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The Importance of Engagement in Dog Training

The Importance of Engagement in Dog Training
By Doug Calhoun

Through an interview with technical expert and World Team Participant, Dave Kroyer, I was able to speak on the topic of engagement and what that meant to him in his dog-training career. He not only shared his insights on this topic, but also gave some great advice on puppy training in order to maintain engagement.

What is engagement and why is it so important in dog training?

Originally the term was not conceptualized for dog training, but in our context the most applicable standard definition of engagement is emotional involvement or commitment.

Kroyer has his own slightly modified definition of engagement: “Actively participating in training.”

This concept of getting the dog to actively participate in training is the cornerstone of Kroyer’s training technique and has yielded him with great success over his career.

Being invested in training, the process, and the relationship of interaction and response from the handler is critical.  Initially, it’s a natural process for dogs but not remaining engaged is quickly learned as the environment becomes more interesting and rewarding.

What happens when a dog is not engaged?

For beginning pet, performance and sport dog trainers, a common problem is that their dog is completely disengaged.

This can be the dog being far away from the handler or leaving the handler to go explore their surroundings; basically a very distracted or disinterested dog. And this kind of behavior leads to unproductive training sessions where much time is spent trying to create an interest in interaction with the trainer.

“For me I have to have a dog actively participating, which means completely focused on me. The dog is in a two to three foot perimeter of my body, envision a circle around my body,” Kroyer explained. “And the dog could be doing a number of different things, but not leaving me, not distracted and not disinterested.”

With engaged, even if Kroyer trains a dog for three to five minutes at a time, he is getting the most bang for his buck. Once the dog is actively participating, there is a point where the dog is actually pushing the handler. This intended outcome is what is desired during every training session.

“I have a young little puppy that I’m working with that will theoretically engage with me as I walk around and produce pushing behaviors, which would be jumping on me or circles me and barks at me. And that is without giving him any food reinforcement or primary reward like that,” said Kroyer.

Having the social reward be the primary concern for the dog makes food or a toy the icing on the cake.

How is puppy engagement different?

“When you take a puppy from the mother, at six or seven weeks, they’re still pretty emotionally attached to the mother,” explained Kroyer.

And because of this it is important for the handler to take the place of the mother immediately. Everything that the dog needs to survive is then provided by the trainer and blocked from outside sources, so that the trainer’s role in the puppy’s life cannot be confused.

In order to do this, Kroyer uses ‘deprivation training’ to his advantage.

Contrary to the negative connotation, deprivation training really boils down to the trainer supplying all of the dogs needs and preventing the dog from getting those resources from somewhere else.

For example, because the trainer is unable to stay with the dog all of the time, a consistent schedule is set up for the dog for interaction, feeding, play and socialization. This schedule ensures that the puppies do not overly engage in self-play, or have another dog or person entertain them when the trainer cannot provide these resources.

So ‘deprivation training’ is simply controlling the environment for the puppy.

This training makes it possible for a puppy to be fully engaged and excited to interact during training.
Kroyer also advises to “keep sessions with young dogs fairly short, because they mentally have to grow to have longer sessions.”

He believes that it is more effective and reasonable to build over time so that the puppy leaves the training session wanting more the next time. Kroyer recommends starting a puppy with three to five minutes of active participation training.

Kroyer’s example of short training session success is of an elderly client who wanted to train her dog in obedience. She had severe arthritis so she could only stand for a minute or two at a time. But when the dog went into the ring to compete he looked unbelievable. This example illustrated that the woman who trained in short engaged sessions could still produce great results.   The dog’s mental attitude toward training was intense and powerful.

What is the difference between one-way and two-way engagement?

Two-way engagement means the trainer is running around with a toy, and basically cheerleading the dog to stay engaged with the trainer. This is a huge problem to Kroyer because while the dog is excited to be there, the basis of the interaction is the toy.

“What I would like to see out of the dog, within the first week or two of training, is one-way engagement, which means theoretically I could be neutral in a training session and the dog is pushing me to show it something or get a reward,” said Kroyer.

It is important to sometimes start with two-way engagement and very quickly wean away from it to develop one-way engagement. This way, instead of begging the dog to work with the trainer the opposite will occur

In the beginning it is also important to find a productive behavior that has an emotional pairing with it. Although biting and jumping are engagement behaviors, they are not necessarily productive. Kroyer suggests barking.

Barking is one of the first things Kroyer teaches his puppies.  Because puppies or untrained dogs really have no behaviors to offer for reward, barking allows an outlet for frustration and energy and sets a baseline for a behavior-reward relationship.

What are the benefits of engagement in competing?

You can have genetically superior dogs, but if they are not engaged, they are not going to be able to compete to the best of their ability.

The first thing Kroyer wants the dog to do is, “look at me and show interest or excitability about what we’re about to do. If I have the dog’s attention then I can get a lot done and have productive training.”

Any kind of performance dog will have to enter what is ultimately a stressful environment, like a competition ring with in unpredictable conditions, and the goal of training is to turn the whole idea for the dog around. Instead of training the dog to do something, the dog should want to do something.

The dog at this level of engagement is in charge of his own future. And a dog that is excited to be in the ring competing will handle stress much better than the other dogs, fall back on his foundation and give more sound, joyful performances.

Kroyer has also found that dogs trained in this manner have the longevity of their performance career greatly extended.

Engagement can be seen as very beneficial to the dog’s overall behavior and performance, as Kroyer has found out. Check out his sneak preview.

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Advice for a New Generation of Dog Trainers

Dave Kroyer, nine-time World Championship Team member, is concerned about what he sees in the new generation of dog trainers. Fortunately for the future trainers of the world (and their dogs) he has some advice to offer them.

What the New Generation is Missing

The lack of drive in many sport dogs is especially concerning to Kroyer, who spends a majority of his training on his dogs’ high level of drive and engagement. He believes that these changes have incurred because of the influx over the last eight years of demanding more correctness out of the dog.

Kroyer posits that this increasingly intensified focus on correctness is resulting in “a lot of dull, lackluster training…and they’re missing a whole piece of history of working in drive and animated type of work and showing power in heeling.”

Trainers in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were heavily focusing on drive, and not as much on correctness. For Kroyer, learning the correct drive state from these trainers is irreplaceable, and even if Kroyer is trying to make correct training he will never lose sight of the correct drive state. Kroyer does this by implementing what he calls, “play predictability.”

Play predictability begins before working on absolute correctness and the assignment of cues or verbal commands to behaviors. Kroyer describes play predictability as the dog predicting that play (food presentation initially) can and will happen.

Without this essential part of training, dogs are checking out. “They’re trying to get some way to correct behavior before rewarding and playing with the dog, which leads to flat, lackluster type of heeling,” explained Kroyer.

The Importance of Heeling

“Heeling starts with training on the dogs agenda, which means at specific times of the day we’re going to train, …and repeat day after day week after week until the dog recognizes that he’s about to go have fun at that time,” said Kroyer.

This mental preparation then conditions the high level of expectation and play predictability desired. Heeling is also significant in Kroyer’s training method, because he uses it as a default behavior.

“The heeling is going to be taught in between my legs with food in one hand, for an extended time. Once I can go forward, backwards and lateral with the dog between my legs, and that’s for food, then I’m going to incorporate a toy and remove my hand,” said Kroyer.

Since in-between-the-legs is not a heel position, this allows Kroyer to continue to lure the behavior without the negative consequences of extended luring in heeling.

The heel position, against a wall, is a static position for the dog. This should also be fun and rewarding for the dog because it is very detailed work, advised Kroyer.  The position is shaped and a high desire to be in the position is critical for dynamic heeling.

When these two behaviors come together, they create the full heeling behavior.

Kroyer has also positioned his heeling as a default behavior because that’s where most people have their dogs fall apart, especially in stressful situations. A default behavior is something that the dog can revert to in a stressful time.  If heeling is a position of high reward and drive, when things become challenging this is where he’ll want to be.  This is a good thing!

Kroyer describes how strong this behavior is with this example:

“It’s not uncommon that when I walk into my operant chamber, where I have a wall and a mirror set up, and I start heading for the wall that my dogs will normally go and throw themselves up against the wall while I’m still ten feet away.”

This powerful behavior shows that the dogs are engaged and want to be there.

Kroyer’s Advice

“There is something to be gained for the new generation to study the older trainers. The DVD’s in Canine Training Systems product library are important for understanding how to achieve these things.  We can all make correct obedience, but the real art is making it correct, in drive and the dog is actually collecting its body and being an active participant in the heeling instead of a follower,” stated Kroyer.


The Dave Kroyer Interview Series: Foundation Training for Success

Phone Interview with CTS President, Doug Calhoun, and Dave Kroyer.

Q: One of the notable characteristics of your training method or approach is in foundation work and training on the dog’s agenda.  Can you explain what that means and why it’s so important to your system?

A: Sure, it’s a common question and problematic for a lot of people.  There are some really basic things I believe are critical in the very beginning that set the stage and create a platform for life long learning.  Because the road to a competitive level of work is so long, it’s really important that the dog in invested in training and participates in learning.  It’s a real pet peeve to see people cheerleading a dog into showing interest in work and the dog eventually comes to rely on it as a part of the routine.

I like to begin working with dogs as young as 7 weeks on their agenda.  I control access to everything they need and develop a relationship surrounding play, feeding and social interaction.  I think it’s important to socialize dogs but I structure interactions around a consistent schedule to create predictability for the dog.  I want him to expect what’s coming at a certain time, to become conditioned to it.  I’m present during all of these times feeding, playing and structuring events so that outcomes will benefit our relationship and learning.

Q:  What type of predictability do you want to condition?

A: I want the dog to know that when I come to get him and place him in a “staging area” like a kennel or trailer, that the very next thing that will happen is full of positive experiences.  I try to condition this from the beginning around times that the dog will need to be interacted with- when feeding, playing or just going for a walk.  Over time, this very basic procedure will become powerful in the dog’s mind.  His drive and energy will peak and I use this to my advantage.  I use his energy and interest in this time with me to begin shaping behaviors with his rations of food and at separate times play as well.  

Q: Why is this approach so critical from a young age?

A: Dogs establish patterns of behavior and it’s easier to direct things in the direction you want from the beginning than it is to modify behaviors later.  I see a lot of dogs at seminars that know many behaviors in the hands of clever trainers.  I often see dogs that fall away from an interest in work when things get difficult.  I’ve seen some very well bred pups that show tremendous aptitude for sport work with great drives, character and stability.  Seeing them periodically over time, I’ve seen them become independent with less engagement than I’d like to reach their potential.  A few simple daily structural changes would make a huge difference.

It’s important to remember that when you’re the administrator of food, playtime and exercise, really anything the dog needs, you become very important.  Rewarding interactions directed toward you strengthens them and they’ll occur more often.  This is the basis of long-term training and really critical for any type of performance sport.

We’ll continue our talk with Dave here with a series of talks we’ve already had.  Coming next is a look at Dave's unique approach to Nose Work.  It’s easy to follow the blog as a feed by signing up to get the RSS feed to the right.  It will come directly to your inbox and you won't miss an installment.


Road to the Worlds 2012

2012 started out as a pretty uneventful year for me....but is ending with a bang. Making history is not easy!!!!  This year I qualified for 2 world champioships, in 2 different sports, with 2 different dogs....and I am going...yes I am crazy!!!   I am representing the AWDF this year at the FCI IPO 3 world championships with Italo zet Eurosportu AND representing USMRA at the Mondioring World championships with my Malinois Enoch van Joefarm.   No other trainer in the USA has ever accomplished this feat....and let me tell you it is not easy!!!!  Italo, my IPO dog is a GSD from the Eurosport breeding.  My Malinois Enoch is from Joe Farm.  I am leaving Sept 13th for the FCI in Hungary and returning Sept 24, only to get back on a transcontinental flight 5 days later to go to France with Enoch!!!  Needless to say...we are doing a ton of training at the moment! I am going to update this blog every few days to give a progress report of training. I may even surprise everyone with some training footage on vid. Stay tuned!! Dave

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