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Creating Canine Joy: ACE Freework's Guide to a Happier Dog

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

It was a year ago that I was becoming much more interested in the way that meeting a dog's needs, and providing appropriate enrichment can help with behavioral issues. In one of my many dog training Facebook groups I stumbled across a comment about something called ACE (Animal Centered Education) Free Work. Additionally, that same post mentioned that there was an event on Facebook with a group called ACEing August. Intrigued, I went to check it out, and I was blown away!

So, what is ACE Free Work, and why do it with your dog?

Free Work is an enrichment activity that is simple to set up and provides the dog with opportunities to explore, make their own choices, and encounter a variety of textures, scents, tastes, and new items.

Through the use of ACE Free Work, owners have an opportunity to observe their dogs and find out what the dogs prefer, and what they may not be interested in or actively dislike.

  • ACE Free Work can also show owners if their dog is developing some physical issues. Observation of the dog's natural movements will allow for noticing if the dog is stiff or limping.

  • ACE Free Work can be used to help counter-condition a dog to things that they may be worried or uncomfortable about.

  • ACE Free Work helps to build confidence, and lower anxiety and stress.

dog doing ACE Free Work

How to get started with ACE Freework

One of the advantages to ACE Free Work is that it can be set up either inside or outside. Another advantage is that you don't necessarily have to purchase anything; you can use items that you most likely have around the house.

ACE Free Work typically has stations that the dogs can investigate. You can start with three or four, and as your dog experiences more and more setups you can expand the number of stations that are involved, depending on the amount of space you have to work with.

If possible, set your ACE Free Work stations up without your dog watching, so that the experience is completely brand new for them when they come into the area.

The stations should have different surface types so that the dog feels different textures under their feet. The stations should include different heights. And there should be a couple of different enrichment activities for the dogs to engage with. Be sure the items aren’t things that you’re concerned your dog will destroy. Even though you’ll be right there watching, you don’t want to have to interfere with this activity if possible.

Each Free Work setup should have a water bowl, so that the dog has the option to get a drink if they want.

Once you have the items in place, it's time to bring out the food. It is recommended that you offer three different types of food for your dog. One type should be crunchy, one soft and spreadable, and chewy. If you're concerned about your dog gaining weight, this could be an activity that replaces the food you're going to put in their bowl for a meal.

The food should be scattered both on the stations and in between the stations. If one of your higher stations is a chair, you can scatter some of the food under the chair. Spreadable foods such as peanut butter or yogurt can be spread on something that will be easily cleaned, and I can recommend that food gets spread on a higher object so that your dog doesn't step in it and track it all over.

After you're done with your setup, it's time to bring in your dog! The Creator of ACE Free Work recommends that you remove any collars or harnesses from your dog, so that they aren't distracted by anything on their body. If you have multiple dogs that get along you could do the setup with the dogs together, or you could bring one dog in at a time and reset the food after each dog.

This is where the Free Work part of the name comes in! Your job is done, other than remaining out of the way and watching your dog.

We humans control so much of a dog’s life, such as when they can potty and where, when they're going to exercise, and when they're going to relax, when they're going to eat, where they're going to walk, and how long they're allowed to sniff a spot on that walk. This is the opportunity for the dog to do whatever they want in whatever time frame they want to do it in.

The whole point of Free Work is that it allows the dog to be free from any direction or interference from a person. This is a time when the dog can do what they want, explore how they want, and spend as much, or as little time in one spot as they want.

As your dog is using their opportunity to be free, you have an opportunity to learn a little bit more about your dog. Using your observational skills, you can find out:

If there is food that your dog tends to eat and prefer over other types.

  • Which enrichment activities hold your dog’s attention, and which ones they disengage from pretty quickly.

  • What stations they spend the most time at, and which stations they tend to avoid.

  • Watch the body posture as your dog is engaging with certain stations. Is your dog leaning forward to get the treats without bringing their feet with them? Is your dog's tail wagging or is it down? This might indicate your dog is uncomfortable with a certain situation, and it may be something you want to note and work with in the future.

Using Free Work for exposure to things a dog fears

One of the most important things that you can do to help a dog overcome a fear is to avoid pressuring them to engage with it. Ace Free Work is fantastic because it is a dog directed-activity, and you are hands off.

Before you incorporate the item that your dog is nervous about into your Free Work setup, consider what we call your dog's threshold. Is your dog so terrified they cannot function if that item is within 5 ft of them? Then maybe the Free Work setup needs to be off to the side, with the feared item 15 ft away.

Are they nervous about an electronic item when it's turned on, or when you're handling it? Then perhaps it can be incorporated into your Free Work setup turned off and laying off to the edge of the Free Work area.

As an example, if a dog is afraid of thunder, you could have the sounds of a thunderstorm going on from YouTube playing at a low volume as your dog is exploring the Free Work area. You would want to make sure that the volume was low enough that your dog was not afraid of it, and if you saw signs of that you would want to turn it off.

Gradually over time you could increase the volume of the thunderstorm that's playing over your speakers, and then eventually start to set up your Ace Free Work on days when a storm is coming in, but while the storm is at a distance so that the thunder isn't very loud.

Possible items to use in a Free Work set-up

Here is a list of items that could be used in a Free Work setup, although if you use your imagination you can certainly add other items that you think your dog would be interested in exploring! This list is just to get you thinking.

Flat surfaces:

  • rug

  • Upside down rug

  • Cardboard

  • Brown packing paper

  • Outside mat (different scent)

  • Towel

  • Yoga mat

  • Dog bed

  • Quilt

  • Plywood board (make sure your dog can’t get slivers)

Raised surfaces:

  • Upside down dog bowl

  • Plastic containers – various sizes

  • Upside down laundry basket

  • Stepstool

  • Cardboard box

Enrichment items:

  • Licki Mat

  • Snuffle Mat

  • Small container with toilet paper tubes tossed in, along with treats

  • Muffin tin with treats and a tennis ball covering muffin divots

  • Paper lunch bag with a few treats in it and folded over


  • Toy that has been played with by another dog

  • Animal fur (get from a friend with a dog, cat, livestock)

  • Towel that has been rubbed on another animal

  • Animal safe plant leaves or branches

  • A drop of vanilla or mint extract on a cotton ball and then smeared on a surface, towel, toy

Other items:

  • Orange Cone

  • Hula Hoops

  • 2x4 boards

  • Plastic water bottles

  • Exercise equipment such as balance discs


  • Kibble

  • Biscuits

  • Soft treats

  • Cheese

  • Peanut butter

  • Spreadable cheese

  • Yogurt

  • Canned dog food

dog doing ACE Free Work

Using Free Work to build confidence

Because Ace Free Work goes at the dog's pace, without any intervention from the owner, it can be a really great way to help a dog gain confidence.

During your observations if you notice that your dog is a little bit concerned about certain things, you can continue to add them to your setups and allow your dog to explore and learn about those items at their own pace while eating food and sniffing and enjoying themselves.

If you have a dog who is worried about certain floor surfaces, you could incorporate something like that into your Ace Free Work station. Getting an old piece of laminate flooring, you could make that a station and scatter treats on it.

If after a few sessions you notice your dog is completely avoiding the laminate, then you could try and find a way to make it less slippery. That might mean that you put an area rug or yoga mat over the laminate so that only part of it is exposed, but that the dog might have to put one paw on that surface in order to get to the food. Over time you would increase the space of laminate that more and more the dog would have to step on that surface in order to get to the food.

Remember that there is food all over the entire Free Work area, so if your dog eats all the food but in one spot, that gives you information that there is something about that area that is making your dog uncomfortable. That's great information, because it gives you an opportunity to help your dog overcome it.

Another option would be helping your dog develop confidence in surfaces that are unstable. I do agility with one of my dogs, and one obstacle that many dogs struggle with is the teeter totter. The act of going up a solid surface and then having it move underneath your feet is pretty scary!

In order to break it down to just getting your dog used to movement under their feet, you could put a folded-up quilt underneath a board so that when the dog steps on the board it wiggles just a little bit.

If the dog seems very confident with that setup, then the next time you did an ace Free Work setup maybe you put the board on the quilt in such a way that the quilt ended in the middle of the board, and when the dog stepped on the part of the board that wasn't supported by the quilt it would tip just about a half an inch or less.

With every Free Work setup, you help your dog build confidence with things that move under their feet, by initially making it so mild that they quickly become comfortable with it, and by allowing them to explore it by themselves without your interference.


Ace Free Work is a great way to give your dog some choices in their life, which we know is important for building resilience.

Ace Free Work is a wonderful way to provide enrichment for a dog, so that they can practice their natural behaviors, without you stepping in and preventing them from doing so.

Free Work gives you an opportunity to observe your dog and see if there is something that may be physically wrong with them. Additionally, it gives you a chance to notice anything that may cause your dog some concern and allows you to come up with the training plan to help your dog overcome their fear.


Do you need help training your dog? I offer virtual consultations for separation anxiety resolution, as well as for other behavioral issues or training needs.

I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.

I would love to work with you and your dog!

121 views2 comments

2 ความคิดเห็น

ได้รับ 0 เต็ม 5 ดาว

07 ก.ย. 2566
ได้รับ 5 เต็ม 5 ดาว

Ooh, this sounds really intriguing. I am definitely going to have to try this!

Khris Erickson
Khris Erickson
28 ก.ย. 2566

It's a lot of fun to watch the dogs explore! Enjoy!


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