Instructor: Denise Fenzi
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!
Note: A 'sample lecture' is available - see the Sample Lecture tab above!
Announcement: This class will be part of a pilot program that will use Teacher Assistants (TA's). If you join the FB discussion group for this course, then you will have access to two well qualified TA's to assist bronze and silver level students who need additional support. There will be no change to the classroom itself here on the FDSA website and Denise will respond to all student threads as per usual. For more information about joining the FB Study group for this course, please join the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Alumni AFTER you become a student of FDSA.
Next session starts: February 1, 2019Registration starts: January 22, 2019Registration ends: February 15, 2019
Registration will begin at 10:00 AM Pacific Time.
Enrollment limits: Gold: BY LOTTERY ONLY, 12 students, Silver: 25 students, Bronze: unlimited.
Registration Lottery ends 5pm September 17th. Click here for details and entry link.
Gold Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to post questions and videos to the course forums. Students will receive instructor feedback on written and video assignments. Please note that Relationship Building Thru Play is a required prerequisite for the Gold level.
Silver Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to participate in the discussion forum. Students may ask GENERAL questions about course materials and may submit two, one-minute videos for instructor feedback. Any questions specific to your dog MUST be accompanied by a video.
Bronze Level includes access to all course materials and the ability to read all questions and answers posted in the class forums. Students will not post questions or submit written or video assignments.
For more details, refund policies, and answers to commonly asked questions see our FAQ page.
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?
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
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
Why irrelevant for many dogs
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
Play as "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
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
Relationhip Building Thru play is required for the Gold level only. No required prerequisites for silver or bronze. 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
Dealing with The Bogeyman
Lecture #3: Acclimation
What is Acclimation?
Acclimation is exactly what it sounds like - the time that we give a dog to adapt (acclimate) to the environment. For competition dogs, developing a plan to acclimate your dog to new spaces AND to get work in those spaces is critical. For this class, we will ALWAYS acclimate to any space that we work in. As your dog becomes more advanced, you can introduce ways to acclimate that do not include walking through the actual working area; this class will allow your dog to explore the working area.
Why is Acclimation Important?
Like dogs, humans also need to acclimate. If you think about it, the first thing you do when you go into a new building or place is “take it in.” You quickly identify the feel of the place in terms of temperature, spaciousness, lighting, and most importantly, safety. If you find yourself in a place where you feel uneasy or unsafe, then you will be unable to focus on much else until that discomfort either resolves or you leave.
Parents and teachers of children know they need to add in a bit of extra time when attempting to go somewhere new with a child. For example, if you wanted to read to your child, or have her read to you, in a meadow near a stream, acclimation time is not optional. You might be able to get that child to sit and look at you, but until you allow her to look at the flowers, dip her fingers in the water, or listen to the birds singing, you will not have her brain. And forcing a child to listen to you read when her mind is elsewhere is a waste of time. Actually, it is worse than a waste of time, because soon that child will be scheming to get around you - to take quick, furtive looks around, or to reach for some leaves when you aren’t looking. The more exciting the place, the longer the process of acclimation will take - quite possibly to the point that the child will exhaust herself in the process and have no interest in your book at all!
Dogs go through a similar process. When they arrive somewhere new, they need a period of time to take it in. A dog that is less mature, unusually sensitive, fearful, or simply inexperienced (young) is likely to need even more time to adapt to the new space. Dogs were not bred to enter dog show environments, so they are understandably overwhelmed when they enter a room with possibly hundreds of strange dogs and people who may or may not be friendly! Your dog relies on his growing familiarity with new places, the process of settling in (acclimating), and you as a leader to develop comfort with each new place.
With children, we give them time to adapt to new places. We select suitable environments when we want them to learn. We recognize they need to feel safe. We also know that if the child asks us to read to her rather than the adult insisting that the child sits down and listen, that the child is much more likely to pay attention and stay engaged.
Let’s give our dogs the same courtesy. Select your training environments so that your dog can learn and function! Train engagement skills in your most familiar environment - your own training yard. As you master a step of engagement in one place, then start looking around to practice those same skills in a new place. But not just any new place - select an environment that is only mildly distracting, and then allow your dog to acclimate before even thinking about attempting your engagement skills.
When working through the Stages of Engagement, you might find that you are working in Stage 3 at home (dog must sustain some interaction before a classic reward) but maybe in a local park, you will be working at Stage 2. That is absolutely fine - and handling this way will actually allow you to progress more quickly!
So how do you decide if you’ve selected the right environment? How do you know if you’ve had enough acclimation? How do you tell the dog that you’ve moved from acclimation and now you are available for work?
Selecting the Right Environment
We always want to select an environment that is fairly mild in terms of distractions. This allows your dog to acclimate well and then move on to work (in this case, engagement).
If you think about your dog’s senses (smell, hearing, sight and touch), and if you think about what your dog likes to do (always sniffing or always staring?), then you can begin to select an environment that is mild for your dog. Be careful not to confuse an environment that is mild by YOUR definition with one that is mild by your DOG’S definition. Many dogs will find the front of the grocery store much milder than a park - if they are not distracted by visual sights, that is.
The dog will tell you if you’ve selected the right environment for his behavior. Terriers that live to sniff and chase squirrels are likely to give much better focus at the grocery store than at a park, but your sight and sound sensitive border collie might have a complete meltdown in such a crowded public space. Know your dog. Think about what makes sense for your team.
Teaching Your Dog about Acclimation
Start by picking an area. You define what this area is; just because you are in a park does not mean that the entire park is your working area. Mentally block off an area of maybe 20 square feet of space. Evaluate the potential of that space by thinking about the factors that will suck your dog in. If your dog is fascinated by grass, trees, and squirrels, head for a more open area like a tennis court where there is less vegetation. But if your dog is highly visually aware and tends to stare at movement, then maybe the tennis match going on next door would make that a poor choice!
Now that you have a place in mind for your acclimation - which should be about 20 or 30 feet square - give your dog up to 10 minutes of time to thoroughly explore that space. Use a leash to prevent your dog from going too far, but do not attempt to use the leash to coerce attention. Simply allow your dog to explore as much as he wants - sniffing, staring, and listening to his heart’s content.
If for any reason you want to work off leash, then you must work in a small and contained area, and you must continue to move with the dog without making eye contact. It should feel to the dog like you are both on a stroll. When the opportunity for engagement begins, stand still - wait for your dog to notice, and go from there.
Switching from Acclimation to Engagement
When your dog shows signs of boredom, such as lying down, whining, or looking at you, stand still - we are about to switch from acclimation to engagement training. Please refer back to Lecture 2 on how to move through the steps of engagement.
More than likely, you will start at Stage 2. Remember that we are done with Stage 1 for the majority of the dogs. Although the technique in Stage 1 is helpful to introduce the idea of engagement to your dog, the risks of overwhelming potential fear or using excessive pressure to interaction are too great! Even “forcing” a dog to engage with a cookie can be overwhelming. And the fact is, a dog who will not look at you when he understands that you will interact with him is a dog who is speaking volumes. Be willing to listen.
The Skill of Acclimation Needs to be Generalized!
If you have worked through at least Stage 1 and Stage 2 engagement with success at home, then you may begin to add in new environments. It’s okay (good, even!) if the areas become more challenging over time, but that challenge should increase at the rate that your dog can handle it. For some of you, that may be a different room in your own house. For others, it may be a little bit down the street. Regardless, the change should be as mild as you can arrange. You want to learn to think in small increments!
Here Brito is acclimating in my front yard. In Brito’s case, I know that he is about ready to work when he starts walking fast through the area without a lot of sniffing. At 7 seconds, I stop walking - he recognizes that almost immediately and looks towards me at 9 seconds. His attention and wagging tail tell me he is ready to work. We move through Stage 3 (sustained engagement) and into Stage 4 (heeling) before he earns his first reward at the end.
Factors that Affect the Challenge Level
There are several factors that combine to determine your success with engagement under more challenging circumstances. We often call this kind of training “proofing.” Proofing means adding measured challenges. So how do we do that? Let’s consider a few relevant factors.
Let’s say the challenge we are adding is a change of environment. Let’s use a number scale from 1 to 10 to discuss the value of that environment. If your dog is totally sucked in and fascinated by the environment, we’d call that a 10, and if your dog is oblivious, then we’d call that a 1. Your house is probably a 1.
Because familiarity reduces the novelty of something, acclimation, by definition, reduces the value of a place. When you first show up at a new park, your dog might be at an 8 in interest, but after 15 minutes exploring his 30-foot square, he has used up that interest and is down to a 3. If you moved to a new place in that park, it probably wouldn’t be an 8 because he has already done some exploration with his eyes and ears of that new territory, but it’s going to be higher than a 3 because he has not thoroughly explored it. So let’s say that might be a 5.
Now, let’s give another number to the dog’s emotional comfort. If your dog is very stable and rarely flustered, then he might experience no nervousness in that park, so we’d call that a 1. And if your dog was in the vet’s office where he had experienced major trauma in the past, we might call that a 10 in terms of anxiety.
Let’s add in a third consideration. What is your value as a source of support to your dog? If this is a dog that you don’t know at all, then maybe you have no value at all, or possibly, if you’ve consistently put the dog into uncomfortable situations, you might even have a negative value (yikes!). But if you have a good relationship and your dog believes you are his advocate and protector, your value might be much higher. Therefore, the same trip to the vet might create an anxiety level of 10 with a stranger but only 5 with you.
Finally, what is the value of your motivator? Play might be very valuable to your dog (10) or it might have no value at all (1). How about your food and toys? Your choices of which food or toys will also make a difference!
Each of these factors has a value, and all of them work together to set up an environment that is either appropriate or inappropriate for your dog’s training session. While you do not need to go through this valuation process at each new training location, you should be aware of the relative values of each of these considerations. If your session does not go well, consider each one. What changes could you make to increase your dog’s chances of success with your next outing?
Fear and Engagement
Go ahead and use higher value motivators where your dog’s curiosity might be high. It’s okay to overwhelm some curiosity with good motivators if the dog is stable. But if your dog is nervous, be very careful. Spend more time acclimating, work to lower the overall “anxiety” score, or pick easier environments rather than overwhelming fear with motivators. If your dog’s fear is a 7 and the food/toy is a 10, it is true that your dog will engage. But it is also true that your dog will learn to work in an anxious manner, and that is a habit (CER) that you do not want to see. Someday you will be asking your dog to work with no motivators present in competition, and suddenly the fear of the world can become overwhelming. If your dog is fearful, reduce the fear - that is always your number one priority. Acclimation and selecting training environments that generate a super low level of worry is the ticket.
One of the BEST reasons to teach engagement with play is that most dogs will not play if they aren’t feeling comfortable, even if those same dogs might be willing to work for a cookie or a toy when they aren’t very happy. If a dog is nervous in a new place and I cannot get a normal (for him) amount of play, then I have a clue that I need to make the environment easier, especially if he is also showing any classic signs of discomfort instead of curiosity.
Remember that fear is not a choice. Solve your dog’s fear issues in new spaces by giving the dog more space from whatever is worrying him. If your dog is feeling fearful then you cannot get engagement, and if you cannot get engagement then you cannot get truly voluntary work!
Keep this order in mind:
1) deal with dog’s emotional well-being,
2) give your dog a choice in the matter to engage or not, and
3) move into work only when your dog is ready.
Now that you have a number system and a basic way to consider each factor, use that when you are in a new place and you are trying to decide if this is a scenario that is likely to create success. If you know that your dog thinks a piece of kibble is a five out of ten and sightseeing horses is an eight out of ten, then you cannot win. Either increase the acclimation time (which decreases the value of horses through familiarity), or increase the value of your motivator, or go somewhere else!
Here is a video of Brito acclimating in a new area where he has not been before. He is not a fearful dog in general, so I think his fear is very low - not above a 2 for sure. He IS a curious dog and he is very interested in sniffing and looking around, but it’s not insane. Let’s call his curiosity a 5. I have treats that are probably about a 6 and a ball which is about an 8.
I need to add that Brito is hot and tired; this is the middle of the day and he never works particularly well at this time, so I have to factor that into his attitude when we begin working. I will allow slightly less engagement than I might at a more favorable time of day. What I mean is that he doesn’t have to be as intense about asking me to work.
Note my behavior - I am very casual and I do not LOOK like a person who is about to walk a dog - he can read that easily. You will not see a dramatic change when I switch from acclimating to waiting for engagement because he is well along in his engagement training and he simply does not need it. He knows that we are walking around a small area so that he can become comfortable, so I allow a more fluid transition to engagement. If that is not comfortable for you, then make your transition more distinct. Just remember - training is an art and a science. Knowing your dog and what seems to be working is probably a better idea than getting too hung up on the rules. Here’s Brito’s engagement - it took about 3 minutes before we start work.
Here is Beagle Ridge and Trainer Diane.
Can you see how she slowly matches his energy as he shows the ability to stay engaged? Who is pushing who? Ridge is pushing Diane! That is perfect. Without acclimation, Ridge cannot do that because all he can think about is the alternatives. Indeed, he is so comfortable here that he plays tug in public - that is not typical for him.
and if I still haven't made my point, go ahead and read a blog that I wrote on this topic:
A SAMPLING OF WHAT PRIOR STUDENTS HAVE SAID ABOUT THIS COURSE ...
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 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 grown 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 game changer! 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!