Discretion is the Better Part of Valor

Yes, folks, the phrase of the day is “Discretion is the better part of valor.”   Brought three dogs to an APDT rally trial today.   Took Augie, my in tact male Bull Terrier, out and his nose hit the ground.  Full on teeth chattering and drooling.  I have a bitch in season at home, and all his consciousness has migrated directly to his testicles.  It was heartbreaking because Augie normally does rally with so much enthusiasm, if not precision, that he develops a following at every trial he goes to.  I was really looking forward to running him and now he was just gone.

So, what do you do in this situation?   Break out more reinforcers, Vicks Vapo Rub, pinch collar, clicker, squeaky toy?   Here’s my thought on the subject.  When a dog comes out in such a distracted state, you’re better off to put him away.  Run another dog if you have one, or just watch everyone else and enjoy the day.  You might be able to train past this kind of behavior, but you’re not going to do it today.

Now, Augie’s old mother, Ruby, is a fabulous rally dog.  She always got good scores and she’s a pleasure to run.  Today, I had her entered in Veterans for the first time.  Seeing her gray face looking up at me at the start line was really thrilling, and I was ready to have some fun with my old girl again.  After the third sign, she just stopped.  Stood there and panted.  It was a hot day.  She looked back at the ring gate, clearly saying, “Don’t you agree it would be much cooler in the shade?”   I called her to me and she did finish the course for me, and earned her first Veteran’s leg, but I had to work hard to keep her with me.  Not like her, at all.

So, despite the fact that it meant losing the substantial entry fees I paid to be in the other three trials this weekend, I packed up my babies and went home.  Running in the rest of those trials would just have been asking for it.  Sometimes we forget that dogs are dogs, and they have consciousness and existence beyond our plans.  We have to accept that they are sentient beings and not machines, and sometimes they’re just not going to perform for us.

So, as a very seasoned Pigs Fly competitor, I hereby give you permission to go home if you get to the trial and your dog is hot/tired/checked out/feeling ill/unable to perform.  It’s OK.  Discretion is the better part of valor, and there are times when packing it in is the best thing to do.

PS, my third dog, young Nora did finish her Level 1 title today – it was a great day, even if it ended earlier than we had planned.

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The Pursuit of Happiness – Is There Room For Emotion In Dog Training?

Jane and Zulu

Changing Values

We live in a golden age of dog training, and this is an exciting time to be a dog trainer.   Just a few decades ago, Karen Pryor and the Baileys launched training technology which ignited a huge paradigm shift from “dog-breaking” to “relationship-making,” and there’s been no turning back since.

In just the last decade or so this paradigm shift has taken off like a rocket.  Only a few years ago, I could expect to be challenged at seminars by people who did not believe a dog could be trained without force.  Their entire belief structure about dogs, themselves, and the world, was based on assumptions of dominance, obedience, and “because I say so.”   Fast forward a few years and we see a completely different picture at seminars.  Sure, the old values are still there, but increasingly we see students rolling in with a stated goal of making their dog “happy” or “making it fun” for their dog.   This is a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to see.  But, I have to ask, is there room for emotion in dog training?


I’m OK, You’re OK, But Are We Getting Anywhere?

I am a tireless advocate of measuring behavior rather than guessing at a dog’s motivation and emotion.  I persistently work to re-direct students who diagnose their dogs in emotive or moral terms, such as, “He’s blowing me off”,  “I want this to be fun for him”, “I want him to be happy, “ “he needs to be close to me to feel safe.”   I try hard to get those students to let go of their emotional presumptions about their dog,  see their dog’s behavior for what it presently is, and get down to shaping the behavior they want.

Why am I so dismissive of  ascribing general emotional content to behavior and training goals?  Because it’s just not useful information.  It’s stuff that interferes with seeing what’s in front of you, and changing it to what you’d like it to be.  It’s stuff that keeps you from sitting down and learning the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and mastering how to use the universal laws of learning to shape the behavior you want.

Wow, that sounds so cold.   Does that mean I don’t care about emotion in my dogs?  Well, here’s a quote from one of my Clean Run articles:

While we certainly care about outward indications of a happy, relaxed, emotional state, those are criteria we shape for, not a definition of whether something is reinforcing or punishing. 

Truly, we do not know what our dogs are thinking, but there are some relatively objective criteria that we can articulate and measure that will honestly tell us what our dog’s inner feelings are.  Saying “I want this to be fun for my dog” is a nice sentiment, but it does not move the training story forward. So often, people who say this engage in “play” or “encouragement” that actually backs the dog off or arouses them in uncomfortable ways.  If they stopped for a moment and actually looked at their dog, his body language, and whether the target behavior was increasing or decreasing, they often would find that their idea of “fun” was in fact “punishing” to the dog.

Think about this quote from that same Clean Run Article:

Your dog can be wagging his tail with a soft, open countenance as he takes the treat from your hand and runs away, but that does not make that treat a reinforcer for anything related to agility!

And therein lies the rub with focusing on general emotional states or attitudes. If you just want your dog to be “happy,” I’d say doing whatever he wants and getting fed for nothing will please him greatly.  If you want to train your dog, you need to shape him to be happy doing the things you would like him to do, which is a scientifically much more complicated proposition.


Shaping What Can’t be Held

Now, here’s the dirty secret. My entire training program is fueled by pure emotion.  Every training choice I make is governed by my love for dogs and my wish that they enjoy whatever we are doing. In all my seminars and writings, I have been consistent in believing that emotion not only counts, it’s the first and most important thing I shape for.  But I’m not talking about me having a smile and a sunny disposition, I’m talking about metrics that I can touch and see.  If  I can get my dog to heel for a half an hour in technically perfect heel position, but his ears are flat and his head is down, in my opinion I have not trained heel position.  I’m not enjoying it, and my dog arguably is not, either.  My criteria requires that my dog heel with his head up and tail wagging,  with his pupils not dilated, mouth relaxed and his breathing elevated, but not manic.  If I can get my dog to do one step that meets my criteria, I have at least shaped one step of heeling, and I’m way ahead of where I would be if my dog heeled for a half hour with his head down and his ears back.

I start from the premise that I love dogs and I have dogs because I want to make meaningful connections with other living beings.  I want to enjoy my dogs, and have them enjoy me, too. But I have found over the years that just generally saying or wishing for those things does not make them come true.  In my observation, unless you selectively look for and shape relatively objective indication of those desirable emotional states,  such as “enjoyment,” and “happiness,” they will slip through your fingers like so many grains of sand.

Most of my students have the will to bring happiness to their dog, but they lack the training chops to find the way to do so.  That’s where I come in.  I support their will, and I want to give them the way.  My mission is to give students the mechanical skills to shape whatever behavior they want, including and especially emotional states in their dogs.

In sum, I’m suggesting that not only is there room for emotion in dog training, but that joy and happiness are the most important criteria of all.  But they’re criteria not constructs. They’re things that have to be pursued and maintained with excellent training skills.  It appears to me that happiness, for dogs as for people, is not a wish that is granted, but a goal that is shaped.


***The article quoted in this blog, Consequences, Schmonsequences: Understanding Reinforcers and Punishers originally appeared in Clean Run in January 2010.  You can read the entire article, HERE

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Video Blog: Don’t Get Discouraged! You Will Succeed With Your Pigs Fly Agility Dog!

Don't Get Discouraged

It’s a sparkling fall day, you’ve gotten up at 4AM, packed up your car and your dog, and driven a couple of hours to a beautiful park for an agility trial. When you pull in, you see the equipment gleaming in the sunlight and it gives you a little thrill. You set up with your friends, and then go walk the course. Looking good! You’ve got all your handling moves planned out and memorized, and you can’t wait. You’re envisioning that perfect run with your best friend. You’re really excited because you’ve been working hard and you think this course is very do-able for you and your dog. You approach the start line with excited anticipation – this is everything you’ve worked for, this is going to be FUN! You take off the leash and…your dog puts his nose down, starts sniffing, and then runs away to visit the ring crew. Welcome to the Pigs Fly world of agility trials.

Click on the link below to see a video that should give you some hope:


What I want to tell you is, don’t get discouraged if your dog runs away from you in the ring. It’s part of running a Pigs Fly dog, and something that you will have to spend time training through. Other handlers may be working on the minutia of how to best cue a turn to shave 1/10 of a second off of their time, and you’re going to be teaching your dog to stay in the ring and run with you. That’s just the way it is, and there’s no reason to feel bad about it.

You love your dog, and you love running with him, and you’re willing the put the extra work in so that he can do agility. I applaud and understand that. I can tell you for sure that if you lay the proper foundation of attention before you go to the trial, your dog eventually will learn to stay in the ring and run with you. You can learn more about laying the proper foundation for attention in the “Attention as a Behavior” section of my book, “When Pigs Fly: Training Success With Impossible Dogs”

Stay calm and stick with it – you WILL succeed – When Pigs Fly!




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What Does The Clicker Really Mean?

My Cattle Dog puppy, Ellie Rose, inspired this blog yesterday.  I was training her in agility and using both food and toys as a reinforcer.  I was clicking and treating for her mastering a difficult and new approximation of a behavior, and using the toy as a reinforcer to get speed and drive out of behaviors she had already learned.  She is crazy for the toy, and we were having a grand time playing together after each sequence.  Then, by mistake, I clicked her and offered her the toy. She sat down and flat out refused to take it until I gave her a treat, first.  Smart girl, she called me out on being sloppy.

When I click, I give my dog a food reward.  Every time, without fail, one to one, always.  I don’t offer my dog a toy, play, or other reinforcer after I click – I only offer food rewards after the click. Why is that so important? You have to remember that the click is a classically conditioned reinforcer, and to maintain the classically conditioned response you can’t “leave out” or mix up stimuli.  OK that’s pretty meaningless to most people, so lets break it down.

The way we “power up” a clicker, is to click, wait half a second, and treat.  We do this for many, many repetitions.  We are not trying to train our dogs to do anything, we are trying to create a classically conditioned response.  What that means is that, eventually, when the dog hears the clicker, he will have an involuntary physiological response to the click.  He will begin to relax  and drool, (his parasympathetic nervous system will kick in) just as if food were actually present, even if there is no food around.   This has huge advantages for a dog trainer.  Among other things, it’s a way of reaching in and controlling the way your dog feels – properly conditioned, a clicker makes your dog feel good, whether he wants to or not.  Furthermore, it can push  your dog back into the “thinking” part of the brain, rather than the limbic or flight or flight part of the brain.   This is where you want your dog to be when he’s learning new and complex tasks that require concentration and focus.  So, when we say a clicker is “powered up” what we really mean is we have successfully classically conditioned an involuntary physiological response to the clicker.

Now, to maintain that classically conditioned response, you have to pair the food with the click every time.  It’s not like training, where you can thin the ratio (gradually give less and less reinforcers) and get a higher response (longer duration and better performance).   Training is an intellectual function where the dog makes a choice about how to pursue or avoid consequences.  Conditioning is a different animal completely.  There are no choices, here, only conditioned involuntary responses – any time you fail to give the food in conjunction with the click, you weaken the conditioning.

So, what about clicking and giving a toy or offering play, or other reinforcers?  Sure, you can do it, but you will be weakening your nice conditioned response.  Lets think about what we are doing when we play with our dogs – we get his adrenaline pumping, kick him into play/prey drive, and try to rev up his performance.  It does not take much to realize that is at odds with the calming, thinking, state that the parasympathetic nervous system invokes when food is present.   For me, keeping the dog in the thinking brain is crucial for teaching him things,  As a general rule, only after the dog is fluent in any given behavior do I add “stimulating” reinforcers. You can’t classically condition the clicker to invoke two opposing physiological responses so I recommend, if you want to use toys or other reinforcers, use a different marker.   I use the word “yessss” for toys and the clicker is reserved for food.

Just a side note – you don’t actually have to give your dog the food each time you click. You can vary the reinforcer and create more drive by sometimes just letting him sniff the food, put his mouth on the food but not have it, give him ten pieces of food, a huge chunk of food, thowing the food, etc.  The bottom line it, food has to be involved, somehow.

This is a complicated topic and I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on this!


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When Pigs Fly Dog Training: It’s not just for breakfast anymore.

Bull Terrier and Cattle Dog Playing

Biddable Meets Non-Biddable

Got this great comment from Tricia Dunlop in the UK and it inspired me to make a blog post out of it:

“What a great website and blog. I do not have a ‘pigs fly dog’. I do agility with Border Collies, who are also capable of presenting their own challenges …I changed my methods and started training my youngest dog 2 yrs ago using free shaping and have been amazed at the difference. I will never train any other way again. Look forward to more articles and getting your DVD.”

Tricia, thanks so much for the kind words!  You illustrate a good point about the WPF training system.  The fact is, ALL dogs of all breeds and mixes respond beautifully to WPF training.   In my observation and experience, you get the very best performance out of your dog by using the methods I recommend.  I’m using them now on my very biddable Cattle Dog puppy, and she’s blowing me away with how quickly she’s learning everything. So, if WPF training actually works better for all dogs, why did I write a book which recommends these methods for “Pigs Fly” or non-biddable dogs instead of just writing a general dog training book for all dogs?  Here’s the thing – if you have a biddable dog, it is possible to train your dog with compulsion and luring.  I’m not saying I recommend it, but it’s possible.  The amount of force you will need to convince them to go along with you is minimal, and their native desire to work with you is strong enough that just showing them or luring them into what you want will probably get them to do what you want.  Their final performance may not be as enthusiastic, reliable, or excellent as with the WPf system,  but it could be passable by many standards. Pigs Fly dogs, on the other hand, are too stubborn to be compelled and to clever to be lured.  You have no choice but to go to training that taps into their problem-solving ability and engages them in the process.

There are a whole slew of great training books out there to help people who have “normal” dogs.  However,  almost no one has addressed how to help people who’s dogs don’t respond to luring and compulsion – Pigs Fly dogs.  Those owners are cut adrift and left wondering if they have rocks in their head for loving such an animal which seems to defy training.  So, the short answer is that I wrote the book because I feel for people who love Pigs Fly dogs like I do, and I wanted to help them shape their dogs into great companions.  But even the most biddable dog will soar with the WPF system!

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At what age can I start training my puppy? Can a tiny puppy handle obedience training?

Almost every puppy owner client I have asks me these questions, so I thought I’d address them in the blog, since it seems to be a big concern.

Here are my answers to those questions:

  • First, you can’t start too early. Puppies are extremely motivated – they’re hungry, growing, and laying down mental highways, all of which make them learning machines.  I start my puppies as soon as their ears and eyes are open.
  • Second, Not only can a tiny puppy handle obedience training,  training during the early days of a  puppy’s life will imprint a love of learning and teach the puppy to be an enrichment-seeker.

Interested in seeing this in action? Check out these two videos of me training some four week old puppies.  These are old home movies I took myself before I knew anything about video, so please forgive the quality:

Automatic Sit

Powering Up the Clicker

Now, my answers are specific to When Pigs Fly training.  If you don’t already know, we free shape as much as possible, and use reinforcement-based training.  What this means is that we are never asking the puppy to do anything (no luring, no compulsion, no “showing” the puppy what we want) – the puppy is offering to do it.   By definition, if the puppy is doing something, he’s ready to do it, because it was his idea.

I encourage you to start teaching your puppy as soon as you get him,  no matter how young he is!

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The When Pigs Fly Website is Officially Up!

The When Pigs Fly website is officially up!  www.whenpigsflydogtraining.com

Please visit us and let us know what you think!  We will be adding great video footage soon, so check back often or, better yet, become a Pigs Fly Follower!

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Isn’t This Everyone’s Ideal?

Bull Terriers Lying In The Sun

New Jersey Summer Pig Pile - Aren't they sweet?

Aren’t they sweet?  Such good dogs, aren’t they?  So nice, the way they all get along and hang out.  I bred two of them, so I’d like to think that I’m some kind of genius breeder that produces darling Bull Terriers who relax calmly inside and get along with their housemates, but it’s just not so.  Left to their own devices, this crew would tear apart the house and probably get into a fight in the process.  The truth is, this tranquil scene is the product of years of constant training and management.  Constant shaping, and re-directing.  All adults in the household constantly listening for that shuffle of feet that tells us that things are about to break loose.  Constant praise and reward for calm behaviors, and lots of time sitting on the couch and training the girls to relax.

Everyone wants dogs that just hang out and get along, but almost no one realizes that it’s huge training accomplishment that requires a commitment to always be “on duty” and shaping dogs to be calm.  So many of my clients are disappointed that their dogs can’t have all freedoms all the time and still behave.  But that’s nothing to be disappointed about.  With management, training, and limiting your dog’s freedoms until he’s reliable around the house, any dog can be shaped to be a great pet around the house.

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What A Great Summer

What a great summer

What a great summer we’re having here at When Pigs Dog Training.  We’re busy working on the new website and filming for our DVD.  Having a great time working with “Pigs Fly Dogs” and making new friends.  We will be finishing up our filming by the end of fall and then its off to post editing.  The DVD should be available early next year.  Keep an eye here for updates and sample clips.  If you prefer, you can have us send  updates and clips to you automatically just click this link and we will keep you in the loop.

Keep an eye out for some up coming “Piggy Pointer” videos – practical tips for every day living with your dog.

Until then here’s to all the Pigs Fly Dogs…..

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