Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Denise Fenzi Seminar, Part I

Where to start!

Phoenix and I went to Denise Fenzi’s obedience problem solving seminar near Chicago last weekend. Aside from getting lost multiple times (seriously, it was nothing short of a miracle that I found the motel), it was a very fun and worthwhile weekend. Thanks to Margaret at One Happy Dog for organizing and hosting. The lunches were wonderful - so many salads, so little time.

The seminar was billed as “problem solving” but this can be a pretty gray area. A number of the dogs with working spots didn’t really have what I would call problems so their floor time was spent in progressing to the next step in their training. That's okay, I guess if you’re not sure what to do next, that is a problem!

And truly, the problem with a problem solving seminar is that very few problems have an easy fix. Dogs with serious hang-ups about an exercise or skill or overall attitude can’t be rehabbed in a matter of minutes. If the dog can’t quickly work through the first few steps of fixing the problem, it can be hard to see any improvement in the context of the seminar. No matter what the seminar presenter suggests, it’s going to take sustained work on the part of the dog and handler over time before you can expect to see lasting change.

It was interesting, however, to follow Denise’s common thread of building engagement and allowing the dogs to choose to work versus the traditional obedience approach of “make the dog do it.” It’s frequently that “make him do it” attitude that creates a whole new set of issues when the dog goes in the ring and discovers he does not want to do it and indeed, no one is going to make him.

It’s impossible to re-create an entire seminar but I want to hit the highlights of my floor time with Phoenix. I identified our problem as an overall lack of engagement in the ring. Sometimes he truly enjoys the work and finds it rewarding (resulting in high scores). Sometimes, he just goes through the motions (resulting in really crummy performance.) Sometimes, I get both during the same run!

(Flash forward, Denise felt our biggest problem was not any type of ring stress, but boredom. This made me feel both better and worse at the same time. Glad I wasn't turning my dog into a stressball. Sad I'd made obedience such a dull game.)

I wanted to start with some heeling, since that seems to bring out the worst in both of us. Denise asked if I was happy with his heeling when we train. Yes. It’s generally lovely. Okay, then no treats or toys on my body when I came out on the floor. This needed to look like the “real thing.”

Nothing like walking out in front of a bunch of strangers (although they were very nice strangers!) with a dog who I was pretty sure was going to work like crap.

And he did. Which actually was a relief because the whole experience would have done no good if he’d gone on the floor and heeled a perfect 40 point pattern with bright-eyed engagement.

We started heeling with a moderate amount of focus that dwindled to near non-existence by the time we completed the Figure 8. So there you have it.

Denise suggested incorporating more play into our training routine. She did not say the solution was tugging. Tugging can be play but not all play has to be tugging. She wanted me to build personal play skills that did not involve any kind of tug or ball. Just me, to build my value in the “fun” department without relying on a toy as the focus of the fun.

This method is strongly based on opposition reflex and an over-simplified description is playing tag and chase.

Phoenix loves to chase. He has always had tremendous prey drive. So I tagged his shoulder with the flat of my hand, pushed him lightly, turned (always to the right, to encourage him to drive toward me) and ran. It was important not to overwhelm him but shoving too hard - just a light “Tag, you’re It!” and run. This was combined at the same time with lowering my body posture and turning sideways (invitation, not confrontation).

I ran. He caught me. Being “caught” by Phoenix usually involves teeth. I know this makes people shudder in horror  but he’s not biting me. Yes, my arm was in his mouth during a good part of the time we were on the floor and when it was all said and done, there was not a mark on it. Yes, there were teeth. No, there was no pressure.

Of course, since he accompanies teeth with bloodcurdling vocals, it looks much worse than it is. If I were routinely getting chewed up by my dog, our training career would have ended a long time ago. Denise suggested popping something into his mouth, like a dumbbell, glove or toy, and letting him heel with that, just to give his teeth something to do while he got a grip on this new style of play. (Thanks to Sara for loaning me her dog’s dumbbell for a couple of retrieves and for use as a tooth pacifier on heeling. It will probably never be the same.)

When Phoenix “caught” me, I could continue the game by tagging and running again, I could have him do high hand touches and tag him in mid air or ask for an obedience position (sit, down stand, heel) before he landed. I could flip into heeling posture and ask him to heel. After a few steps I could cue him by lowering my posture, turning my body, asking him if he was “R . .e . . a . . d . . y?”, then tag and go again.

Denise also felt Phoenix is a very pressure-sensitive dog. Any kind of “head on” confrontation is likely to “depress” him or shut him down. In addition to play, this applies to which way I should turn when setting up for an exercise: clockwise (away from him) is better than counterclockwise (toward him). Denise said  he pulls better than he pushes. By turning to the left on set-ups, I was unintentionally putting a great deal of pressure on him.

She also suggested I start our Figure 8s to the right. Starting to the left is automatic “pressure” and can shut an unenthusiastic dog down even further. Good lord, now I have to undo nearly 40 years of  ALWAYS GO TO THE LEFT training.

By the time we stopped working that day, my exercise induced asthma about had me on the mats and sweat was pouring off me like I’d been running a marathon. My dog was happy, waggy and bright eyed. This was clearly more obedience fun than he’d had in a long time. And we'd done it without a single cookie or toy. Guess I CAN be fun!

An important thing about playing with your dog like this is to keep the sessions short, A) because it’s physically draining for the handler and B) if  you try to do it for too long, the dog can get overwhelmed.

Okay, that’s all for today.  I hope to post more about the seminar this week.


  1. I'd love to hear more. I'm a big fan of Fenzi, and I'm having similar challenges as you with my own dog.

  2. I play the bitey game with my dog. (OK, so he's a 7 pound papillon!) I also played it with my previous dogs. Guess what -- THEY KNOW BITE INHIBITION! And they also only play the game in very particular contexts. And they would not play them with a stranger.

    Any way you can get a video of you playing tag? Your description is good, but I'd love to see it too.

  3. I'm glad you're glad that Phoenix indeed did shut down on heeling at the seminar! I hoped you'd be writing about "personal play," and here your first seminar post is exactly about that. Yay! I will start "playing tag" with Orbit and Donny. (Maybe not until Donny learns bite inhibition.)

  4. Layla plays tag with her teeth too. Sometimes I think I should get her a Schutzhund sleeve and let her maul me but then I think, ...no.

    The seminar sounds super informative. I'm glad there was specific advice for you (how to turn, etc).

  5. OMG! Denise taught me that same exercise for Loki. See? I knew Loki and Phoenix were soul bro's. It's so funny too, i get the SAME reaction: teeth but not biting down. Loki gets "pissed off" but in a good-fun way, not in an angry way. More like a friend who's teasing the other into doing something way and he's the other who's all pissed off but in a really cute way. I'm not in the LEAST worried when he does it. It looks bad, but he knows the limit. in fact he comes at me all growly and he'll stop short at putting his teeth around me but boy oh boy would he love even a light grip on my sleeve or arm. It does work though, because dogs like Loki and phoenix want to chase, especially something that sort of pisses them off in a teasing way, so you instigating then running to you is fun for them. But yes, one reason why i never pursued real ring sport, kills me physically. And I enjoy other sports like bike riding, hiking, yoga, dancing so adding yet even just a little more phyiscal activity can tire me out fast!

    i wonder if the turning right first will spark that chase a little more (less pressure more instinct to stick to you) because again you go away from the dog?

    when I "tag" loki it usually is a pretty big push on the shoulder. when he's really out of drive it takes a bit of a push. i swear I have the most easily aggrevated dog though.

    and ya, something told me Phoenix was "bored" too... i don't know exactly what it was in one of your posts, but thats what i would have guessed over "stress." from how you write, to me he seems happy and well-balanced, with normal hang ups. so stress was the last thing i would have guessed.

    now if i were to go to her for a problem behavior it would be "car anxiety" and "new places"... for me getting back into the car and going home rather than releasing him to the new place would be a REWARD for him because he'd so much rather be home all the time and never go anywhere. but i have Juno and she loves new places and damn it, he's gonna do new things with us too! he's a nightmare the first few minutes getting him out of the car and settled. once he's there he's fine/quiet and in new places cautious and anxious but responsive and ok. but OMG, the loudness. and if i were to just go home and do the "no work today" or "no walk" or "no new fun thing" he'd be seriously rewarded. this dog didn't even want to go for walks with me from the house when i first got him. he was that afraid of leaving the house. still don't know what to do about it.

    sigh. crackers. can't live with them. life would be boring without them.

  6. THANK YOU! I am looking for new games to play with my 4 mo old mal/GSD puppy and he loves loves loves tag. I love the concept of using it to drive obedience as he's sluggish with his positions unless I have food with me. Will keep following your blog :)