Learning through choices

This is the third in a series of posts that explore the “little things” that lead to big improvements in agility AND your relationship with your dog.

A young puppy is a learning machine. And one of the biggest lessons it will learn from you is HOW to learn. We want the puppy to learn that good CHOICES earn reinforcement, whether it is being reinforced for checking in with you when taking a mini-walk in the back yard, or for a specific behavior like a sit or a down. Teaching trick behaviors is a great way to approach this because it encourages the puppy to try and rewards the “good” choices the puppy makes. It lays the groundwork for future work by building confidence in the puppy that it can elicit reinforcement through its choices. And the trainer is more relaxed because there are just fun games to play with the puppy.

Marking the good choices is the key to communicating with the puppy. Whether you use a clicker, a consistent verbal marker like “Yes!” or “Yip!”, or simply get reinforcement into the dog quickly, it’s capturing the moment of the good CHOICE that makes the difference. The puppy learns quickly that the mark is followed by a reward.

My Sheltie Lacey was easy to teach tricks because I conditioned her from 8 or 9 weeks old to understand that an audible marker (click or “yes!) meant “that’s a good choice!” (and would get a cookie). She was a very active and quick dog that offered a lot of behaviors that I could capture like rolling over and leaping in the air or rotating on a perch. Once she was rewarded for the behavior she offered it again and that led to being able to put these trick behaviors on “cue”.

But Lacey was also quite independent and confident. To put it bluntly, she didn’t need me that much at first. If nothing else was going on, she was happy to do anything I asked but if we were outside or other dogs were around, I more or less disappeared from her consciousness. Teaching Lacey a reliable recall was a long-term project. And for a while, she mastered the Sheltie “you can’t catch me” game, so early mornings she was on a long-line even in the fenced back yard. This was to ensure that I could get to work on time!

Lacey taught me a lot. I had to figure out how to increase my value to her and change her mindset to make the choice to be with me. I eventually realized that the key to building that value was not to strictly limit her freedom but to let her know she could have that freedom even after she checked in with me. Checking in meant a cookie and praise because that was what she found valuable. Toy play wasn’t a good choice for Lacey (but was a good choice for my border collie Nick). So, we did lots

of off-leash walks in safe places (sometimes with a long line) letting her choose to check in with me, get her reward and still have her freedom. During nice weather, I left the back door open to our fenced yard and went about my business in the house, letting her come find me, get a cookie and praise and then she could choose to go back out again.

I could relate many Lacey stories but the key point I want to get across is the importance of rewarding the puppy’s good choices and how that can shape the behaviors you want while instilling confidence in the puppy and improving your relationship. The earlier you establish that the puppy’s choices get rewarded, the easier it is to set up your puppy for success and to mark and reward the behaviors you want to be repeated. It lays the groundwork for all of your future training.

Now, back to how setting the dog up for the right choice can help teach behaviors. Four paws in a box is an example of a simple trick that many people teach their puppies. The key is to setup the environment to allow the puppy to be successful with very little effort. So using a box bigger than the puppy with low sides increases the probability that the puppy will step inside the box on its own* and that “choice” can be marked and rewarded. From there, the trainer can use smaller boxes to challenge the puppy to work a little harder for its reward and increase the pup’s understanding of the desired behavior. *I would not be above throwing a cookie in the box one or two times to encourage interaction.

Here is another example: A “trick” I taught Nick as a winter project was hitting a target with four paws. This is a foundation behavior for teaching running contacts that I learned from Justine Davenport of Shape Up! Dog Training. The early stages provide a good example of setting up the environment for success. In this session, I was teaching Nick to go back and forth from bowl to bowl while going around an object. At first the object was so close to me that he had little choice but to go around it. I incrementally moved the object farther away from me and added a second object so that he now had a choice to go between me and the objects and was only rewarded when he made the correct choice. You can see how smoothly this session went and how quickly he progressed. No luring, no corrections. Just setting him up to be “right” while still leaving the door open to be “wrong”. That is how learning happens!

Shaping Nick’s Target Behavior

It’s up to us as trainers to give our dogs every opportunity to make good choices while they are learning new behaviors. Controlling the environment and limiting the puppy’s options to increase the probability of good choices is the key to success. While this is one of the “little things” that I included in this article series, it is actually a really BIG thing for your dog’s training success.  Happy Training!


Can I help you achieve your agility goals and build a better relationship with your dog?


After many months of not teaching due to the health crisis I’m offering online and in-person private/semi-private lessons starting now for online lessons and October 31st in-person. Why? Because I genuinely enjoy helping teams achieve their best through good training and consistent handling that builds a solid foundation, and is fun for both handler and dog. I have loads of experience and insight that I’ve built over 20 years of training and want to share a bit with you! I specialize in training for agility and am also happy to work foundation skills for dogs destined for any sport.

Online lessons will be held via Zoom, messenger or phone. In person lessons will be held in Honeoye Falls at Savvy Dog Sports. Here is where you can learn more about me and my dogs.

Why take a private or semi-private lesson?

Private or semi-private lessons (2-3) are ideal to practice the three F’s:

Focus – Come to your lesson with specific goal/question (or get help in establishing them) and use the time with me to give it your full attention.

Feedback – Get expert, experienced feedback to adjust, try something new or problem solve. With over 20 years dog training/teaching and learning, I’ve seen a lot!

Fix-it – Try again and see the improvement OR ask the next question.

You may be training on your own, taking a local class or have registered for an online class. These private/semi-private lessons will supplement that instruction and give you more 1:1 time, an experienced eye for problem solving or confirmation that you are on the right track in your training.

Or, you and a couple of friends who have puppies or dogs at the same level may want to get together to arrange for some small focused class time.

How can I help? Here is an example. Recently a friend who is taking both in-person and online classes was scratching her head about the behavior of her young dog in a class situation. After a few diagnostics (Focus), we figured out the problem (Feedback), adjusted her reinforcement, got success and a plan to improve her dog’s understanding (Fix-it). Yay!

Possible Topics

  • Foundations such as effective use of rewards, its your choice games, handling flatwork – such as recalls and circle work, or teaching impulse control. Or simply answering this question: “I have a new puppy…what do I do now?”
  • Wing work – teaching collection and verbals
  • One-two jump work for teaching commitment or jumping skills such as collection and extension
  • Tunnel skills including threadles
  • Teaching and/or proofing verbal cues
  • Weave entries/exits
  • 3 or 4 jump handling drills
  • Teaching the 2on2off behavior using props such as a target plank

Lesson Options

Online Private Lesson:

  • Online private lessons can be effective using Zoom conference. Using Zoom gives us the option of sharing videos, course maps, drawing on a whiteboard, or even a live demo. Video analysis of course runs or evaluating training clips is perfect for this format. Other formats are possible as well. These lessons can be scheduled for 30 minute or 60 minute blocks or by subscription…buy one hour of consults and use it to ask questions, submit videos for review, etc as you progress through your training. Cost $60/hour.

In-Person Lessons at Saavy Dog Sports*:

For now, I’ve blocked out some Saturdays and Sundays starting Oct 31st, but other options may be available as well.

  • In person Private Lesson – 1:1 session with you and one or more dogs. Cost $75/hour
  • In person Semi-Private Lesson – Arrange to come with a friend or two for a semi-private lesson. Up to 3 teams. Cost $80.
  • In person Semi-private Lessons can be extended to 90 minutes for $120.

*Saavy Dog Sports has crown matting and an approximate 40 x 60 ft working space. Large enough for small sequences and all Foundation work.

I would love to work with you; contact me via e-mail or messenger to schedule a lesson.


This is the second in a series of posts that explore the “little things” that lead to big improvements in agility AND your relationship with your dog.

Everyone understands the importance of recalls in training a puppy. I’m going to make the case in this article that recalls build a great relationship with your dog AND can be a strategic part of your agility training throughout the dog’s career.

Puppy recalls

Why is recall training so important? It teaches the puppy its name, builds a solid foundation for your relationship, develops pack behavior and it encourages the puppy to follow you.

Practicing recalls with a young puppy teaches it that coming to you results in very good things – cookies, toy play, praise, petting. The value of an instant response when the puppy hears its name are many…the most important being safety – think of a dog running toward a busy road. And in everyday life, a great recall is worth its weight in gold.

The perfect recall – that we all strive for! – means that the puppy will come when you call its name (or other cue that you have established) regardless of distraction. It’s another VERBAL CUE that should be taught deliberately, thoroughly proofed and protected!

When approaching your recall training:

Be Deliberate: Include specific recall training in your daily time spent with the puppy.

Build on Good Choices: Allow the puppy to CHOOSE to come to you. My rule of thumb is to give my puppy enough freedom to allow for choices but limit the choices so that there is a very good chance of success and of course, keep the puppy safe.

Be Strategic: Gradually and strategically introduce recall training in different environments and with varied distractions. I raise my chance of success by controlling the environment and level of distraction. Examples of controlling the environment are indoor spaces, fenced outdoor spaces, leashes, long lines, etc. I want my puppy to be rewarded for good choices so I limit his options appropriate for the stage of his training.

Protect the Verbal Recall Cue: I have one ironclad rule in training my puppy’s recall…I only call the puppy’s NAME (my recall cue) when I am 90%+ sure he will come! If my 9 week old puppy is having playtime and is fully engaged with another puppy, I’m not going to call the puppy. If my 16 week old puppy is in the same situation, I might get in close and call him. But if I call once and the puppy doesn’t come, I DO NOT call again. I move closer, use my generic “pup-pup” word, might gently tap the puppy’s butt to get his attention or hold a cookie near his ear, then say his name. I might call “pup-pup” and run away to get a chase response. When the puppy CHOOSES to respond, that response gets an immediate mark (yes or click) and reward. Why not call the name more than once? This is very important! If I say the dog’s name over and over again and he doesn’t respond, I am teaching him to ignore me! The verbal cue of your dog’s name becomes meaningless. Note: This rule goes out the window if safety is involved!

When practicing recalls, only call your puppy ONCE and mark the CHOICE the puppy has made to come to you.

I am not going to go into detail about all the recall games I play with my puppies because there are tons of online resources on this topic. Instead, I want to draw the dots between this early training and success in other aspects of your future agility star.

Photo by Dianne Spring

Recalls for Agility and Life

I incorporate a lot of chase games into my recall training. Running away after calling the puppy’s name (or release cue) builds drive to come to me quickly. I look over my shoulder as I move away and reward the puppy when he catches up helping him learn to come up on the side that is facing him. This is the beginning of my agility handling training!

It’s a good idea to hold your reward in the opposite hand, like Barb is doing, so that the dog is coming to YOU, not a dangling toy or obvious food reward. Switch the reward to the dog-side hand as the dog reaches you.

What I do when the puppy gets to me on the recall is used to introduce important concepts of agility handling. Essentially, I want my puppy to learn: 1) Always come up on the side that is facing you 2) When I run, you run; 3) When I stop, you stop; 4) When I turn, you turn. These types of lessons are perfect for restrained recalls (where another person holds the puppy) and the puppy is released on the call of its name, not the release cue. As the puppy matures and develops impulse control, the recalls can start with a stationary behavior (sit, down, stand) and the use of a separate release cue (see the first post in this series).

I bucket my recalls like this:

When I run, you run (acceleration): Lead out in “game on” position (like Barb is doing in the picture above). Release and start running. Throw the reward ahead in a straight line as the dog gets near me. The puppy has learned that as long as I keep running he should too. The verbal “GO” can be added into this recall.

When I stop, you stop (deceleration): Lead out in “stationary” position. Release the puppy and stand still. Reward when the puppy reaches me. The puppy has learned that he should “dig in” and stop when I am stationary. There are several variations of this type of stationary recall, including running first and then stopping. I can either be facing in the same direction of the puppy or I can turn and face the puppy. The verbal collection cue (e.g. “dig-dig”) can be added into this recall.

When I turn, you turn: Lead out in “game on” position. Release and start running. As the puppy gets near me, I turn away from the puppy, tapping my leg to keep the puppy on the recall side and saying his name (or bypass cue) to keep him with me. Effectively executing a post turn or teaching the beginning of a bypass cue.

Come up on the new side: Lead out in “game on” position. Release and start running. As the puppy gets near me, I turn into the puppy, effectively executing a front cross. Or, way before the puppy reaches me, I turn away from the puppy and present a new side, effectively executing a blind cross.

With these recalls, I have taught the puppy all the handling elements that he will respond to on course! For some of these recalls, there is more foundation work separate from the recalls, like teaching the dog about reinforcement zone and working separately on circle work. But that is for another post. All of these recalls can be adapted to either wing work or one/two jump work as your dog progresses.

Revisit these recalls throughout the dog’s career as a great way to reinforce early lessons and warm up both you and your dog.

The main message of this post is to FREQUENTLY revisit your recalls throughout your dog’s career. You will continue to put value into your relationship, your dog’s response to your most basic handling cues and practice your stays. What better way to warm-up both you and your dog before training than to strategically practice your recalls (and circle work)? Make it a habit and you will keep your dog’s response to your acceleration, deceleration and turning cues sharp throughout his career.