package, including your attention, your praise, and your play.  That package of work, rewards and human interaction are blended and really can't be separated out.  Play may vary by your dog's temperament, but every dog can be taught how to engage in some form of personal play with you.

Here is Vito from a few months ago choosing to start the engagement process and gradually we flow into work. He is high as a kite in this session and is very pushy!  Note that if you're just starting out you will not get this type of response and some dogs will never look like this no matter how much experience they have.  In the below video you will also notice that while Vito does grab his dumbbell and I do some interactions with it, it's really not about the object:

And here is a much calmer Vito also starting the engagement process with me sitting in a chair.  But in this case he doesn't really mean it.  You can see how he looks around still and isn't really committed as I continue to ask him if he means it:

If I had chosen to ignore that and started work there is a good chance he would not have given me his full focus.  Or I would have needed to overwhelm him with constant food, toys, or high energy just to keep him focused.  That type of training just doesn't hold up in the long term.  Be exciting in reaction to your dog's own energy, but don't try to use your own energy to overwhelm the dog into playing with you!  The general guideline is to match the energy level your dog is giving you, or just 1 level above.  Notice I am much calmer in the 2nd video than in the first video and that is so I don't use my own energy to overwhelm and try to pull him up.

Denise Fenzi has an entire online class on how to develop engagement in your dog and spells out stages to get there on her blog as well.

I strongly believe the best way to make sure your dog is really ready for the ring is to focus on the concepts of acclimation and engagement.  When your dog is the one driving the work and pushing you to start then you're no longer the one trying to bribe your dog and shoving the rewards in their face to get work.  Instead the responsibility moves to the dog.  You don't have to try to be more exciting than their environment!  You don't have to do cartwheels to get your dog's attention!
But this does take time.  Get ready to settle in and be ready for the chance that your dog simply tells you they are not ready in that session.

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