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.