Guest Blog by Denise Fenzi:

If you are in the dog sports world, you have probably heard the words “Acclimation” and “Engagement”.  Indeed, many people feel like this has become the “secret sauce” to their success in dog sports.  So what are acclimation and engagement, and why do you need them?   Most students find that it takes some time to be comfortable with the complexities of these topics, but we’ll go ahead and introduce them here so you can begin that process.

Fenzi dog

Acclimation means allowing your dog to explore a space where you would like to train.  This process continues until the dog feels safe, emotionally comfortable, and not overly curious or excited about the location. The goal of acclimation time is to get to the point where your dog clearly thinks that what you have to offer is way more attractive than the environment.

And what might you have to offer? Food, toys, interesting work, and your fabulous personality!

Dogs that are properly acclimated are in a much better place to care about doing things with you.   Ideally, the dog is allowed to acclimate long enough that they are just a little bit bored, and looking for something to do.

And that is where engagement training steps in.

Before “formal” engagement training, a properly acclimated dog is probably going to wait for you to indicate that you want to start training.   After engagement training, your dog will understand that the rules have been reversed.  This is because engagement training transfers responsibility for pushing for the start of work from the handler to the dog.   By training the dog to push the handler progressively harder over a series of stages (called the stages of engagement), the dog learns not only to let the handler know that they are ready to work, but to actually demand that work begin!

Anyone who is been through the process of engagement, and who now works with the dog who is as enthusiastic to train as they are, knows the value of this training, and indeed, would not be likely to train a dog who does not demand engagement first.

If you find yourself pulling on the leash to get your dog to focus on you, calling their name to get them to reorient, using cues like no sniff, or watch me,  or simply being frustrated at your dog’s lack of commitment to interacting with you or the work,  it’s time to explore engagement training

I take engagement training through several stages:

In the first phase, the human starts engagement by showing the dog a combination of personality and classic reinforcers.  I am doing all of the work!  This is fine to get a young dog started, but if you keep it up over the long run you’ll set yourself up for a lifetime of working harder and harder to get and keep engagement, or you’ll resort to begging, harassing or corrections to maintain attention when your dog is no longer a puppet being manipulated by your efforts.   Not to mention, you’ll make sensitive dogs downright neurotic with a long term application of this approach (a story for another day).

The next stage of engagement (Stage 2) occurs when you shift responsibility for starting training from the human to the dog.  This shift is critical, and allows you to assess the readiness to work and overall comfort level of your dog, and really gets to the heart of Engagement training.

To work this stage, take your dog to a relatively uninteresting place (your home training area is fine), and simply wait – a short leash will make the process go a bit faster.  When your dog gets bored with the environment and checks in with you then that is the time to respond with your combination of food, toys and personality at whatever level best suits your dog.  He will soon learn that the route to reinforcement is making a choice to engage the handler.

What your dog does before engaging with you is not important; sniffing and sightseeing are just fine.  No food or toys should be visible until the dog checks in. If you are standing there while your dog sniffs or lunges out at the world for an excessive period of time (maybe more than ten minutes after you’ve walked your dog around for general acclimation) then you picked too difficult of an environment.   Either increase the acclimation period or better yet, choose an easier location.

In this second stage, the route to engagement from dog to handler is through one basic behavior – eye contact and connection for about two seconds.  Now it’s time to ask for just a tiny bit more; we’re moving into Stage 3.

In the third stage, I want sustained contact before I come up with a classic motivator (food or toys).  I wait for the dog to show a desire to interact but instead of coming up with food or toys immediately, I simply engage the dog with a combination of voice, movement and personality; whatever is most useful for your dog and brings out determination and energy.  After a short period of time, I will come up with the classic motivators that the dog wants.  The goal here is to teach my dog sustained focus and engagement. If the dog checks out before I have a chance to reward, I start over again, possibly for a shorter period of time.

In the fourth stage of engagement training, I expect some kind of formal work before offering any classic motivators.  The ideal sequence would be that the dog will briefly explore the environment, choose to engage with me, stay engaged for a period of time, and then offer to work – all without knowing what motivator they are working for.  After performing a simple behavior such as a few steps of heeling – the classic reward shows up!

If you cannot get stage one, then either your environment is too difficult, your dog is nervous, or your dog is not interested in your motivator.  Change something.

If at any point after Stage two your dog opts to leave you for the environment rather than engage – that’s fine.  Simply release them back to the (limited) environment and when they re-engage, start the entire process over.  Which doesn’t mean they get to explore what they are curious about; it simply means you stop the engagement process.  For example, if your dog stopped working because he wants to greet a person who just entered the training area, that’s fine. Release your dog from formal work, but prevent your dog from visiting or, if off leash, ask the person to ignore your dog.  Better yet, ask them to leave. Then try again.

If your dog still cannot succeed, you either 1) chose too difficult of an environment/distraction, 2) never had the dog’s brain in the first place (you’re begging or rushing the stage), or 3) you moved through the above stages too quickly and your dog is unsure about how to win.  Adjust accordingly or end the session altogether.

No begging.  No bribing.  A simple and respectful way to engage with a dog.

When you have worked through this entire chain, you may also choose to begin the process of work simply by saying your dog’s name or asking if they would like to work – we call that the “fifth” stage of engagement.  If you have done a good job on engagement training and if your dog is well prepared and comfortable in your current location, they’ll say yes, because working with you will have become extremely important; the highlight of their day.

While Engagement training is generally applied to sports like Obedience and Agility, it is equally applicable to the scent sports such as Nosework, Tracking and Barn hunt with a few modifications that make is amenable to the unique needs of the scent sports.

Join us Feb 13, for a Webinar with Denise Fenzi on Acclimation and Engagement for Scent Sports!  Register here: