A reminder that positive reinforcement is not all about “the food”…

I am prompted here by a somewhat negative commentary on “clicker training” which I recently heard. I do agree that it is sometimes easy to get caught up in the “technique”-because it is important to train “clean” if we want the methodology to work. At the same time that should not mean “detached”. While the mechanics of marking, timing and strategic +R are essential, I consider it just as important to include myself as part of the reinforcement in the form of praise, play and tactile rewards right along with that food or toy. So it’s not all about the food, unless I make it that way- and we all have that choice!

So yes, I believe in and apply the science and mechanics of clicker/positive reinforcement training because it works. But I also never forget why I am doing this-because it is FUN and I want my dogs to have fun and enjoy being with me too. So that means personal investment on my part, sincere and joyful engagement. Dogs recognize sincerity, so I can’t “fake” happy with my dogs- and like the most fortunate among us, I am glad I don’t have to:)

Happy training!


Treibball skills-how to handle those “Runaway Balls”

Treibball is a very unpredictable game. Balls can roll anywhere, anytime, depending on the terrain or floor, the wind direction, if the dog bumps the wrong one, etc. Of course these challenges are what make the game so much fun-but you do have to anticipate and train accordingly. As a new sport, many of us are still experiencing the unexpected and then it’s “Uh-oh…I better train for that!”.

One of these situations is when the ball rolls away from the dog as they are going out after it. Some dogs will go crazy and charge after it-maybe even pushing it further away as in “chasing it”, opposite of where you want it to go. Some dogs see a rolling ball as a lost cause and they just give up. In either case, the dog needs to learn to run past the rolling ball to a position on the opposite side and push it back to you.

I have a cue that I use for this which is “GO,PUSH!”. This is different from my regular clock and counter clock sends which mean “go out on the perimeter of the balls and I will give you direction from there”. And that directive might be “wait”, “walk up”, “flip” “back” or a change of direction. On the other hand, “GO, PUSH!” means “run out there, head it off , and push it in”. No further directives-just go out and push the ball back to goal. So when do I use this? I use it in situations where I need a fast run out to catch up with a runaway ball. Or in the middle of the game when I just need to keep things moving, random balls with no directed ball selection. It simply means “go out fast and get the ball however you can”. This is an intermediate to advanced level skill. You will need to already have a fluent send out with directionals, orientation and “PUSH” behavior, all with some distance. It is essential that you have this control before learning to deal runaway balls or consecutive ball pushes at a fast pace.

So first we need to practice running out and past a stationary ball. For this exercise we want to isolate just the running past the ball, no stopping to orient, etc. So to do this you will need to be quick on your mark and +R just passing the ball. Do this a few times until your dog propels forward to get past the ball on your cue, “GO”.

Now you are ready to get that ball rolling. Use a partially deflated ball here so that it does not roll too fast or out of control-that can be too arousing for some dogs and demotivating for others. The end result will be a “GO, PUSH!”, and your dog runs out and heads off the rolling ball, quickly orients and pushes it back to the goal (you). Here then is the step by step for training the retrieve of a runaway ball, and this assumes that your dog will have the prerequisite skills mentioned above:

  1. With your dog at your side in a “wait” and the ball in front of you, gently kick the (partly deflated) ball away from you just enough to get it rolling slowly. As the ball rolls, simultaneously cue your dog to “GO”.
  2. The second your dog takes off from your side, click and +R, tossing the +R just past the moving ball. Repeat this a few times until your dog is eagerly anticipating your cue to “GO”. No pushing just yet, we are working on just the fast send to get past the moving ball. (Up until now it was just running past the stationary ball.)
  3. Now raise your criteria from just leaving your side to actually going past the moving ball. Toss +R on the far side of the ball where you will want your dog to go. Do this until your dog is anticipating the +R past the ball and charging forward on cue. Keep this at short distance only until your dog is comfortable running past the ball as it rolls slowly.
  4. Add “PUSH”: Once you have at least a 10 foot send on your “GO” cue with the moving ball, add your “PUSH” cue just as your dog catches up with the ball. As soon as your dog stops, turns and attempts to orient/push, immediately mark and +R. You may need to isolate and +R the ‘stopping to orient” a few times-doing this with a moving ball is still new. High drive dogs will need control, less motivated dogs need the +R and reassurance at each step.
    • Fluent, oriented pushing skill is necessary here. This is where your foundation work comes into play. As soon as you cue “PUSH” your dog should take a position behind the ball and push it back to you. You may you need to go back and work on that separately if your dog is faltering here.
  5. This end result is a combined cue, “GO PUSH”.
  6. Gradually build distance and speed of the runaway ball. Add distance by rolling or pushing the ball away harder. Inflate the ball to make it roll easier and faster, but don’t make it too challenging too soon for your dog.
  7. The final product is a “kick and send” game. Have your dog “wait” at your side, kick the ball out, then send your dog after it with a “GO PUSH!” cue. That will come to mean “run after it and do whatever it takes to push that ball back to me”!

Once your dog is proficient, you can kick hard and far and watch them fly! This game is also very motivating for less driven dogs. It seems to bring out the prey drive and gets them excited once they realize that they can chase down the rolling ball and “catch” it to push it back.

Have fun!  Char

One trainer’s back to school review…

While I don’t always use a clicker I do always use “force free, mark and reward” as the basis for all of my training. My dogs know 2  markers from me: “Yes” or a clicker. Here are basic reminders that I tell myself at every single training session to keep me on my toes:

Reminder-“You get what you click for” Consistency and timing of your mark is everything. Once your dog understands your mark (word, click or other sound), they will know R+ is coming for the behavior that was marked. The most effective reinforcement is delivered within 3 seconds of the click or mark, and every mark or click must be consistently followed with reinforcement, even if you are wrong. So what if….

If you mark the wrong behavior by accident you must still back it up with R+. Trainers make errors, dogs don’t.  It’s not the dog’s fault that you clicked/marked in error, and they will expect their reward.  If this happens, just use a less valuable reinforcement with no fuss. To not R+ at all will confuse your dog and devalue your mark. Just move on and improve your timing to avoid those errors as much as possible (but it will happen to all of us on occasion!).

 If you are slow on your delivery of R+, praise your dog immediately after the mark/click to keep them engaged until you deliver the treat or toy. This bridges your praise with the primary reinforcement (food or toy) and helps close that 3+ second gap to the goodies. (We all at times get our hand stuck in a pocket!) 

If you are too soon with R+ and have it in view before the mark, then it becomes a distraction from the mark/click, essentially a lure and a bribe which takes the focus away from the task and distracts the dog from learning and thinking. R+ should be out of sight (pocket, bait bag, etc.) until after the click.

It’s not about the food and toys: I train with relationship being the priority and I want my dogs to enjoy training as much as anything else we do in life. I always invest myself along with any food, toys, etc. by praising, petting, or anything else that I know is reinforcing to my dog.

So in a nutshell:

  • Be consistent with the mark and know what you want.
  • Timing should be precise.
  • If your timing is off, still R+ to be fair to your dog.
  • If your R+ delivery is slow, add lots of praise in between your mark and delivery.
  • If your R+ is kept in view, it can make your dog lure-dependent and distract from learning. Keep R+ out of sight until after the mark/click. (pocket, hidden bait bag, etc.)
  • Remember that a “mark” is NOT the same as praise. Like food, praise is R+, and comes after the mark.

All training sessions should end on a positive note, and only you can make that happen!  Happy training and train happy-or don’t train at all!


When it’s time to get the food out of your hand-using food rewards for task focus and distance work

If you read my previous post on food and relationship then you already know that I believe in the power of food not only when  teaching and working our dogs but also to build and enhance relationship. As a trainer my priority is always relationship. But having said that, many people fall into the trap of building dependency on food during the learning phases of training and then get stuck there. It then becomes, “oh no, my dog won’t perform without food!” If clean technique was used and task focus developed early on, this should not happen. And even when good technique is used there are still  specific phases required in training for performance, and if any are skipped the ring performance will deteriorate. What I say here applies to toy rewards as well. And while we use extrinsic aids in the teaching process, I firmly believe that we must personally interact during the process as well. Since relationship is a huge topic all on it’s own-and there are trainers much better than I to cover that-the purpose of my article here is simply to address some ideas for effective mechanics in using extrinsic rewards in teaching our dogs. But keep in mind that all the while I am assuming a foundation based on relationship-and that relationship can and should include extrinsic rewards, but not be dependent on them.

So having established relationship as the priority and keeping that as a constant, we get back to the mechanics of using extrinsic rewards. My training focus in recent years has been more on distance work, independent thinking and problem solving by the dog. This can be very different from training a nice heeling performance or recall, where the rewards are often on your body; in a pocket, your hand, even your mouth (from whence you “spit” the treat out for the dog to catch in a perfect front position.) But even in training those behaviors, at some point you still must get the food off of your body in order for the dog to perform in competition.

So my intent here is to emphasize task focus, so that we can train our dogs to work from close up or at a distance without relying on the immediate presence of food or toys. A systematic approach and long term plan must be implemented if you expect to get a reliable performance from your dog in the absence of food in your hand or anywhere on your body. And please note that this step is to be used only after a behavior has become fluent by using a high rate of reinforcement followed by variable and random R+.

In my previous post on food and relationship I talked about hand feeding. Most of us know the “Zen game”- your dog maintains eye contact with you until you release them to take the food from your hand. That’s a great start! Over time then, for performance training we need to take this further with a systematic approach of raising criteria in two main areas: the level of difficulty of behavior required and the distance from the food. And finally, randomizing food R+ at a distance and close in. By doing this, your dog will learn to trust that the food reward will eventually come from anywhere at anytime if they just focus on the task. Using the Zen game as an example, the beginning behavior is: “make eye contact with me while food is immediately present”.

The key then, over time, is to ask for more difficult behaviors and chains of duration while increasing distance from the food. Once the behavior is completed, the dog is released to go and get the reward wherever it is. This can vary from a stationary food target, to tossing or feeding directly from your hand, or even multiple food targets and sending to a different target for each reward. Many of us do a version of this at trials, as in “let’s run to the crate for your jackpot” after the ring performance is complete. The difference in training this systematically by appropriately raising criteria over time, is that it builds confidence and focus on the task at hand. The food becomes tertiary to the game rather than the game being a means to the end (food). In order for this to be effective you will need to train a reliable “release to reward” on cue immediately following your mark or click.  AND, you should praise and interact with your dog after the mark and before releasing to food. I use “get it” after the mark and point to the target wherever it is, and then I continue praise while my dog is being rewarded with food; bridging praise with food increases the value of praise alone as reinforcement. Obviously this is a very general description of the process, and the specifics will vary depending upon your chosen sport and the required behaviors. But just as food can be a bridge to a relationship that stands on its own, it should also be a bridge to building a reliable and independent performance. In any case, the food should be faded as you interact and connect during progressively longer behavior chains in the ring. How  you personally interact and connect depends on many variables which you will have to determine based upon the sport, your dog, and you.

As always, the fundamentals and methodology are key to learning and teaching:

  • Take baby steps and raise criteria appropriately
  • Be accurate with your timing of marking and R+.
  • Always accentuate the positive and ignore the mistakes.
  • Praise after the mark to enhance the value of praise as reinforcement with the food.
  • Don’t be a robot! Be sincere and engaging when training.

Train with a smile or don’t train at all. And above all do no harm.


Fall Treibball Schedule: group classes, private and semi-private lessons

Contact Char: dogsontheball@gmail.com

Fall Treibball classes at Love on a Leash in Harrisonburg, VA will be held twice a month as follows:

  • September 7th & 21st, Saturdays, 10:00-11:00 AM
  • October 6th, Sunday 4:00-5:00 PM
  • Oct. 19th, Saturday, 10:00-11:00 AM
  • November 2nd & 16th, Saturdays 10:00-11:00 AM

Fees and requirements:

Dogs must have completed basic obedience training consisting of or equivalent to: CGC, or sports foundation training, or other equivalent training. Must be reliable enough to work off leash around other dogs.

New students:  For new students these classes are offered as a prepaid 5-week block session for $75.00. Discount for Love on a Leash members, $60.00. Making up missed classes: Please note that the 5 week fee is non-refundable. There are 6 classes scheduled to allow for one makeup if you miss a class. If you don’t need a make up class by week 6, you may elect to attend the 6th class as a pay per class.

Returning students who have already completed 2 x 5 week introductory sessions (10 weeks): Pay per class is $15.00.  Discount for Love on a Leash members, $12.00.

Private and Semi-privates: lessons are being offered at Turner Farms, just north of Harrisonburg on Rt. 11. Fully fenced and secure 50′ x 100′ outdoor  training area. Indoor 60′ x 40′ also available.

  • Fees: Private lessons are $30.00/hr. Semi-private is $15.00/hr.
  • Semi-privates: When you schedule a semi-private lesson please remember that it depends on two participants. If one person cancels last minute or is a no-show, the remaining person can opt for a 1/2 hour private for $15.00, or upgrade to an hour private for $30.00.