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.


Zumi's First USDAA Trial!

I have another more serious post coming about obedience training, but first I'm bursting with pride with my little girl!  Duckie had her first USDAA agility trial this morning!  It was technically her 2nd agility trial since we did the UKI trial 2 months ago with a mixture of toy runs and runs "for real."  This time there was no toy option and it was also her first experience doing agility outdoors away from our backyard.

The maturity difference and general confidence in her from 2 months ago at that UKI trial and today's trial was absolutely huge!  She actually found her lines this time and had zero incidents of running around obstacles just because Wheeee!  Zumi was x1000 calmer and focused walking into the ring.  Didn't hesitate at all with the tire, spreads, or the long chute (although she did slip coming out of the chute in standard).  And had way more focus on my handling!

Zumi had 3 runs- gamblers, standard, and snooker.  And we actually qualified in her first two!  Her very first Q's in agility!

Zumi's only real issues were with her contacts.  And that didn't come at all of a surprise to me.
Her dogwalk was very leapy in gamblers and I think part of it was her lack of experience with me layering an obstacle. In standard it was the exact same exit angle and it was very pretty :)
We didn't do any aframe in gamblers and in standard it was a pretty high hit.  In snooker I told myself to keep moving forward to support it better but she needed more than just the tiny bit of motion that I gave her and didn't even add in a second hit.  On the positive side, this was Zumi's first and last experience with a 5'10" aframe in a trial!  The new lowered height takes effect next week!  I don't feel quite as bad now about not practicing that much with the taller height.
And her stopped teeters all made me very happy.  Even did her nice bow on 2 out of the 3!

And because the good news kept coming, Zumi actually measured to jump in the 18" class!!!!  The cutoff is 17.5" which Zumi is very close too. She also likes to stand on her tippy toes and pretend she is almost an inch taller sometimes.  But I got her looking down and now we're 1 measurement down, 2 to go!
I entered her to jump 22in this trial as I didn't think it was possible to get her down.  I'll try entering at 18 next trial and see what happens!  I certainly feel more comfortable jumping her 18 long term than 22!


Sport Camp!

It's been awhile since I've posted!!  This last week was spent driving down to Missouri for the Fenzi Dog Sports Camp.  It was my first experience attending and I chose to volunteer my time helping the other instructors.

The atmosphere alone was worth it.  So many positive trainers in love with competition obedience and other dog sports all in one spot.  You just can't replicate that inspiring environment!

I took Zumi with me (non working spot) as I thought she could benefit the most from experiencing such a loud and busy venue.  An amazing coworker took Vito in for several days and swore to have no life so that I could actually go.  And Lance stayed at home with Adam.

Zumi did great.  Mostly she was in a crate but she got to come out and play during lunch and at the end of each day.  I was impressed with her ability to offer engagement in a crazy place and I mostly too advantage of the ring to do some ring confidence games.  Enter the ring and party!  We also did some setups and heeling up to people for leash removal.

And I learned that Zumi is not ready for obedience trials. Yet.  I was proud of how she could offer great focused ring entries without a toy on me.  She could even play in the ring with me, no toy.  But what she couldn't quite do was transition from work to play to work again without that toy in a smooth matter. Sure she could do it, but not without a bit of disengagement and wondering about that reward.  Before Zumi is ready to trial those transitions in the ring need to be seamless.  The exercises are the easy part, the in between stuff is the hard part!  At home she might be fine, in a new place she was just not quite there.
So I made it easy on her and rewarded frequently.  The new environment was not the time to work on more delayed rewards.

Zumi also had the opportunity to try dock diving again!  Her 3rd attempt at the sport with her other two tries never quite getting her to the actual dock.  This time it was an outdoor pool which I think helped her quite a bit.  There was still no actual ramp to practice on but there were some stairs leading into the pool.  I spent her first turn just working her from the stairs to try to build her confidence.

Her second turn I warmed up with the stairs again and then decided to try the dock itself.  Some hesitation but she jumped!  Well plopped in really.

But repeated it!  And then I ended our turn.  I have hope that if she gets to try it again she will be off the dock after a quick warmup.  And maybe would actually jump instead of plop.

I had a blast at the camp and I will write a separate post about the most important concepts of sport that were repeated again and again throughout the camp.


Disc Dog Seminar

Ducky and I had quite the adventure this last weekend.  Just the two of us headed out for a disc dog seminar and since the longish drive was made even longer due to construction I decided to camp there too.  This was the second time Zumi has gone camping, but her first overnight without the other dogs.

I must say it was really nice to not have to worry about any "special" rules like I do with Vito.  I could crate out of the car, I had the freedom to say "Yes!" to going out to dinner (even though we ended up just ordering pizza in) and she was just so relaxed and good.  The only issue was getting Zumi to drink.  I've discovered that she won't always drink much at all when at trials and apparently the heat and duration of stay didn't tempt her much more.  Wouldn't even eat ice cubes and Ducky loves her ice cubes!  So I'll have to look at getting a water supplement or something else to make it taste good enough to drink for her.

And we had a pretty good time at the seminar. Certainly getting me more motivated to actually practice the stuff with her and even more importantly to practice my throwing.  Zumi has done hardly any disc work despite my intentions, but at least she has a solid foundation with biting, tugging, and dropping.  We worked on adding a disc  for the first time into our "dog catch" that had kinda broken after I taught her to rebound off my hip.  
Then added her first time catching a disc after a leg vault vs just taking it from my hand.  That was painful, and extremely colorful reminders were left.  I immediately ordered a leg wrap when I arrived home!

We have a small disc dog event this Sunday with UpDog's Funkey game- a little of agility+disc in a snookerish type format.  


Water Work

I have briefly resumed our hunt trial training to begin water work!  It had been awhile since Zumi's last work with the real duck, and of course it was too cold for water practice then.  She has done plenty of toy retrieves in water last summer but nothing with formal rules about delivery (and really Zumi does zoomies with her toy!) and zero work on a retrieve being on the other end of the pond.

Luckily we have a small pond just behind our property.  Not the greatest pond, but if you're willing to walk through long grass and lots of ticks we can practice without ever having to get in the car and go for a drive!  

This past Saturday I took Zumi and her dokkens for practice.  Started out by throwing them in the water and then gradually progressing until it landed on the other shore.  Zumi needed lots of encouragement to get back in the water and not "run the bank" but she was successful!  I also learned she needs lots of practice with successfully keeping her mark after swimming.  If it landed anywhere at all in the long grass she had no clue where it was anymore after her swim.  
Day #1:

On Sunday I returned and this time took her dokkens and a real duck.  Her first throw of the dokken she was back to needing encouragement to swim back to me vs run again, but then she was solid!  And it's a pretty tiny pond, so easy to just run around!  I brought Adam with so he could drop the duck as I knew I couldn't throw it across.  Just a little bit of encouragement and then she rocked that too!

I think the biggest issue with her still is going to be willingness to immediately pick up a brand new duck in a new location.  We need to take her show on the road!

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