Creating an Engaged Canine Partner
Engagement. What is it? How can we be sure we really have it? Do we really need it?
Yes, we need it! Engagement is one of the most important things we can cultivate in our dogs, because without it, we don’t have an involved, willing, or focused canine partner. Engagement is defined in several ways, but there are two descriptions that best fit what we require of our dogs:
The process of establishing a meaningful contact or connection with
The process of participating or becoming involved in
With engagement, we are asking our dogs to have a meaningful connection with us, and to be fully involved in the activity we are doing. But in order to have full participation and truly meaningful connection, it must be voluntary! The dog must CHOOSE to engage. We want him to strongly desire that opportunity for engagement and seek it whenever possible, even when other distractions are present.
An engaged dog is more than just a dog that is looking at us directly. With an engaged dog, we not only have their eyes, but we also have their mind. As anyone who has heeled their dog around the Helper knows, we can very well have the appearance of focus, yet the dog’s mind is clearly elsewhere. With true engagement, we have both eyes and mind.
Engagement is a crucial component of training and trialing in Schutzhund. However, we must be sure that we have the right type of engagement.
TYPES OF ENGAGEMENT
In reactive engagement, the handler is doing all the work, and the dog is reacting to the handler’s attempts at initiating the connection. This is where engagement starts, but too many handlers stay in this stage. The responsibility is never fully shifted to the dog, and instead of creating true engagement, the handler creates a dog that only engages when it suits him, and only reacts to the handler rather than push for work.
Here's an example of reactive engagement: The dog may be sniffing and checking out the environment with his handler; the handler then calls the dog’s name, whips out food or a toy, and starts attracting the dog’s attention. The dog may show some interest, so the handler ratchets up the enthusiasm. The handler becomes even more persistent in trying to get the dog’s attention, whipping ball or tug from side to side erratically, causing 'misses' to build up “drive”, and trying to use their own energy to overcome the dog’s curiosity about the environment. With this type of engagement, the burden is always on the handler to initiate. In some cases, if food or toy aren’t visible, the dog may look up or come over, but then quickly disengage again. Sometimes the handler is practically begging the dog to engage and get to work!
Reactive engagement is exhausting for the handler, and ineffective for cultivating lasting engagement. The dog only reacts, and when the handler’s stimulation falls below the level of interest, the dog’s interest wanes. Even worse, the dog may become annoyed at the handler's interference! In a trial where there are no toys, no food, and no handler help, this can equate to a lackluster and distracted performance.
In active engagement, the dog pushes the handler to work. The dog takes responsibility for starting the game, and has a role in maintaining focus. This dog may push into, stare at, bark at, jump on, jump around, or otherwise actively push the handler to start working, regardless of whether there is food or toy visible. As Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones describe it in their excellent book, Dog Sports Skills Book 4: Focus and Engage!: the dog who is engaged is “a dog who will enthusiastically seek training opportunities regardless of location, stressors, or the presence (or lack thereof) of visible classic motivators like food and toys” (pg 150). This is the lofty goal we desire for our Schutzhund dogs!
Here's an example of active engagement: The dog is sniffing around and checking out the environment with his handler; of his own volition, the dog turns toward and sits in front of the handler, offering direct eye contact. If the handler moves away, the dog enthusiastically follows and even pushes the handler to engage, offering direct eye contact and asking to work. Now the handler rewards the dog, and then when the reward is gone, the dog immediately pushes the handler to work again, and training can begin. This is what we want for Schutzhund: the animated, enthusiastic, pushy attitude! So how do we get it?
When creating engagement, we use rewards like toy and food to reinforce the engagement, but ideally these are not the sole focus. We should also be using voice, personal interaction, and play. Outside of the very beginning step, reinforcers like food or toy will be hidden on you, and the dog must choose to engage even without seeing them!
Below are the levels of engagement, which Fenzi and Jones call "Stages of Engagement" in their book Dog Sports Skills, Book Four: Focus and Engage! This is my summary of the different levels; please see their book for their discussion and elaboration on their Stages of Engagement (I highly recommend it!).
You engage the dog with food or toy. This beginning level should only be used long enough to teach the dog that you have good stuff and that it’s fun to be with you! Food is often easiest to use here to encourage the dog to walk with you, move forward into you, look at you, etc. Once this is established, you move to the next step.
The dog engages you. The responsibility is shifted to the dog for engagement. He can’t see that you have food or toys, but as soon as he makes eye contact, you respond enthusiastically and engage/reward for a short period of time. Then you break, and repeat this process several times if the dog continues to engage you, then call it quits. End when the dog is still excited and enthusiastic.
The dog pushes for sustained engagement. We move from short eye contact to sustained eye contact and movement toward you. We want the dog to get pushy about engaging the handler, and he’s going to get rewarded for it. You might decide what ‘pushy’ behaviors you find acceptable, as Schutzhund dogs are already notoriously pushy and enthusiastic. This is the stage where you slowly add more energy into the mix, to create even more enthusiasm in your dog. Take your time here to build up that energy and sustained engagement.
The dog pushes for engagement and work. Now we begin to add a little work into the mix, once the dog has sustained engagement. When the dog starts pushing for engagement and we start moving, we ask for a little work before rewarding the dog. It could be something as simple as moving backward while the dog pushes toward you, then turning so he is now in heel position and walking in that Fuss position. Then we reward and engage. Or we ask for a simple obedience behavior like a sit, and reward that immediately, then engage. Training becomes an interplay of engagement, work, and rewards, linked in short spurts.
We create engagement for competition. This involves creating a cue for engagement that we use prior to setting foot on the field. It also involves adding in more work before rewarding, taking engagement into different environments to generalize the behaviors, fading the reinforcers and shifting more to personal engagement, and eventually removing the reinforcers off your person. This is the highest and most challenging level to achieve for many of us, but is necessary for competition.
Keep in mind this entire process will take time to accomplish; it’s not going to happen in one or two training sessions. It takes time to build lasting active engagement, and to then move this into the work for competition. This is something to start with a puppy or young dog, and it will continue throughout the dog's entire career. Take your time to do it right.
Next blog will discuss the Rules of Engagement that the handler should follow to set the dog up for success!
Photos: First photo--Elmer with Axel--by Micky Adams; second photo--Sharonika with Hunter--courtesy of Sharonika Williamson.