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Zen Hand: Focus + Stillness

There are a lot of variations of what I refer to as "Zen hand" coined by the great Sue Ailsby.

The basic premise is a hand (closed or open) holding food, usually presented away from our body and often at the dog's nose height. All methods strive to teach the dog to not move towards the food hand. In most cases, the food hand holds the dog's actual REWARD they will be given, not just a distraction.

Some methods use a form of positive punishment/negative reinforcement with the handler closing up the food hand when the dog investigates it and opening back up the hand when the dog moves away.

The problem I have with that method, even for a confident dog, is that I don't actually want to reinforce moving AWAY from my zen hand.

I want the opposite. Zen hand = stillness.

A blog post I wrote a few years ago discussed a related problem with many dogs frantically offering behaviors and not understanding the difference between offered sessions vs cued sessions. The dogs tap dance, or back up, or just cycle through known behaviors whenever their handler isn't fast enough with the cue.

That's a problem, especially if you want to do obedience where there are lots of long pauses while you wait for the judge to give the next order!

This blog post will go through how I start my foundations to teach the dog that I want zen hand to mean:

  1. Look at me, not the food!!

  2. Be still* and wait for a cue!

I throw an asterisk up by the 2nd goal as while this is my foundation, I do take it to the next level and use zen hand to mean CONTINUE doing the cue I already gave such as maintaining heel position. In all cases, I don't want the dog to offer another behavior.

Beginning Zen Hand: Don't Mob It

I do not want to rely on my dog going to my food hand, only to be tricked by my hand quickly closing on them!

This can not only contribute to a dog learning to back away from it, but it can also result in a sensitive dog being unsure about working too close to my zen hand or even being hesitant to follow a lure.

Instead, I rely on a high rate of reinforcement to get the behavior I WANT to see. Working towards calmly waiting within arms reach of me.

For some dogs, I will start them on a platform or any other foot target they know to help structure them for success. The food comes to them, don't come to the food!

While my goal is for my zen hand to hold the REWARD they will get, I might briefly use it as a distraction and feed solely from my other hand to help take focus off my zen hand. And my hand will likely already be in a fist so it's not as inviting.

Do not use any verbal such as leave it, no, stay, or watch me.

My job in this stage is to help the dog be successful through my use of rewards. Feed fast! We'll talk about a few different ways to do this through the different video examples.

Here with puppy Grace, I demonstrate holding several treats in the palm of one hand while I pick up a cookie with my other hand and use that to move Grace away from the rest of the treats. In this video, I also worked on lowering my treat hand closer to the ground, but the main goal is purely for your dog to wait patiently.

If the dog rushes your food hand before you can feed them (try hard to shove a treat in their mouth to prevent it!!), try starting with your hand higher up or have your dog wait on a platform.

You can see that I'm picking up the reward directly from my open hand and then giving it to the dog. If that is too hard for your dog, go ahead and have your non "zen hand" behind your back and then reward directly from those treats (not grabbing from your zen hand).

Build in a tiny pause so that your dog can wait a full 1-2sec between cookies!!

And here with Mayhem, I start out rapidly feeding her, and I'm working on lowering my hand to the floor. I try to mark and feed before she can make an error. Because she is moving to my zen hand too much, I switch briefly to rewarding her from my other hand. After a few reps of feeding her quickly, I go back to my hand up higher and start to see if she can wait on her own. Notice how I try to prevent errors by quickly shoving a piece of food from my other hand into her mouth. It is a conflict-free way to prevent errors and it turns my zen hand into more of a distraction than holding the reward. Later in this session, I go back to feeding directly from my zen hand so it is the reward!

Zen Hand = Eye Contact

When this is solid you are ready to add in eye contact! Warm up by rewarding any offered eye contact with your hands at your sides or behind your back. Then bring the "calm waiting for treats" into the picture.

If your dog has a calm wait on a platform, use that to help prevent your dog from mobbing your treats when they don't get the reward right away!

Mayhem has a very hard time focusing around food!! She is on a platform to help remind her to not mob my food hand and I'm trying to capture more than just an eye flick to me. This is hard!! I have better luck when I move my hand even further away from my body (starting at 40sec) so it is more of a costly behavior to turn her head versus just flick her eye:

Here with Ginny, I start out using my non-zen hand to reward her as she is doing a little bit of movement towards my hand (thus also moving away from it!). I am able to transition to rewarding from my zen hand after a few reps:

If your dog is hesitant to look at you, go ahead and say their name or make a fun sound for a few reps to try and capture it.

Having your hand further out to the side usually makes it easier for the dog to notice they aren't looking at you than when the hand is too close to your body.

Zen Hand = Stillness

For most dogs, I find that teaching the zen hand with this method helps to build the foundation of looking at me AND being still. The dog isn't trying to get the food and hasn't been reinforced for moving AWAY from the food.

However, some dogs may still struggle with stillness and may try to offer other behaviors while looking at you.

I highly recommend using a small platform for helping your dog hold a sit, or even try starting your dog from a down position on a mat or cot.

Anytime the dog offers changing position (you might need to ignore tap dancing behaviors at this stage!) I want you to IMMEDIATELY help the dog out. Try to quickly prompt them back into their start position. Ideally, pause.... then reward. But if you need to rapid-fire shove treats in their mouth to get them to wait that's ok!

Try to slowly space out either the time between treats or even do "slow cookie" delivery where the dog sees you very slowly moving the treat towards their mouth.

This clip with Mayhem shows a very fast rate of delivery for being still and starting to move into that slow cookie delivery. You can see how when she starts to dance her rear legs I need to speed up the delivery. Waiting her out would end up in a more frantic puppy! It is best to quickly get the behavior I want and then slow it down again. My hand is not in "zen hand" position yet (it's too close to my body) but this is a foundation skill she needs first!:

Stillness with More Structure

If your dog is still struggling with stillness with your zen hand, try structuring them in another way.

My favorite tool is using a chin rest (or another form of a sticky target) to teach them to be still and continue holding the behavior they were doing.

This video with little Wren shows a very early stage of learning to do her chin rest with my zen hand out. I start out with 2 great reps where I reinforce dropping her head to my hand on the chin cue with my zen hand out. Then I make it too hard by adding in motion of my zen hand towards her. I have better luck when I move it out to the side so it is less pressure.

And in this more advanced step I'm starting Ginny in a stand. My plan was to use my zen hand to teach her to ignore my hand motion (as prep for an exam!), but she told me she wasn't quite ready. I take my hand away each time she breaks contact and ends up moving my hand out to the side first just like I was doing with Wren. As she gets the goal, I work towards moving my zen hand towards her.

While these videos progressed into ignoring a moving zen hand and continuing to stay still (a more advanced version!), you can see how the chin rest can be a good starting point for teaching the dog to freeze up with your zen hand.

Try doing several chin rests with your zen hand, and then doing a zen hand rep without the chin rest to see if your dog can be still for a full second or two before marking.

It is extra important for dogs prone to movement or losing focus that you mark BEFORE you move your hand towards them to feed! Marking and moving at the same time encourages your dog to watch your hand for that information about when the food is coming to them.

Using Zen Hand to Prevent Anticipation

Anytime my dog is struggling to wait, zen hand is one of the first tools I will bring out to help remind the dog to be still. Anticipation is often an eagerness to get to the reward sooner. As well as zen hand being taught with the stillness aspect, it also has the thoughts of don't move to the reward, the reward comes to you. Sometimes it is that reminder of HOW to get the reward that makes it easier for the dog to choose to wait.

Here Freya Kitty was really struggling with anticipating a sit after her down cue. I use my zen hand to remind her to not move!

And here is an example of Mayhem who was struggling to stay in a down position in heel. I actually am not using full "Zen hand" here in its traditional context. As while my zen hand is out, I'm doing more "Slow cookie" delivery to remind her not to move towards the food. Her main issue was getting out of the down to meet her reward after I marked. I wanted to work on picking up the food and slowly moving it towards her with her elbows down!

And one more example of using zen hand to help with stillness! Not an anticipation issue, but helping with pitter pattering of Aero's feet! Aero was in the early stages of learning a stand but would drum her feet unless I marked instantly (with help of slow cookies she learned to freeze after my "yes!"). Adding my zen hand allowed me to mark the duration of a calm stand, not purely the act of kicking back into a stand.

I hope this way of teaching and using zen hand helps your dog learn to wait for behaviors!

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