More Fun With Pinwheels

Well, I sprained my knee on day one of camp. It didn’t seem so bad. But by the end of day two I was stiff, swollen, and in some pain. Funny this should happen right after my post lamenting the misfortunes of aging. So today I am on crutches!

Ooh, as I was in bed last night not getting good sleep because of the pain, I imagined the following interesting exercise. We had fun with it this morning. This afternoon I’m going to design a game of Last of the Mohicans around it.


Does it really need discussion? Oh it always needs discussion. Most handlers in this country use the pinwheel as an excuse to move badly. That might be okay with some of the BC people whose dogs are self-starters and work at a relentless pace. But for most of us the handler might want to consider being a real catalyst for dynamic energy in the pinwheel.

And it never fails, after I tell a student to run… the next thing I have to tell then is which direction to run.

The Dog Trainers’ Game

The Dog Trainers’ Game is a learning tool for the dog trainer. It is mostly geared at finding the training objective as it presents itself, and teaching the dog trainer to focus on a single training objective. The game provides balance in group work. Balance, for the purposes of this discussion, is every handler and his or her dog getting equal time on the training floor. So the Game becomes an ongoing learning tool that helps the dog trainer focus on training objectives as reflected by the dog’s performance.

Dog Trainer Etiquette on the Training Floor

What the game really is about is finding exercise or training objective on the floor, without regard to what the instructor might have said is the objective of the exercise. What’s most important in this game is that you aren’t overwhelming the dog by fix everything. You find the one thing, and you work on it briefly.

Following is an excellent list of training responses by the savvy dog trainer:

  1. If a dog breaks a stay the trainer will have two or three opportunities to replace the dog in a stay position, take a few steps away then return to the dog to praise and reward. And then end of exercise with warm praise and reward.
  2. If a dog refuses an obstacle (runs by without performing) the trainer might choose one of two paths: a) Continue with the sequence or b) retry the presentation of the obstacle twice two or three times. If the handler chooses “b”, that becomes the exercise, allowing the trainer to finish with happy praise and reward.
  3. If a dog leaves his handler, for whatever reason the trainer should steel herself to taking only one chance to demonstrate her recall. If the dog doesn’t respond the trainer should immediately collect the dog and put him up for a time-out. This is a tough one because the trainer doesn’t get to finish with nice praise and reward.
    When a dog is on time-out it’s not a bad idea to take a loaner dog on your next turn if one is available so that your dog can see you out on the floor having fun and giving treats to some other dog.
  4. If you are being frustrated by your dog’s performance we demonstrate a specific exercise designed to train the dog through the thing that is frustrating you. It will be an offline exercise which means you can have your regular turn on the floor, while getting the number of reps you truly need in the offline exercise.
  5. If a loaner dog is available for your turn (usually one of my dogs) I will be happy to allow you to take your turn with the loaner. Please don’t say anything negative to one of my dogs.


Please note that some handlers will spend upwards of 5 minutes on the floor doing a simple exercise with a novice dog while a more experienced dog and handler might get only about 20 seconds to finish the same exercise. This is an imbalance. And it is remedied by the Dog Trainers’ Rule.

What often happens when you combine a novice dog and an inexperienced dog trainer is a time consuming exercise in correction. It can be deflating or demoralizing to the dog and typically isn’t anywhere close to good dog training habit. While the Dog Trainers’ Rule might seem at first glance to be punitive, it is more accurately a lesson in good dog training habit. It makes the dog’s trainer focus on what is most important in the laundry list of training objectives at that moment.

The biggest failure of the inexperienced dog trainer is missing the opportunity to reinforce correct performance. A dog may miss a jump, so the handler goes back to try the jump again. The dog misses it again so the handler goes back to try yet again. And then finally, when the dog does the jump, the handler fails to praise and reward her dog. We’ve missed the training opportunity. The corrections were a waste. The time on the floor was the benefit of even a modest reinforcement.

Why do I allow the handler to continue, rather than correct, if the dog runs past an obstacle? For one thing, if the handler goes back to correct it will be end of exercise. But I also believe that a constant program of correction is simply not good dog training. I would rather the handler continue her movement, which helps her maintain her working relationship with her dog. I would rather the handler (and dog trainer) spend her energy trying to understand why the dog might have refused the obstacle, rather than continuing to practice her error.

The rule for the broken stay is unique in the list. The handler doesn’t actually get to go on. It’s going to be end of exercise, but not before the handler has an opportunity to have a solid training moment with her dog. In our sport the consistency of training the stay is quite important. No dog should learn that he gets to start the team. Otherwise, the handler will never have a solid stay for competition.

While I have placed an emphasis on positive reinforcement for performance, you should note that a good dog trainer will give a positive marker for correct performance. It’s a mistake to tell the dog “yes” when he didn’t actually offer a correct performance. This is a dog training error. I will be keen to point out this error should you commit it.

Questions comments & impassioned speeches to Bud Houston: And Check out my new publication the Idea BookAgility Training for a Small Universe available at


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