Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Feb 17, 2017



Loretta Mueller has been involved in agility since 2003. Loretta and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships and she currently coaches the World Agility Organization USA Agility Team.

She also runs FullTilt Agility Training in central Minnesota. Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally and service dog training.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 3/3/2017, featuring Nancy Gagliardi Little.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you’re listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we’ll be talking to Loretta Mueller. Loretta has been involved in agility since 2003. Loretta and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships and she currently coaches the World Agility Organization USA Agility Team. She also runs FullTilt Agility Training in central Minnesota. Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally and service dog training. Welcome to the podcast, Loretta.

Loretta Mueller: Thanks for having me Melissa, I’m excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: Excited to be talking to you. So, to get us started out, can you just tell us a little bit about the dogs you have now and kind of what you’re working on?

Loretta Mueller: Sure, yeah. I have six dogs. Their names are Clink, Gator, Lynn, Even, Crackers and Gig and I train all of them in agility. I also work the dogs on sheep, except for the terrier.

Melissa Breau: And Crackers is your terrier, right?

Loretta Mueller: Yes, correct.

Melissa Breau: Okay. So how did you get into competitive dog sports and training?

Loretta Mueller: It all started out with my first dog, Ace. He was a rescue from a no-kill shelter and he had a lot of fear issues. On top of fear issues, he also had separation anxiety and an excessive amount of energy, so I started taking some dog obedience classes with him to see if that would help with some of his behavior issues, and it did of course. After obedience, I discovered agility and pretty much never looked back. I still do obedience and I still train it a lot, but agility is my passion for sure.

Melissa Breau: So in your bio on the Fenzi website, it says that you believe there’s never a one size fits all method in training. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Loretta Mueller: Sure, yeah. I never just go into a lesson or a seminar thinking today we’re going to learn about “insert topic here.” I go with a general plan, but I let the dog dictate what we work on. I’m about the entire picture. So, to try to teach each dog and each handler in the exact same way doesn’t make sense to me. There’s always adjustments, sometimes to the point of trying something totally different so the team gets it. I really want to teach people to read their dogs to try to put themselves in their dog’s place as much as they possibly can. There’s always a reason the dog does something, and I feel it’s our job to know why they’re doing it, or at least to help them find the correct path. And you can’t know why if you don’t observe.

Melissa Breau: Do you have any examples where that’s kind of happened recently that you can give us or kind of talk us through?

Loretta Mueller: Yeah. Just recently at a seminar I actually had a woman that was having some major issues with start line stays. The dog was breaking in trials. The dog was breaking in training and she was really frustrated because, of course, the normal does everything perfect at home, and so she came in to the seminar wanting that help, and what happened was it turned into a, what is your dog’s emotional state, and are they stressed, and in this situation, the dog was definitely stressed. And so, we had to adjust all the training that she had planned for the day to work on the dog’s emotional state and then by the end of the day the dog’s emotional state was awesome and magically the dog was able to do a start line stay with no issues whatsoever. So, I think it’s just about seeing what dog comes into the ring and you have to figure out what the main issue is and then go from there and I make sure I do that with each and every team so if you go to a seminar with me, you’re going to see me do a ton of different techniques and a ton of different things for dogs. Each dog’s going to be a tiny bit different or majorly different, depending on the dog.

Melissa Breau: Do you kind of see that as a philosophy of how you teach and train?

Loretta Mueller: For sure. Yes, definitely. It’s all about the dogs in my opinion and I think that if I can get a person to understand that and to learn how to communicate with their dog, that’s the number one thing I’m there to do. Once that happens, everything falls into place.

Melissa Breau: So, how did that kind of come about? Like, how did you reach that conclusion that that’s really how you wanted to teach and train?

Loretta Mueller: I think, you know I used to do research, and so my years in research taught me that there are always things you’re looking for, obviously, or expect to happen, and people are really good at that, right? They know to expect this and they know to expect that, and usually that’s not the issue. It’s normally those small moments that missing a tiny change in behavior or not taking into consideration the dog’s emotional state that can really get you into trouble. I’ve never met a dog that was bad. I’ve only met dogs that were trying desperately to communicate with their owners. Sometimes their form of communication isn’t what we want, so it’s up to us to learn how to communicate with our dogs. It’s hard I think for us to get into that mindset sometimes that we have to make all the changes so that the dog understands. Can dogs change? Of course they can, but they are going to communicate with us in the only way they know how, and so for us, we have to learn their language and I think once that happens it’s amazing how obvious everything turns out to be.

Melissa Breau: So I was doing some googling and looking up stuff and doing my research before we got on the phone, and I came across a review from one of your seminars where a student was singing your praises and she mentioned that you’ve a quality that’s really hard to find in a trainer. She said that you were “able to work with fast dogs, motivate slow dogs, build confidence in the shy and calm the crazy.” She said that you were “equally good at handling both experienced and inexperienced trainers.” What do you think, I mean we’ve been talking a little bit about the idea of adapting to the dog, but especially that piece in there about both experienced and inexperienced trainers. What do you feel that you do differently that’s allowed you to be so successful with a wide variety of dogs and handlers?

Loretta Mueller: I think I try to not get myself so much into rules but more about guidelines. I always tell people I would be that dog that everyone doesn’t want. So, I’m that environmentally sensitive dog who can stress up or down. I personally am the type of dog that if the leader doesn’t know what they’re doing that’s going to stress me out, so, if a person’s learning a front cross, things like that, people make mistakes. I only have a limited number of reps and in my opinion, what’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I can be very food motivated, not always toy motivated and I can be very oppositional, so if I feel I am being forced into something, anything basically, I’ll put the brakes on instantly. And if you start to get frustrated with me or I feel like you’re not being fair with me, I’m done. So, that’s how I train people too. I just think in terms of, I don’t want to put them over their head. I want to minimize any frustration and I want to give them a good experience as far as that goes.

When I’m teaching, and this is very, very important I think, is I don’t have expectations of a team when they come into the ring. I don’t assume that I know what the team is or what they need. I observe them for that moment in time that I’m with them and I show them the things that they need to work on or change. Again, it all starts with the dog and then goes to the human. I like to think of it as I’m observing a science experiment. I write down what the team needs in a totally non-emotional way and then I work to solve the problem. As I said before, I’m all about the dog, so people ask me all the time, how do you work with people who are not open to change, because I get that in seminars sometimes. And people are amazed, I guess that I can get people who are normally like, I don’t want to do this and I don’t want to do that, to change and to be honest with you, from my standpoint it’s very simple. They see the dog change and they change, and so I think that that’s a really important thing.

Another thing for me, is it’s just my experiences, so I’ve had so many experiences with all different types of dogs and teams and I need to make sure I thank the people that have really helped me with that and the big, big group of them was my very first set of private students, though I like to call them my island of misfit toys, and that’s actually a good thing. They were all people who were ready to give up agility and they came to me and asked me for lessons. The dogs were frustrated or had behavior issues. The people were frustrated and it just wasn’t fun for them. One of my examples is one of my dearest friends, she had a lab and the first lesson she put the dog on the start line and let out to cue jumps and said, okay, and the dog spent an hour chasing birds. So these students, they taught me so much, and their dogs taught me so much and I wouldn’t be here without them, you know. I’m still giving lessons to all of them 13 years later with their newer dogs and just seeing that type of evolution.

I’m all about what the dogs have to teach me. So, every dog I’ve had has taught me something. I’ve had the range of dogs. People always say, oh border collies are all the same, and you know, I’ve had one really good border collie that was a nice mix of high drive, but totally could control herself. She was great between training and trialing. She didn’t change. The rest of my dogs I’ve had a range, so some of them are scared. They were unmotivated. Some of them were over threshold, losing their brain, and each one of my dogs has also taught me so much in my opinion. They really are the best teachers. They’re super consistent and we can learn a lot from them if we just choose to listen.

Melissa Breau: So, kind of talking a little more about your dogs, and switching gears at the same time, I guess, Denise mentioned that you have, what she considered, a different approach to raising puppies, at least those first couple weeks and months after you bring them home. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, I can. I thought she’d maybe do that. So, this doesn’t sell books or DVDs, but when I get a puppy home, I don’t normally do what everybody else does. I don’t instantly start training them. I observe. So, I’m sure you noticed that the word observation comes up a lot in this interview, but I observe my puppies, and yes, I do some playing, so like normally, with or without toys, and I get them out. But I do a lot of watching and I write down things, and what that allows me to do is, it allows me to get a baseline for this puppy so I know what the ins and outs of the puppy are. I believe with each training session you’re changing the dog and one must always realize that when they’re training, so I think it’s so important to know exactly what you have. What’s the base model so to speak? Are they timid? Are they bold? Do they problem solve well? Do they get frustrated easily? All those things come into play when I work on how I want to train that specific dog. And the only way you can get a totally sterile idea of what the puppy is, is just to observe them those first few weeks. It’s really quite fascinating and you’ll learn so much about your puppy. It’s not that you’re just letting them do whatever they want, but a lot of trick training and stuff like that, I just don’t do the first few weeks just so I can really get an idea of what kind of puppy I actually have.

Melissa Breau: Is there anything specific you look for in a puppy that you’re trying to validate or not validate, or what have you?

Loretta Mueller: You know, people always ask me if I want doers or thinkers, and personally I’m okay either way. It doesn’t really bother me. What I’m looking for usually in a puppy is I want to see that they’re taking on the world, they can be cautious if they want, but that they bounce back. I want to see a puppy that’s curious, but the one that just throws himself into situations, I don’t necessarily care about that positively or negatively. But I just want a puppy that’s going to bounce back from things. That’s to me the biggest thing because the bottom line is, for me in competitive sports, you can have the most amazingly structured dog and the dog can move just perfect, but if they can’t handle noise, if they can’t handle flags flapping in the wind, people behind them, things like that, it doesn’t matter how well they move. All that matters is that they can’t compete if they’re like that or they’re going to be a challenge to compete.

So, that’s really what I’m looking for and if I get a puppy that’s not quite how I want it, the nice thing is I can get a good sense for where they’re at and then from there I can design some training whether I’m building confidence or building some control into the training and things like that. So, it’s a really good place to start and get a great idea before you start training something you may or may not have wanted in a dog.

Melissa Breau: So after this first couple of weeks of observing their behavior and kind of getting to know them, do you mind just telling us a little bit about how you approach this first steps of building a relationship and socialization and what training you do do with a young dog or a puppy?

Loretta Mueller: Sure, yeah. If you would compare how I used to train versus how I’m training now, it’s really changed a lot. I could say with each dog I’ve gotten, it’s taught me so much about this. I guess for me it’s all about in the beginning just being there which I know probably sounds kind of weird. But just the act of being with the puppy is so much more important than teaching tricks. Now, I have no problem with teaching tricks. I love teaching tricks. I’m going to usually start with basic tricks like wave and things like that. I think it’s a great way to get your dog’s brain worked and teaching them to be resilient and keep trying, but honestly it cannot be a replacement for just being with your dog.

But I’m going to work on…you know I have a dog with a lot of motion sensitivity. Obviously, they’re all herding bred border collies, and so I’m going to work on a lot of motion desensitization as far as look at me games and getting them to redirect automatically, and that’s the first thing I teach all of my puppies is, they see something they want, they immediately look to me. And that’s the foundation obviously for recalls and it’s the foundation for attention and things like that, and I’m going to be working on that the entire time they’re growing up because it’s really important that my dogs don’t look at a jogger and say, ‘oh, great. Taking off now, thank you very much.’ I don’t want that, and so that’s going to be a big one. But as far as tricks, whatever you want to teach your dog. If you’re playing with your dog, I’m happy. But for me, a lot of times what I see with my students, is they have a working relationship, which is great. That’s what you want to build, but sometimes I see some of it lacking in the actual just relationship of being with a puppy.

A good example of this is my youngest border collie, Gig. She’s two now, but when she was six months old, she tore a muscle in her shoulder after a freak accident where her leg got caught in a metal crate, and I had nothing to do with her. Yeah, it was tough you know. A six-month-old very high drive border collie puppy and I didn’t have much I could do with her. If you’re familiar with shoulders, they’re just really a pain in the rear end to have to rehab, and the only things I really had that I could do with her was, I could be in an ex pen with her and just kind of sit with her, pet her. I could nap with her… which, she didn’t sleep much, and I could do some little tiny playing, like I call it bitey face. You know, where the puppy kind of bites at your hand type of thing, and that was it. I couldn’t teach her anything, and it kind of broke my heart when this happened, obviously because it happened, but also because this puppy was by far my most independent dog that I’ve ever raised. She was an eight-week-old puppy and she would just run away. So when I put her down, I’m thinking eight-week-old puppies they come with me, yay, right? Nope, gone. See ya. Bye-bye.

And so I spent months going, this is going to be horrible when I get this puppy out of an ex pen, when I can put her on a leash and take her for leash walks, because all I had was just the act of being with her. That’s it, and without tricks and training could we bond, and the bottom line is, yeah. She’s the most bonded dog I have, and so just being there in the moment with puppies, no expectations, I think is key to having great relationship and building a foundation for all the tricks, training and things like that that you want to do. Socialization is also key, right, but then again, I’m just there. I don’t force the dogs to interact with the environment. It’s just kind of one of those, here you go puppy, we’re at the park. What do you think? Take them. Let them take it all in. No expectations, and you know when I’m doing training, as far as the actual skill sets, like I mentioned before, there are doers and there are thinkers.

The doers just like to go, and then the thinkers are always trying to analyze stuff, and I like to take my training and make the doers more into thinkers and vice versa. I do a lot of drive training with my dogs and what that does is for the dogs that are thinkers it makes them more into a doer and they grab at the toy and I say kind of go a little feral for a while and get that drive up, and then the doers have to put a little bit more control, control their drive and I think that that works great with all of them. And everything’s going to be tailored using that information that I gathered in the first few weeks of having that puppy. I know what I have. I can start my training program adjusted for each puppy. Of course I have general guidelines, so dogs all need to start line sync, but how I get to that finished product isn’t the same for each dog, and then also when they’re young, I’m not much of a record keeper. I kind of have tendency to not do that, because if I put things down in a record, what happens is my type A personality says, okay, in this session you must do dumbbell retrieves. But the problem is, sometimes the dog changes the program and you have to adjust.

So, I tend to not write down plans for stuff, but I will, for my young dogs and I do have a book for each one of my dogs the first two years of their life, I reevaluate my dog each month. So, I treat it just as if I was evaluating a new student’s dog. So, dogs change constantly and they should, because you’re training them, and so I want to make sure that, for example, the timid dog that I had at eight weeks has not gotten more timid, or I need to definitely change something. And if I had a high drive dog, let’s say that I put too much control on, so the dog won’t do anything on its own, then I will adjust my training to get them to party a bit more, and it’s all about that balancing act. Dog training’s definitely an art in many situations and so it’s nice to be able to look back and then be able to somewhat predict or change things to make sure I’m progressing in a way that takes me where I want the dogs to go.

Melissa Breau: Now when you say you evaluate them each month, do you have a specific way that you do that? Or do you just kind of reflect on what you’ve done or reflect on how they’ve been the last couple of training sessions, or what’s your process there? Because that’s really interesting.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, so what I do is I kind of go through a series of little situations. So for example, I’m going to write down the dog’s weaknesses, and what I do when I’m doing this, is I don’t read the previous month, because I believe that it kind of will make you change things. So, I just say, what is the dog I have right now today? If a student brought this dog in, what would I say about it? So, what are the dog’s weaknesses, whether it’s a skill set or something like that? What are the dog’s strengths? What do they know? What do they not know? And resiliency. So, does the dog bounce back? Does it care if there’s a mistake made? Things like that. I work pressure work with my dogs so people behind my dogs to prepare them for trialing, and I always take note of how the dog’s handling it. Do they care about the pressure this month? Do they not? At what point does that bubble happen where the person invades their pressure and they don’t like it? Things like that.

So, I’m looking at those skills. Delay of reward. Are the dogs able to work through that as far as you not having any treats or toys on you, because that’s something you definitely have to work on before you start trialing, and things like that. So, I’m looking at individual skill sets, but also just the overall picture of, is the dog in drive? Are they staying in drive? Are they emotionally happy, and are they resilient and bouncing back? And if I see anything that doesn’t make sense or when I look back the previous month, that I noticed that they did something where they kind of backslid a little bit, then I’m going to adjust things.

I just started working on that actually with my young dog, Gig, who has suddenly started, when the weave poles are in situation, she will, instead of going to the weave pole, she will come back and try to redirect to me and usually it’s my sweatshirt, which is not an appropriate behavior and she wasn’t doing it a month ago, and now she’s doing it now. And so, I’m in the process of saying, okay that’s a big change. I have to figure out how to make that better and for her, it was just mainly an over threshold thing. So, we’re working on different levels of threshold and she’s getting it. So next month, I’m probably going to have another thing, right, because dog’s just continuously change things, and that’s a big thing I always think of in terms of, is instinctive drift, right?

We’re always training against instinctive drift, so weave poles. Dog’s don’t weave stuff in nature, ever, and weave poles break. Stopped contacts break. Why? Dog’s don’t run down hills and slam into a sit or a down. They just don’t do it, and so usually those are the things that are going to break. Those are the things that are going to show up most often in those journals, is okay, the weaves are bad this week or the A-frame contact was bad, and normally it’s not necessarily jumping or handling or tunnels. Usually tunnels don’t break, but it’s just those behaviors that the dogs really have to go against what they instinctively know and do naturally that have a tendency to kind of break down and so you’re going to see those. But if I see an emotional thing in looking through stuff, what I’m going to immediately do, is I’m going to say, okay there’s an emotional aspect to all of this. Everything else stops, and I must deal with that.

And so it’s just, those are things I’ve encountered and it’s just really good. Because I think a lot of people…you know I see people that come to seminars and they say, my dog is a bar knocker or my dog is stressy, and a lot of times I’ll end up asking them, well the dog I see is not stressy, so when was this dog stressy? And you know when they actually…you’ll see them kind of sit and think, and they’ll go well, like when he was six months old he was stressy. Okay, well he’s changed since then, right? And so it’s a nice way for us as trainers to be able to let go of stuff, because we have a tendency of holding on to things way longer than the dogs do, and the dogs are just like, you know, I know I was sensitive six months ago. But I’m not now. I’m good. I’m cool. And so then you can train that dog, which could be a totally different dog.

I look at my dog Lynn. As a young dog, she was an analytical…she reminded me of Sheldon off Big Bang Theory. Super analytical, super thinky, didn’t like to try a lot, it was  tough. She was sensitive, and now whenever anything goes wrong, very vocal and it is completely my fault. All of it, and I like that. I want a dog to respond to me and say, you know what, you caused all of this. Especially a dog like her who was the type that would just lay down and go, I’m not going to do anything I’m just going to lay here because I don’t know what’s going to happen. And so you know, she’s not at all the same dog, and so it’s just neat to go back and be able to see that, and then the nice thing about having all those journals is, you get another puppy and you can compare and say, okay, so my Clink dog who had over threshold issues, is growing up a lot like my current young dog, Gig, who also has over threshold issues, and I can actually take those two journals and compare them and I see a ton of similarities. So, it’s a nice way to predict a lot of times what you’re going to have and then you can kind of copy some training along with it.

Melissa Breau: And it gives you a sense of whether what you’re doing works or doesn’t work and…

Loretta Mueller: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Normally I tell people if you’re going to try something different with a method or whatever, give it two weeks. See what you have. See what’s happening. If you have some little steps forward, that’s great. Don’t expect something huge. If you get something huge, awesome, but if you notice steps back then it’s time to reevaluate and to say, okay, this isn’t working and most of the time we get so stuck in patterns of working on usually our strengths, because we want to make ourselves feel better, that we have a tendency to lose some of that stuff and so this just kind of keeps you on track and keeps you honest about what you really should be working on with the dogs.

Melissa Breau: And you mentioned, and I just think this is important so I want to emphasize it, kind of the idea that sometimes we get stuck on labels for our dogs that no longer apply to them, and so we continue training a dog that’s no longer the dog in front of us. I just think that’s so poignant and crucial for people to understand that they need to actually look at their dog for who they are today and not be judging the dog they had six months or a year ago or when they were six months old.

Loretta Mueller: Exactly, and it’s hard for us, because we get wrapped up in this emotionally and we have such a great emotional connection with these dogs that we just, yeah, we get stuck sometimes. I’d be the first person to say that I’ve gotten stuck on a couple dogs and it just…it’s hard for us to let go of it. Meanwhile, the dogs are changing, but at the same time they’re getting treated the same. If you think about when you were five years old versus now, you’re definitely not even remotely the same person you were probably at five and you had a foundation temperament, but in general you’ve changed a lot and so I think it’s just really important, because that’s what I see a lot of. When I do just problem solving seminars or stress seminars, especially, I see people that come in and they are already stressed about something that hasn’t happened yet, and then of course that feeds down to the dogs and then that makes them stressed.

I think that dogs in general, they’re either affected by their environment or they’re not, and so if the person’s stressed and the dog is the type that gets affected by the environment, then you’re going to have a dog that’s going to react differently. And if you can just stop and say, you know what, your dog is not this stressy dog anymore. It’s amazing when you change the person how much different the dog changes and it’s very cool to see the dog go, ah, okay. This is good, and then the confidence comes out, and I’ve had my share of not confident dogs. I’ve had my share of scared dogs.

My ten-year-old dog, Gator, who’s been to finals many, many times, doesn’t like people, and doesn’t like cameras and that’s what happens in the finals and he runs and he’s a good boy and life is good, but that’s due to training and due to trust and the fact of the matter is, now that he’s ten, he doesn’t care about anything. But as a young dog, when he was 18 months old, he cared about everything and all things were horrible and children were bad and now, he’ll play tennis if someone wants to hit a tennis ball or whatever, he’ll play with a kid. He doesn’t care, and so it was up to me to say, okay, Gator, you know what? He’s just pretty normal now, and so it’s easy to get stuck there and so it’s just that book…like I said I only do it the first two years. In reality, I probably should do it a lot more and a lot longer, but it just gives you the ability to say, for most people, wow, you know. We’ve really come a long way, and I think that’s really important for people to be able to see that.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I feel like that’s definitely a lesson I’ve been gradually absorbing. My shepherd can sometimes get awful environmentally sensitive and barky and all that other stuff and we’ve done a lot of work on it and she’s come a long way and it took me a while to actually realize how far she’d come and realize I didn’t have to be quite so nervous all the time.

Loretta Mueller: Exactly, yeah.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to kind of round things out by saying three final short questions that I’ve asked everybody so far that’s come on the podcast. So the first one is what dog related accomplishment are you proudest of?

Loretta Mueller: Wow. There’s so many. I have a lot of moments with my dogs and my student’s dogs. It’s really hard to pick sometimes. I would say probably getting a silver medal at the USDAA Cynosports World Championships with Clink. She’s my 11-year-old. She was the dog that at six months I was told would not make a good agility dog because she was so over threshold. She screamed every single moment on course. Every photo I have her mouth is wide open, slobber everywhere, and she was the dog that I would have called the bar knocker. And you know, I have a story about Clink that I always tell people, especially when they’re struggling, and it was during one of my runs at a regional after I was a little frustrated with her because she’d been knocking a lot of bars. I bent down, right before the run, and I kissed her on the forehead, which I didn’t normally do, and I felt her whole body relax, and she went on and ran and got a silver medal, and I realized at that moment that she was not a bar knocker. She was a dog that was really anxious and really, really wanted to please me, and as long as she knew that she was fine. And so overnight at a regional my entire thought process changed about her and I went from thinking she was a tough dog and a dog that didn’t always listen, to a dog that just really kind of had a Dennis the Menace, right? I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it, and do it faster and I learned a lot from her. So, for her to be able to get on the podium at the World Championships USDAA and get a silver medal was just, to me, an amazing thing, because I already knew she was awesome. But then the whole world got to see just how cool she was, and so for her that was huge and for me as a trainer and then also just as my relationship with her for sure.

Melissa Breau: That’s an awesome story. I like that.

Loretta Mueller: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: So, our second to the end, I guess, question. Is what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Loretta Mueller: I’ve gotten to work with so many amazing people in obedience and herding and agility, and I guess, I don’t know what everybody else has said, but to me, one of my most cherished and amazing statements that I’ve heard was from Ray Hunt, who was a horse trainer and he said, you must realize the slightest change and the smallest try, and so meaning, reward the effort. Acknowledge that the animal is trying and if you choose to recognize that smallest try or slightest change, that’s what makes or breaks your training. And if you don’t notice that small change in the dogs, then they do one of two things. They either give up, or they get harder, and they say, you know what? I tried. You didn’t acknowledge it, therefore, meh, I’m good. And for me, if you ever owned a dog like that, they do that. They just go, eh whatever. I’m going to keep doing my thing.

And so for me it was huge, because we get so stuck in a world of criteria, right? Criteria, criteria. Did they meet criteria? When in reality, when you think about it, it doesn’t matter how much training your dog has. It doesn’t matter if their weave poles are spotless, right? It doesn’t matter any of that stuff. If your dog is in the wrong emotional state, that training will never show. So, what they’re doing, is a lot of the dogs, they are trying so hard, but then they don’t get rewarded and then that causes a lot of issues. So, that’s why I always have kind of a graduated reward system that I do with my dogs. So, I’ll use either lower value, higher value treats. To differentiate, I’ll choose the way I play with the dog, and that way these dogs always get rewarded for that effort and I acknowledge those small changes in their behavior and I don’t ask for too much too soon and I think that that keeps the dogs confident, it keeps them feeling like they’re a champion, because that’s very important if you want a dog to be confident and feel like they can conquer the world, you have to tell them that they can conquer the world.

So, if they give you the smallest change, then you reward it and you have a dog that’s going to try even harder the next time, and so for me that totally changed a lot of my training. Because before, an example would be if my dog didn’t do six weave poles and let’s say they were in a novice trial and they were baby dogs. I would be frustrated. And if they continuously did it, before I got this little nugget of information, I would go home and say okay my dog has a weave pole issue and I’m going to go train the weave. But in reality, is it a weave pole issue, or is it the fact that the dog’s not emotionally right? Most likely it’s because the dog’s not emotionally right. So you actually have to deal with that. So what does that involve? It might involve the dog doing three weave poles and you clapping and having a party and leaving. But that’s not to criteria. And so for me, it was just a huge eye opener that the dogs know how to do these skills. It’s just we have to have them in the right emotional state so they can actually perform the behaviors that they’ve been taught. And that’s just to me a cornerstone of what I think of when I’m training. So, it’s just been huge for me to have that statement and understand that and apply it to all of my training.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s one of my favorite questions in the whole podcast because we always get such great responses. Totally different and fantastic, so thank you for that.

Loretta Mueller: Cool. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: And the last one is, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?

Loretta Mueller: Again, I’ve had chances to work with so many people and I’m probably going to go outside of the box here, but for me it’s going to be in the herding world. My mentor has been Kathy Knox, who’s a border collie enthusiast and herding and sheep trials. She’s the first person to really get into my head that there’s always a reason the dog does something, and I think that’s really important to understand, because we have a tendency to say, well they didn’t do this and they didn’t do that. But in reality, we should say, what are they doing? Because they’re obviously doing something that you don’t want them to do, so we have a focus on that and so there’s always a reason they’re doing stuff and for me, before I met Kathy, it was just like, do the thing that I tell you to do, right?

And then it changed from there, and a lot of my students, I always tell them, if you can go to a natural clinician in the herding world, so somebody that just uses the dog and just uses the sheep, so no harnesses or ropes or anything like that, they are the most, in my opinion, talented clicker trainers you will ever witness. Their timing is amazing. They understand exactly how and when to reward and their placement of reward, it’s not based on where they can put it, right? You can’t just tell the sheep go over here to point B. They have to know at that exact moment when the sheep are right and what to do instantly to help the dog, or to reward the dog. And so, I always think in terms of, can you imagine if your reward had a mind of its own. Like trying to train a terrier with a live squirrel would be an analogy that would be quite fitting.

And so, these people they have this amazing ability to teach these dogs using extremely high value reward that is instinctive that is bred into them and they can get these dogs to totally understand what behaviors they want and use that reward and their timing, and they’re just, a good clinician. They’re going to do just what I do when I go to a seminar. They’re going to look at the dog. They’re going to read the dog. They’re going to figure out what the dog needs, and again, you change the dog, you change the person, and it’s just an amazing thing and I think for me that’s where the passion comes into play. It’s just to see where…I always joke that it’s like the dogs are sitting there trying to decipher things because dogs in agility read motion first and then they read verbal second. So verbals are a second language to them, and so they hear human, human, human, human, dog. So a person suddenly does something that they go, oh my gosh, right? So, if you’ve ever watched a movie that’s been in a language you don’t know and all of a sudden they say one word that you do know, it’s like this sudden understanding. Wow. Oh, I get this. This is what you want.

And so for me, that’s the key is, I don’t want to present the dogs with questions as far as handling goes. I want to present them only with answers so they say, okay, I’ve got this. There’s no thinking required, and to me that’s an important part of it and you can’t present the dogs with answers in quite the best way possible if you don’t understand what language the dogs are speaking. So suddenly, you start speaking dog, and these dogs just go, oh my goodness, thank you. And I see it every single weekend I teach. The dogs just changing and then the people change. I have people come in that you can tell they’re ready to quit agility. You can tell that if this dog doesn’t do something that’s going to give them a little bit of hope, they’re going to quit. And people always say, don’t you get frustrated with that with people that are, you know? No, I don’t get frustrated with them and the reason why is they just, they’re at their wits end. They don’t know what else to do. They’re lost and they’ve tried everything. People have told them a big menagerie of what to do and none of it’s worked.

But a lot of times it’s because people tell you to do stuff based on what? Human. And I’m trying to convey to people, learn dog, and it’s so much easier. Everything becomes so much easier. Then these people do something, and usually it’s a minor thing, like don’t bend over, or make eye contact, or look at the right place, or use your hand this way, and you see the people who go into a situation and they’re very worried and frustrated and you can see all of it just melt away. And it’s just such a fascinating thing for me as an instructor to be able to help people on that level, and we’re not talking just backyard enthusiasts or weekend warriors. We’re talking world team people. It’s all the same. It’s these little things usually that cause the issues, and so for me, I’ve learned from herding clinicians and people like Kathy Knox and Ray Hunt that those little moments are the ones that really matter. Those are the moments where trust is built. Those are the moments that really open up that light for the dog to understand exactly what you want from them. And then, from there, all those little moments build up into a fully trained dog and so we have to concentrate on those tiny moments in time and we have to observe and pay attention so that we can get to where we want to go.

Melissa Breau: Gee, that makes me kind of want to go see a herding seminar.

Loretta Mueller: They’re pretty cool. I’m telling you, it’s pretty awesome.

Melissa Breau: All right. Well thank you so much for joining me Loretta and thank you to our audience for tuning in.

We’ll be back in two weeks with a retired obedience judge, Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about dog sports from a judge’s perspective. If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Feb 3, 2017



Shade Whitesel has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid.

Always interested in how dogs learned, she has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring.

What started out as an experiment, competing at the national level in IPO without the use of an e collar, has now turned into a firm commitment to positive training and the desire to teach other trainers and dogs how to be successful in bitesports with as little punishment as possible.

Her focus as a trainer is on clear communication with your dog -- as we discuss in the podcast, she believes this relieves frustration and improves the overall quality of the dog's work. 

Next Episode: 

To be released 2/17/2017, featuring Loretta Mueller.



Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you’re listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we’ll be talking to Shade Whitesel. Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. Always interested in how dogs learned, she has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring.

What started out as an experiment, competing at the national level in IPO without the use of an e collar, has now turned into a firm commitment to positive training and the desire to teach other trainers and dogs how to be successful in bitesports with as little punishment as possible. Hi, Shade. Welcome to the podcast.

Shade Whitesel: Hi, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: So, to start out can you tell me a little bit about the dogs you have now and what you’re working on with them?

Shade Whitesel: Sure. My youngest dog is Ones who is 4 years old and he just recently earned his Schutzhund 2 in December. I’m looking forward to getting his Schutzhund 3 this spring and then going on to compete nationally with him if it looks like we’re a good enough team.

Briefly, Schutzhund is kind of like a triathlon for dogs, based on police work. It requires tracking, where they have to follow a person’s track and indicate articles that the person’s dropped, and then an obedience portion, and then a protection portion. So, Ones attained pretty good scores in his one and his two, and I’m excited about his future career.

I tend to do AKC later in the dog’s career, since it’s easier on their bodies than bitesports. I also have Baileys, Ones’s sister, who was returned to me a year ago and we’ve start setting the foundation for AKC obedience, and she’s coming along.

She’s been teaching me a lot about working an older dog with established habits before I got them. So, kind of what to do with that and how to retrain.

And Reiki my old guy, he’s both Ones’s and Bailey’s dad, he’s 10 years old and I had really hoped to get him in the AKC utility ring. He’s got his CDX, but he’s getting older there so we’ll see. And he has numerous IPO 3’s. We competed nationally for four years, that kind of thing, and he did really well. So, that’s my current dogs.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And they’re all German Shepherds, right?

Shade Whitesel: They are. I have only German Shepherds right now and I’ll add a couple of more breeds eventually, but right now because of Schutzhund, I need to do the bite work and so I’ve chosen the German Shepherd as my breed for that.

Melissa Breau: How did you get into competitive dog sports and training?

Shade Whitesel: Well, I always wanted a dog when I was a kid and I finally got a mixed breed dog. And at that time, your training classes were kind of like AKC obedience and she did really well in her training class, but I couldn’t compete with her because she was a mixed breed.

So, I always wanted to kind of compete and then when I got my first purebred dog I got interested in Schutzhund because it’s a breed test for the Shepherds. And I started really getting into it and getting titles on the dogs.

So, that kind of morphed into people asking me to give training lessons to them and once I put a Schutzhund 1 on a dog then I figured that I could at least start training other people. So, that’s kind of when it morphed into becoming a professional dog trainer.

Melissa Breau: I’ve heard you talk before a little bit about your positive training journey and kind of what got you started. But can you kind of share it for the audience?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. In bite work sports and in Schutzhund training you’re normally dealing with pretty strong dogs physically and mentally, that really like to bite. So, they have lots of reinforcement history for biting, whether that is the ball or the tug, or the bad guy.

And there’s a culture correction in this sport when it comes to getting control. Because these dogs are really strong willed and eventually you have to get obedience around that high value reinforcer, there’s a lot of correction involved.

When I first started doing Schutzhund I definitely was no different than anyone else. I used a lot of correction with my dogs, but I really started breaking down the behaviors much more than anyone I knew at the time. Teaching them at lower arousal, breaking it down in much tinier steps... and then I realized that I could use the helper as a reward.

So, for instance, “Hey, dog heel two steps and then I’ll send you to the helper for a bite,” and then I really started questioning all the correction, because that worked so well. And so, I kind of started out as a trainer using a lot of correction and then figuring out, and gradually getting more positive as I went till what I am right now.

Melissa Breau: And I’ve seen some of your videos. I mean, you really truly manage to get that same precision and that beauty in the performance that I think most people are looking for. And I know from talking to you, you really do, do it completely positive so it’s really impressive.

Shade Whitesel: I think there’s this thing that sometimes...I remember in Schutzhund even when I used correction we always said we use the ball for reward, but we can’t get as precise behaviors when you do that and that was the argument against using a lot of motivation. And I always was like, “Well, I want both. I want the motivation, I want the strongness and then I want the preciseness.”

So, even when I was figuring out how to do it without correction I was like, “I don’t want to sacrifice anything. I still want really high quality behaviors,” and since Reiki took me to Nationals, now I’m not satisfied with anything other than as good as I can get. So, yeah, it’s been a journey. That’s a cliché thing, but it’s definitely been a journey to figure out how to do that.

Melissa: So, how would you describe your training philosophy now?

Shade Whitesel: Right now, I feel like I haven’t said no to any of my dogs for like four years. No. Seriously, I’m really currently most interested in what the dog is feeling about our training session and what their emotional state is.

That’s been my task. Ones has been definitely my teacher in that way, because I really need to know what his emotional state is in bite work. They’ll tell you way before the behavior skills breakdown. Either lost focus, stressing, whatever that looks like. So, that’s currently what I’m really into, trying to figure out how the dog feels and what that tells me of my training plan. And that kind of segues into creating the toy play as a reinforcement.

So many of us use toys with our dogs because we realize how joyful they can get with that and how excited. But we could get much more efficient training done if we created more of a significant reinforcement if we had some rules in there like bring the toy back. When they all of a sudden don’t drop the toy they’re not being belligerent, they’re pretty much telling us our rate of reinforcement wasn’t up as much as it should be in the training plan. Also, when we use toys to teach stuff it gives us ways to work through high arousal situations, like, we’re going to encounter in agility or bite work, or anything else a dog wants.

I mean really a high arousal situation for my dogs is going from the car to the beach. That’s a situation where they have to be on leash and it is none too fun if I can’t get them to walk calmly from point A to point B.

So, the toy play reinforcement gives us ways to work through that. I’d say that Ones is my most positively trained dog to date, since he’s my youngest and I bred him so I’ve known him since minute one. I feel like sometimes I’ve gotten so positive in my teaching that most cases where we use negative punishment I look at that and I’m like, “We could teach that without even that.” So, I feel like I’ve swung really far in a very positive way in my training, which is good.

Melissa Breau: And just in case anybody’s not familiar with the four quadrants. Negative punish is the removal of something the dog doesn’t like, right?

Shade Whitesel: Exactly. And we as positive trainers tend to use that when we don’t know what else to do or when we’re having a dog that’s doing behaviors we don’t like. That’s accepted for us to go there and it can be good. There’s still some fallout sometimes, but it can be a polishing technique.

Melissa Breau: So, I was super lucky. I got to shadow you at FDSA Training Camp last year. I have to say I definitely learned a ton following you around for a couple of days.

Shade Whitesel: And I appreciated your technical skills, because I don’t have any.

Melissa Breau: Well, it was a pleasure to get to follow you around. I feel like I learned so, so much. And some of my favorites were just listening to you talk about play and how you structure some of that. And just some of the takeaways that I got at camp definitely I brought them home and worked with my own dog differently, and it really has had an impact.

Shade Whitesel: Well, good. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: So, it included everything from play to location specific markers... kind of, you ran the gambit, I think, at camp last year and it seems like, or at least seems to me, that there’s a theme that kind of runs through all of your FDSA classes and all of the talks that I’ve heard you give — this idea of communicating as clearly as possible with your dogs. So, do you mind just sharing a little bit why you feel that’s so critical?

Shade Whitesel: No matter how you train, communicating as clearly as possible is so important, because 99.9 percent of our problems are due to the unclarity of our teaching.

And all of our problems with dogs — I mean it’s really our problem it’s not theirs — go away when you look at the clarity, or more accurately the ‘not clarity’ of your teaching.

When your communication is clear arousal levels go down, frustration from your learner dog goes down, and you get more confident and fluent behaviors from them. And this holds true over trialing, over living with them, over everything, just to be as clear as possible and predictable, that goes into predictability too. So, no matter what method you do that is just so important I think — obviously, since I talk about it.

Melissa Breau: So, I think one really good example of that is the work you’ve done with location specific markers. Do you mind just briefly kind of explaining what that means and kind of how you use them?

Shade Whitesel: You know, markers are such a good thing and people are exploring them, and figuring out that it’s really nice to bridge what behavior your dogs doing to get their reward. Tell the dog where to collect their reinforcement, like, technically I want a different marker that means collect it from my hands, whether that’s food or a toy and I want a different marker that means collect it away from there, whether it’s go pick-up the toy on the ground or whether I’m going to throw the toy, and again it’s just that clarity. And I notice with my own dogs if I had a different marker word for, “Strike the tug out of my hand,” versus, “I’m going to throw it,” the dog stopped mugging me, they stopped looking for where the toy was all the time when I was asking for behaviors. Because they knew that I would tell them exactly how to get their reinforcement. And again, it just goes back to the clarity.

So, location specific markers is just the dog knows exactly where to go and they don’t have to be checking where the toy is or the food — is the food in your pocket? Is it over there in the dish? Because you’re going to tell them so they can put 100 percent of their attention to figuring out what behavior you want them to do, because they can trust that you’re going to tell them where the reinforcement is.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of trainers tend to rely really heavily on one or two training methods. So, somebody may lean really heavily on shaping, while somebody else tends to mostly lure behaviors or throw a ball, or whatever. I know that in the current session at FDSA, which will be current when this goes live, you’re going to be teaching a class to help handlers better use all of their tools. Do you mind just talking a little bit about what that class is, and what it’s about?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. I think the more we know and feel comfortable about all the positive ways we can train our dogs the more effective we’re going to be as a teacher. And then, if we know how to lure and we know how to shape, and we know how to capture, we can then be more informed about what technique that we want to use to teach a certain behavior. I think we all could use a little more knowledge on how to get behaviors on cue. How to name it, how to get it on stimulus control, whether that behavior is lured or shaped and the one constant that I know I always struggle with is timing. Click, pause, treat.

And I see many students coming through the academy, who are great at one technique, but they’re kind of unsure of the other techniques and I’d like to help out with that. I’d like to teach that and help people figure out what effective technique they want to use to teach their dog a behavior.

Melissa Breau: Now, does the class have specific behaviors that you try and work on through the course of the class? Are the students going to pick their own behavior and use different techniques to accomplish it? Kind of how do you structure it?

Shade Whitesel: I’ll give a couple of examples of what they can do. They can use behaviors their dog already knows or they can pick new ones. But it’s really more about we can, for instance, ‘go to a bed’ behavior, we can lure that, we can shape that, we can capture that so it’s not so much about having behaviors already for your dog, but about explaining the different ways of getting there. It’s good if your dog has some behaviors already on cue; so they can be experienced dogs, where the handler just wants to learn more about it, or it can be a dog that’s brand new to stuff.

Melissa Breau: So, when you’re working with your own dogs how do you decide which technique to use? I assume you’re probably better with all of them than say me.

Shade Whitesel: Well, it’s a steep learning curve for everything.

Melissa Breau: But how do you decide whether you want to lure something or shape something, or capture something? Like, how do you pick which method to use when you’re teaching something?

Shade Whitesel: Well, I have to say when I first started training I was a big lurer and I came late to shaping. I really had no idea and my evolution in my last, I don’t know, six, seven years has been really getting better at shaping. I’d be the first to say I’m not the greatest at it, but I’m getting better. So, for my own dogs shaping and capturing shaped behaviors, like, the dog offering a completed shaped behavior that’s my preferred technique at this point.

If I can communicate to the dog effectively through shaping and then they can choose the behavior, I’ll always teach that way first. I think it creates stronger and then more confident and faster behaviors out of the dog.

But I can’t always figure out how to communicate via shaping. And so, if I can’t figure that out I’ll lure the behavior. I have no issue luring, but I’ll then always put it on what I call capturing. And so, even if it’s a lured behavior, I’ll eventually want to have the dog offer it and then it becomes a strong shaped behavior, so to speak.

Melissa Breau: So, to round things out. I have three more short questions that I’ve asked everyone so far at the tail end of the interview. So, first what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of?

Shade Whitesel: That’s such a hard one because every single dog I have had there are accomplishments that I’m really proud of with the individual dog. So, I don’t think of it so much as what I’ve done, but more of what me and dog have done. [I Recently competed with Ones]. Schutzhund is tracking, obedience and protection and you get 100 in each. And he got 99 out of 100 in the tracking phase, he got 95 out of 100 in obedience and he got 96 out of 100 in protection. And that’s a pretty good score for a young dog, because in the one and the two in Schutzhund we’re kind of just seeing what does he know, how is my training going and you kind of get your three. And then, if you want to compete, you compete nationally and that’s where you start to get your good scores. So, I’m excited for what the future holds for us.

Melissa Breau: So, what is the best piece of training advice that you have ever heard?

Shade Whitesel: It sounds cliché, but listen to the dog. I’m so into listening to what the dog says at this point. It holds me accountable in my training, it holds me accountable in their reinforcement and I feel like many people say, “Listen to the dog,” but I think we could be doing a lot more of it.

Melissa Breau: And the last one. So, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up too?

Shade Whitesel: That’s always such a hard question as well. I’ve been training dogs for 20 years and there’s too many to name. I’ve learned so many things from each and every trainer, and person that I’ve encountered and trained with. So, I’ve just learned from so many people and I look up to each and every one of them.

Melissa Breau: All right. Well, thanks Shade so much for joining me.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. Thanks so much.

Melissa Breau: And for those listening, thank you for tuning in. As a heads-up to those of you who aren’t currently part of the FDSA community, registration is currently open when this airs for February classes, including Shade’s Crucial Concepts for Competition Class, the one we talked about during the podcast.

And in two weeks we’ll be back with Loretta Mueller to talk about why one size does not fit all when it comes to dog training.

If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 20, 2017



Hannah Branigan has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 12 years. In addition to being a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, she is a faculty member for Karen Pryor Academy and a teacher at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Hannah is a Professional Member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.

She has presented at APDT and Clicker Expo and teaches workshops all over the USA.

Owner of Wonderpups, LLC, Hannah is committed to training both dogs and people with positive reinforcement methods. She has titled her dogs in Conformation, Obedience, IPO (Schutzhund), Agility, and Rally.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 2/3/2017, featuring Shade Whitesel.



Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today, we'll be talking to Hannah Branigan. Hannah has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 12 years. In addition to being a Karen Pryor Academy-Certified Training Partner, she's a faculty member for Karen Pryor Academy and a teacher at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Hannah is a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and a certified professional dog trainer. She has presented at APDT and Clicker Expo, and teachers workshops all over the US.

Owner of Wonderpups LLC, Hannah is committed to training both dogs and people with positive reinforcement methods. She has titled her dogs in conformation, obedience, IPO, agility, and rally.

Welcome, Hannah.

Hannah Branigan: Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau:  Thanks for joining us. To get started, can you just tell us a bit about the dogs you have now and what you're working on with them?

Hannah Branigan: We're actually down to four right now, which is kind of weird. I still keep getting out five bully sticks, and then I wonder why I still have one left in my hand.

Right now, I have…Stormy is my oldest and she's pretty much retired from anything competitive. She acts as sort of my guinea pig if I have a new, crazy idea that I want to try out on something. So, I'll often try it out on her because I figure, hey, she's 14, she's not going to be in a dog show again, and so if I completely ruin her heeling, then that's not a big deal.

So, she will often show up in some of my videos that you'll see in class or on YouTube. So, she still stays busy and still likes to stay active that way.

And then there's Gambit. So he's an AKC Champion. We finished his UDX. He's got an OM--something, I don't even remember which number we're on at this point, finished his CDSP OCH last year. We tinkered a little bit in Nose Work. I think this year we're going to go ahead and finish up his RAE, and he's still showing in CDSP, mostly for fun.

He's older and he's had a knee injury when he was younger that's starting to kind of catch up with him, so that we appreciate the lower-jump heights of the CDSP Obedience, and we're still hitting the occasional AKC trial locally, depending on how he's feeling, but that's sort of where he is right now, and also, again, guinea pig and often video star.

And then the next one down, in order of age, would be Spark. She's also an AKC Champion. In AKC, she's finished her UD and she has I want to say 25 or 30 OCH points, all in Utility. She has some personal space issues with other dogs that have caused me to be a little reticent to put her back in the open stay ring situation. So, I haven't quite decided what I'm going to do with her in that area yet, and we may just kind of rest on our laurels there. She did, this year, just finished her CDSP OCH, where of course there is no group stay. Right now, our main focus with her  -- with me and her together -- is in expanding our agility skills. So, we've been doing a lot of playing in agility and doing some trials in that.

And then the baby of the family is Rugby, who I think everyone on the internet knows, and he is, let's see, he's currently training in obedience and of course also rally and then also cross-trains in agility and flyball.

This past year, he debuted in CDSP Novice and picked up his first High-in-Trial and was basically awesome, so I was really, really happy with how he's working there, and I think we're going to set our eyes on going into the AKC Novice Ring this coming year. I need to look at my schedule and actually see when I have a weekend available to aim for, but he likes to do a little bit of everything. So, we're hopefully going to be competing, eventually, in all four of those sports and maybe a little barn hunt, maybe a little nose work. He's a terrier, so I feel like I feel compelled to at least…

Melissa Breau: ...Honor that side?

Hannah Branigan: Show up. Yeah, exactly, take advantage of that, those instincts, rather than always working against them. I think he would definitely enjoy barn hunt.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on the High-in-Trial. That's very exciting, especially with your baby dog.

Hannah Branigan: Thank you. Yes.

Melissa Breau: Now, I'm lucky because you're here in North Carolina, not too far from me, and I had the pleasure of actually attending one of your workshops…I think it was at Lap it Up, and you tend to describe yourself as a dog-training geek, and I think you started the workshop out by kind of mentioning that. So, I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about what you mean by that.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I usually apologize in advance when people have me in person. There's no editing involved.

You know, honestly, it's more in the more modern sense of the word geek, really, rather than the original definition, but well, all I really mean by that is just that I'm sort of inordinately fascinated with dogs and behavior and learning, possibly to the point of obsession, and I really love, you know, like I love really digging into those sort of like microcosmic details of the behavior and really looking at how things can be broken apart atomically and how they're all interconnected, and that's really sort of what I spend my Friday nights doing, watching videos in slow motion and trying out stuff and just really, yeah, okay, obsession is probably the right word. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: So, I'm guessing you didn’t start out that way. How did you get into dog sports and training and kind of into being interested in all this?

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I'm not even really sure. That was kind of a complete accident. I think, like a lot of trainers, I had a pet dog, who was a rescue, and he turned out to have more challenges than I knew how to handle, and so through the process of learning more about training and learning more about dogs to figure out how to help him, so that he would stop biting me, I got kind of like hooked on this concept of training, and then somehow that turned into, once I had the dog that I could take for walks around the neighborhood and be relatively safe with, then I had to teach him to retrieve beer from a fridge.

That one, in all honesty, was also to impress a boy, who I then married, so it turned out to be worth it.

So, after the beer retrieve, then it was like well, what can I teach him next, and so we tried a little bit of agility, but that was going to be a lot for him, behaviorally, to manage, to handle that environment, and we kind of just ended up finding our way into a UKC Obedience Trial, and I still don't even really remember exactly how that happened, but there we were, and then I thought, well, that was kind of fun, what if I got a registered dog?

And I started from scratch, because of course if you buy a purebred dog or, in my case, were given a purebred dog, it's absolutely a guarantee that they'll be easy to train for sports, right?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That's everybody's favorite line. I think that may be the first time I've ever heard somebody get into dogs to impress a boy, though.

Hannah Branigan: Well, I mean I did get the dog on his own merits, but it was the beer retrieve that was…

Melissa Breau: That was to impress the boy?

Hannah Branigan: Was really, yeah, to show him up. That's how I impress boys, I prove that I'm better than them at whatever the thing is, and it's actually kind of a funny story because, so, my husband, who I was dating at the time, was a computer engineer, and for his project in college, his team was making a beer robot, a robot that would basically retrieve a beer, and I said that I could train my dog to do that faster than he could make a robot do it, and so I did, and I was right.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Hannah Branigan: I know, right? Exactly. So, and that's how it happened.

Melissa Breau: I mean, I think that's a great story to tell. Now, I know that at FDSA, one of like your big series is the skill-building series, the obedience skill-building series, so I wanted to make sure we talk a little bit about that and the role of foundation skills overall. So, do you mind talking for a moment kind of how foundation skills turn into obedience exercises and kind of why they're so important to start out with?

Hannah Branigan: Sure, and I think the skill-building series is kind of a…it's an interesting place to start because it's not structured the way most people who are used to competition obedience training expect.

So, your average obedience club will typically have, they'll have, you know, maybe some kind of introductory class, if you're lucky, or they may start right out with novice, but they'll have a novice class where you learn how to do novice, and then you go to the dog show and you get your novice title, and then you start attending the open class, and you go to the open classes and learn how to teach that, and you get your open title, and then you go to the Utility class and you learn how to do those exercises, and that's really what most people are expecting when they're thinking about sort of a training progression, but that's not how the experienced elite dog trainers actually train their own dogs.

Nobody who is really successful in obedience teaches that way, so, or trains their dogs that way, at any rate.

So, when we designed the skill-building series, the goal was really, or our priority was let's set up a series of training progressions that actually mirror the way we would actually train our own dogs. So, you know, when I get a young dog and I intend to compete with that dog in obedience, I don't start with novice. I actually start with most of Utility, so, you know one of the first things that I teach a puppy is scent discrimination and we get started with some of the beginning steps that are going to become go-outs and directed jumping, and also there are things that will lead into heeling, but I don't wait until I have the novice title.

We're actually, you know, mostly almost teaching it in reverse, right? So, with the skill-building series, we've very much done that. So, like the skill building one class, we're giving you the building blocks for scent discrimination, for directed jumping and go-outs, for the retrieve, for signals, drop on recall, all of the jumping-related exercises, all of the retrieving-related exercises, and getting those first steps trained, and then as we move through the progression of the classes, we build on those and we start to put them together and form sequences that become the exercises.

So, it's a much more logical progression from a behavior standpoint, assuming that you're planning to take that dog into Utility at some point. The way that I think about it is really, like, well it's sort of like Legos, right?

So, if you open up a box of Legos, which I was just playing with a minute ago, so that's where my mind is, there's really only like 5 or 6 different types of Lego blocks, right? So, they come in lots of different colors, but there's really only a couple of different shapes. There's the ones with like the 2 dots, and then there's the ones with the 4 dots that are kind of square, and then there's the 6 and then 8 and 12, and using just those blocks, you can really build almost anything, right, like anything from a Millennium Falcon to a dining room table, and it's just by putting those blocks together in different orders and repeating different ones, and I'm kind of getting lost with this metaphor.

I don't remember where I was going with it, but…yeah, yeah, yeah, okay, so my point is that all of these exercises really only break down into kind of a handful of behavioral units that we can then sort of change the colors of, right, like we can put them together in different ways and we can modify them in kind of cosmetic ways, but there's not that much, really, to teach, and so if we concentrate on building these really strong, ubiquitous units of behavior that go into all of these advanced exercises, well, the exercises don't turn out to be quite that hard, right?

So, the challenge is in getting those really strong little individual units, and then I can build lots of different things out of those, so, a dog that really understands concepts of targeting, that really understands the concept of stimulus control. I can teach a new behavior with a target, fade the target, get a cue on it really, really fast, and it's a strong behavior because they really understand how it works and how we're communicating that way.

So, a large part of what we're doing, when we're talking about those foundation skills, is establishing these kind of, you know, we're looking at kind of two categories, right?

There's the movement skills that I need the dog to know how to use his body in a certain way, so I need him to be able to shift his weight back and forth and I need him to be able to control his body and then use that to form these positions and understand the communication strategies that we're going to use to communicate with each other, and once I have those things, I can build so much out of it, and I get very excited, so, sorry.

Melissa Breau: No. Absolutely.

Hannah Branigan: So, yeah, so that's my goal. I want to take this like really mystical, challenging Utility exercise or any of the obedience exercises — I think heeling is more mystical than scent discrimination, really, but that's just me —and how can I break that down into its atomic units, like what are the things that the dog needs to know that then I put together that makes that heeling pictures, makes that scent discrimination picture?

Those blocks, those little, individual Lego blocks, are really very achievable for anybody, and that makes it…it takes away that mysticism element, right, and it makes it very actionable, very practical training, and then it also then makes it easy to put them together, and then when they break, take them back apart and fix it and put it back together again.

Melissa Breau: I think that leads really naturally into the next question, which is how does having strong foundation skills really help when it comes to proofing and problem solving, when you get to that point where you're starting to prep for competition?

Hannah Branigan: First off, I don't love the word proofing, but I know why you're using it and I'm okay with that. I like words like fluency enhancement, just because it puts us in a little bit more of a positive reinforcement mindset, but I understand what you're saying.

So, yeah, so having those really strong units of behavior, what I love about that is when I think about training an exercise in sort of a modular way, then if something does break, it's really easy for me to separate out the broken piece and figure out what's wrong here, what does he not understand, because the problem with teaching, and it's just as much of a problem while working human-to-human as gosh, well working between species, human-to-dog, is are they actually learning what I'm teaching, and the answer is not always yes.

So, when we start putting together more increasingly-complex behaviors and chains of behaviors and sequences, we'll often find out that no, actually what I was laying down is not what he was picking up, and I need to figure out where that miscommunication happened and what I need to do to clarify that, or is there a legitimately missing skill here, you know, just from a mechanic standpoint, my dog can't do the thing.

When I've gone through the thought process, the mental process, of breaking that complex sequence into individual behavioral components, then that really saves a lot of time when I need to go back and kind of debug, right? So, like what is wrong here, and I can check. I can pull it out and I can say okay, is it Unit A? No, looks great. Unit B? Looks great. Unit C? Absolutely perfect. Unit D? Oh gosh, oh, this isn't right.

So, all right, this is where I need to spend my time. So, it really saves a lot of time because I've done all of that thinking in advance, right, during the original training process. I mean the behaviors are always functioning as behavioral sequences. That's not something that we've invented. It has a lot more to do with our approach for how we're thinking about it and how we go about teaching it that have the advantage.

Melissa Breau: So, to take that and kind of, I don't want to take it from conceptual to practical, but kind of to take that idea just to that next step. Is there a common problem that students run into again and again where maybe you can kind of talk us through having strong foundation skills might help?

Hannah Branigan: Like so the vast majority of problem-solving issues that people bring to me come down to exactly that thing, right? There's a piece, there's one of those components that was not well-understood, that the human part of the team thought they had taught, and the dog was not learning exactly what the human thought that they were teaching, and in fact I've dropped the term problem-solving or troubleshooting from my workshop materials just because, again, it so often puts us into that mind-space, which then makes it really hard to take a proactive approach to the training when we're trying to come up with a training plan, but so a really common example that I'll get all the time, and I get it online, I get it in person, so it's the drop on recall. It's a really common one.

It's, you know, relatively easy to squeak through your novice, and you get into open and there's a really big monster on that drop on recall, and it catches a lot of teams, and a lot of teams struggle with it, and so people come to me that the dog is, you know, classically they're not dropping when I call him or he's dropping very slowly or he's creeping forward or he sits or he just stands and stares at me, and it is a complex exercise.

There's a lot going on there, both bio-mechanically and behaviorally, with that exercise.

We give a cue 'come,' and then we interrupt that behavior with a cue to do something completely different, suddenly stop and lay down, which is weird, and so there's a lot of stuff that can go on there, and it's a fairly complex training process, and when we have that kind of complexity, that opens a window for a lot of emotional problems when the people get frustrated, and the dog gets frustrated and confused, and so there can be a whole lot of baggage there, and what often it comes down to is that, you know, we start peeling away the layers and digging. Now, what's actually broken here is, well, it turned out the dog didn't actually have stimulus control on the down itself, right?

So, the handler thought when I say down, the dog understands to lay down, and of course we're kind of on thin ice for a cognitive science standpoint when we talk about what dogs know and what dogs understand, but we're going to go with it, and what frequently has turned out to be the case, like, we could write a book about it, is the handler has taught the down with some kind of lure or prompt, nothing wrong with that. That's often how I teach it myself, right?

But as part of the training process, if we're using some kind of physical gesture to teach the dog to lay down, and it's assuming that it's not a legal one that we can use in the ring, which in the case of food lure, of course you can't, and under no circumstances, for the drop on recall, can you step towards the dog, put your hand in front of his nose, and point towards the ground, right? That's not a valid cue at any venue that I compete in. 

So most of the time we transfer that either to a hand signal, and the classic hand signal, of course, is the one-hand-straight-over-head like a traffic cop, or verbal, down, plotz, whatever, and so we have to do some kind of fading of the prompt or lure, that extra, illegal physical gesture, which often involves some amount of dropping of the head and shoulders towards the ground and/or into the dog's personal space, which is a really common way to teach a drop is we use a little bit of that spatial pressure to push into the dog's space, which causes the dog to lay down, and then we go through the steps of fading that, and then hopefully, we're now completely still and quiet with our body language. We can stand completely neutral, say "down," and the dog hits the dirt, right?

What often happens is the handler thinks that's the process that's happened, but what's actually occurred is that the handler's continuing to do some amount of gesturing with the upper body, either at the same time as they say down or even just before it, and then they get in the ring, they say come when the dog is 25 feet away, they say down without that little ducking movement of the head and shoulders that has become the functional cue for the dog, and then, of course, there is no down because you did not give the same cue that you've been giving in training, and classic way to solve that is while you call the dog, and while they're coming towards you, you say down. If they don't down right away, you lean forward, step into them, with or without some amount of intimidation, and then perhaps the dog downs, and then you can say good boy and you can repeat it.

Well, we can't do that in the ring, so it still doesn't solve the problem in the ring, and what the problem really is, is that original piece of the behavior, the down, is not actually on the cue that the handler thinks that the dog should be responding to.

Melissa Breau: So, for problem-solving that, you then break that piece out and go back and work on just that piece, right?

Hannah Branigan: Right. So, you know, what we would do to test it, then, is well, let's try just stand there and give your cue for down, and so, like 99 percent of the time, if we have the hander cross their arms, look at the ceiling, and say down, the dog just looks at them hopefully and wags his tail, right? So, "I know you're talking to me but I've never seen that cue before," and if you have them, you know, how would you normally handle this, and they will often drop their shoulders, lean forward, maybe point at the ground and gesture down, there's some upper-body movement, and the dog goes, "Oh, right, right, right!" and lays down, with or without emotional baggage, depending on what the last six months of that dog's life have looked like, right?

My standard protocol is, okay, so now we know this is the situation. Let's just walk through the progression that you used to teach it originally, and so, you know, a lot of the time it's a food lure, which is fine, so we'll lure them down, great, that looks fantastic, fade the lure, now it's a gesture, dog's still dropping really nicely, start fading the gesture, the dog's continuing to drop, and then we'll get to some point in that progression where something's not quite right, like either there's a little bit of a hesitation on the part of the dog or the behavior starts to degrade. Great.

That's where we want to act, right? We don't want to wait until we're at a complete failure. We're looking for that first glimmer that there's a question mark. Is it a down? Did you still want me to lay down? And then we shore that up and then continue through the progression from there.

Melissa Breau: So, that kind of covers what my next question was going to be, which is what would your recommendation be to a student struggling with this issue. Is there anything you'd want to add there? I just want to make sure that, since I sent you the questions in advance, you get a chance to say anything else that you may have wanted to say.

Hannah Branigan: I know. I cheated. They sent me the questions in advance.

I think the main thing is kind of my visualization that I would love to share with people is when you use words like foundation, and I think that's a completely valid word to use because we are building our exercises out of these critical supporting concepts — but we often kind of think of it as like, it's like a one and done, like once I've trained these foundation skills, whatever you consider…you know you put these particular items in the foundation box, and you're done, and you tape it closed, and then you keep going. 

And I think that that doesn't really do us any favors, and I really kind of prefer the learning model that we'll run across a lot in human learning and human sports, which is really more of a spiral staircase, rather than like the house, right, with the bricks, and then you just start building the house on top of the foundation, but it's more like the spiral staircase because we're never done with these behaviors.

Behaviors, always, are dynamic. They're always changing, and they're always responding to their environment and processes of reinforcement and punishment and everything else, and so when I'm thinking about it in the way that I approach training and I think the way that a lot of people do, whether it's conscious or not, is I'm always moving up, I'm always moving forward, and we're always progressing, but we're always also circling past these same concepts and refining them and strengthening them and building on them, and sometimes yes, picking up gaps and filling them in as we discover them, because dogs are really good at letting us know when we've left a gap in our training, and so that's, you know, I think that spiral staircase is a really good visualization for me because I do spend a lot of time, so, you know, working on maybe positions, like the mechanics or the positions.

Well, all of my dogs have sit down and stand on cue, I think, and then it's not a done thing. So, we periodically, you know, we're circling back around, and now what does my sit down and stand look like? Oh, how could I sharpen that up? What if I improve the latency on this one a little bit, or those mechanics are slipping, I need to make sure that my dog is really planting his rear end before he pushes into that drop, before we get into the drop on recall, and there's always little things that we can keep improving and refining and strengthening as we continue to build on these behaviors and make bigger, more complex exercises out of them.

Melissa Breau: Awesome, and I think that that spiral staircase, I actually haven't heard it used quite that way before and I think that's really interesting and really helpful, even for me to just kind of think through training in that way.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I invented it myself. I just thought of it. You can call it the Branigan Spiral Staircase Method.

Melissa Breau: Deal. Done. I'll name the whole episode that.

Hannah Branigan: Perfect.

Melissa Breau: So, to round things out, I just have three more short questions for you. So, to start, what's the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of?

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, so now we're into the beauty pageant section of the interview. Okay. So, it's not dog-related, but it's kind of fresh in my mind since we've been out of school and home for a whole week…I mean it's dog related, but not the dogs themselves.

I would say that right now, at this stage, life stage that I find myself in, I am most proud of how my daughter Harper has learned to invite the dogs for petting and attention, rather than reaching out for them or grabbing them.

That was something that we've worked really, really hard on for, well, four years now, and it's so awesome to watch it starting to solidify into this interaction that they have, and it started out…it's something we still coach her in, and it was very, very coached. We used a lot of tag teach to initiate it, because as a toddler, she's very grabby because she's a small primate infant person, and so I was like okay, we have to invite dogs to be petted. We don't reach out for the dog.

She learned to pat her knee, pat-pat, clap her hands, clap-clap, and then she opens up her hands, palms up, and invites the dogs to come and greet her, and what is so cool is she pats pat and they're like okay, and when she opens her hands, they clearly make a choice of yes, and they come push their neck and chest into her hands and she can start petting them, or they'll just do a beautiful, smooth head-turn away, very canine, thank you, not right now, and we're still working on handling disappointment.

That's, of course, that's something I, as an adult, continue to struggle with, but watching them communicate that smoothly when I'm cooking dinner and she's sitting there, and she sees Gambit and she really wants to pet him because, of course, who wouldn't? He's gorgeous. And she pat-pat, clap-clap, opens her hands, and he says oh, yes, please, finally someone to rub me, and he just melts into her hands, and she pets him, and it's so smooth and just seamless and natural, and that's another thing that, you know, when I see it, even though it's just one of those little daily miracles that kind of makes me like, oh, I get chills.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. You share lots of parenting and dog stories online, on Facebook and in other forums, so it's kind of neat.

Hannah Branigan: It's all the same thing, completely the same.

Melissa Breau: So, what is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Hannah Branigan: Oh, that one's easy. So, Leslie Nelson: "When in doubt, throw food."

And I fall back on that all the time. Whenever there's a question, something weird comes up in a training session or even at home, I don't know what to do right now, that was a very weird behavior and I have no idea how I should handle it, throw a handful of food on the ground, and while they're gobbling the food, I can think about my solution, and it turns out that there's a whole lot of behavior problems out there in the world that we can solve in very practical ways by throwing a handful of food at them.

Melissa Breau: Both to give ourselves five minutes to think and to give them something else to do?

Hannah Branigan: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: All right. So, the last one, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?

Hannah Branigan: Oh, okay. So, well, of course, you know I really admire Denise and Deb and Shade and all the other folks in the FDSA community. Outside of that, Ken Ramirez is really somebody that I admire a lot, well, basically because he's perfect in every way. So, I'm definitely a member of the Ken fan club. We're going to get t-shirts, maybe to share.

Melissa Breau: I hope he listens to this, just so he can hear you call him perfect in every way.

Hannah Branigan: He knows. I've told him.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Well, thank you so much for joining us, Hannah, and thank you everybody else for tuning in. We'll be back in two weeks with Shade Whitesel to talk about location-specific markers and being a top IPO competitor, using R+ philosophies. If you haven't already, please subscribe on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice, and our next episode will automatically be downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 6, 2017



Sarah Stremming is a dog trainer, a dog agility and obedience competitor, and a dog behavior consultant. Her specialty is working with behavior problems in competition dogs.

During her interview we talk about her approach to training -- including allowing dogs their dog-ness -- and the 4 things she looks at before making behavior recommendations: exercise, enrichment, diet and communication.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 1/20/2017, featuring Hannah Branigan.



Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you’re listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we’ll be talking to Sarah Stremming. Sarah’s voice may be familiar to some of you since she owns the excellent Cog-Dog Radio. Sarah is owner and operator of the Cognitive Canine. She has been working with dogs in the realms of performance training and behavior solutions for over a decade.

Her special area of interest has long been helping dog owners address behavioral concerns in their competition dogs. Reactivity, anxiety, aggression, and problems with arousal are all major concerns for many competitors, and Sarah works to help her clients overcome these issues and succeed in their chosen arena. Hi, Sarah, welcome to the podcast.

Sarah Stremming: Hi, Melissa, and thanks for having me.

Melissa: Absolutely. Sarah, to start out, can you just tell us a little bit about the dogs you have now and what you’re working on with them?

Sarah: Sure. I have Idgie, who is an 8-year-old border collie, and she’s competing in agility and her agility training is really just kind of in maintenance phase, but I’m getting her ready to go into the open level of obedience next year; and I have Felix who is also a border collie and he’s a year and a half, so he’s learning everything. He’s learning agility, obedience, and mostly how to just kind of keep his head on his shoulders in the agility environment is our number one project… and those are my two dogs.

Melissa: Excellent. How did you originally get into dog sports?

Sarah: I saw agility on TV when I was probably nine or ten and immediately knew that that was for me, and it was like five years later that I actually got to do agility, but as soon as I saw it I wanted to do it and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Melissa: That’s awesome. So did you start out R+ then, since you started in agility or kind of what got you started on that positive training journey?

Sarah: I definitely did not start with all positive reinforcement. I am definitely what I would call a crossover trainer. I started in not just agility but competitive obedience. Agility really got me started, but the kind of local dog training school required an obedience class before you started agility training, and I actually really liked the obedience side as well, so I competed in obedience and agility with my first dog Kelso.

He had some really severe behavioral problems, primarily aggression towards other dogs, and so I learned to do all kinds of nasty things from people who…everybody I worked with was really trying to help me, and so I did all kinds of corrections as far as obedience is concerned and as well as his aggression was concerned.

Because he had these behavior problems I reached outside of the realm of performance training into the animal training world and found out that all of these corrections that I had been taught from really the competitive obedience sector were not only not necessary but probably causing some of my problems. So when I started to realize that and started to change the way that I did things, he started to get better and that was really all that I needed to see.

Melissa: I know that for most trainers it’s definitely an evolving journey, so how would you describe where you are now in terms of what your training philosophy is and kind of how you approach training?

Sarah: My training approach I actually have a philosophy that I really sat down and figured out and wrote out a while ago so that I could reference it and come back to it in my work with my own dogs as well as with other people and so it’s kind of four different mantras, and the first one is ‘Do not deny dogs their dogness.’ So meaning dogs are dogs, they’re going to act like dogs.

Dogs like to bark and pee on stuff and dig holes and do things like that, and we really have no right to deny them those things because we chose to bring dogs into our lives, but that segues into the next mantra, which is to teach dogs what we need from them in a kind way, so we need them to not do those things all the time and it’s important for us to teach them what they need to know to live in our world in a way that is kind. Then the next one is ‘Provide dogs what they need,’ which is a big deal to me to just make sure that their needs are being met.

I find that a lot of dogs living with people don’t have all of their basic dog needs met, and then the last one is just ‘Above all honor the dog,’ which means always honor their experience of what you are doing, that this isn’t just about you. They’re here. They have autonomy. They have ownership over their own lives and we really have no right to not take their opinions and experiences into account. 

Melissa: I know you kind of mentioned Kelso at the beginning, and your specialty now, at least as far as I understand it, is over-arousal in competition dogs. Does that kind of tie back to that or can you tell me kind of how you got started in that and kind of just a little bit about your work now?

Sarah: That being my special interest area was really shaped by the competitors and the current climate of agility. Kelso actually wouldn’t be described by anybody who knew him as over-aroused. They would describe him more as one of those shut-down type of dogs, so he was overwhelmed by the environment, but it translated into a dog that was slow and didn’t do agility very fast versus most of the dogs that I work with now are kind of the opposite.

They are also overwhelmed by the environment, but it comes out in big displays, big behaviors of biting the handler, excessive barking, not being able to stay on the start line, that kind of thing. I do work with the dogs that shut down too. Most of the dogs that I work with are over-aroused, and I think that that has been largely cultivated by just the culture in agility right now, which is we’re breeding dogs with hair-trigger arousal on purpose and we are fostering really, really high levels of arousal in training and the reason is everybody wants faster.

Everybody wants speed, and they really think that this is how they’re going to get there. When you put all of this arousal into the picture and you’re not actually sure how to deal with it once you’ve got it, you run into problems and it’s everywhere. Every single time I go to an agility trial, which is frequently, I see dogs that are really struggling with the environment and really just if they were people would be screaming and banging their fists against the wall and instead they’re a dog on a leash being asked to stand next to a handler quietly. So we see a lot of problems come out because that arousal has got to come out somewhere.

Melissa: So I’m actually going to shift gears slightly and then come back to this topic. Before starting this podcast, I asked around for other good dog training podcasts. Cog-Dog came very highly recommended, which is how I first learned a little about you and a little about what you’re doing. For anyone listening who may not be familiar with it, can you just briefly tell us a little bit what Cog-Dog Radio is and kind of how you have it set up?

Sarah: Yeah. So I really started getting out there through my blog, which is at the and I wanted to cover specific cases that I have worked on. I thought that was a good idea for material basically, and I tried to write them as blogs and they really weren’t working out, and a friend of mine suggested that I try a podcast and so that’s how Cog-Dog Radio was born and so it’s my podcast. You can find it on SoundCloud or iTunes just by searching for Cog-Dog Radio. You can also get it through my website.

The format is that I do a series of three episodes at a time, and the three episodes cover a case that I worked on. So I start out talking about kind of the basics of the case and then in the next episode I talk about specific behavior modification that happened in the case and then the third episode, which is turning out to be everybody’s favorite episode is that I interview the owner of the dogs that we’re talking about.

Melissa: Now I know, kind of to tie this back to the previous question, which is why I wanted to make sure we talked about this first. In one of your early podcasts, you talked about like the four things that you consider before creating a program or a behavior modification process for a dog. Exercise, enrichment, diet, and communication. Did I get all of them that time?

Sarah: You got them. So this is what I call the four steps to behavioral wellness and this is something that I came up with a long time ago when I was working primarily actually with the general public with their dogs so general public versus the dog sport public, which is more who I work with now, and it’s basically just these four areas.

If you come back to my philosophy in dog training, one of them was to provide dogs what they need, and since we examined these four areas, we find out where we maybe aren’t giving them what they need and that way we can adjust it. So exercise is the first one that you mentioned and I really advocate a specific type of exercise for dogs. I find that them being allowed to just mill around and sniff around and be a dog in an open space type area is best so off-leash or on a long line and a harness if off-leash is not safe where you are.

I find it really best for them as far as reducing overall anxiety and stress in their life versus the exercise that most dogs get, if they get any, it’s fetching a ball or a Frisbee. Going to agility class, a lot of people tell me that they see that as a form of exercise for their dogs, and I would totally disagree, or just walking on a short leash around the neighborhood. A lot of times that even does the opposite of what we would like it to do. It creates more stress for the dog so exercise is a big one for me. I find that most dogs aren’t getting enough and I would include my own dogs in that statement. I mean, it is very difficult to get them what I would call enough, right?

And so the next one is enrichment, which is basically just that we’ve got a hunter/scavenger species on our hands here, and we put kibble in a bowl and hand it to them twice a day and we could be using those calories in a way smarter way. We could be having them work to find their food essentially, so giving them projects that they can do that help them meet their own needs somehow as opposed to a lot of people recommend giving all the food through training and there’ve definitely been situations where I’ve recommended that, but usually I think if they also are allowed to search and find food as their way of getting food as well as not all dogs are super-hot on food and we’ll use toys and hide toys and have them find it.

Just any kind of mental enrichment that we can give them that helps them meet a need of theirs on their own without human interaction tends to be really helpful and the people that I work with learn a lot about their dogs through these things. If you hide food and give your dog a puzzle to figure out, the way that they figure out how to get to the food or if they figure it out at all tells us a lot about them.

So if you, for instance, wrap a bully stick up in a paper bag and then stick the paper bag in a box and then put the box underneath a blanket, there are going to be dogs that are not even going to try to figure it out. There are going to be dogs that are going to plough through it really, really quickly and really frantically.

There are going to be dogs that think really hard but wind up getting there and basically learn a lot about what kind of problem solver your dog is and what kind of thinker they are just by giving them problems to solve. And then over time if you don’t give them things that are too hard, but you give them things that are kind of just hard enough, they start to be this dog that says I can solve problems and their confidence in training gets better and their confidence in other situations, maybe competition, gets better because, and this is purely anecdotal, I don’t think there’s any research on this, but what I witnessed is that over time they start to have more self-confidence because we’ve provided them with puzzles to solve.

Then diet is something that I am not specifically trained in and technically cannot advise specifically on. I get a lot of emails asking for specific diet recommendations and formulas and I always tell people that I can’t give them that. What I can tell you is that what I observe anecdotally is that a fresh food diet is best when we’re talking about behavior and I think all of us know that already when we think about ourselves, whether it’s a better idea to have a meal made of fresh whole food or a pre-processed powder, I think we all know which is better for us.

We just forget what’s better for dogs because there are so many processed options for dogs that are supposedly healthy and good for them, and I’ve just seen too many of my cases where the behavior change that we really, really needed happened after the diet change. I have to mention it, and I really do think that even if you switched from one processed food to maybe a better one that works better for your dogs, diet should always be considered, especially when anxiety or over-arousal are involved.

Then the final one, communication, I just want people to better tell their dogs when they’re right and to have a better system for telling their dogs when they’re “wrong.” But basically we need to be telling them when they’re right more often. And I really like Kathy Sdao has a system for this that she calls SMART x50, and SMART stands for See, Mark, and Reward Training and then x50 is just that your goal is to do it 50 times a day. And all that means is you see the dog doing something right, you tell them, hey, that was right, I liked that and then you give them a piece of food or a game or something.

So that’s how you can reinforce behavior throughout the day that’s working for you and then I have people do something so instead of corrections I want them to instruct, so we are going to replace correction with instruction and then always follow up that instruction with reinforcement. So if my dog is let’s say barking at the front window and I ask her to go lie on the mat instead and then I give her a cookie for doing that, that’s a more effective way for me to alter her behavior than to spray her with water or throw something at her or yell at her for barking. So those are my four areas.     

Melissa: And I’m assuming those didn’t sort of immediately pop into your brain all together fully formed. How did you come to that?

Sarah: That’s a good question, and to be honest I came to them through my own kind of journey with mental health. So I have an anxiety disorder and that really, even though it’s not fun for me, it helps me to really help dogs better. There’s some really great research in the human world as far as anxiety disorders go and other mood disorders go as far as what we can do in our daily lives to help lessen our needs for medications.

One of them is exercise. You’re not going to find a single resource on any mood disorder, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or anything else that won’t tell you exercise will help. For me personally I know that getting out and walking up a dirt path with a forest and trees and animals and everything is better for my brain than getting on a treadmill, and I see the treadmill as like us walking our dog around on concrete in the neighborhood. So that’s the exercise piece.

The enrichment piece is just you have to feel that’s being satisfied in your daily life so that’s liking your job, finding your job interesting, not being bored, that’s the enrichment piece for people. Being involved in hobbies so not just sitting and watching a television but reading a book or writing or something like that. These adult coloring books. There’s a craze right now, adult coloring books and it’s because of enrichment. It’s because we all need a little bit more of it in our lives.

We need to unplug and do something with our brains and our hands and that’s exactly what we’re doing with dogs when we give them a puzzle to figure out. And then diet’s a huge component. It’s a huge component for me, and I know it’s a huge component for everybody that I’ve talked to that has any kind of mental health concern but if they really examine what they’re eating and really adjust what they’re eating towards a whole food-type of diet, they get better and then communication for me that is mostly about dogs.

That stems from my belief that I’ve kind of formulated over all this time working with dogs, that there is nothing that a dog finds more aversive than confusion and there is nothing that they will work harder to avoid than confusion, meaning that’s why you have so many trainers who are still using x, y, z aversive tool, prong collar, choke collar, or shock collar, whatever, who say but look at my dog and look how happy they are working, and a lot of those people are right.

The dogs do it great. The dogs look fine, and the reason is they’re skilled using that tool and the dog is not confused. The dog fully understands how to avoid the correction and they’re not confused. To be clear, I’m not advocating for that, but I believe that their priority one is to better understand what’s going on in their own lives and that we throw them into kind of an alien existence and expect them to just figure it out and I do believe that it causes a lot of stress for them so that’s where that one comes from.   

Melissa: Well, I mean that’s true with people too. If you have a boss and you just don’t understand what he or she wants from you and you just don’t understand how to succeed at your job, you get frustrated and upset and unhappy.

Sarah: Absolutely. Any kind of human-to-human relationship that does not have communication will not work for very long.

Melissa: Right. Right. So to round things out, I have three more short questions that I’m trying to ask kind of towards the end of each of the interviews. So the first one, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Sarah: I have to think pretty hard about this one because I feel like every time my dogs do have some minor breakthrough, I’m really proud of it, but this last year at AKC Nationals Idgie and I made the Challengers round and if you’re familiar with AKC Nationals, the Challengers round is not easy to get into.

Just making the Challengers round that’s not what I consider the proudest moment for me, but the fact that Idgie who’s a dog that used to really struggle with arousal issues in agility was able to not only have a clean round and run really nicely but really fully be the dog that I have been training in the most intense pressure-cooker type of arena that she’s ever been in.

Just standing in the dirt in the Challengers round in the main arena with the crowd cheering and a lot of really intense competitors around us and to be able to just stand there ringside with her and know that she was okay and know that I was okay and we could both walk into that ring and we could both do what we know how to do, I would say that’s my proudest moment in dogs so far.

Melissa: I mean that’s a pretty good proudest moment. My next question is what is the best piece of training advice that you have ever heard?

Sarah: I’m not even sure if this is advice but just kind of, I guess it is advice, and it’s not from a specific person but it’s kind of a collective idea that is a common thread amongst some of my biggest influences in training, which is that if something that you’re doing is species-specific, meaning it would only work for the species in front of you, there’s probably a smarter way to do it.

Melissa: I like that. So my final question to wrap everything up is who else is someone in the dog world that you look up to?

Sarah: I look up to so many people in the dog world and a lot of people really in the training world, but a person who’s a competitor in dog agility who I really look up to is my friend Tori Self, and she lives in Wales now, but she has been on the FCI Agility World Team multiple times with a lot of success and she’s a person that to me is able to achieve the highest level types of achievement in my favorite sport and still maintain this really deep, loving connection for her dog that she would do anything for.

For her it’s always been about the dog first and the sport second and yet she’s still able to achieve these really high-level things, and for me that’s the ultimate because I know a lot of competitors really it is about the sport first and the dog second whether they would admit that in words or not, that’s what I observe in their behavior, and that’s never been the case with Tori and I really respect her for that.

Melissa: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you taking some time out to chat through this with me. Hopefully it was fun for you. It was definitely fun for me.

Sarah: Definitely. Thanks, Melissa.

Melissa: Thanks for tuning in. We’ll be back in two weeks with Hannah Branigan to talk about the relationship of foundation skills and problem solving. If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will automatically download to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!