top of page

Subscribe to the blog!
Get a free zen bowl webinar!

How to Get Duration with Doggy Zen

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

It’s been 5 years since I first started a blog post on reverse luring and a bit longer than that since I started using the zen technique to get duration. Since that time I am thrilled to see so many trainers learn about it and embrace the method!

And yesterday I discovered that the method I called reverse luring really wasn’t what the original inventor of reverse luring uses as reverse luring.  Ooops!  I’m embarrassed!

And it’s a great example of how people can see a quick video and not truly understand what was going on.  In this case I’m almost glad for my mistake as the version I adopted has been incredibly useful for me over the years!

So I am proposing a new name to help with clarity, one you can choose to adopt or not.  I will refer to the technique I use as Zen Keeper (Zen Keep Going Signal).  But really we are just talking about using the dog’s reward to help get duration behaviors.  Let’s look more at what the technique I use and why I use it.

So What Is Zen Keeper? 

Well as its new name describes, it is visual keep going signal.  It’s a feedback system, kinda like the hot/cold game you might have played as a kid.  It serves to tell the dog they are on the right path, keep doing what you’re doing!  And then tells the dog when they need to try something different.

You have a fistful of treats that you show the dog.  As soon as the dog starts the behavior you open your hand.

Open hand= good!  Keep going!

Then if the dog happens to stop the behavior before you had a chance to mark/reward them, you close your fist to hide the treats.

Closed fist= try something else!

I  hear some of you asking if this is an aversive.  Is it punishment? The simple answer is yes, it can be aversive to some dogs.  The open hand acts a keep going signal, it reinforces the behavior. But the second you close your fist you are removing the opportunity for reinforcement and punishing whatever the dog did at that second.  I believe that is negative punishment for those geeks out there.

My goal as a trainer is to split things down small enough so I don’t need to close my fist very often at all.  It’s the keep going signal that tells the dog they are on the right track.  I have yet to train a dog where this type of zen has been seen as aversive to the dog.  In my experience, the clarity of knowing they are on the right track actually reduces a lot of stress related behaviors that tend to show up when you are trying to shape duration!

But it is wise to keep in mind that you should not be resorting to closing your hand (punishment) very often.  Focus on building the behavior you want with the keep going signal and reevaluate the level of difficulty you are asking for if the dog isn’t getting it.

Basically, it boils down to asking the dog how they feel about the technique!  Does the dog look stressed?  Then stop!!  Your dog has the ultimate say in whether you should use a technique.

Why is this useful? 

I typically use this technique for any behavior requiring duration.  The 3 big ones I use it for are

  1. Dumbbell holds

  2. Chin rests or any variation of a head down behavior

  3. “Sticky targets”, or variations of a dog’s nose pressed to my hand, a box, a stanchion…

You could use it for other tricks that require duration as well such as hind leg lifts, begging, or really anything.  But I typically use it for behaviors that are incredibly hard to get duration on with shaping.

If you have ever tried to extend duration from just 1/4sec to 1/2sec then you know how frustrating that can be!

Why does it work? 

Initially, I find that having their reward visibly held out acts to freeze the dog up.  The dog already has to have a basic understanding of doggy zen games and not moving towards the reward of course. That concentration of the dog trying so hard to resist the reward can act as a mini focal point they freeze on.

The dog isn’t frantically offering a billion behaviors to see what works, they focus on not moving towards the reward.

And once the dog really understands the full feedback system of keep going vs try something else, then it’s incredibly easy to apply that concept to new behaviors.  The dog isn’t confused whether my lack of a click means offer a new behavior or just keep doing the same behavior longer.  They get instant feedback through my open hand that they are doing a great job even if they haven’t gotten the reward yet!  Clarity.

Isn’t this Just Doggy Zen/ Its Yer Choice? 

Kinda!  If you’re using this with a well-known behavior then there’s likely not much difference in the dogs’ mind.  In all cases, the dog is resisting the food hand distraction and continuing to do a behavior.  Usually people use this type of doggy zen as a proof.  Can you do X behavior even if I have my food out?

However, I can use zen keeper to teach a brand new behavior to the dog through the feedback system it provides.  The dog doesn’t yet know how to do the duration behavior and my open hand/closed hand starts to communicate that to them.  It’s this feedback loop that separates this type of zen from the other forms of food in the hand games.

If I just had the traditional version of doggy zen there would be no way to distinguish that duration piece.  The dog would have moved away from the food to do a behavior, like rest their chin on the floor, but then the dog would think the behavior was complete and their head would instantly come up.  With zen keeper I can quickly open and close my hand to tell the dog I want them to keep at that initial behavior!

How Do I Start? 

Prerequisite Training- Understanding Doggy Zen 

Before attempting any duration, first make sure the dog knows that it’s not just avoiding the food hand that is required, but they also have to do a behavior too.

Have your fist full of food and then hold out your other hand to cue a nose touch.  Reward instantly as soon as the dog leaves the food hand to go touch your other hand.  It’s not quite the zen keeper technique yet, you’re just setting the stage.  (If the dog hasn’t yet learned to not mob your cookie hand then simply reward backing off the food hand first before adding another behavior on top of it!)

Then try it with other behaviors.  Hold out your dumbbell in one hand and your fist full of food in the other hand.  Reward as soon as your dog leaves the food to bite the dumbbell.  Again, you’re not requiring any holding duration yet, just a bite!

You want the dog confidently doing a behavior with the reward at nose level.  Leave the reward to get the reward.

Here is a quick video of dogs leaving a food hand to do a behavior.   Again, I do not personally consider this the zen keeper technique as there is no feedback system in place.

Zen Keeper with Known Behaviors

Now you can try your hand at duration!  But before trying it on a new behavior, start with something the dog already knows.

If you have a pretty green dog who doesn’t really have many duration behaviors, try it with eye contact.  Hold out your food hand, wait for eye contact and instantly reward.  That piece should be pretty solid before starting true open and shut zen for duration.

So now when the dog looks at you, open your palm so the food hand is visible.  If the dog kept eye contact with you, mark and reward!!!  If the dog looked back at the food hand, close it up in a fist.  Wait until the dog looks back at you, and then open it again.

The goal is for the dog to keep doing the behavior (eye contact) while your palm is open.  Just a half second will do at first!

Then try it with another behavior the dog knows.  Maybe a simple behavior of going to their mat.  Open up your food hand when the dog starts moving towards their mat, and keep it open once they get there.  Close it if the dog starts coming back to you.  Mark and reward if the dog holds remains on their mat for short duration.

And then repeat this with another behavior the dog already knows with duration.  And another.

The goal is teaching the dog that your open hand is a keep going signal.

Zen Keeper to Teach a Behavior

When the dog starts to understand the concept you can now test them with a new behavior.   Remember, the goal is to have your criteria easy enough so that you don’t need to shut your hand very often at all!

I suggest alternating reps of rewarding pure moving away from the food with your attempts at open hand and duration.

Here I demo with Zumi shaping her to rest her chin on a stool.  While Zumi does not know how to do this behavior and actually wants to do her “pray” behavior, she does already know a chin rest to the floor so it’s not a completely new behavior for her.

You can see that I still have most of my rewards for just leaving the food hand to lower her head.  I would not consider that part the zen keeper method.  The reps where I open my hand and then shut it are the parts where I use the technique in this blog!

And of course, there is still this video from 5 years ago that shows me using the idea to teach chin rests, holds, and telling Bubba to just freeze his movement!   

And if you are a regular reader who is confused on what site they are reading this post on, welcome!  I hope to occasionally blog on general topics like this occasionally at this training site of mine.  I will still keep The Dogs Are Really In Charge for training updates of my own dogs, trial reports, and randomness!

1,696 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page