FE140: Engagement

Instructor: Denise Fenzi

Course Details

The question we ask the dog will always be the same: Do you care enough about what we do together to ask for interaction?


Because engagement is easily turned to work, we can also ask: Will you ask to work with me at home? At a park? At the car wash? Can you interact with me on grass and on cement? When that dog is watching you?  Can you interact with me in a playful fashion without specific cues to follow, simply to enjoy the act of engaging with me?

And for the human: Do you know how to engage your dog in a playful and relaxed fashion?  Can you respond to your dog's cues and then grow the interaction from simple eye contact to movement? Can you recognize when the environment will win? Do you understand acclimation, engagement, opportunity costs, conditioned emotional responses, and how to ask without begging?

This class will look at engagement in a number of ways:

  • Engagement as an important element within the relationship for life (this is heavily emphasized in play class).

  • Engagement as lifestyle (paying attention to your dog and your dog paying attention to you is what gives the basis of connected, enthusiastic, engaged work).  

  • Engagement builds mutual enjoyment, and mutual enjoyment builds engagement. And to a large extent this is both trained (to both parties) and simply a natural extension of spending time with another being

There is no real way to differentiate Focus Training from Engagement Training, but for the purposes of this course, we’ll be looking for active and play/movement-based interaction between dog and handler over classic focus (which can be very calm and task oriented rather than playful).

If you want a beautiful display of teamwork and joy, then a basic understanding of the cues or exercises for your sport will not be enough; you will need engagement.  Join this class to develop a deep understanding of this fascinating topic!   


There are no scheduled sessions for this class at this time. We update our schedule frequently, so please subscribe to our mailing list for notifications.

Gold spots available by lottery. Enter the lottery here.

For other levels, registration begins at 10:00AM PST. 


Lecture #1: How is engagement different than Focus? What is offered focus?

The role of movement
Locus of control - internal vs. external
Raika video: focus
Lyra video: Engagement
When focus and when engagement?
Is engagement trained or innate?
Engagement; primary or secondary reinforcer?
The cycle of engagement and work - for training and eventually for competition


Lecture #2: Stages of Engagement

Brito video: The four stages of basic engagement
Stage 1: Human directed engagement
Stage 2: The shift of responsibility from handler to dog; simple eye contact/connection
Stage 3: The shift continues; sustained contact
Stage 4: The shift competes; sustained contact drives work
Kea video: Stage 4 engagement
Stage failure; why and what are your options?
Stage 4: Increases of criteria for classic reward - work!
Brito video: The four stages of basic engagement (again)
Stage 5: Human starts the work - again!
Lyra video: Stage 5


Lecture #2A: Stages of Engagement broken out.

Stage 1: Handler starts interaction
Lyra video: Stage 1
Stage 2: Dog starts interaction
Lyra video: Stage 2
Stage 3: Dog maintains interaction to "drive" handler to reward
Lyra video: Stage 3
Stage 4: Dog offers work or responds very readily to request for work
Lyra video: Stage 4
Stage 5: Handler begins process of work
Lyra video: Stage 5
Key Points Summary


Lecture #3: What does an engaged dog look like?

1) Where is the dog looking?
2) What is the dog's demeanor?
3) Who appears to be driving the interaction?
Video: Brito failure
Video: Brito success
Trained cues or tricks - what is their role in Engagement?
Engagement; From Handler to Dog - a critical topic!


Lecture #4: Acclimation

What is it?
Why do it?
How much?
How often?
When it is done? Communicating that to your dog
What is the right environment? Your dog's senses
Is your dog now available for work? How will you know?
No more Stage 1 engagement!
Video: Brito acclimating and then handler directed switch to engagement
Setting your stage on the road: Fear, Acclimation, and Motivation
Using a number system to gauge environments, dog's emotional comfort, and motivation
Handler's value as a support system
Raising criteria
Dog driven choices - power for softer or fearful dogs!
Video: Brito brand new area acclimating


Lecture #5: Rest periods within work

What is it?
Why do it? 
Blog: Squishing
Incorporating squishing, acclimation, rest, and work
Video: Lyra - rest - offered engagement - work
Video: Lyra - relaxed down - engagement - work
Video: Lyra - rest - squishing - work
Differentiate rest from relaxed down


Lecture #6: Handling Failure (disengagement)

Introductory level - no response
Video: Brito disconnect
Evaluating disconnect
Negative punishment
Why irrelevant for many dogs
Suitable candidates
emotional state
How to use Negative punishment
New area acclimation (reward/disengagement prevention)
Negative punishment vs. rest period


Lecture #7: Adding in work:

How to add work?
What type of work?
Video: Brito adding work to engagement


Lecture #8: Engagement - What makes a human engaging?

Getting started – Expression
Auditory cues
Visual cues
Body Posture
Physical Touch
Play as "movement"
Vertical movement
Jumping on the trainer
How do dogs play?
Video: Lyra and Cisu play
Video: Lyra and Denise play
Video: Brito and Denise play


Lecture #9: Exploring Variables: Changing criteria for engagement; when and how? 

Let's do it! 
Video: Brito: Proximity challenge
Video: Brito Intensity challenge
Video: Brito Duration challenge
Classic rewards off body:
Video: Brito stage 2 rewards off body
Video: Lyra stage 3 rewards off body
Video: Lyra stage 4 rewards off body
Alternating challenges (raising criteria) with easy sessions


Lecture #10: Mouthing/Biting and barking

Handling mouthy dogs
Video: Lyra play toy in mouth
Video: Juno redirect mouthing into obedience
Remove Frontal Pressure
Change type of play
Remove height
Change your tension
Barking within Engagement/Work


Lecture #11: Conditioned Emotional Response and Engagement; what is the link?

The "habits" of work (CER)
Where does stress fit in?
CER and Engagement work - the critical link


Lecture #12: Forced Play, The Fun Test, Choice and a dog's CER

What is forced play?
Taking the Fun Test
Video: Finnian taking the toy fun test
Video: Finnian taking the food fun test
Video: Finnian taking the personal play fun test
Handling fun test failure!
Results of forced play


Lecture #13: Handling Multiple Rounds of Engagement before classic reward

cycles of engagement
choice, engage, work, ENGAGE, reward
application to obedience competition
Video: Brito acclimation, work, engagement, work, reward


Lecture #14: The fifth stage

Coming full circle: Cueing engagement; handler driven
The basic assumptions on readiness
Evaluating and responding to failure
Video:  Brito fifth stage

Prerequisites and Equipment

No required prerequisistes.  This class has beneficial overlap with the following courses:

Building Relationship Through Play (lecture notes for this class can be purchased here)

Bridging the Gap

Get Focused!

Dealing with The Bogeyman

Course Testimonials


This is a terrific course taught by a terrific instructor! I believe engagement is an incredibly important concept as it lays the foundation for building enthusiasm and joy for working together as a team. For me, engagement is a somewhat complex topic, and Denise systematically breaks the topic of engagement into clearly defined stages. She is dedicated to providing each team with always positive and individualized feedback to the benefit of all who follow the lectures, homework, and discussion forums. Engagement is an invaluable class for handlers who are interested in learning how to prepare for competition in ways that maximize their team’s potential! Clarissa B CPDT-KA          
Shine and I had a blast doing this course. I learned a lot about how to read her emotional state and readiness for engagement, as well as specific practical things to do to build capacity for sustained engagement with rewards both on and off the body and how to approach training in new and distracting areas. I learned why a lot of things I've done in the past (notably "make yourself more interesting than the environment") served me badly. I feel that that this course has laid the foundations for a good working partnership, and will have a long lasting impact on our whole training career. Denise is a great teacher, giving comprehensive and speedy feedback on individual partnerships and issues arising: I learned so much from gold participation as well as reading her detailed comments on each individual partnership and all the different issues that arose. Carol D.             
I was so happy you released the Engagement course. It was wonderful - more than I expected. Not only did you break a complex topic down into manageable pieces, you made it easy for the lay-person and training geek alike. This course is a game-changer for competitive dog training. I feel it. 15 years from now when we look back, we're going to say - "That Fenzi course on engagement? It changed everything." You're a gifted trainer and instructor. Thank you for the gift of sharing your knowledge and experience. Marge R          
Wow - the engagement course has changed the way both me and my dog think. I have trained dogs all my life but just could not find a way to hold the attention of my young collie. Everything was more interesting than me and the treats/ toys I had. It felt like I had tried everything, other trainers were telling me to pull harder, be more interesting, frustrate my dog more..... None of it worked. Within the first week of the course I started to see a difference in my dog and her interest and confidence in interacting with me. Denise said something no one else had said " match your dogs energy" it made all the difference. Instead of shutting her down Denise's methods help her to grow in confidence and taught us both how to engage with each other. She is now responsive to me in all situations and our relationship had growl massively. A great course that would suit all types of dogs as it respects the dog for who they are and allows their choices to influence the training. It developed mutual respect between me and my dog and we both enjoy each other so much more now. Sharon P.          
Engagement class with Denise Fenzi can only be described as a journey. Each dog in the class had their own path to achieving their goals which made for an extremely diverse, interesting, engaging class where you did not want to miss a single post. Denise's plan for building engagement is simple with clear stages through which to advance and fun games to integrate. The feedback was clear, relevant and helped create plans for moving forward. Denise is excellent at working with the dog in front of her and providing detailed insights as to how to progress with each individual dog. For me, personally, I saw my dog begin to understand what I was asking in a work context. I brought our "games" around down and was able to build a more intense, engaged partner in multiple environments. Across the board, I have found my dog *(and myself) are truly enjoying our interactions more and more whether at home or away in work or in play. A side bonus to this class was magically our toy play increased 100-fold. This class was a true gem. Tracey B.          
The participants were a variety of breeds, which was great and the content was thorough. My first class with Denise and was very impressed. Having soft, non-pushy dogs, I was worried that content wouldn't cover this..yeah, even though the class was called Engagement. Nice to see an instructor that knows how to work with a variety of breeds and is up to the challenge of finding what works for your dog. Will be taking future classes and look to work with Denise in person.       
This class was fantastic- a real gamechanger! How could such a simple and important concept have been missing from all my training? The engagement level of both my dogs has really improved- even though I haven't been particularly diligent in training. From this course I really have a sense of being on a continuum to improvement of our teamwork- rather than definitive achieve/not achieve situation. This is a great thing! For me, the particularly helpful things have been learning about matching energies and the reminder not to 'beg'. My understanding of the importance of acclimation has really improved too. Of the numerous bronze courses I have taken this is one where I have felt that the silver students were really active participants, getting their money's worth out of it. Sue T        
I found this Engagement Class to be excellent well thought out good videos and excellent lectures. All were easy to follow and learn from. Considering I have had to completely change the way I train my young Retriever who will hopefully become an enthusiastic engaged and willing partner who enjoys what she does as much as I do as well as having lots of fun along the way. Denise makes it clear in her Lectures that there is no quick fix and it takes time and patience to train by this method. I am an avid follower of your Academy and Blogs and will continue to be into the future! Anne M           
A course that takes the idea of respective dogs' choices in their interactions with us to the next level. In the process, it teaches the canine half of the relationship to take responsibility for engaging with us and makes interacting with us a sought-after prize - all this without coercing the dog or pressuring him into work. At the same time, the course teaches the human half of the relationship to truly be engaging and responsive to the dog by attending to the dog's needs (e.g. safety first), respecting the dog's current level of energy, and learning how to play and motivate the dog on his terms. After all, it's the dog who decides what's motivating!