Splitting vs Lumping (behaviors that is)


“Training is Simple, but not Easy” Bob Bailey

Our dogs are generally eager to learn, happy to participate and do want to do the right thing! It’s up to us to make it clear what we’re asking, and what we expect of them so they are clear on what gets them the reward. Splitting vs lumpingrefers to how we train the behaviors we’re asking our dogs to learn and perform, and how we can make our training as clear and efficient as possible to reduce their frustration and confusion (which often is the cause of them 'not listening')

Ideally we split the behavior into the smallest components possible to be taught separately, then put together later.

If you think about it, simple behaviors can actually be quite complex. For a dog to really learn and understand something, it’s best if we split it down into the smallest possible pieces, and teach each piece separately. Then put them together bit by bit. In the long run this is actually a much faster way of training. Our dogs not only have a better understanding, but also have a better foundation to fall back on. If we lump training behaviors all together, important parts might get glossed over along the way, not understood, or it may be just flat out too much to try to learn at once.


Can you rub your belly? Pat your head? While hopping on one foot and reciting Shakespeare? Maybe...but it’d be a heck of a lot easier if you mastered each piece first before putting it together. Marching band members don’t learn how to march on formation together while also learning a new piece of music. One thing at a time! 

What does a stay require? Your dog needs to know how to hold still - easy, ya? But there are a few things we can break down to make the concept more clear to our dogs. First, does the dog know a sit or down position? Can they stay still in that position *without* you moving? If not...that’s where we start. Once the idea of holding still (perhaps just between treats coming every few seconds) then we can work on 3 D’s - Distance, Duration and Distraction. If your dog can’t stay for 10 seconds, but it you try to walk 20ft away, which takes you 20 seconds to do - well then you’ve just lumped together learning more duration and more distance at once. For new distractions, stay close and keep it short so they’re successful and working just on the concept of staying during the distraction.

Loose leash walking requires that your dog understands focus on you, focus on you while moving, what leash pressure means if they pull (to give to the pressure), a general heel position (not weaving and tripping you), to not dart after the cat crossing the street, moving with you if you change direction or speed, maybe even stopping and sitting at an intersection, omph that’s a lot for your dog to keep in mind for just a simple walk. 

So next time your dog isn’t learning something quite as fast as you’d like - think about how clear things are to them. Could you split down the task into smaller behaviors to work on separately? Are they worried or distracted by something, while also trying to learn something new? Those are two very things to work on. Maybe focus on just attention, engagement and having fun playing before training any skills.

I'd love to hear your examples of how you've split behaviors into smaller pieces for training, or ideas on how you're going to try in the future! 

Teaching, not Testing

All too often people excuse their dog’s lack of cooperation because “he’s just so stubborn” or because “she knows how to do it, but just ignores me!” However a vast majority of the time it isn’t because your dog is willful, but because they weren’t thoroughly taught the skill yet. Dogs are very specific about how they learn. Just because they can come in the backyard and sit in the livingroom means next to nothing when at the beach or at the dog park. These are vastly different environments with major distractions. So how do we get cooperation and focus everywhere? We need to genuinely teach our dogs each step and variable, ensure they truly understand the concepts - and set them up for success rather than setting them up for a test they may fail. In the end, it's oh so worth putting in the time to work throught these steps! Having a dog who actually understands what you are asking for and can happily do a few core skills through real life distractions makes your life together so much more enjoyable.

The four steps for a thoroughly trained skill are:

  • Fading the Lure
  • Building Value
  • Proofing
  • Generalization

Fading the Lure

One of the main ways we teach a dog a behavior is to lure it. Meaning we hold onto a treat, place it close to their nose or even let them nibble, and move the treat. Naturally, dogs follow. If you take that treat and lure upwards it raises their noses, which tends to cause their rear to drop and voila! we have a sit. Luring is extremely useful to show our dogs what we want them to do and how we want them to move. However, they’ll quickly learn that the behavior is done as a response to the lure. Some dogs are so focused on the food they have actually no idea what the rest of their body is doing - and how to consciously choose to repeat that action again. Once your dog is consistently able to sit, down, spin, heel, etc with a lure we want to fade the lure from our hands and teach a verbal cue or hand signal as soon as possible. Until we can ask for a skill without the treat in our hands, it's difficult to move on. We need to know that they do understand that ‘sit’ means ‘place your bottom on the ground’...and that they aren’t waiting for that treat to lure them each time

Build Value

Now that we have a skill on a cue, we need to be sure they love doing it! If early on they learn that sitting gets them amazing things, they’ll have a deeper association that sitting equals fun. You can’t just be a hotdog dispenser, but do need to actually be fun! Think along the lines of “adding obedience to the game, rather than the game to obedience” (Shade Whitesel) to build motivation and drive to cooperate. This is a step we’ll need to revisit frequently to maintain skills. If your dog enjoys tug or fetch, mix in some short obedience between throws. When you call your dog, reward with tug! Motivation is crucial for reliable cooperation. Dogs, just like us, prefer to work harder for things we love to do.


‘Proofing’ means ensuring that your dog understands ‘sit’ not only under pristine conditions, but with distractions as well. Can they still perform with a toy on the ground? How about with your other dog in the room? With kids playing soccer nearby? It’s imperative to start slow with the distractions. Jumping to distractions that are too difficult will only serve to frustrate you and your dog, and not teach them how to ignore distractions. When properly set up, slow and steady, proofing can become a fun game for your dog. They can start to see distractions as if they were all intentional - a setup for them to overcome and win!

Practicing polite greetings before the real world greetings


Finally, generalization! Dogs unfortunately are not good at generalizing behaviors on their own. When they learn sit, they learn ‘oh, I place my bottom on the ground while facing you in the living room with someone on the couch in the afternoon while you are standing….” you get the idea. Change one piece of the picture, and it’s new to your pup. We need to practice the behavior at different angles to us, while we’re sitting or standing, inside, at the park, in the backyard, in the driveway, etc. Think of this step like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.


Fading the lure, building value, proofing and generalization may seem like a lot to have to do - but these are the pieces of the puzzle your dog needs to truly understand a cued behavior. When your dog "won’t listen" next time, take a step back and look at what else is going on. There may be a variable that is too different or overwhelming for your dog to translate. Practice with an easier version to reward success - then try again!

If you’re interested in focusing on these skills, check out the Advanced Manner’s, Beyond the Backyard class and Denise Fenzi’s book “Beyond the Backyard”  We’ll specifically be teaching our dogs how to cooperate with their basic obedience skills in real life situations. Next session starts April 11th at 5pm.


Six Little Pieces

Six Little Pieces… it sounds like a self help book. Or a philosophy for living minimally. Maybe even part of a recipe for dinner? But nope, it is actually a phrase that became our mantra during a summer Nosework class. “Six little pieces!” Then counting out “One, good dog... two...three, what a rockstar...four, oh just excellent...five...six, super!” while doling out morsels to an eagerly awaiting pup. Eyes big with anticipation, tail wagging, just enraptured with his luck!

Are we just spoiling this happy pooch? Teaching him the world is all about eating as much as you want? Of course not - we’re specifically rewarding hard work with a worthwhile reward.

Patrick alerted to odor source, under the chair, during Nosework class - now excited for the payoff!

Patrick alerted to odor source, under the chair, during Nosework class - now excited for the payoff!

This is less about the actual delivery of specifically six pieces of food, and much more about making the reward meaningful by the duration and our involvement. Think of it as “five pennies is worth more than a dime.” The size of the actual piece of food reward is less important than how many and over how long. As much as your dog enjoys a big hunk string cheese - they’d prefer you delivering kibble one at a time while praising what an amazing job they’ve done over a solid ten seconds, then you just nonchalantly handing them cheese. Toy rewards have duration built in throughout the toss, catch, and tug engagement from you when brought back.

When asking a dog to do something difficult, we need to be sure we are rewarding accordingly - especially in early training. If my dog does a down on cue for the first time, and I passively tell them ‘good dog’ then move on, the likelihood of getting another down on cue isn’t very high. If I reward with a piece of yummy chicken - that likelihood goes up quite a bit. If I reward with lots of praise, some food and play - well then my dog is going to starting offering lying down, trying to go even faster, and being happier about it when asked! We’re over simplifying here, but what we’re doing is teaching our dogs that the behavior itself is rewarding, because of the anticipation of reward. Make them think ‘why the heck wasn’t I just doing this the whole time? This thing is AMAZING!”



When you have higher motivation to work by clear rewards, we can eventually ask for more behaviors in a row over a longer period of time, without losing focus. Meaningful rewards and praise build your dog’s confidence when they’ve worked hard for it (note: we don’t use these as bribes, they are rewards for behavior). A dog confident that they can figure out the right answer tries harder, even under distractions. When the game of obedience itself becomes fun, you will be able to vary how often, and what kind of rewards you give your pup. Want to learn more about how to achieve this? Check out one of our classes!

Beyond Obedience

It’s high time for another term for ‘obedience.’ Language is important and word do mean a lot. So many of us associate obedience with rigid, mechanical compliance to a top-down order. Obedience implies simply following orders. It implies the action is forced or is done mindlessly. Some people encounter the word obedience as a turn off for these reasons, and as a result don’t train their dogs to the level they need. There are very important skills our dogs absolutely need to know how to do. Sit and stay. Walk on leash without pulling. Come when called. Wait until released before jumping out of the car.

I don’t want my dogs to be mindlessly obedient - that sounds incredibly boring. What's the point of sharing my life with exuberant, full-of-zest, furry creatures if I turn them into suppressed, obeying creatures? I want my dog’s personality to shine through in everything that they do. Otherwise… perhaps a stuffed dog or robot would be a better fit. I want something more out of life with my dog.

Cooperation, ah this now is vitally important. Cooperation between me and my dogs allows us to smoothly navigate life together. If they don’t pull, we can go for a hike. If they come when called, we can play fetch off leash at the park. Rex’s level of cooperative work even makes paddle boarding on the ocean past sea otters possible. He has to climb on, hold still, come when called even when swimming, and not jump off until I give the OK.

Our dogs also don’t necessarily know the difference between a ‘trick’ and ‘obedience.’ Both tricks and obedience are actions you are asking your dog to do, the difference is purely in our minds. We tend to think that a ‘focused heel’ should be boring and regimented. While ‘jump my leg’ is a fun trick. It’s all in the way we teach it, and how we reward it. Competition obedience is judged on accuracy, but in sports such as Schutzhund the teams are also judged also on the level of engagement and focus from the dog. It's not enough to have your dog just walk at a heel position at your side. They need to actually be happy, working as a team with their handler.

Going to work each day means we earn a paycheck which allows us to not only pay the mortgage and buy groceries but hopefully also fund a fun night out with friends. Working is something we all have to do (including our dogs), but not just for the bare necessities of living. In a modern world, we have weekends and free choice. So, let’s teach our dogs cooperation skills that they have to be able to do (sit, down, stay, heel, come) with the same fun we teach tricks (fetch, spin, touch, jump, run). When these skills can be done reliably, they allow a way for us to communicate with our dogs what we need them to do to gain access to life’s rewards (dinner, going for a walk, chasing a ball, a treat).

All dogs need to learn how to do certain behaviors or skills. They need to learn that these skills are valuable to them and to us. That these skills can be done in the living room, at the park, at the vet, while right in front of me and even 100ft away. Initially we teach our dogs that if they do this behavior we ask of them, they’ll get a treat. It’s an easy way to have them feel rewarded. As the years go on, we may not always give one treat for each instance of behavior. Over time, it becomes cooperation, as a way for us to be able to take our dogs anywhere. They figure out that if they do what I ask, they get something worthwhile for it - which includes access to romps at the beach! Perhaps we can also teach those skills such that our dogs want to do them? Perhaps we can have an understanding that this is more than just obedience. Ultimately, obedience, or whatever you want to call it, will unlock opportunities for your dog. It will keep them safe. It will save their lives.

What do you call these abilities? Skills? Cooperation? Other ideas? I'd love to hear 'em!


(And don’t worry, I’m still training my dogs for competition obedience. All three of my pups are stoked to work on focused heeling, straight fronts and perfect dumbbell retrieves just as much as spin, weaves and handstands.)


Willpower: work it to improve it

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"Strictly speaking, impulse control is a misnomer. You don't really control the impulses. even someone as preternaturally disciplined as Barrack Obama can't avoid stray impulses to smoke a cigarette. What he can control is how he reacts, ignore the impulse, chew a Nicorette or sneak out for a smoke," (Baumeister and O'Hare, Willpower)

Willpower is like a muscle. Though it is a cognitive process and takes place within the brain-the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. However, willpower has a limit. Just like a muscle, it can fatigue and fail.

This concepts ties into my post 'Dog Training from an Athlete's Perspective.' Willpower, what it means for our dogs and how to get more of it! You may remember about how some stress is good, it builds confidence and resilience for future difficult situations. But too much can be discouraging, overwhelming and cause us (and our dogs) to to give up. 

Mental work is fatiguing. Even though your day at work may be done sitting in a comfortable chair, those hours of spreadsheets are exhausting. When we're even partially depleted we notoriously make bad decisions. One study found that those on diets (working mentally to not eat what they crave) are actually more likely to cheat on their spouse! Social scientists also demonstrate this in laboratory settings by asking participants either resist a temptation, or control emotions - then having them work on a simple puzzle. Those who had to use willpower to not laugh at a comedy, eat the chocolate cake, etc give up much sooner on these puzzles.

The squirrel will also be alluring - just as that hazelnut soy latte is always alluring to me. What matters though is the choice we make in response to that craving. I can't avoid driving by Starbucks, but I can practice not going into every one. Similarly with our dogs, so much of what they bark at, eat, chase after and play with can't be avoided. So rather than attempting to employ an almost never ending 'leave it' its important to teach your dog how to actually handle those unavoidable impulses. Set them up in situations which they can handle, so they are not overwhelmed and fail. Over time, their ability to control their response to those impulses will improve allowing them to respond well to greater and greater distractions.

My puppy Tango has the unending desire to put everything in his mouth. Socks, shoes, my hands, rocks, power cords.... Living in a studio, it is unavoidable that these items are left out in places he can reach. To teach that these were things to leave alone, I started with just one object at a time. While it was out, if he showed any interest, I initiated play with an appropriate toy, or called him away and gave a treat. At 6 months old as I type this, my shoes, a bag, some clothes and a few other things are out and haven't been paid any attention. He still has the impulse to chew, but he now diverts it to appropriate toys.

Dogs will be dogs! Temptations are always out there. Set your dogs up for success by proving them with the opportunity to make the right choice in situations they can handle. Help them with incompatible behaviors (they can't jump on a guest if also in a sit/stay), and give them frequent breaks. The more they can practice willpower over impulses without depletion, the more second nature self control will become.


A Word on Rewards

When a 12 year old is playing soccer and scores the winning goal - she’s not looking for mom to hug her in congratulations. A big kiss on the cheek from mom in front of everyone would be met with pulling away and a “Moooomm, you’re embarrassing me!” What would be reinforcing could be a high five, a Gatorade, or just a cheer.

“The actor is the only one who determines what is is reinforcing to him or her. The values of anyone else is besides the point. To insist that others act in accordance with values that represent no inherent reward to them in a subtle but very real way, denies them full self determination. I decide what is good for you. I think you ought to do what I think best. Otherwise known as coercion. We may hope and wish all we want, but our children, our dogs and our fellow citizens are all looking out for #1, as the saying goes. and Number one decides what number one wants. Not me. Not you.” Melssa Holbrook Pierson, The Secret History of Kindness, Learning from How Dogs Learn.

The concept of rewards can take us beyond being treat dispensers, and at the same time increase the quality of our dog’s behavior by using truly rewarding reinforcers. When you hand a treat to your dog, to they just happen to take it, eating because it's in front of them? Or do they turn to you and look for more, and start offering behaviors to get more? When you pet your dog do they duck away, or look the other direction? Or do they lean into it, pushing for more? What is actually reinforcing to your dog depends on their personality, mood and the situation. My cattle dog Surly isn’t rewarded by being petted while practicing agility, it's seen more as a punishment to have her hold still! She is though reinforced by her favorite trick, jumping my leg.

Don’t feel limited by this! Start thinking outside of the box. What does your dog enjoy? Can you give access to it as a reward for a desired behavior? Rex loves to run up the hill to chase squirrels in the yard. Before he’s allowed out though, he has to sit or down - then is rewarded by me opening the door.

The science behind behavior says that a reward is something that increases the chances of the behavior occurring. So be sure what you're ‘rewarding’ your dog with is actually rewarding, and not punishing! Remember, it’s all from their unique perspective.

Next up...we’ll talk a bit about how to create a Conditioned Emotional Response, or how to make a behavior a reward!


Concepts for Confidence

Something I've found time and time again is that when our dogs aren't sure about what they should be doing- they tend to become more reactive, more anxious and less focused. They need direction, they need to understand the goal, the end game - the why. Why are we at this new park? Why are we going over jumps? Why are we heeling randomly in a big building? Why am I sitting here while you chat with your friends and drink coffee?

Dogs love being able to predict what comes next. They learn very quickly when one thing predicts another. Dogs thrive on a certain level of consistency in life that they can look forward to. So it makes sense that we should teach our dogs both how to deal when the environment is different, and some skills that require an understanding of an overall process.

When Surly, my 10 year old cattle dog, started to learn agility- it wasn’t very pretty! She didn’t understand why we were gathered with a bunch of strange dogs, doing odd things. She did know that she loved the jumping, running, playing and the treats though! Surly was excited, but had no direction. What this meant was that between turns or when just finishing with an obstacle, she was ultra reactive! Little Surly would want to take off like a rocket to anything that moved- thinking 'this energy has to go somewhere!'

I opted to teach Surly the individual obstacles at home or in individual lessons, until we could do a few in a row Then, things started to click! We could run an agility course with increasing chaos going on. She knew the concept - we do one obstacle after another, running around together then I throw the ball. awesome!

Confidence learned from mastering a concept spills over into the rest of your pup’s life. Since most reactive or unfocused dogs have anxiety as a cause of their issues, gaining confidence overall can really help in day to day life. If you aren’t involved in something with your pup, it might be time! Just for fun agility, nosework, barn hunt, herding, competition obedience can all be great options.

Getting involved in dog sports isn’t necessary though - it can be as simple as teaching a few tricks, then practicing those tricks when/where your dog is nervous. Those fun tricks become the normalcy. If your dog likes tugging - then even just showing that ‘we’re here to tug!’ in new or odd situations can work. 

Lastly, it’s always great to create an ‘operant’ dog - a dog who acts (operates) to have a consequence (reward) happen. Example: my dog wants the treats in my hand, but I’m not telling her anything. So she tries sitting, down, bark, then shake - when she finally gets the click and treat. ah, she thinks - I shake to get the treat! Practice training as many things as you can by shaping them (see 101 Things to Do With a Box for ideas how to start http://www.clickertraining.com/node/167). When our pups feel like they can act to change the situation for their better, it gives them control - control brings confidence! It also helps decrease frustration. Instead of waiting for what our pup wants, or being upset they don’t have it - they have the skills to actively work for it.

So start thinking of where/when your dog isn’t showing ideal behavior. Is it because they are anxious, not focused or reactive? If so, do they really understand why you're there? Think of things from their perspective - the world is much different from their perspective. Even something as simple as sitting at a cafe needs some normalcy for our pups. Set up things in life so your dog is rewarded for their good behaviors, so they know what is correct - and if they aren’t going to show good behavior, help them out!


New Years - long term

Lets not worry about New Years resolutions. Instead, between now and New Years, write a note to yourself about your dog. Where are your biggest struggles, in obedience and behavior? What was a recent success-new trick or time of calm when you were expecting chaos? You can only train the dog you have in front of you, but that doesn't mean you can't work for long term change. It was now two years ago when I picked up Rex. I'm his third home, and he had some good obedience, great genetics, but plenty of issues to work though! It took us almost this entire two years to have him feel comfortable training by shaping. In shaping, I'm mostly waiting for Rex to figure out what to do, then marking and rewarding when he's correct. Rex wanted much more guidance though. Getting anxious, he'd bring me a toy, trying his best to do the right thing! Now the tricks he's learned recently have given him so much more confidence in every facet of his life. While roll over wasn't an option last year, it's now one of his favorite tricks that puts him in an instant good mood.  It wasn't an issue of just training a simple trick, it was a more complex emotionally charged issue that took improvement all around.

I never would have noticed how remarkable this transformation was if I didn't have video and stories written of our previous training struggles. Progress can be at a glacial pace sometimes, with back slides and plateaus. So, take five minutes, and make a note of where you are right now. It's the best way to see your efforts pay off years away. It's as simple as sending yourself an email, jotting it in a day planner, or making a facebook post on your wall you can go find again later.

Dog Training from an Athlete's Perspective - When to Rest & Periodization

Training is training, right? Work at it, keep going, and you’ll get better, stronger, faster. Nice! …..Its not quite so simple though. If you’re training for a marathon you can’t go out every day and simply run one more mile each time. Nor can you become a faster cyclist by just riding two hours as hard as you can every day. To reach your athletic goals, there must be a base period of endurance training, then working on adding speed and power, with rest between. The key to reaching goals is rest and recovery! For training our dogs, we need to think in this same way. ‘Train smarter, not harder’ is a well known mantra for successful athletes. Who doesn’t want to work less, and make bigger improvements? The key to all of this is to not only train hard, but rest hard as well. This allows the body to be pushed further, but heal and recover fully so the next training session or block of sessions can be done with higher quality work

Think of working in phases, a style of training call ‘periodization.’ This is where training intensity and duration is broken up into cycles. While training, intensity/difficulty will increase within each session, and from session to session. Rather than continuing this constant, upward trend, by taking breaks and dropping off the demand, we can actually ensure long term continued progress, and help avoid plateaus.


Applying this to our dogs, we can structure our training sessions in just the same way. We all have long term goals in our dog training. Don’t just plod away each day working on the same routine of things. Push and be patient for high quality behaviors, then reward big! Those rewards are part of your dog’s recovery to get ready to do it all again. Check the previous blog post for more about the wide range of what rest can look like to our dogs.

To get specific, I’m a competitive cyclist. My biggest races are usually in August. When October rolls around, I start working on getting in ‘base miles.’ These are long, medium paced rides. For three weeks, my rides will get longer and longer, then I’ll do one easy week - this is a microcycle. Within each week, I take 1-2 easy or off days. Weight lifting, single leg pedaling drills, and other exercises to be sure all my mechanics are smooth and even start getting incorporated more as winter comes. By spring, I have the physical ability to ride for hours at a steady pace without tiring. From this solid base, I can start doing harder efforts that get closer to the effort required to race, bringing me into a new macrocycle. However, total length of training rides decrease so the intensity can increase. as races begin, weeks of big races will include a taper - or much shorter rides with a few high quality intervals, so I’ll be well rested but primed to go fast.

Back to our pups lets keep these micro and macrocycles in mind. Within each training session ask for harder behaviors, but also mix it up with easier ones. No one likes going hard, harder, hardest! Lets say you and your pup go to the park one and do some really great training with all kinds of hard distractions; kids running around, BBQ cooking and squirrels all over - the next day shouldn’t push it to the same degree. That next day might be best to work on something your dogs knows well and loves to do, but isn’t too stressful. 

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If you are working on a behavioral problem, say a dog who goes over threshold and reacts to seeing other dogs, working this daily may very well be too much. Within the week, consider also spending some days only doing scent/nose games, obedience moves in the backyard, or just playing. after a few weeks of doing better and better in the behavior modification work, you might then try going to a new park that will be a harder situation. To be successful, be sure to have a taper, easy days right before, and then allow for recovery afterwards.

When you and your dog rest is as important as the work. Don’t forget to work in mini rests between exercises, days of rest during the week, and to have a long term plan. If you have a trial or specific goal in mind, think about your timing. Divide up your time so you have a longer recovery period at regular intervals, and short rest times each session. Throughout sessions, the overall intensity will be able to increase With this type of periodization training in mind, you’ll be able to better achieve steady improvement and avoid plateaus or burnout.