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Planning the Transitions

We've started with food. Our little Champ is performing like a rockstar when we lure him into position, but now, we're a little stuck. How do we move on from here? How do we start doing a little less while having our dog do more, and still be correct?

The good trainer must give thought to how they will help the dog – and themselves – transition from the stages of using food lures or toys, to having a dog that independently performs the behavior without handler help. This is where many handlers get “stuck”, in that transition point. Either the transition never happens fully, or happens too abruptly, leading to failure, frustration, and often unnecessary corrections to “clean up” the behavior later. This blog will give the handler a basic road map for planning transitions in any exercise, to get us from where we are to where we want to be.


“Transition” can mean different things in this sport, such as moving between exercises on the field, transitioning from the ‘fight’ phase in protection to the ‘guarding’ phase, etc. In the context of this blog, transitions simply refer to “the next step in training this exercise.”

Like our training sessions, transitions should be planned ( Don't do what I did; always have a plan.) Experienced trainers often are naturals at executing these transitions, making it look seamless and easy; they know what needs to be done and how they will get to that final picture. But for newer handlers, it is not quite second nature (not yet!).

There are five basic steps to creating your road map to the next transition:

  1. What is the next step?

  2. What will I be rewarding? What is the behavior I am looking for in this step?

  3. What do I need to do to get the right behavior?

  4. What are some of the problems I might see, and what do I do if I see them?

  5. How will I handle confusion or failure?

Let’s look at these in greater detail.

Next Step

Before making a transition, the handler must know what they are transitioning toward. It must be an attainable transition, small enough for the dog to grasp with a minimal amount of struggle and a high rate of success. For example, a dog cannot go from maintaining proper heel position by pushing into the hand for food, to suddenly having no hand at all and being expected to constantly maintain that focus and position independently. This is too large of a transition.

So, if we have the dog heeling by pushing into the hand for food (even with distractions around), what’s the next step to transition toward? Getting rid of the hand for a brief period of time. So we may start the transition by lifting the hand briefly and immediately dropping it again for the dog to push into.

What to Reward

“The right behavior, of course!” Well, yes….so that means we must be very clear on what the correct behavior is. We have an idea of what the next step is, but we also need to know what specific behavior or attitude we want to mark and reward. The clearer picture we have of the right behavior we want, the better. Most transitions will involve getting the right behavior first, and then building duration.

Take the transition from heeling for food in the hand, to getting rid of the hand. We want the dog to keep looking up and remain in proper position for that brief moment the hand is above his head. The behavior to mark and reward is that moment the head is up while the hand is away from the dog’s mouth. It may just be a glimpse of it the first time, a quick “Yes” followed by feeding from the hand back in position. But over time, we can then build this behavior as we move the dog along.

Handler’s Role in Getting the Behavior

Here the handler must look at what they have to do to help the dog reach the desired goal. How will their hand position need to change? Toy or food placement change? Leash work change? Body posture change? Footwork change? Will they need to offer any little cues for the next step, like a change in breathing, body tension, voice intonation, a look to the left or right?

For the heeling example: the primary change is in the handler’s hand position. The handler must lift their hand straight up away from the dog’s nose while still cupping the food; this requires that they move their whole forearm, wrist, and hand together, and not just flex the hand at the wrist to back it away from the dog. Additionally, the hand must be the right distance away to discourage jumping after the food, but still encourage the head up behavior. It must also be in the correct position so as not to turn the dog in or out, nor encourage him to forge or lag.


The dog won’t always get it right at the start. Or he may try other alternatives instead of the one we want. The handler needs to be mentally prepared for this, as well as be prepared for a small drop in performance as the dog learns and adjusts to the new expectations. This is not the time to correct the dog – he doesn’t know what he’s being corrected for. It is a time to show the dog what we want, and help him get it right.

The handler may have an idea of some problems that may arise with the transition, and can brainstorm how they will handle it. Or they may not, in which case watching or talking with more experienced handlers can help the new handler troubleshoot some of these problems. Yet, much of it will be handled as it pops up suddenly, requiring the handler to think on their feet and simply adjust as they go along.

In the heeling example, common problems during the ‘lifting the hand’ stage include: dog bouncing in the heel position, dog dropping its head to sniff for dropped food, dog lowering its head as soon as the hand is gone.

For these problems, all the handler needs is a little patience and some adjustments to their own actions or position, adjustments that are often made as the behavior is happening. Some possible suggestions (and by all means not nearly ALL the possible suggestions):

  • Dog bouncing in heel position: adjust hand position, change the speed at which the hand raises, add a little bit of leash pressure to keep all four feet on the ground, adjust the handler’s pace faster or slower, look to mark and reward earlier before the dog bounces

  • Dog dropping head to sniff for food: smaller hand lift, lifting while showing that the food is still there

  • Lowering head as soon as hand is gone: dog may need more time pushing into the hand for food, the ‘lift’ may need to be smaller in size so the dog “reaches” for the food as the hand lifts away

Handling Confusion and Failure

If the dog is confused, or if the dog repeatedly fails, take a look at what you are asking him to do in the transition, and how. It may be that the dog needs a smaller transition, requiring the handler to break things down into smaller steps. Or the handler is unclear in their communication, or off in their timing, so the dog doesn’t quite understand what’s being asked. Don’t just correct the dog out of frustration. Help him get it right. Break the planned next step into another small step, or, reward progress toward the behavior you want to see. Sometimes we may need to reward the dog’s effort, or smaller increments in the right direction, to get the dog where we want to go. It depends on the level of difficulty of the transition, and what the dog shows in that step.

For example, if in the lifting of the hand, the dog repeatedly drops its head and looks for food, this isn’t the time to correct the dog. Experience may have taught him that the lifting hand means food has fallen on the ground (after all, we all drop food at some point or another, and lift our hand away to get more food!). In this case, he needs a little help to get it right: smaller hand lifts, or lifting while showing that the food is still in there, for example. Reward any step in the right direction.

Repeated failure or difficulty getting it right can also mean that the handler is trying to move forward before the dog has truly mastered the previous step. In this case, the handler needs to spend more time at the current step before starting to move up to the next one.

With these five steps, the handler has a basic road map for how to plan their transitions from one step to another within an exercise. What's the next step? What behavior do I want to see? What do I need to do with myself to get it? What do I do with this problem that comes up? And finally, what do I do if my dog is confused or fails? There will be trials and errors. There will be failure, but there will also be success. Enjoy the journey!

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