The Little Stuff Matters Part 2- When Things Go Wrong

One of the big questions that comes about when discussing reward base training is what to do when things go wrong.  Cookies are great and all, but what if you ask your dog to do something and he says no?  Many trainers can get a dog to basic things for treats or other rewards, but staying away from corrections or force when things don’t go according to plan can be more difficult.

First, let’s talk about what to do in the moment.  If you asked your dog to perform a behavior that you are sure he “knows” and he doesn’t do it, how do you respond?  One choice is to force the dog to perform the behavior, but if you are reading this, chances are that’s not your plan.  Another is to pull out a treat and lure the behavior, which may work in the moment but probably won’t be helpful in terms of your dog’s long term education.  Why should your dog comply with your request if you produce cookies when he ignores you?  For many behaviors, simply waiting the dog out can be an option, but there is one major factor to consider before doing this.  If you are going to wait the dog out, you must, must, must remove any alternate reinforcement from the environment.  Yep, there are probably things in your dog’s life that are equally or more appealing than the cookie or toy you are offering.  So yes, wait the dog out if you can safely do so, but only if you can limit his access to fun things.  This may mean moving farther away from a distraction (or having the distraction move farther from the dog), or simply holding the dog by the gently by the collar or on a short leash and waiting.  If waiting isn’t an option, consider “resetting” the dog, by moving him a short distance and trying again.  Either way, be sure to reward appropriately when the dog does what you have asked.  If all else fails, abort the request and simply don’t reward the dog.  No matter what happens in the moment, the next step is to analyze what went wrong

Once you have addressed the problem in the moment, take some time to consider what went wrong.  Chances are, the dog’s understanding of what you were asking was context specific.  Sit in the kitchen at dinner time doesn’t necessarily mean sit on the hunt field so I can leash you up and end the fun.  Just as you can never go wrong by breaking a behavior into tiny pieces and rewarding every step of the process, you can never break generalization into too many steps.  Does sit mean sit in every room of the house, outside in the yard, on a walk around the block, at the pet store, at the park, at an agility trial, on the hunt field?  What if you are sitting on a chair, kneeling on the ground, lying on the couch, or doing a downward facing dog?  While you may not have to train for every possible variation on every possible cue, you do have to teach the concept of generalization by working in lots of new places and situations.  The importance of generalization will vary some depending on your dog’s lifestyle, since a service dog or competitive sports dog may have to work in more places than a stay at home pet, but every dog can benefit from having some variety in his life.

The third piece of the puzzle is management.  Sometimes a behavior just isn’t trained or generalized enough to be used in every environment yet.  If that’s the case, tools like crates, leashes, head halters, and fences might be you and your dog’s best friend.

Can your dog sit next to the Hopping Bunnies?

The Little Stuff Matters… Part 1

Most dog trainers understand the importance of foundation training- the skills that any dog needs to learn before starting to compete in sports like obedience or agility and really just the life skills that a dog needs to be a part of society.  What sometimes gets overlooked is just how important the trainer’s skills and technique are in making this foundation training successful.  The famous animal trainer Bob Bailey often says, “Training is a mechanical skill”.  This is important to remember since it can be tempting to blame things like methodology, environment, or even the dog himself (after all, you can’t train a hound, right?) for problems that can be solved by cleaning up the trainer’s technique at a very basic level.  Over the next few posts, I’ll share some observations on places where dog training sometimes goes wrong, along with some tips on how to avoid making these errors.

The first common error associated with the use of reward based training is incorrect and over-use of a food lure.  While a lure can be a quick and easy way to get a dog to perform a behavior, it is sometimes too easy.  Often it can be tempting to take the lazy route and pull out a treat to get a behavior long after the early stages rather than taking the time to work through the fact that the dog is clearly telling you that he doesn’t understand what you have asked.  Luring can be really reinforcing to us as humans, since it can make a dog look really smart without a lot of effort, but often the only learning that has really occurred is that the dog has learned to follow a treat- not to sit, lie down, or any of the other things you may think you have trained him to do.

Please don’t think that I am implying that you should train without rewards or that food is not the correct reward to use with most dogs.  What I do think you should consider is whether the food makes the behavior happen (a lure, or bribe if you want to think in human terms) or whether the behavior makes the food happen (a reward, or paycheck for a job well done).  The difference may seem subtle, but in terms of effective learning, it is huge.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some ways to handle errors (besides pulling out a cookie lure…..)



Trial Day Routine Part 3- after the run

After my adorable Hound sails over the last jump and heads to her leash (howling all the way if the Hound in question is Chili), we hook up and head back to the mat to celebrate the run. This is a “do not pass go, do not collect $200” situation. I am well aware that the hounds are in it for he cookies and not just the fun of running, so I need to keep the behavior chain of run agility- leash up- go to mat- eat cookies as intact as possible to maintain value for the game.

After the reward and a quick drink for me, we can take a minute to get our scribe sheet, check course time, etc.  That is, unless I need to run someone else right away. In a perfect world when I have plenty of time, I would take my dog for a walk to cool down and have another chance to potty before settling her in her crate, with a Back on Track coat if it’s cool out. Sometimes this turns into a group walk if the trial is small and I don’t have 10-15 dogs between runs. Having multiple dogs isn’t an excuse to skip warm up and cool down, but sometimes it requires a little flexibility. 

When we are done running for the day, we head back to the RV.  Since all of our dogs travel with us, the ones who didn’t run need a potty break by now. After everyone has had time out in the x-pens, we’ll head inside to relax a while. The dogs take turns being out of their crates and I might do short training sessions with the dogs who didn’t get to play earlier. 

At around 6 pm, or earlier if it’s going to get dark, we feed everyone and set up breakfast for the next day. Everyone is leash walked in groups of 3, usually for a longer walk than in the morning. We’ll head back in to have dinner ourselves and continue to rotate dogs through out of the crate time. Around 8:30, the dogs get one more turn in the x-pens and are settled in with bedtime biscuits and Back on Track coats for the dogs running the next day. Chili and Salsa sleep loose in he RV because they are the least likely to raid the food pantry while we are sleeping at night. (Maya and Juno are the most likely, in case you are wondering). We usually settle in for the night by 10, so we are ready to start over the next morning. 

Trial Day Routine Part 2- The pre- run warm up

We left off with all of the morning necessities finished and all set to start the trial itself.  As much as possible, I try to keep the schedule and routine consistent at trials, but schedules, building layout, and weather mean that some flexibility is needed.  Usually though, the routine doesn’t change so much as the timing of it, even at a huge event like last week’s AKC Invitational.

When I get to the trial site, I check in for all of my runs for the day, marking conflicts and moving dogs who are too close in the running order.  Please note that I mainly trial in a part of the country where exhibitors are expected to resolve these issues themselves- I have been yelled at for moving dogs and marking conflicts when we’ve traveled to other areas, so this apparently isn’t the case everywhere.  I pick up my course maps, look them all over, and take photos of them to store in a journaling app on my phone.  I used to keep the hard copies, but found I had 20 years worth of paper course maps and little ability to find the ones that might have actually been useful.  If possible, I leave the dogs crated in the RV (ideal) or car (second choice), with battery operated Ryobi fans on if needed, but some venues or weather conditions require crating in the building.  If I need a holding crate near ringside while my jump height is running, I would set that up.

About an hour before each run, I take the dogs for a potty walk.  When I settle them back into the crates, I would put on either their Back on Track coats or K9 Fitvest cool coats depending on weather.  Chili considers anything above 70 degrees to be extreme heat, so I sometimes get funny looks for breaking out the cool coats, but her comfort is my priority.  I have found that the coats have a calming effect, along the lines of a Thundershirt, so in perfect weather I usually put the Fitvests on dry and without the ice packs.  Then I head back to ringside for the walk through.

The next part of the warm up can be done with more than one dog at a time.  Ideally, I have a second person available but I can make do with a crate close to the ring.  At most trials, I run 3-4 dogs in 8 or 12 inch Master.  At big trials, this is not a problem (unless my 8 inch dog conflicts with my 12s), but at a small trial, the hounds are sometimes almost, or literally, back to back, which requires me to warm everyone up before anyone runs.

About 8-10 dogs before the run, I will get my dog, wet them down if its hot, and take them for a quick potty break.  I’ll head to ringside and take off the Back on Track coat before heading to the warm up jump (cool coats can stay on for now).  I use the jump as a quick warm up and to make sure the dog knows what the running surface will be.  Most of the time, I just ask for one jump in collection and one in extension, but I might warm up a back side or start line stay if I plan to use those skills.  Please note, warming up is not the same as training the behavior.  If your dog doesn’t have a skill like pushing to the back side of the jump, it isn’t fair to expect everyone to wait while you monopolize the warm up jump trying to train a behavior at the last minute.  (Like say, at a major event like the Invitational……just saying.)  Rewards at the warm up jump and ringside come from a tug toy, which my dogs will also retrieve and tug on to varying degrees.

After the warm up jump, we’ll settle on a Fitpaws stretching mat at ringside to wait for our turn.  If it’s even remotely warm, I’ll have a fan pointed at the mat.  The mat will be “home base” and is where the cookies will be after we run.  I also keep a drink for myself and a water dish for the dogs there.  The mat and toy are consistent from trial to trial, but I have several identical ones and always travel with at least one extra.  If this seems silly, I refer you to the Busy Bee scene in the movie “Best in Show”.  For my hounds, the cookies in the toy at a trial need to be more exciting than training cookies- usually I have steak or grilled chicken for them.  I use tug toys that are washable and they are cleaned regularly for food safety reasons.

About 2-3 dogs before our turn I’l take the cool coat off.  While we hang out on the mat, each dog has preferred activities.  Chili will play fetch and get wound up, Juno and Wally like a good belly rub, and Salsa alternates between cuddling and wrestling.  I usually save active play for 1-2 dogs before the run since keeping my dogs aroused isn’t as easy as it would be for more traditional  agility dogs.  The toy stays at the mat, but I take some food up to the ring gate with me.  As we approach the ring, I’ll ask for some heeling or tricks until the dog before us is about 30 seconds from the end of their run.  Then we have the last cookie and I will pick up the PBGV girls to carry into the ring.  Juno and Wally are too heavy to carry, so Juno heels into the ring.  Wally gets really excited watching other dogs run, so I try to keep him sitting in front position as much as possible.  Then we head to the line for a fabulous run!


Trial Day Routine, Part 1

Dogs thrive on routine, but keeping a consistent schedule while competing can be hard.  I compete in a variety of dog sports with multiple dogs, and have found that with planning and consistency it’s possible to create a plan that allows the dogs to know what to expect and to minimize stress.

We usually travel by RV, which I think is a big advantage in many ways.  All of the dogs travel with us from the time they are puppies, so they are used to most of the rituals of travel long before they are old enough to be entered.  I try to keep the trial day schedule as consistent as possible if we are commuting from home in the morning or staying in a hotel, but the familiarity of the RV setting and ability to bring all of the comforts of home does make things easier.

In the RV, we wake up at least 1.5 hours before our first class or walk through (longer for the breed ring, since you have to groom).  Dave and I get ourselves dressed and ready first and undress any dogs who slept in their Back on Track coats.  I try not to let dogs out before 7 am, because I can’t guarantee that they won’t bark and barking at any time of day is surprisingly upsetting to some in the agility community, but sometimes the judging schedule just doesn’t allow that.  All of the dogs go out for 5-10 minutes in exercise pens to take care of any urgent business.  Dave supervises outside while I fill water buckets in crates.  The dogs come back in and eat breakfast, which was prepared the night before.  Not doing meal prep in the morning is another attempt to minimize excited morning barking.  I do feed the dogs who are competing, but only about 25% of their normal breakfast since I am really generous with rewards on trial days.

After breakfast, which takes most of our dogs 10-15 seconds to eat, everyone is walked in groups of 2 or 3.  We try to make sure everyone is empty in the morning, because if the day gets busy it might be a while before the unentered dogs get another trip outside.

At this point, I prepare anything we need for the day, like packing the cooler and making sure enough treats are defrosted and ready to go.  If we are at a breed show, I would start grooming.  I prefer to work from the RV or car at most shows because the dogs are calmer and I have more ability to control the temperature, but if needed I would move the dogs who are entered into their crates in the building.  Now it’s time to check in, pick up armbands or course maps, and let the fun begin.

Stay tuned for part 2, the Pre-run Routine.


Gromit’s Tracking Test

Just a quick post to share the video of Gromit earning his Tracking Dog title on this very windy day.  I was really proud of the little guy working so well in tough conditions, even if he did stop to roll in something on the first leg of the track.  Out of 12 dogs today, only 3 (2 TD and 1 TDU) passed, but I think the high winds and drastic weather change had a lot to do with that.

A tracking test requires a dog to follow a path laid by a person at least 440 yards in length, with 3-5 turns (4 on this track) that has aged at least 30 minutes and locate a glove dropped at the end. 

Clancy's Curse of the Were-Rabbit TD BN RA HC CGCA

Clancy’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit TD BN RA HC CGCA


On Saturday, Maya and I attended our first nose work trial.  This is Maya’s “retirement sport” that we started after she stopped competing in agility.  The idea is to train the dog to find and indicate the odor of specific essential oils (birch in this case) in a variety of environments.  To earn a Nose work 1 title, the dog must successfully search an interior, exterior, the outside of 1-3 vehicles, and a group of containers (boxes) within a set period of time on the same day..  At the higher levels, conditions become more challenging and a wider variety of challenges can be presented.

This sport is in many ways a natural fit for a scent hound.  Most PBGVs come equipped with plenty of hunt drive.  While nose work doesn’t provide the reinforcement of the chase like rabbit hunting does, Maya is happy to be paid with treats when she finds odor.  And, how cool is this, you can carry treats with you in competition to reward right away when your dog successfully alerts.  Hound people, you really need to give nose work a try- Maya was the only representative of the hound group out of 41 dogs competing.

Here are the videos of Maya’s vehicle and exterior searches.  We’ll be practicing more advanced searches and working with anise as while as birch now to get ready for the next level.  Juno is also learning nose work and hopes to be following in Maya’s paw prints soon.

GCh. Ch. Gebeba Clancy Poetic Justice VCD1 RAE OA AXJ MXP MJP T2BP NW1 NTD RHX CGCA

GCh. Ch. Gebeba Clancy Poetic Justice VCD1 RAE OA AXJ MXP MJP T2BP NW1 NTD RHX CGCA

The Dog Training Tool in Your Hand

Chances are you are reading this post on one of my favorite dog training tools- the smart phone or tablet (ok, really iPhone or iPad- why would you want any other brand?)  Don’t believe me?  Here’s an example of how much less “stuff” I have in my training bag because I can depend on my phone.

  • Notebook/ training journal.  You do keep training notes and make lesson plans, right?  If your notes are on your phone, your notebook is always with you, so no excuses.  You can use note taking apps, but the regular note function has worked fine for me.  Each month I set up lesson plans and use my phone to keep notes on training, exercise, grooming and competition for everyone.


  • Calendar/ reminders- To help you follow that lesson plan.
  • Video camera-  It’s pretty common to record competition runs, especially in agility, but recording training sessions can have even more benefits.  The camera allows you to see a different angle and to see what you are doing, which might be why the dog is doing what she is doing.  There are plenty of low cost tripod adapters and remote starters for the camera function on your phone if you train alone.  You may not keep every video forever, and will definitely  need some kind of backup drive if you do, but even just watching the video right after the session can give a lot of information.  The regular camera comes in hand when you want a photo of that important win or your dog doing something adorable too.  If you run multiple dogs in agility, apps like Coaches Eye that allow you to watch side by side video can be a cool way to see where you are losing time and how consistent your handling is or isn’t.


  • Timer- Especially when you are shaping or working on body awareness or fitness training it can be a huge benefit to set a timer to keep sessions short.
  • Sound recorder- Need to desensitize your dog to trial noise or just play some music for background noise?  No problem.  There are also apps that can serve as your clicker.
  • Books-  If you are using a training plan from a book, you can keep in on your device and always have it to refer to during a training session.
  • Internet access- If you are an online class junkie like me, taking the classroom to the training field can be a big help- no need to ever print anything.
  • Course map storage/ trial records- Instead of keeping stacks of course maps and exhibitor copies of scribe sheets, I use a journaling app to keep my trial records.


#Opt Outside

So apparently this is a thing- do something outdoors instead of shopping on Black Friday.  Not a bad idea and I have the perfect suggestion- the Mid New Jersey PBGV Association hunt test in Flemington, NJ.  Friday, November 25 is the warm up day for the weekend’s hunt test. The field will be available for training and practice time in the afternoon and we are happy to group dogs and people new to hunting with experienced packs.  Entries open this week and the premium list can be found here.

Are you thinking, good idea but………

“If I let my PBGV hunt, he will want to hunt all the time.”  Well, yeah, the thing is that he’s a PBGV- he already wants to hunt all of the time.  If this is a problem for you, there are plenty of other breeds who weren’t selectively bred for the ability and desire to hunt.

“I’ll ruin my agility (or obedience, or nose work, or tracking) dog.”  If you look at the list of PBGVs with the highest level hunting titles (Parent Club Master Hunter Excellent and Rabbit Hunter Excellent), you will see that almost all of them have titles in companion events also.  Our dogs are smarter than we give them credit for and they know the difference in context between different events.  If you don’t believe me, ask MACH5 Chili RHX and MACH2 Salsa RHX.

“We have shows coming up and I can’t risk his coat.”  According to the PBGV breed standard “The most distinguishing characteristics of this bold hunter are:  his rough, unrefined outlines; his proudly carried head displaying definitive long eyebrows, beard, and mustache; his strong, tapered tail carried like a saber, alert and in readiness.”  In other words, if your dog’s coat isn’t rough and unrefined, as it may be after a weekend in the hunt field- he isn’t in correct condition and shouldn’t be winning in the show ring anyway.  If he has been stripped to the point of not having enough coat to protect him in the field, well, I’ve probably said enough about this in the past. 

“We might get dirty/ ticks.”  Yes, you will- wear suitable clothing and waterproof shoes and use something for ticks.  Oh, and don’t groom your PBGV before the weekend like you would for other events- wait until afterwards.  Dirt washes off and ticks can be removed.

I hope you will Opt Outdoors with us on Black Friday!



The Training Stash

Getting motivated to train can sometimes feel like a big project- setting up the area, finding the right treats, digging through the laundry basket to get the clicker out of yesterday’s jeans….  By the time do all of that, you could have easily trained the dog.  My secret for this is to have hidden stashes of training supplies everywhere- on every floor of the house, in each car, in the motorhome, even in my backpack.  That way, whenever the urge strikes I have the basics of what I will need.

I’m fortunate enough to have a designated agility yard and basement training space, so that’s where the big stuff like jumps, weave poles, and fitness equipment lives (well, ok I’ll admit to a Fitpaws donut in the living room.

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But small items like treats, clickers, tug toys, targets, dumbbells, and nose work odor can be stashed and used just about anywhere that the dogs can’t reach to help themselves.  That last part is tricky since Juno seems to have opposable thumbs that she uses to open up drawers containing cookies, but with some creativity you can probably find suitable places for training stashes too.  Training multiple dogs with a full schedule has shown me just how much dogs can learn in 30 second sessions snuck into an otherwise full day, if you just have the right tools at hand.

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