Five foundational skills all sports dogs need to succeed

Even the best of training cannot succeed if the foundation it is built on is not a solid one.

Five foundational skills all sports dogs need to succeed

Author Kirsi Liikanen, 7 November 2019

Even the best of training cannot succeed if the foundation it is built on is not a solid one. Ideally, a dog’s foundational skills should be built strong when the dog is a puppy, but it’s never too late to work on them.

The following exercises will lay a solid foundation for great motivation, collaboration, emotional state, drive, long-lasting performance and indifference towards distractions.

Skill 1. Rewards and the reward marker

The key to all successful training is motivation. Just like people, dogs are driven by both internal and external motivations, and the latter can be used as reinforcers for various behaviours. The individual qualities, type and lineage of dogs determine to some degree how passionate they are about working, how willing they are to learn new things and tolerate repetition, and how persistent they are in working for longer periods of time. The same factors also influence how interested dogs are in external rewards: not all dogs are greedy or enjoy playing. Moreover, some dogs are naturally more interested in working with people, while others are more independent. To a certain point, however, all the basic ways of rewarding dogs can be made more effective. It is essential for handlers to learn to reward their dogs and teach their dogs how rewards work. Handlers should aim to create a highly diverse and motivating reward toolbox that they can use in sport-specific training.

It is also vital that dogs understand their reward marker very clearly. If they haven’t been conditioned to the reward marker word or signal well enough, the accuracy of training will suffer. An easy way to check whether your dog understands the reward marker is to say your marker word and see how the dog reacts to it. Be careful not overexpose your dog to the reward marker by unnecessarily repeating it: for example, avoid continually saying your marker word or clicking several times in a row without giving a reward or simply to get your dog’s attention.

You can use different marker words or signals for different types of rewards (see example cues in brackets in the subheadings below). If you use different cues, dogs will know what to expect after the reward marker. Getting ready to grab a toy in a full-mouth grip for a wild game of tug-of-war is nothing like getting ready for a quick social reward session that will be followed by another exercise. This is especially important in competitions and trials in which dogs can only be rewarded socially. Praising dogs in a trial setting using a cue word that normally precedes a tasty treat or a toy in training sessions will only lead to disappointment that may then manifest as passivity or frustration when the dog doesn’t get the reward it expects.

Decide also whether you want the reward marker to automatically release the dog or whether you will use a separate release cue. For most, a good combination is that saying ‘Good!’ does not release the dog, but the other marker words – or some of them – do.

Social reward (‘Wow!’)

For example, after an exercise is complete, the handler can say: ‘Wow! Free!’ The handler then moves away from the dog, clapping her hands, and continues to praise the dog: ‘Good job! You’re such a good dog!’

In social rewarding, it is crucial that the handler is genuinely pleased with the dog. Pay attention to your body language, movement and tone of voice; many handlers tend to either growl in a deep voice or alternatively squeal in a shrill voice. Bear in mind also that many dogs don’t appreciate physical touch as part of their social reward. For some, however, physical affection is the best part of the social reward. Dogs can also be taught to associate verbal praise and a certain touch, e.g. stroking of the head, to mean, ‘You’re doing great; just keep going and you’ll soon get the reward.’ Doing something the dog enjoys, for example a fun trick, can also act as a social reward.

Social rewarding is especially useful in trials, but it also works well when linking together exercises that lead up to a really good primary reinforcer, such as food or a toy.

Food reward (‘Good!’)

For example, in the stay exercise, the handler can say ‘Good!’, after which the dog gets a food reward but continues in the stay. The handler can continue to praise the dog and offer treats until the handler releases the dog by saying ‘Free!’

Food rewards can be used in many ways: they can be delivered from the handler’s hand after the dog first ignores the reward or chases it, or they can be offered from a bowl placed nearby as a remote reward or from a container that the handler either gives or throws to the dog. Dogs have to be taught all these reward systems separately. If dogs are too eager in trying to get the reward, conflict may arise. This may cause especially beginner handlers to switch to less tasty treats so the dog doesn’t bite their fingers, although most dogs will quickly learn to take treats nicely. Another common problem with food rewards is passive and boring rewarding, which makes the dog associate a different state of mind with the exercise than what you want. Using a remote food reward the dog can run to after being released must also be taught separately.

Prey reward (‘Yes!’)

For example, when the dog indicates a hidden person in search, the handler can say ‘Yes!’ and start playing fetch with two balls (or alternatively say, ‘Yes!’, create tension when taking the toys out, say ‘Free!’ and start playing).

Using a prey reward can be rewarding even for dogs who do not necessarily enjoy grabbing a toy and playing tug-of-war, because many such dogs do enjoy chasing a ball or a furry toy on a string instead. Just have fun together. When handlers learn to play naturally, without expecting their dog to grab the toy or play tug-of-war, the dog may indeed start grabbing the toy, thus opening up new aspects to playing.

A good way to combine chasing and eating is to make a cut in a tennis ball and hide treats inside it or use a toy designed for this purpose. Remember to teach this reward system to the dog and only introduce it in your training sessions after you are absolutely sure that your dog really enjoys the reward.

Tug reward (‘Chip!’)

For example, in heeling, the handler can say ‘Chip!’, releasing the dog to bite into a toy and start playing.

In practicing a game of tug-of-war, reinforce a good grip and the dog actively resisting you, i.e. pulling the toy away from you. In tug-of-war, your dog should always be the more active participant, but you, too, should put your heart into the game and know how to play along and reinforce for a good grip, resistance and emotion. As early as possible, teach your dog a conflict-free out. The dog should understand that after releasing the toy, it will be allowed to bite it again.

Remote reward

Using a remote reward placed behind the dog works well in making the sit, down and stand in motion exercises in obedience sharper, but the remote reward is also very useful in rally obedience.

Using a cue word (‘Where’s…?’) to orient the dog towards the remote reward, focus on it and sprint to it is a useful skill in many dog sports, including agility, obedience, person search, and search and rescue.

Using a finishing reward, i.e. a remote reward that waits for the dog outside the ring or by the car, helps build endurance for trials and tests in all dog sports.

Using a remote reward placed behind the dog works well in making the sit, down and stand in motion exercises in obedience sharper, but the remote reward is also very useful in rally obedience.

Using a remote reward placed behind the dog works well in making the sit, down and stand in motion exercises in obedience sharper, but the remote reward is also very useful in rally obedience.

Skill 2. Leaving it

‘Leave it!’ is a way to teach dogs that the only way to get a primary reinforcer is to ignore it first: the dog learns that you get what you ignore. Start teaching this with a treat in a closed fist. Remain passive while your dog tries to find a way to get the treat. As soon as the dog leaves your hand alone, say your marker word and give the dog the treat. Do the same exercise with a toy. As you make progress, wait for the dog to make eye contact before you reward it, so that the dog will start asking for your permission.

In addition to teaching ‘Leave it!’, it may be useful to teach your dog to fixate on the hand in which you have a treat or toy, allowing you to use the reward hand as a magnet to lure your dog when teaching heeling, for example.

Ignoring distractions

Counterconditioning is an excellent tool, especially as a preventive measure with puppies and young dogs, but it is also very useful with adult dogs. Through counterconditioning, reactive behaviour can be replaced with either neutral behaviour or active engagement with the handler, depending on how the training continues after the counterconditioning period. See the next skill category for more on this.

Skill 3. Contact and collaboration

Eye contact

Teach your dog to make eye contact using the ‘Leave it!’ exercise described above, and practice this in short series with different distractions. Always remain passive and wait for the dog to make eye contact; do not help the dog in any way. A series consists of 5–10 similar repetitions done at a fast pace. A good series is one in which the dog immediately seeks eye contact after finishing the previous treat.


In transitions, i.e. moving from one place to another between exercises in trials or training sessions, dogs must move with their handler, but they do not necessarily have to maintain eye contact. Transitions between exercises are the most common in obedience trials and the obedience and dexterity phase of search and rescue dog tests, but the skill is also useful in search trials when the dog and handler are returning from the helper to the centre line. Other applications include heeling in retriever field trials and the transitions in mondioring.

To make it easier for your dog to understand the exercise, decide on your criteria for transitions and stick to them. Make the transitions particularly fun for the dog. Start by rewarding for transitions often. When the dog has learnt to expect a reward for transitions, change the routine and begin a new exercise instead. Reward for the starting position (typically the basic position), for beginning the exercise, for doing part of the exercise or for completing the exercise. This way, the transition becomes a promise of a new exercise that may lead to a reward. Transitions play a surprisingly important role in the performance as a whole and in building up the dog’s trial endurance.

Skill 4. Active engagement

Entering rings and fields

One of the most important things that we teach our puppies and beginner dogs is the anticipation they come to associate with training grounds. Entering a training field, hall or any other training ground eventually elicits a strong conditioned emotional response. This response builds through classical conditioning – whether we want it to or not. If we are lucky, our dogs learn to associate a good emotional state with the training situation. But thankfully it is not all luck, and we can largely shape the dog’s emotional response.

Passivity, displacement activities, susceptibility to distractions, agitation, overexcitability, whining and barking are all signs of an undesirable emotional response. Classical conditioning typically involves an automatic behaviour: a stimulus acts as a signal that reflexively elicits an emotional response and thus also the unwanted behaviour. Dogs may not want or actively choose to begin this unwanted behaviour: instead, they are driven into it by force of habit.

The cure is in the disease, so to speak: we can only fight an unwanted emotional response by changing the dog’s emotional state. Forcing or luring usually only offers a short-term fix that could eventually lead to a dead end. The remedy is in the second skill: first use counterconditioning and ‘Leave it!’, and then work on the dog engaging with a passive handler. At first, only enter the training grounds for very short sessions and just have fun with your dog to convince the dog that doing things together is great. Resist the urge to do anything but play with your dog; don’t ask the dog to do anything yet. If the dog is reluctant to play, use remote rewards the dog can run to (see Skill 1 above) – but only after the dog already knows how the reward system works. If running a short distance to the bowl and eating is too hard, either the dog doesn’t know what you expect of it or the environment is too challenging. If this is the case, do not under any circumstances try to lure your dog’s attention away or perform any exercises. This would only result in you trying to fight against the environment.

In a nutshell

Make the training grounds fun for the dog by playing there or using other rewards. If your dog is hot-tempered, be careful not to go overboard, which could cause the dog to become too heated, make noise and lose the optimal state of mind for learning.

When you can tell that entering the training grounds causes your dog to expect fun things to happen, ask the dog to do something easy like make eye contact. You can show the dog its reward and then hide it. Wait for the dog to make eye contact and reward. Repeat this a couple of times and take the dog away, or only do the exercise once and take the dog away immediately after the first reward. If this exercise seems difficult, go back to simply rewarding your dog.

If the exercise is successful, repeat it a few times. Little by little, start introducing other exercises your dog already knows well. Remember to take breaks and take the dog to the car, a crate or a mat for rest (see Skill 5 below).

Please note

Whatever the sport, remember to warm up your dog first. This does not only apply to agility, protection sports and other physical sports. Allowing dogs to move around first allows them to manage their stress and become more responsive to training. Giving dogs a chance to relieve themselves is also important before training sessions. Because dogs often get worked up when waiting their turn, they may need to go even if you walked them at home before the event. Cooling off after training is also highly recommended.

Once your dog expects fun things to happen when entering the field, you can start using a cue word to tell the dog what is going to happen, for example ‘obedience’ or ‘agility’. In person search, you can say ‘Where’s the helper?’, in object search ‘Where’s the object?’, in tracking ‘Where’s the track?’ or something similar as you are letting your dog out of the car.

Important skills all sports dogs should know

I recommend teaching dogs to relax even when other dogs are working nearby.

Skill 5. Relaxing between sessions

Car, crate or mat

It has become increasingly common to take dogs out for their own training sessions only and return them to the car or crate immediately afterwards. Although this approach has its advantages, I recommend teaching dogs to relax even when other dogs are working nearby. In trials, dogs benefit from being able to recharge their batteries and not get worked up about what other dogs are doing while they are waiting their turn. For search and rescue dogs, this skill is absolutely necessary. Agility dogs may get by without it, but it is much easier for them to concentrate on their own performance if they do not become overexcited about seeing the previous dog run the course.

Aim to teach a cue word for relaxing. Usually dogs are asked to lie down, but instead of staying in a formal down, they can shift positions and relax. The main thing is that they stay on the mat or wherever they were instructed to wait. If dogs wait in a crate or in the car, they can of course move around more freely, but it’s practical to teach them to mostly lie down calmly in the crate or car as well.

In the best case, you can call your dog to come work with you and, when you are done, send the dog back to its resting place to wait to be called back. This allows you to regulate your dog’s emotions, generally control your dog and ask it to ignore distractions and engage with you – thus ensuring your dog is always ready to work with you in the right emotional state. And although relaxing is pleasant for your dog, your dog also learns that working with you is rewarding in itself and worth the wait.

Can you see how all these foundational skills are interconnected? Neglecting one will automatically have an effect on the other four. The exercises introduced above will lay a solid foundation for great motivation, collaboration, state of mind, drive, long-lasting performance and indifference towards distractions. All other training can then be built upon this foundation. If one of these foundational skills is lacking, you will almost inevitably face a situation in which even the most carefully trained dog will stop making progress. On the upside, if you pause to honestly examine and analyse your dog’s skills, you should be able to quite easily find any crack in the foundation and repair it. Happy training!

Author Kirsi Liikanen

Kirsi’s dog sport of choice is search and rescue (SAR). At the moment, she has a short-haired Dutch shepherd called Zara, who is qualified to work as a SAR dog in Finland, and a young working line English springer spaniel called Sherry. In addition to SAR, Kirsi also trains more or less seriously with both her dogs in obedience, agility and rally obedience (as with her previous dogs). Working dog sports are also close to her heart, although SAR has now become her main priority. Sherry is, naturally, also used in hunting. Kirsi is a qualified animal trainer and a dog behavioural therapist. She has trained dogs and people full time since 2000, specialising in canine behavioural problems. She breeds Dutch shepherds and English springer spaniels under the kennel name Rochallor and takes a keen interest in breeding and especially health, temperament and working qualities. She is a member of the breeding committees of the Finnish Dutch Shepherd Club and the Finnish Working Dog Association.

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