Heather Lawson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a CGN Evaluator and a Free-style judge. She has been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years after deciding that the corporate world just wasn't cutting it anymore.
She is the owner of dogWISE Training & Behaviour Center Inc., where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally in addition to providing behaviour consults and private lessons.
At FDSA, she teaches several classes focused on life skills, including the upcoming Loose Leash Walkers Anonymous and Hounds About Town; she’ll also be teaching a new class on “Match to Sample.”
To be released 9/1/2017, featuring Nancy Tucker talking about the roles of emotions in training, and how to modify behaviors when they are tied to strong emotions in our dogs.
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 Heather Lawson.
Heather is a certified professional dog trainer, and Karen Pryor Academy certified training partner, a CGN evaluator and a free style judge. She’s been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years after deciding that the corporate world just wasn’t cutting it anymore. She’s the owner of dogWISE Training & Behavior Center where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally in addition to providing behavior consults and private lessons. At FCSA she teaches several classes focused on life skills, including the upcoming Loose Leash Walkers Anonymous and Hounds About Town. She’ll also be teaching a new class on Match to Sample.
Hi, Heather, welcome to the podcast.
Heather Lawson: Hi, Melissa, glad to be here.
Melissa Breau: Looking forward to chatting. SO to start us out, I know we talked about this a little bit before turning on the recording, but do you want to just tell me a little bit about your own dogs, who they are and what you’re working on with them?
Heather Lawson: Okay. Well, my breed of choice, who happens to be currently rumbling in their crate at the moment, is German Shepard. I have two, one a male by the name of Tag, who is 11 years old and he’s retired from active working. He’s just a family companion and does everything else that Piper does but on a lower schedule, and then I have Piper who is a 2-year-old female, and she’s my current work in progress, and I hope to be taking her into the competitive obedience ring, rally, and anything else that I can wrap my head around with her.
Melissa Breau: How did you get your start in the dog sports world?
Heather Lawson: Well, as you mentioned in my bio I was in the corporate world, in human resources, retail management, and after about three downsizings consecutively in a row, it was just that time of the ‘90s and so forth, I just decided that I didn’t want to go back to work and I’d rather stay home and do things with my dogs, and believe it or not I ended up working at a school, an obedience school back east in Ontario and got competing with my own dogs, and then from there just went all over the place wanting to develop my education and just become a better trainer, and I’ve had so much fun doing this that I’ve never looked back on the corporate world since. It’s just been so enjoyable because I get to meet so many new dogs and so many lovely people.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your training philosophy. How do you approach training?
Heather Lawson: For me personally I like to approach it as a teamwork situation. I want to look at the dog that’s in front of me and work with what they are giving me, and work at the level that they’re capable of at that particular moment I guess you could say. My philosophy, you get the old, ‘Well, I want to do positive,’ and everything like that. It just never occurs to me to do anything but positive and I want to make sure that I’m consistent, that I’m fair. I give my animals the better side of me at all times. Above all else my animals are family companions so not only do I have to worry about what I’m doing in training, but I have to worry about what we’re doing when we’re not training, and so everything has to mesh and come together, and it’s just basically a family unit.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk a little bit about the classes that you’re going to be offering coming up in October, so let’s start with the Loose Leash Walkers Anonymous class, and I am sure at least once, if not more than that, I will somehow manage to jumble those words because Loose Leash Walkers Anonymous is almost a tongue twister, but why are life skills like that, like leash walking, such an important skill for sports dogs and why is it such an incredibly difficult thing to teach?
Heather Lawson: Well, like most people who do dog sports we travel, so we go to competitions, we do things with our dogs, we have to stay in hotels, we have to be out in the public, and having a dog with good manners, including loose leash walking skills I think is very important because your dog is only working and doing those activities for a very short period of time. The rest of it, if they’re like most people…my dogs, as I said, are part of my family so when I’m not doing those skills or competitions, or anything like that I’m taking my dogs out into the community.
I don’t want to be dragged all over the place. I want to be able to take them on the sea bus that goes from one side of the inlet to the other, I want to be able to take them up and down elevators or into stores and do all of those types of things with them without people turning around and saying, ‘Look at that. The dogs out of control,’ and I think it’s important too even when you’re competing that you have your dogs under control, that they’re not going in every different direction, they’re not dragging you to and from whatever it is that you’re doing, whether it’s conformation, or obedience, or even agility, or nose work. I mean, sure the dogs get excited but at the same time, it’s still nice to have a little bit of management and manners in place, and that’s my own personal view, and I think it’s important.
The other side of it, why is it so hard to teach, simply because we aren’t consistent enough, I think, and we don’t think of it as a priority, and by priority I mean I picked up on something a long, long time ago from Sue Ailsby, who’s also teaching at Fenzi, and that was when the leash goes on that is your only priority of teaching loose leash walking, so getting from A to B is your only priority on a loose leash, and that has never, ever steered me wrong. If we put the leash on at one point and then we go and we let the dog pull us to their favorite friend, or we let them pull us to go and sniff to something, or pull us to go to the dog park. If we’re inconsistent in our requirements then we never get that loose leash walking as part of regular manners skill, and you know what…and it’s true.
If I don’t have the time to work on that, if I haven’t given myself enough time, if my dogs are going to be excited, and the dogs get excited, and with a little bit of a reset okay. Yeah, okay mom, we remember. If I don’t have that time I just will take them and use a muzzle magnet, which is basically a fistful of food, let them nibble on it as I go from point a to b so that I don’t get that loose leash pulling, but I get the loose leash, so I try to be consistent with everything that I’m doing, and I think that’s why the dogs don’t get as far ahead in their loose leash walking because we’re also very concerned about teaching them all of these other behaviors that one of the most important things is the loose leash walking because if they don’t have that loose leash walking they don’t get out into the community, they don’t get out to socialize, they’re not much a pleasure to be around because they’re hard on your shoulder, they’re hard on your elbow, hard on your back and so they end up only doing certain things and they don’t have a well-rounded life, and especially with pet dogs they end up getting stuck in the backyard so they don’t get the exercise.
They don’t get the exercise then they have problem behaviors, they have the problem behaviors then they get surrendered, so loose leash walking, whether it’s for your competitive dogs or for your family companions is one of the most important skills, at least in my view anyways.
Melissa Breau: And I think you hit on that, like that consistency point. It’s so common to see somebody go into a class, trach loose leash walking, and then the moment they leave the room suddenly they forget everything that they have learned.
Heather Lawson: Oh yeah. Yeah, and if I catch my students, my in person students coming up the walkway and the dog is dragging them up they know, they look at me and they immediately turn right around and go down to the back, and they do their leash walking all the way up, so now it’s actually a running joke in class, is that oh, she caught us. Uh-oh we’ve got to go back, and now they’ve almost…almost every single person who’s been there by about week three they all know that they’ve got to practice their skills coming and going because that’s the whole point of it, right. You’ve got to practice it 24/7 in order for it to stick, and if you don’t then it’s not going to happen and you’re giving the dog an inconsistent message, and dogs don’t work in grey they work a little bit better in black and white.
Melissa Breau: And I think that kind of leads really well into the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is this idea of the dogs being able to go out and about with you and do things. So I know you also teach the Hounds About Town class, which I’m assuming kind of touches on that a little bit. What are the actual skills that you teach in that class, and how do you approach it?
Heather Lawson: Okay. With the Hound About Town, again, we teach loose leash walking, not as in depth as in the Loose Leash Walking Walkers Anonymous, but we teach some loose leash walking. We teach leave it, okay. We don’t need hoovers because there’s so much garbage, and things like that, and bad things that the dogs could pick up, as well as we don’t need them going after that little child in the stroller that’s coming towards them with that ice cream cone that’s right at their level, so a good leave it comes in handy.
Many of the dogs live in condominiums now, so we teach elevator etiquette, which also transfers nicely into riding on transit for those people who are lucky enough to travel on transit. We work on chill and settle on the mat, a little bit of recalls, grooming and touch for the veterinary care, door manners, and some of the other things that we do is we consider etiquette for when you are traveling and staying in hotels, or staying in other locations, and how to manage your dog in busy situations, just the basics, what would you do in your everyday life when you’re out and how to make it easier to take your dog with you more places.
The other thing that we do is we also encourage people to take their dogs more places, don’t just leave them at home all the time, of course weather permitting, because it’s good social interaction for our dogs. They don’t necessarily have to be always just going to the dog park. They need to be with you and be out and about, and part of the community, and the better behaved animals we have in the community the more access we’re going to have for them, and that’s the key thing. People say that there isn’t that much access for animals, but that’s because there’s been perhaps maybe some inconvenient encounters that haven’t gone so well because the dogs haven’t been well-trained. Also too, all of the things that we cover in here can be applied to the…I think in your end of the woods it says CGC, which is the Canine Good Citizen. In our area it’s Canine Good Neighbor and then you also have…then there are other levels. The urban K9 title as well.
If you were to go through the Hound About Town you would be able to go and take your test and get your certificate, so it’s just another way to promote responsible dog ownership, right. Getting them out, getting them trained, and getting them part of the family.
Melissa Breau: Now, you didn’t touch on two of the things that stood out to me when I was looking at the syllabus, which were the Do Nothing training, and Coffee Anyone, so what are those and obviously how do you address them in class?
Heather Lawson: Yeah. I always get kind of weird sideways looks when I talk about do nothing training, because it’s kind of like…people say, ‘What do you mean do nothing training,’ and I say well, how often do you just work on having your dog do nothing, and everybody looks at me, well, you don’t work on having the dog do nothing, and I say oh yeah, you do. That’s what we call settle on the mat, chill, learn how to not bug me every time I sit down at the computer to do some work, not bark at me every time I stop to chat with the neighbor, stop pulling me in all different ways, so it’s kind of like just do nothing, because if you think about it the first maybe six months of your dog’s life it’s all about the dog and the puppy.
Then when they get to look a little bit more adult all of a sudden they’re no longer the center of attention, but because they’ve been the center of attention for that first eight weeks to six months, and there’s been all this excitement whenever they’re out and people stop, and you chat or you do anything it’s very hard for the dog all of a sudden now to have this cut off and just not be acknowledged, and this is where you then get the demand barking, or the jumping on the owner, or the jumping on other people to get that attention, whereas if you teach that right in the very beginning, okay, and teach your puppies how to settle, whether it be in an x pen, or in a crate, or even on a mat beside you while you’re watching your favorite TV show. If you teach them to settle, and how to turn it off then you’re going to not have that much of a problem going forward as they get older.
The other thing too is that by teaching the dogs all of these different things that we want to teach them that’s great, and that’s fabulous, and we should be doing that, but most dogs aren’t active 100 percent of the time, they’re active maybe 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent they’re chilling out, they’re sleeping, they’re…while their owners are away working if they’re not luck enough to be taken out for a daily hike then they’ve got to learn how to turn it off, and if we can teach them that in the early stages you don’t end up with severe behavior problems going forward and I’ve done that with all of my puppies, and my favorite place to train the do nothing training is actually in the bathroom.
What I do with that is my puppies, they get out first thing in the morning, they go their potty, they come back in, we get a chewy or a bully stick, or a Kong filled with food, and puppy goes into the bathroom with me and there’s a mat, they get to lay down on the mat and that’s when I get to take my shower, and all of my dogs, even to this day, even my 11-year-old, if I’m showering and the door’s open they come in and they go right to their mat and they go to sleep, and they wait for me, and that’s that do nothing training right, and that actually even follows into loose leash walking. If you take that do nothing training how often are you out in your loose leash walking and you stop and chat to the neighbor or you stop and you are window shopping or anything else that you when you’re out and about. If your dog won’t even connect with you at the end of the line then just…they won’t even pay attention to you while you’re standing there, or they create a fuss then the chances of you getting successful loose leash walking going forward is going to be fairly slim, okay.
The other thing that you mentioned was the coffee shop training, and that is nowadays people go and they meet at the coffee shop or they go for lunch and more and more people are able to take their dogs to lunch, providing they sit out on a patio, and on the occasion where the dog is allowed to stay close to you we teach the dogs to either go under the table and chill or go and lay beside the chair and chill, and teach them how to lay there, switch off, watch the world go by. Even if the waiter comes up you just chill out and just relax and that allows the dog, again because they’ve got good manners, to be welcomed even more places.
Melissa Breau: Right. It makes it so that you feel comfortable taking them with you to lunch or out.
Heather Lawson: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. There’s lots of places that dogs can go providing, and they’re welcome, providing they do have those good manners, and if we can keep those good manners going then regardless of whether or not your dog sports or not it just opens up the avenues for so much more of us to do…more things to do with our dogs.
Melissa Breau: I know the Match to Sample class is new, so I wanted to make sure we talk about that too. For those not familiar with the concept I have to admit I wasn’t initially and then you kind of explained it, I think, on one of the Facebook lists, so for those who don’t know what it is can you kind of explain what that means, Match to Sample?
Heather Lawson: The Match to Sample is a type of concept training, so concept think of it as the concept of mathematics. For us we know that if you add one and one you get two. We’re thinking you can conceptually see that if somebody asks me for this I can also get that, or we have the idea of big versus small. There’s whole different types of varieties of concepts, but match to sample in this particular case is a visual match to sample, so this is where the dog learns to look at an item that the trainer is holding and then find the object on a table that matches the one that the trainer is holding.
It sounds a little complicated but it’s not really, because of the different things that we…the stages that we go through in order to get them there, so for instance I might hold up a Kong and I might have a Kong, and I might have maybe a treat bag, and I might have a cone, and I might have a ball all in a row in front of me, so I hold up my Kong and I say, ‘Match it,’ and the dog looks at that Kong and then has to pick the right item out of that line of items on that table. I’m not saying get the Kong or get the toy, I’m just saying match it.
Once they’ve learned on things they know then we start introducing things that they maybe have never seen before, or they don’t normally interact with, and so we teach them that whatever I’m holding look at it and then figure out which one best matches that item and pick it out for me, either by a retrieve, or a nose touch, or targeting it, and it’s…actually if you think about it, it’s kind of the same thing that they use with nose work, that’s a match to sample. Here’s this sample, this smell. Now go find it for me. It’s sort of what they use with search and rescue. Here’s the smell of the person, I need you to find this person. Now go out into the world and match that smell to what I just gave you, and the concept training is neat because it uses most of what we teach our dogs, like shaping. It uses targeting. It uses problem solving and creativity on the dogs’ part and it also utilizes behavior change, so it’s kind of a fun different thing to do with the dogs and it allows you to really expand and take your thinking past what the dog…you ever thought, maybe, the dog could learn.
Even with you’re doing a match to sample with a nose in cancer. I’m sure you’ve heard of them matching cancer cells to see whether or not an individual has cancer cells. It’s all match to sample, it’s that concept training, right. There are other types of other concepts, which are things such as adduction, where we take one behavior, add it to another behavior and you end up with a third behaviors. That’s called adduction, so it’s one plus one equals three. It doesn’t make sense but it’s what it is, so it’s one behavior, another behavior, and you make a third behavior, that’s where the one plus one equals three comes from. There’s actually counting that the dogs are…has been out there now. I think Ken Ramirez is doing counting with dogs. Also learning about mimicry, which is Julie Flannery’s class at FDFA, can the dogs copy what you actually do. It’s really kind of mind bending and that’s what is really interesting me right now, and that’s what I’m doing with my youngest dog Piper.
I’m teaching her the match to sample as well as we’re going to work on…to see whether or not she actually can read, if you will, and I’ve got flashcards, and so I’m teaching her what this word means and teaching her to see whether or not she can put the two together. You can teach the concepts of big and small, up or down, go back, go forward. It’s just really cool stuff.
Melissa Breau: That sounds really neat. It sounds like it’s a very different, I guess, way of teaching your dog to look at the world, and I’d imagine at least the Match to Sample class would be a really…it would be a good skill to use a dogs’ brain, especially if they’re on medical for something, they could still do some of that stuff. Stuff like that. It would be just a great training tool to have in your kit.
Heather Lawson: Yes, you absolutely hit it on the mark. It’s a really good tool because it doesn’t require a whole lot of activity, but you do have to have the basics in place. It’s not something that you would normally do with a dog that is maybe…doesn’t have any idea on shaping, or targeting or playing creative games. It does require a little bit of basics, but it’s definitely a great tool for the dog that maybe is not just on medical rest but maybe can’t interact with a lot of other dogs, right. Maybe they for some reason…they just need a brain teaser that’s going to keep them from going stir crazy, because the more the brain is worked, it’s a balance right. Everybody thinks the dogs need exercise, but at the same time they need to have that little brain tingled a little bit, and if you don’t balance that off then you get a dog that kind of goes stir crazy, and again, it harkens back to not being able to shut off when needed, right, so it definitely is because it’s…you train all different kinds of new behaviors and it’s just another thing to draw on that trainers toolbox, if you will, to sort of expand and see just what your dog can do.
We often forget and we start to label our dogs as they can only do this, right. I think they can do way more than we give them credit for, and that’s what kind of tweaks my interest a little bit, aside from the competitive obedience stuff that I do with them as well.
Melissa Breau: I do want to talk for just a second more about that, about the idea of how maybe somebody could use those skills to teak some of the other things that they might want to teach. We talked a little bit about how you could teach it as a brain teaser, and as concepts. You mentioned nose work a little bit in there and kind of this idea of teaching a bigger picture. Are there other ways that that skill can be used and other behaviors that you can use those skills in, is it about communication?
Heather Lawson: It’s about communication, so say for instance if we harken back to, say, search and rescue. The dog has to make sometimes independent because they’re out searching and they’ve been sent out, and they’re searching, and they’re going back and they’re searching and what are they supposed to do. I’ve found the person, do I stick with the person, do I come back, so that training aspect of it is that they come back, they tell you that they’re there and then they go back to that person that’s lost.
I guess you could sort of put it down to it teaches your dogs to be creative. Now I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I’ve had a situation with my own dog when I was competing a number of years ago where I threw the dumbbell and it went outside the ring but there was access for her to go around a gate and get it and then come back, and rather than stick her head through and get caught at it, she looked at it, she looked down either side of it and then she backed up and went around got the dumbbell and came back and completed her exercise, so had I just taught it in basic format, go out, get it, come back, whatever, and I hadn’t taught her how to be creative we might’ve failed that whole class, but she did it.
She started to think on her own, and that’s what I appreciate in the dogs is that they can figure it out, they can problem solve and I don’t think that we really truly understand just how much problem solving ability that our dogs really do have, and I’m constantly amazed at how they develop that problem solving, and we sometimes forget because we’re teaching them all of these specific behaviors that we want them to do and we don’t let them sometimes expand on those, and I think that is the role it plays for me in my larger training toolbox, is it allows me to just sit back and say okay, so what if we did this? Can you do that, and the dog goes, yeah, sure I can do that and then you’re off on a different tangent, so it does definitely take your training in different ways, but it also really expands your training and your appreciation for the dog and their capabilities.
Melissa Breau: So it sounds like there are kind of two pieces there, right, to kind of distill that down a little bit. There’s the idea of helping your dog be the best they can be, in terms of as smart they can be, as capable as they can be, and then there’s this piece about teaching them how to be creative problem solvers, which I’d assume also makes things like proofing and fluency much easier.
Heather Lawson: Yeah, exactly because they grasp the concepts much quicker, and I know for…this isn’t really on the match to sample side of it, but if you consider, say, the…I taught her the chin rest, okay, and it’s one of the nest things I ever taught this dog because the chin rest taught her how to be just still, and that stillness transferred into my dumbbell, it transferred into her being examined by a judge in the confirmation ring, and it transferred into her stays, so just that simple thing of a chin rest with duration, or even a duration of the nose touch transferred in and taught her the concept of holding still and waiting until she was released, and it was such an easy transfer of that one single skill of holding skill went to so many different other behaviors, and I’d never taught it that way before, but I’m so glad I did with Piper because it just sort of went oh, that transfers into all kinds of things, and it really made me go you really get this, and so there’s a concept there but in a different way than the match to sample, so it’s what are we teaching them?
It’s not just a sit there and hold that position until I tell you otherwise it’s just the concept of can you transfer this, oh you understand it, so that’s why I like the concept training, such as the adduction, the mimicry, the copy behaviors, the match to sample. All of those things are really kind of mind benders.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to wrap things up by asking you the three questions that I usually ask at the end of the podcast.
Heather Lawson: Okay.
Melissa Breau: The first one is what is the dog related accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Heather Lawson: The biggest and best accomplishment was with my dog Micha, who’s long gone, but she was a dog, German Shepherd, that had a few demons inside, just that she was very sensitive and very aware of sound, and so she was a little concerned when things…even the crack of a bat at a baseball game, or tennis, or things like that, loud speakers God help us, was an issue, and she was also sometimes concerned about people as well. She was a friendly dog, there’s nothing in that issue, but everybody told me you’ll never get this dog in the ring. You’ll never be able to compete with her, and I sat down one day and I was really kind of in tears and I said okay, this isn’t working. What are we going to do? How can I help you through this, and the moment I switched that in myself we just were away to the races. It wasn’t about getting her to do it, it was how can I help her through it, and I ended up taking her Top 10 Obedience Dogs in Canada twice, two years straight, and she ended up being the top obedience driven Shepard in Canada five years straight.
It was nice to be able to do that but at the same time it was, I guess, just sort of really in my heart that wow, when you don’t give up and you don’t listen to everybody and you just listen to the dog amazing things can happen, and I think that’s my proudest accomplishment, I guess, is working with Micha. She taught me so very much and I really appreciate her allowing me the gift of making all my mistakes with her, but we ended up on a high and I’ll never forget that dog ever, but that’s my proudest accomplishment so far.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s a pretty good one.
Heather Lawson: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: All right, so my next question is what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?
Heather Lawson: Oh geez, there’s been so many different pieces. I guess the best is work with your dog, be a team, and don’t label your dog because you’ll limit their abilities. So you know how people will sometimes oh, it’s the breed. They just do that because they do that? I never try to label or limit what my dogs can do. I always assume that they’re going to rise to the occasion, that they’re going to do the best that they can, and I think that’s probably been the best advice because it’s taken me into different types of sports that I might not have ventured into with my dogs. One of my dogs I did nose work with, that was her thing, so if I had labeled her and said no, you’re going to do this, you’re not going to do that it might not have been the best thing for her but because I let her lead me where she wanted to go and I took what she had to give me we had loads of fun doing nose work and I learned new sport, so I always think of that as work with your dog and be a team, and then don’t label your dog because you’ll limit them and yourself.
Melissa Breau: My last question. You’re in a great position because I know you mentioned Sue earlier and you’ve been good friends with the Fenzi crew for a while now, I know you’re pretty involved, so who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?
Heather Lawson: Somebody else in the dog world. Well, I’m not going to name names because I think…but what I find is that there’s no one specific individual. What I have done is I’ve been able to meet many different people, many fabulous trainers that I just go wow. Now that’s interesting, and that’s…what I do is I pick up all the little tidbits from all of these different trainers and I think that’s what’s the most important thing, because I don’t want to get caught up in a recipe because there is no recipe.
I could name different kinds of people but I think it’s better to say that I just pick up all the little tidbits along the way that pertain to me and my dogs at that particular time, and that way…and what works for me, because not one single dog trainer will have everything that I’m going to need, and so if I keep my mind open I’m going to get those little tidbits that’s going to make me and my dog better.
Melissa Breau: All right. Well, thank you, so much, for coming on the podcast, Heather.
Heather Lawson: You’re more than welcome. This was fun, a little bit nervous, but fun, exciting. I could talk dogs for hours.
Melissa Breau: Hey, me too.
Heather Lawson: I’ve had fun doing this. This was very enjoyable. Thanks for asking me on.
Melissa Breau: Thanks so much for coming on the podcast Heather -- and thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to discuss greetings, separation anxiety, and behavior modification techniques that work for both parts of the human-canine team. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in 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 BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Melissa Chandler has competed in conformation, agility, obedience, hunt tests, nose work, and rally.
She’s also successfully trained and handled non-owned dogs to many titles and championships. Today her focus is on nose work and parkour, both of which she teaches here at FDSA.
Melissa’s strengths are problem solving, by looking outside the box, and working with soft dogs. Owning and working with soft dogs has given her the ability to coach others to help build confidence, and has taught her how to set up training sessions, specifically with soft dogs in mind. She enjoys helping others and brainstorming to help other teams succeed. She has taught private lessons in agility and nose work that focus on solving specific training problems.
To be released 8/25/2017, featuring Heather Lawson to discuss the importance of life skills for competition dogs and advanced training concepts we can teach our dogs.
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 will be talking to Melissa Chandler. Melissa has competed in conformation, agility, obedience, hunt tests, nose work, and rally. She’s also successfully trained and handled non-owned dogs to many titles and championships. Today her focus is on nose work and parkour, both of which she teaches here at FDSA. Melissa’s strengths are problem solving, by looking outside the box, and working with soft dogs. Owning and working with soft dogs has given her the ability to coach others to help build confidence, and has taught her how to set up training sessions, specifically with soft dogs in mind. She enjoys helping others and brainstorming to help other teams succeed. She has taught private lessons in agility and nose work that focus on solving specific training problems. Hi Melissa, welcome to the podcast.
Melissa Chandler: Thank you, glad to be here.
Melissa Breau: Excited to chat today. This is definitely a, you know, get into parkour a little bit, get into some of the nose work stuff. It’s a new topic for me so that’s exciting.
Melissa Chandler: Good, I’m glad.
Melissa Breau: So, to start us out, do want to tell us a little bit about your own dogs? Who they are? What you’re working on with them?
Melissa Chandler: Sure, I’d love to. Edge is my (several) year old Weimaraner who’s responsible for this awesome nose work journey we’re on. He currently has two nose work, three legs. We’ve only competed in two nosework three trials and he qualified and placed in both trials. We’re currently getting ready to enter more trials for this winter to work on our nose work three elite, and for those that are not aware you must qualify in three nose work, three trials, in order to earn your nose work three elite. Neither one of us can handle heat so our competition window is basically October to April, depending on spring weather.
Edge also loved obedience. He’s trained to utility so we do a lot of that just for fun. His absolute favorite thing is the dumbbell so we play a lot of fun retrieve games and a lot of times it’s his reward after a training session. He also loves fitness, which I think comes from all of the parkour exercises and obstacles that we’ve done, and he also loves working on tricks and he’s very awesome at them and he makes them look really easy.
Bam is my 3-year-old Vizsla and he’s actually responsible for our parkour adventures. He took puppy classes, Karen and Abigail who are the founders of the International Dog Parkour Association, and he was a superstar. He had incredible balance and rear end awareness for such a young puppy and he was always like a little kid at Christmas every time they introduced a new obstacle. It became part of our class whenever they brought something new out, we would turn Bam to face the wall so he couldn’t see, and then everyone would watch when he would turn around because he would just smile and light up with a new obstacle to start with. It was so cute.
He loves agility, hunting, obedience, and he’s a super nose work dog, but he also loves quartering. So, we’ve been working really hard at increasing motor value and slowly incorporating that into the environment with fun, easy highs, and also using some Premack, and I’m actually sharing our adventures of this journey in my current nose work 120 class and I think it’s a nice fit in that class because we’re starting all the different elements. And then, I’m also planning on turning it into a full proofing and distraction class at the beginning of 2018.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned the heat. Where are you located?
Melissa Chandler: We’re in Ohio, so we have hot, humid summers and neither one of us can handle it.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I did a summer in Charleston at one point and that was pretty bad too so, I can sympathize.
Melissa Chandler: That’s one thing I love about my training building now because we have a place to go train that’s air conditioned in the summer.
Melissa Breau: Can’t beat that.
Melissa Chandler: No, here we get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, if it’s cooler, and get out and get a little bit of training in before the day starts.
Melissa Breau: I want to just kind of take it back a little bit to the beginning of your journey. I know you kind of mentioned each of your dogs has helped you get into a different sport. How did you originally get started out in dog sports?
Melissa Chandler: I’ve always enjoyed dog training before I really knew anything about it or what it was. I think when I was like 10 or 11 a friend of the family asked me to show her Schnauzer in conformation and I did one show and I was addicted. I convinced, or maybe, for a lack of better term, I negotiated with my dad to get a poodle. I actually asked for a Great Dane knowing I wouldn’t get a Great Dane, but I was able to negotiate down to a poodle, and we started some junior handling, and then from that I started doing conformations, and then I got into a 4H and AKC obedience. We competed locally at our county fairs and every year we were fortunate enough to win a spot to go to state fair.
So, we got to go to big competitions, for us, being at that young age in 4H, and my parents were so supportive. They had to drive me all over for training and trials, and every weekend we’d go off to some remote place to do a conformation or an obedience trial, and I fell in love with it so much, and then I met a Weimaraner and I knew I had to have a Weimaraner and I got my first Weimaraner and started obedience, and then I got my second Weimaraner and that’s when agility was just coming to the US and started agility and it’s kind of all history from there. So, I’ve been doing this for a really long time.
Melissa Breau: Now I know you mentioned Edge got you into nose work, do want to share that story a little bit? Like, what was it about nose work, or about him in nose work, how did that happen?
Melissa Chandler: Sure, as I said, Edge was responsible for this awesome nose work journey that we’ve shared and we both have such a passion for the sport now. He’s very soft and he stresses down. He loves to train and work, but he could not handle a trial environment and we went to several trials and he just wasn’t happy, and if he’s not happy, I’m not happy. So, I was looking for something for him to do and his breeders were in California and they had mentioned the great new sport called nose work. There wasn’t anything in our area so I had traveled and gone to a couple seminars and thought yes, this is for us, and was looking for some ongoing instruction and that is when Denise actually offered her very first online class before FDSA even existed. So, we’re from the pre FDSA days and we took her very first online class, nose work.
We started that and never looked back, took all of the classes online, and I’m one of those people, once I learn something, I want to learn anything and everything I can about it. I just want to know everything I can so I can help my dogs adjust. So, I traveled to a lot of different seminars, I went to different people, different philosophies, different ideas, and just absorbed as much as I could about nose work. I also volunteered at trials, even before Edge and I were competing, so I could learn what it was all about. I learned so much from the judges and debriefings. There’s things that, to this day, that still, they’re like little gems of information that I share with my students that I learned at debriefings. So, I highly recommend anyone that can volunteer at a trial to do it because it’s definitely, it’s a great education and you learn a lot of information.
Melissa Breau: Not to put you on the spot but do you mind sharing one of the tips that you picked up at a debriefing, just kind of for the audience?
Melissa Chandler: Not at all. One of the things, especially when you’re starting nose work, is your dog’s getting close to the source, close to the source, and you want to step in there and look, or step in there to get ready to reward, and the judge’s comment was whenever you feel like you need to step in, you step out — and that is so true because if your dog starts bracketing and working the odor the last thing you want to do is be in their way. So, you just take a step back. They don’t need you. You can’t help them. So, it’s just, get out of their way, they’ll tell you when they find it, and then you can step in and give them their reward. I’ve passed that onto so many students and I still remember it sometimes, you know, we’re working, working, working, you start to step in and it’s like no, take a step back, because if you do get in the odor you can prevent them from following the scent cone before, so, I find that to be very, very valuable. That was probably the very first trial, that I worked at, that I learned that information.
Melissa Breau: And I think that, just in general, kind of attending trials and helping out is such a great tip, I mean, I know I’ve been trying to do that for obedience stuff locally, because my dog’s not ready to trial, and it lets you meet people, it lets you get to know the local community, it lets you kind of see some of the judges and their different styles, I mean, it’s just, it’s incredibly invaluable.
Melissa Chandler: Absolutely. And I, if possible, at the nose work trials, I try to get a job that I have some interaction with the judge because most of them love to teach, so they tell you different things and you can just absorb so much information from them just, you know, if you’re a timer or something because they love to share that information.
Melissa Breau: Now, having worked with a soft dog, do you have tips for others who have soft dogs, kind of to help them let their dog shine or that they should know about setting up training sessions? I mean, what kind of advice would you share?
Melissa Chandler: Sure, this is another subject that I did a lot of research and I attended a lot of different seminars to try and get information, mostly to help Edge, and I think, first and foremost, it’s so important to keep your dog safe and build their trust because once they trust you, that you will keep them safe, that gives them more confidence, and as I always tell my dogs, I have a chew, it’s called I have your back. So, if they see something and they get concerned, I’m like, I got your back. So, that’s our communication of whatever it is, I see it, you’re fine, I got you, and it just takes time and by keeping them safe you build that trust that they know that you do have them.
I would say never lure or trick your dog into doing something that they don’t feel comfortable doing. Sometimes we find that in parkour because someone really thinks their dog should be able to do that behavior and the dog doesn’t feel comfortable in that environment, so they tried to take cookies and lure them there. Just back off, work on it somewhere else, and eventually it’ll happen. If you lure them, and then they get up there and they’re really afraid, they’re never going to want to do it again. If you let them do it on their own then they’ll be able to do that anywhere in the future.
Teach new behaviors in a familiar, comfortable environment, and then when you’re ready to take it to another room or on the road, lower your criteria and reward any effort that the dog gives you in trying to do that for you. And one thing, when you’re setting up your training sessions, make sure you’re not always asking for difficult behaviors or, in nose work, difficult searches. You want your dog to always look forward to and succeed in your training sessions. If your sessions are always difficult and challenging your dog will no longer look forward to them. Have fun sessions that you reward everything, or just play, or do whatever your dog enjoys most. I had mentioned how much Edge loved his dumbbell, there’s times we just go in the other room and we play with the dumbbell and he loves that, and just think of the value you’re building in your relationship in your training because we just went and did what he loves doing.
And then, for nose work, play foundation games. Just have one or two boxes out, do the shell game, play with your game boxes so it’s fun, fast, quick, highly rewarding searches. And, I have a thing that I put in most of my classes, it’s kind of like your recalls but it’s for odor. How much value do you have in your odor bank. And, when you set up these fun, fast, foundation games, you’re putting lots of value in your odor bank so, then when you have a more challenging side, you have deposits in that odor bank that they can pull out in order to work harder to find that odor.
One of the other things I recommend is to be consistent and build routines. Soft dogs feel comfortable in routines, as they know what to expect, and then things are not so scary. And, empower your dog to make decisions and have a party when they do. Again, nose work is great for this. Soft dogs do better with shaping or decision making when they have an obstacle to interact with, versus just blank space that they have to figure something out, so, that’s where parkour comes in. So, parkour is great at empowering your dog, just give them an obstacle and let them do anything they want and reward the interaction with that obstacle.
Back to Edge’s dumbbell again, but find what your dog loves or loves doing and incorporate it into your training and use it as their reward, or even its odor value, your dog loves odor, do something else and let him go do a search for the odor. And I think it’s always important to check in with your soft dog and see how they’re feeling with what you’re doing. We build emotional attachments with everything we teach and do. We need to make sure our dog is not stressed and then we build a positive emotional response with that behavior.
I also like to start off my sessions with an energy game. That helps build energy into the training, and one of the simple ones that I like is the chew cookie toss and it’s just toss the cookie to the left and send your dog to get it and as they’re eating it toss the cookie to the right and send your dog to get it and you’re actually building energy. Most of your soft dogs stress down, they don’t have the energy to put in the training and that’s just kind of a good start. Edge’s first couple nose work trials, I actually did that at the van, you know, I kind of helped just play this cookie game. And you can even do it in your hands, if you have a really small space, just have them bounce back and forth to your hands.
Melissa Breau: It’s kind of the idea of just get them moving a little bit so that they can feel it, they can get a little happy because their body’s moving.
Melissa Chandler: I mean, and it’s like, and I understand how they feel because a lot of times when I get stressed I could do jumping jacks or you jog in place, I mean, it’s amazing what it does, just that little bit of energy really helps get you out of that stress and get your adrenaline going to be able to do what you’re asked to do. And, I actually have a lecture that I have written for my parkour class, it talks about how to deal with soft dogs and a lot of different ideas because, again, not all dogs are the same and different ones will work different for different jobs so it’s just a lot of different things to try. A lot of energy games. I really believe in mat behaviors as the dogs have a safe place to go to their mats. Talk about how to train mat and what you can use it with. And it is for my parkour class but I end up sharing it in most of my classes because, for one, I think people with soft dogs attend my classes for a reason, as well as, with those who work in parkour, those classes are set up for soft and stressy type dogs, so most of them that come in need that lecture.
Melissa Breau: You know, kind of, what is it about those sports that make them so good for softer dogs? I mean, you mentioned that they’re kind of set up for them. What do you mean by that?
Melissa Chandler: For nose work it’s amazing to watch a dog build confidence through nose work. Part of it is we take something that all dogs love to do, sniffing, and we turn it into a highly rewarding behavior. So, it really doesn’t take a lot of energy for them to begin, it’s just put your nose on this odor and they get lots of cookies, and then we start incorporating the cookie toss, so it kind of goes back to my other game but it’s kind of a reset so then they’re driving back because they know as soon as they get into that odor they get rewarded. So, we build a strong foundation by increasing the value of the odor, which then encourages our dogs to work independently.
We also nurture our dog’s excitement for nose work. The pulling you to the lines should not always be discouraged, and this is one of those, know your dog, know your team, I mean, you know, you don’t want your dog to pull you down or…it just can’t go very fast, you don’t want your dog pulling you but I let it pull me, I think it’s fabulous because there were times we’d go to other trials, he didn’t even want to go in the building, you know, he’s like, I can’t handle it, and now he’s like dragging me to the line and I think it’s awesome. So, you know, it’s good for us. So, know your team and let your dog do it if you think it’s good for your dog.
The other thing too is nose work classes are set up for only one dog to work at a time, so the dog doesn’t have to worry about the environment, they don’t have to worry about where the other dogs are, they can just go in and practice. You can do a lot of both parkour and nose work in home so you can do it in the comfort of your own home where they feel safer in the comfort of their own home so they don’t have to worry about anything else in the environment. And then also, when you go out and you train with friends, only one dog should be out at a time, so you have lots of opportunities, and when you’re out training with your friends they should understand and they should be able to keep their dogs in the vehicle until it’s their turn.
So, our dogs no longer focus on the environment, but they focus their energy on finding the odor. And the other thing I think is really great about nose work is I had talked about keeping their routine for your soft dogs and nose work is fabulous for routine. I think everyone in nose work should have a good start line routine, and it basically starts at the vehicle or the crate, wherever you’re getting your dog, and you have a routine of when you put the harness on, when you put the leash on, what warm up you do. I have a pre-cue as we’re going to the search area, just to say, hey, this is what we’re going to do, and once you hit the start line I have a place where I stand, Edge has a place where he stands so that he can take in the odor, and they look at it differently than we do. We may look into a search area and go, oh my gosh, look at all that stuff. They look into a search area and say where is the scent cone.
So, every time they go to a start line they know they’re looking for a scent cone. So, it’s all routine for them. So, I think that’s another reason why nose work is fabulous for soft dogs because it’s just one long routine. They don’t look at it like we do, and I think the most rewarding part is seeing a dog change over time, so you have a dog that’s not confident, and it’s a little soft or stressy, and then, all of a sudden you can see the chest come out, and you can see the confidence in the body language as they’re heading into a search area, and it’s just fabulous to see that transformation with your soft dogs.
Melissa Breau: And you just opened a nose work training academy, didn’t you?
Melissa Chandler: Yes, I did. I’m so excited about it. I’ve always wanted my own training center. It’s been a dream for a long time. I’ve always taught group classes and private classes and I’ve done it in a lot of different sports and then recently I’ve been doing a lot of nose work seminars, and I’ve been looking for a facility for over a year, but this is a part time venture for me so I was limited on budget, and I live in an area that real estate is very expensive. So, I actually was presented with this great opportunity, and it’s like a 30 minute from my house, which in Columbus isn’t bad. So, I’m like, I have to go for it, it’s like, it kind of fell in my lap and then it was perfect timing. I took possession on July first and then started teaching classes mid-July. So, I am very fortunate that I have great students and great friends, they all gave up their fourth of July weekend to come and help me paint and clean and put down flooring and so, we had shifts and people came in and helped and I was actually…took possession on a Saturday and I was teaching privates on a Thursday, so, we did good.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, that’s quick.
Melissa Chandler: Yeah, I know. I am so lucky. I had so much wonderful help. I have a snoopy sign as you walk in the door, it’s a little snoopy sign that says, welcome to my happy place, and that is definitely true. It’s wonderful, and the best part is, my building is fabulous for nose work because I have a really nice training arena, and then I have a hot room where I store all of my odor containers, and then I have a cold room which is for all the non-odor containers, and then I have several rooms that I can work on different interior setups, and I have a suspended hide alley where we have permanent shower rods across the ceiling that we can do suspended hides. And everything I purchase was with nose work in mind so I’ve kind of like…my décor is for nose work and everything has a purpose as far as searching. So, I guess I am truly living the dream now of having my own facility and it’s set up perfect for what we want to do.
Melissa Breau: That sounds great, I mean, that really sounds, I mean, to be able to have both the hot room and a cold room and, I mean, that just all sounds ideal for what you want.
Melissa Chandler: I know, yes, it’s like it couldn’t have been better because, you know, if you just had one big open building that really isn’t the best for nose work unless you build a bunch of rooms, where this was just set up perfect. So, it was a great opportunity.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I wanted to kind of shift gears a little bit. We’ve talked a bunch about nose work and a little bit about parkour. I want to dive into the parkour bit a little more. For those who have, like me, seen a little bit about this sport but don’t know a lot about what it is, can you explain kind of what it is, and how you compete in it, and what’s involved?
Melissa Chandler: Sure. Parkour is also called urban agility, as there are different obstacles that are used for climbing, jumping, balancing, as I said, it’s another great sport for building confidence, also fitness and teamwork. It can be for a very athletic dog, depending on the level, but all dogs can play. Dogs at a novice level can go on to earn your championship because championship and parkour is documenting your journey and your successes. So, you video all your sessions and when you start you show a video, it’s like oh, see, my dog isn’t able to do this yet, they need to build more strength or more confidence, and then you show your journey of how you got there. So, we did something lower and then a little higher, and how did you get from point A to point B. So, that’s what a parkour championship is, so it’s not who’s the fastest or fittest or can jump the highest, it’s documenting your journey and how you took something that they were not able to do, for some reason, and built on those strengths to get to the finished product.
Edge is a big Weimaraner, he’s 100 pounds, so, he did novice parkour. Because of his structure I would never do any other level with him because I don’t think that’s safe, and he can do championships, where Bam, you know, Bam can go all the way, in fact we’re working on expert level with Bam right now, so, but there’s something for every dog, so every dog can play, and they also have, I believe, senior dog or, you know, if your dog has a handicap you just have to contact the organization, explain it to them, and you can modify some of the obstacles because they truly want to make it so everyone can play. It’s also a great sport for fearful or reactive dogs because, again, it can be done in the comfort of your home, and then as you slowly build skills you can move those out into the environment.
Safety is extremely important in parkour because your dogs are going to be jumping, they’re going to be doing high obstacles. They do what’s called tic tacs where it’s kind of rebound, it’s like a flyball box rebound, but it’s done on a tree or a building and some dogs can really get up high on their tic tacs or rebounds. So, we always recommend a back clipped harness, dogs are always spotted, and that’s one thing that I highly emphasize in my class is spotting your dog, and even have a spot your dog that weighs as much as you do, because you can do it, you just have to have the proper technique to make sure that you keep your dog safe at all times.
There’s really no competition in parkour, it’s all about the journey and the relationship, and good fitness for your dog, and you submit for titles. So, there’s different roles and different widths and heights and dimensions on the different obstacles, and that’s part of the fun is going out into the environment and finding all these different things, and then you video them and you submit them to the organization and then they judge them for your title.
Between parkour and nose work it’s like a whole different world because you’re always looking for a great place to search, or a great place to climb, and so you look at everything differently now. You know, we’ll take pictures and…look what I found here, this would be a great such and such obstacle, but it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun for the dogs and the people.
Melissa Breau: So, you mentioned the tic tacs, and you mentioned kind of climbing on things and jumping over things. Are there like, general categories of some of the different behaviors you’re looking for? Like, how does that break down?
Melissa Chandler: It’s actually obstacles, so you have like an over, an under, an in, you have your tic tacs, two feet on, four feet on, you do a weight, you do arounds, a 10 foot send, you do what’s called a gap jump where they jump from one obstacle to another and the intensity or the difficulty increases as you go up levels. So, you have training level, which you do not have to do, it’s more for young dogs because, you know, we don’t want anything very high and it’s just to get them introduced to parkour. And then you go to your novice level and you have certain criteria, and then as you move to intermediate then, like, the balance in novice it’s the width of the shoulders, but once you go to intermediate it’s half the width of the shoulders. So, they need to be able to walk on an obstacle that’s half the width of their shoulders. So, the difficulty of each obstacle increases as you go from novice, to intermediate, to expert.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned teaching, like, how to support your dog and can that piece for, you know, as part of what you include in your class. Do you want to just share a little more about what you kind of cover in the class you offer?
Melissa Chandler: I offer parkour in April and it covers the training, novice and intermediate levels, and then I have an advanced parkour class that’ll actually be in October, and it starts back with intermediate and covers expert and championship. Intermediate seems to take the most time to master as your dog will be gaining strength and skill to complete their requirements, so this level overlaps both classes, and I’ve had people start in April and then they continue working during the down time and then come back in October, for like, the finishing up, or the tuning of the actual obstacles, and then normally they’re ready to submit their title at that point.
My October class, last year, we had several intermediate and a couple expert titles that came out of the class, so that was exciting. I have very detailed, step by step videos for each of the obstacles. There’s dogs at different levels, different size dogs in the videos, and I even took my brothers’ Vizsla strike, who’s never done parkour before, and did all the obstacles with him to show…here’s how you do it, true beginner dogs, so I could work through some of the issues and I didn’t have a dog that already knew the obstacles. So, not only was it fun, but it’s been very informative to the class.
I also include three to four videos of different dogs, showing the finished obstacle, so they can see what it looks like with different dogs and different obstacles that’s passed and earned a title. It’s a really fun class and, like I said, there’s been a lot of titles earned while in the class. The fun part now is I have nose work students taking my parkour class to teach their dogs how to interact with the environment. So, if they have a soft nose work dog that doesn’t like to get into corners, or doesn’t like to put their feet up on things, now they’re bringing them into parkour to teach them parkour to carry over into their nose work training, which I think is absolutely fabulous. And so, I keep teasing them, I’m going to have to offer a nose work parkour class, and just combine the two together. So, and it’s funny because I have to be careful now when I place hides and looks because my dogs have, like, jumped up on something very high above the hide, if they have access to it, now that they have those parkour skills. So, again, it makes you look at the world totally different than you did in the past.
Melissa Breau: Rather than just try and indicate that something’s up high they’ll just be like, well, there’s something here, I’ll just go up there and find out.
Melissa Chandler: Absolutely. I’ll just go put my nose on it.
Melissa Breau: That’s great.
Melissa Chandler: It’s funny because one of my students, I think it was in my very first parkour class, she messaged me after and she says, I need you to add something to your class, she said, please warn people that once they’ve taught them parkour, when they go out on walks, they need to watch their dog, is it jumping on things, and I mean, she meant it in a good way, she’s like, I take my dogs on walks and they want to jump on this and jump on that, and she’s like, it’s fabulous but it caught me off guard. So, I added that to my class, it’s like, be careful because parkour happens everywhere.
Melissa Breau: So, I want to finish up with kind of the three questions I ask everybody who comes on. So, the first one is, what is the dog related accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Melissa Chandler: That’s tough. I think I would almost have to say I would have one per dog as each of my dogs have different goals and different accomplishments and it’s all about the relationship in getting there, it’s not about the outcome, but it’s the, what you build along the way.
Melissa Breau: I’ll let you share one per dog, you could do that.
Melissa Chandler: For Edge, with his soft dog style, his very first nose work trial, it wasn’t surprising to me that he went in and he had very subtle indications, as far as you know he’d looked and saw where everybody was and he kind of put his nose toward it and rolled his eyes at me; knowing Edge very well, it’s like, I knew where it was and that was fine, we did great. So, then we went in to our nose work two trial and the hide was in a really short stool and it was kind of between a couch and a furnace and he indicated on it and felt that I didn’t call it fast enough, and he took his paw and he flung the stool across the room. And, you know, it was like, yay, wow, look at him, you know, I was so excited. I mean, this was my soft dog slinging a stool across the room, and my friends were like, well, what if he got disqualified, I’m like, Edge slung a stool across the room in a trial. So, it’s just, I mean, that almost brings tears to my eyes talking about it because that was just awesome for him, that he felt that comfortable and that confident to do something like that. So, again, it’s not about the outcome but it’s our journey and our process getting there, so, that was just very, very exciting.
And then the other, I had a father-son Weimaraner team, I co-bred the litter and so, he was a confirmation champion, and I had a home bred champion, but they are two of the only three USDAA ADCH Weimaraner’s, and it was just really thrilling to have a father-son team, that I bred, competing at national events and, you know, competing at higher levels, and again, all about the journey. It was just so fun being able to do that with them and what we were able to accomplish, and just the memories on that journey.
So, but I feel very blessed to have all the awesome dogs in my life that I have and each and every one of them has taught me something different, so, I think they all come into our lives for a reason and they’ve all taken me different paths and made lots of wonderful memories along the way.
Melissa Breau: So, our second question, and this is usually one of my favorite ones of the podcast is, what’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?
Melissa Chandler: I think this kind of goes hand in hand, but I think we need to let the dog make a decision and trust your dog, and I remember this way back in my agility days, you know, this was like, in the early 90s’ I think, everyone was trying to control what the dog did, you know, especially on the contacts and I was fortunate enough to work with Linda Mecklenburg at that time, and she was like, let the dog decide, let them take ownership, you know, so, way back when it was let the dog make a decision, let them take some responsibilities, and when you allow that to happen it’s amazing the teamwork because you’re not stressed trying to micromanage them and they’re not stressed because they’re being micro managed.
So, it becomes more a teamwork than a controlling, but I think humans try to be so controlling and always want to tell their dog what to do and we need to let our dogs make the decisions and accept responsibility. And again, I think this goes hand in hand with nose work, that’s what I’m always telling people, let the dog make the decision, and I love thinking dogs, I love dogs that think outside the box and work through problems, and I just love working with thinking dogs.
Melissa Breau: So, our last question is about other people in the dog world. So, who is somebody else that you look up to?
Melissa Chandler: There have been so many that have helped inspire me along the way, and I think I take pieces of advice and put things together for what I need to do for my dogs. It seems like they all come into my life when I need them most or maybe I go and seek them out when I need something. I think probably what’s helped me the most with where I am with my dogs right now would be Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. That just, before I found nose work, that really helped me a lot with Edge, and you should see my book, it’s like, every page has a sticky and notes. It’s looks so used books, but it almost seems like the book was written specifically for Edge, I mean, it was amazing and I now used a lot of those with Bam and I recommend a lot of her protocols with my students, but I think that has been very important in Edge’s success.
Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast Melissa.
Melissa Chandler: Thank you, I really enjoyed it.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Heather Lawson to discuss the importance of life skills for competition dogs. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcasts in 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 BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Kamal Fernandez is an internationally renowned dog trainer and seminar instructor, Championship Obedience Judge, Crufts competitor and the head trainer and owner of East London Dog Training. He has over 25 years of practical dog training experience, based on a combination of science and hands on work that have led him to establish a reputation for positive training and to champion reward-based methods all over the world.
Kamal has made a study of psychology and began his career as a police officer working with young offenders -- this has shaped his training philosophy and helped him craft a style that gets the best from his students, human and canine alike.
He’s probably most well-known for teaching heelwork, his primary focus here at FDSA, but he’s successfully used rewards based methods in a wide variety of dog sports, including obedience, agility, protection sports and canine freestyle. His training specialty revolves around using play and games to create motivation and control.
To be released 8/18/2017, featuring Melissa Chandler talking about nosework, parkour, and problem solving for soft dogs.
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 Kamal Fernandez.
Kamal is an internationally renowned dog trainer and seminar instructor, Championship Obedience Judge, Crufts competitor and the head trainer and owner of East London Dog Training. He has over 25 years of practical dog training experience, based on a combination of science and hands on work that have led him to establish a reputation for positive training and to champion reward-based methods all over the world.
Kamal has made a study of psychology and began his career as a police officer working with young offenders -- this has shaped his training philosophy and helped him craft a style that gets the best from his students, human and canine alike.
He’s probably most well-known for teaching heelwork, his primary focus here at FDSA, but he’s successfully used rewards based methods in a wide variety of dog sports, including obedience, agility, protection sports and canine freestyle. His training specialty revolves around using play and games to create motivation and control.
Hi Kamal, welcome to the podcast!
Kamal Fernandez: Hi Melissa! Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: I’m so glad to chat. Heelwork is always everybody’s favorite topic, so..
Kamal Fernandez: Yes, so this should be an interesting conversation.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you tell us a bit about your own dogs -- who they are and what you’re working on with them?
Kamal Fernandez: I have a malinois, I have border collies, I have a German spitz, I have a boxer, and I have a poodle-cross Jack Russell. So I have a real array of dogs and they do various things. Obviously, the primary focus for the majority of my career has been as an obedience competitor, but I’ve recently moved to begin doing other disciplines. Primarily for a bit of a change, really. I think I’ve been doing it for quite a long while, and I was looking for new challenges and something to sort of take my training a little bit further, and I’ve dappled with lots of disciplines throughout my career. So my border collie and my spitz both compete in agility, and my boxer, the intention with him is to do IPO. He’s in the midst of training at the moment; he had quite a long period off with injury, 2 years out with quite a severe injury, so he’s just been, probably in the last year, been brought back into work so we’ve got a lot of catch-up to do. And my malinois and my older border collie, they both do obedience. I’m sort of shifting my goals as it were to new disciplines and I’ve sort of done obedience for so long I just want to have a little bit of a change and I think for an instructor and a teacher it’s really good to keep fresh and to teach your dog new things, and also be a recipient of being a student as well. I think that’s really healthy.
Melissa Breau: So you’re pushing into Agility, is that what you’re saying?
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, so I’ve just started -- my spitz does agility. He’s up to… I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in the US but he’s at grade 5 level now, and my border collie bitch is just starting her competitive career. So they’re both doing… I’ve been really really pleased with them, I’ve only.. My times a bit… well, obviously, I have a young child now -- a baby -- so my time’s a little bit limited, which is always a constant battle. Bless their hearts, they seem to be carrying me a little bit at the moment, to be honest, but that’s a good foundation. They’re great; they’re all doing really really well.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know you mentioned you started out in obedience, so how did you first get into that -- how did you start out in dog sports?
Kamal Fernandez: So, I was always obsessed with dogs and I was always fanatical about the prospect of owning one. And I badgered my parents for years and years and years about getting a dog and they eventually succumbed, and they buckled in to me to get a dog. And that dog was absolutely every single behavioral issue you can probably ever encounter, that one dog had. And it was largely down to pet dog owners -- you just, just naive people thinking “I tell it sit, why doesn’t it sit?” “I let it off the lead, why doesn’t it come back?” We just didn’t understand the concept of training a dog, we just -- like a lot of people -- we just assumed the dog came hard-wired to do it.
I actually was watching agility on television, and there was a guy there called Greg Derrett who anybody who knows about agility, he’s one of the top competitors and trainers in the world, and Greg’s a little bit older than me, and he was there competing at Crufts in the junior competition and I always thought, well, if he can do it as a junior -- and i think he won that year -- I thought well it must be achievable, i must be able to do it. So I tried to contact the local agility club and at that point they said you can’t start bringing a dog to agility until you’ve gone to obedience training. She wasn’t a puppy-puppy, she must have been 6-10 months old, and they said you can’t start with her until she’s well over a year, so I thought, “Oh god, what am I going to do for this time?” Anyway, they said take your dog to obedience training. And I took her to obedience training and it was just domestic pet training, very, very, very old school, you know. Choke chains, walking around the whole, choking the dog, which you know at the time -- this was 26 years ago -- wasn’t unusual to be honest, in this country. And it just so happened that I stayed on one evening to watch the more advanced people train their dogs and there was somebody doing competitive obedience, and it just really really inspired me because of the level of control she had over her dog and I remember she left it at one end on a stage that’s actually at the hall where i now teach, and she did like 6 position changes and I was just blown away by the fact that she could -- there’s my dog that I can’t even let off the lead and she could leave her dog at the other side of a room and give it positions which appeared to be on some sort of magic slash electronic remote control, i don’t know, i was just blown away by it. So it just really made me go “wow I want to do that” and my career just really went in that path. I sort of got more and more interested in it; I saw her train numerous dogs to do heel work and I just got addicted to that as a concept, really. And I never really followed up on the whole agility thing, and it’s ironic that now, 26 years later, I’m finally getting into agility. I’m a slow learner, but there you go. Better late than never as they say.
Melissa Breau: Hey, you got there. You just took your time. So you mentioned that you started out choke chains and traditional training, all that stuff. How would you describe your training philosophy today?
Kamal Fernandez: I talked recently at a conference, and was speaking about my personal journey in dog training and how it’s really taken a really, really diverse route in that we started out like, i think, a lot of people that have been training dogs for 20+ years, in more compulsion based dog training and in dominance-based theories to training dogs; you know, you have to be the boss, you have to be the pack leader, and it was very much rout learning with them. The dog’s thoughts, feelings, emotions were never considered, really. It was just make the dog do it, but i always instinctively felt there was a better way out there and it didn’t sit with me as an individual; I thought, “Oh, I’m not a forceful person,” I’m determined, I’m very goal-oriented, but I’m not one for force. I wouldn’t force somebody to do something; i wouldn’t force my dogs, it just didn’t quite align with who i was. And then i gravitated to more motivational methodology, which was slightly more what I’d call show and tell, so you’d show the dog what you wanted them to do, you’d reward the dog, and if the dog didn’t do it you’d show them again, and if the dog didn’t do it again after that you’d probably correct it and then reward it. So there was more reinforcement being used, but still that element of compulsion in there. And I was never extreme in my use of -- other than the choke chain scenario, which was just sheer ignorance -- I was always somebody that wanted to interact with my dogs, I wanted to… I mean I used to take my dog that i first had, she was my friend more than anything, I used to take her out and we used to go out for the whole day and we used to go play at what we call the dumps and stuff, so she was my little friend so there was a real conflict between what i was doing in training and how i was with her in general.
So I gravitated to what you would now call reinforcement-based dog training and as clicker training became more prominent, in this country I’d say probably 15 years ago, something like that -- 15-20 years ago -- and initially the reaction was “oh gosh, this is rubbish” but I was inquisitive about it and i was skeptical, but the more and more I watched it I thought there’s something to this, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Again, it’s amazing how life takes you on this journey, I did psychology while I was at college and I did it later on as a -- I studied it as part of a certain degree and an element of it was psychology which part of it talked about learning theory and operant conditioning and classical conditioning and so forth, and it then sort of all fell into place and made more sense. So then i started to delve with the dog that i had into clicker training and my initial reaction was… I tried it, i pressed the clicker, I gave her a reward and the dog didn’t miraculously do it. By that point i was a little more astute but i thought, “I’m missing something,” this isn’t -- i just can’t work this all out. Anyway, it was niggling away for me, and with that dog i sort of tried it and thought, okay this doesn’t work, chuck the clicker, chuck my teddies out the pram, and flounce my skirt and I thought right, that doesn’t work I’m going to go back to what i did. And I trained that dog more, what I’d say, traditionally. Flash with a bit more clicker training interspersed there, and he wasn’t what I’d say was a straightforward, easy dog, but there were a couple of key things that made me realize, “you know what, i have to change what I’m doing.” Because the things I clicker trained where so -- the responses and the reaction and the dog’s understanding were so more salient than what i taught him traditionally. And that’s not to bash traditional training, it could be my application, it could be my understanding, it could be a thousand and one things, so with my subsequent dogs I made a commitment to say that’s it, I’m going to do this or die, basically. I’m going to clicker train these dogs from the get-go, and if i don’t clicker train them I’m not going to train them at all. I had that in my head. So I really sort of held a gun to my own head and said you’re going to do this. And it was the making of my dogs and my career and how i perceive dog training. And now my philosophy in dog training is about reinforcement -- find a way to reinforce the dog and minimize the use of punishment, even just withholding reinforcement. Find a way to reinforce the dog and create the dog being correct and successful. And be strategic in your use of withholding reinforcement, etc. And it’s brought me to a place, a dog training place that i feel really really comfortable with. I feel morally, ethically, even to be … it sound a bit grand, but even spiritually, I like the way that i train my dogs now. I feel comfortable in it, it sits with me on a personal level, it sits with me in terms of the relationship I want with my dogs. They make choices; they don’t want to work, they don’t train. I don’t force them, I don’t push them, I convince them that what i want them to do is interesting and kind of enjoyable and actually really really fun. And so the relationship I have with them, the relationship I have with my dogs now they’re not waiting for the Jekyll and Hyde split personality, i was always very much about interacting with them, but occasionally I’d suddenly be this person that would say, hey now you’re going to do this, and on some level I always felt there was that element of… they were waiting for that person to turn up. Now I don’t have that with my dogs and I have… trained more dogs with reinforcement based methodology than not. And I was just fortunate that the dogs that I had that I trained alternatively were just very very forgiving. So my training philosophy, it’s about really, reinforcement is the key. It builds behavior. If you learn nothing else about operant conditioning and clicker training reinforcement will save the day so-to-speak.
Melissa Breau: So, I did some googling of you, before this call… I mentioned in your intro that you teach seminars internationally and they seem to be on a wide variety of topics, everything from foundations to extreme proofing... So I wanted to ask: what you enjoy teaching, what your favorite thing to teach is? And… why?
Kamal Fernandez: That’s sort of a real easy one. My actual favorite topic is foundations for any dog sport -- that is by far my favorite topic, because that’s where all the good stuff happens. That’s where you really lay your… well, your foundations, for a successful career in any dog discipline. And I think the irony is that people always want to move on to what I would call the sexy stuff, but the irony is the sexy stuff is actually easy if your foundations are laid solidly and firmly. And I think I’ve had more “ah-ha” moments when I teach foundations to people than I have with anything else. I also, i have to say, i like behavioral issues. You can make GREAT impact, and literally change somebody’s life and their dog’s life, or save somebody’s life because behavioral work and giving them a new take on how they deal with their dog at present but i would say really really extreme behavioral cases are really really juicy to get involved in, and dogs that people say they’re on the cusp of writing the dog off, and the dog is so phobic or aggressive or dog reactive or whatever the case may be and you can literally turn that person and that dog’s relationship around. That’s really rewarding and enjoyable to work with. But I would say as a standard seminar, I would say foundations by far. It’s just you’ve got young, green dogs, you can see the light bulbs going off for the dogs, you can see the pieces strung together, that are going to ultimately lead to the dog being this amazing competitive dog, and you can see it literally unfold before your eyes.
Melissa Breau: Right, and with the behavioral thing, a lot of people just think of that as a challenge so I think it takes a certain type of personality to be like, no this is actually pretty cool.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, absolutely. I think you have to be a little bit odd to enjoy it, but i think we’ve seen so many changes in terms of dog training and I think there is a massive lack of knowledge in terms of behavior and how to deal with behavior so that the dog can actually function in the real world and also, I think there’s more a sway toward behavior management versus actually helping the dog, and dealing with the actual cause of the issue, which is where i like to -- I’m all about management, I think that’s great, to have skills to manage your dog and to have knowledge and awareness, etc. but what I really want to do is let’s deal with the core issue. The core issue is this -- the dog is frightened, scared, apprehensive, whatever -- let’s whittle it back and deal with that and let’s help this dog be a confident, well adjusted member of society.
Melissa Breau: Focus on the emotions and not just the behavior.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s stripping it back to the real core, and the beauty is it’s all done with reinforcement. It’s all on just focusing on what you want the dog to do versus the symptoms of - let’s actually get down to the real nuts and bolts of it, and help this dog, you know? As opposed to managing it, you know?
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. So I want to switch topics a little bit and dive into heeling, since that’s the thing you’re most well known for. At FDSA, I know that’s mostly also kind of your focus -- so since you’re in the UK, and you do FCI-style heeling... and I’m sure you get this question all the time, but can you share some of the differences between the English, FCI and North American styles of heeling? What is that?
Kamal Fernandez: So there is even from FCI obedience, to UK obedience, to AKC obedience there’s slight changes. The basic principle of how i approach teaching it is all the same stuff, I just make minor little adjustments depending on the code that you subscribe to. Obedience in the UK, the general gist of it is that we allow contact with our dogs in heelwork, that our dog can be very very close to the leg where in FCI obedience and AKC or CKC or even Australian obedience the dogs are ideally, they should be a gap or a freeness between the leg and the dog. So that’s the biggest, core, visual difference. There is technical differences between FCI obedience and, say, AKC and that is a different requirement of the test, in the UK our test is probably a lot longer than American heeling, in that it can go up to 5 or 6 minutes of heeling, you can do patterns, you can do weaving, you can do circles, you can do changes of pace and you do positions in motion. So our heeling is probably more complex, in a lot of ways, than AKC heeling. The FCI heeling test there’s actually quite a lot to it, because they do changes of pace, they do positions in motion, they do side-step heeling, they do different little intricate moves. So there’s complexities to FCI heeling that again, it just makes it interesting. Anybody that’s a heelwork or heeling junkie i think that they appreciate that heeling is quite a complex exercise, there’s so many entities to it, there’s so many layers to it, and anybody that’s into detail, that’s into the fanatical little details of dog training would love heeling and the way in which i teach it.
Melissa Breau: So, talking about how you teach it… How do you approach teaching heelwork? How do you start? Or how do you approach the bigger picture and break it all down?
Kamal Fernandez: Yea, so everything is component trained in my training. Everything is broken down into tiny tiny little pieces of a puzzle and the pieces of the puzzle probably look nothing like the greater exercise or the greater goal, but what it does is it allows me to fast track the process of me teaching my dog heeling. And what looks like a very complex exercise for the dog is actually very simple because it’s broken down into tiny little sections. I use a combination of shaping the dog and i will use lures but I fade the lure very very quickly. I minimize the use of a lure, but I use it very, very specifically, and I’m very aware of the times that I would use a lure. I’m looking for the dog to perform heeling with both drive and enthusiasm, but also accuracy and have a really comprehensive knowledge of its body, where it’s body should be, where it’s feet placement should be, where every single part of its position is. So it’s quite a detailed process, and I’d say for people that really like the details of dog training. It’s definitely one of the exercises they would gravitate to and this methodology is… also I appreciate that this methodology and this approach isn’t for everybody because it’s quite… it’s quite intense and quite intricate in some of the maneuvers and handling. But once you have trained it, the way in which i explain it to people it’s like you’ve got a dressage horse, which has the ability to react to a slight little adjustment in movement and they understand the tiniest little detail. For me, it gives the dog a greater level of knowledge and confidence and understanding, and also the end picture to me is far more appealing.
Melissa Breau: So you mentioned in there that you break it down, sometimes even to pieces that don’t necessarily look like heelwork - do you have an example of that, just so that we can wrap our brains around what you’re talking about there?
Kamal Fernandez: Yes, so one of the things I would teach would be a hand target, and i use the hand target as a means to teach the dog that then i transfer the hand target to a heelwork position, and then i transfer the hand target on my leg and I fade that out of the equation. So that would be one example.
Another example - i teach the dog to do a foot target. The dog has to position its foot in a very specific place, next to the instep of my left foot. So again that one detail looks nothing like the picture of your dog moving and being in motion, but those two simple exercises - a hand target and a foot target - are core entities of how i teach heeling.
Melissa Breau: So, in your bio I mentioned you use games and play to create motivation and control… and those two things, they can often seem like total polar opposites when you’re actually training. How do you walk that fine line to achieve balance?
Kamal Fernandez: You know, this stuff that we ask our dogs to do is largely mundane and boring, and unless there’s an element within the dog that finds the behavior self-rewarding, like tracking or herding can be intrinsically rewarding for some dogs, but the stuff certainly for obedience for a lot of dogs can be very mundane and very monotonous, if there’s a lot of repetition in it, which for a lot of dogs, they’re not going to relish the thought of. So for me, the baseline commitment is i have to create the dog wanting to do this mundane boring stuff. Because at the end of the day it’s just about my ego and my goals, the dog doesn’t really care. He’d be quite happy going for a long walk and having a good time chasing little furry things. So for me i make that committment to motivate my dogs and to make sure the dog wants to engage in every part of their training. In doing so, obviously i need to create motivation, i need to build drive. But I’m always balancing that with self control around the reinforcement and I would do that, again, in my foundation. So there’s foundation games that I play with my dogs that I strongly advise anybody in dog sports to make sure you have these skills. But there’s also a lot of listening and a lot of thinking while in a high state of arousal that I implement via those games. So then when I move that onto actually teaching an exercise, the dog already has the ability to have self control, to have impulse control, understands the concept of proofing, etc. So the two things to me, although they are polar opposites, they’re both striving for the same thing. You know, to have a dog that has loads and loads of enthusiasm, but is largely out of control, to me is displeasing to the eye. To have a dog that has lots of accuracy, if you want or technical correctness, but has no spirit or soul, to me, again is unpleasing to the eye. So it’s about having both ends, and the reason i love obedience so much is that the sport itself is almost like a conflict of both those things; you absolute drive and accuracy, and it’s so hard to get both and that to me is the appeal. I would say that to me, the most skilful trainers in the world, that I’ve seen, are from an obedience background and they have a strong obedience background, and the ability to create drive but also ultimately accuracy which i think, to me, is the absolute pinnacle of dog training.
Melissa Breau: Kind of understanding those two and creating the balance, and having a dog that exhibits both of them so clearly.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, absolutely. It’s always a battle. When you get one, you create drive, you lose accuracy; when you create accuracy you lose drive; and the two things, I always say, it’s about tipping the scale -- and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone in there competitively and I’ve gone, wow my dog absolutely… it’s like always get one thing and then you lose another; that’s what you’re striving for. It’s a bit like winning the lottery, that one day when everything goes in your favor and all the years of training culminates in that magic moment, so to speak.
Melissa Breau: So what it sounds like what you’re saying is it’s almost a constant process -- you’re training one, and then you’re training the other. And then you’re training one…
Kamal Fernandez: It’s constantly in play. But to me that’s the joy in it really, you never stop training, you never stop learning and you never stop growing, really.
Melissa Breau: Well, it’s time for us to get to the last 3 questions that I ask everyone who comes on the show. So first, what’s the dog-related accomplishment you’re proudest of?
Kamal Fernandez: There’s so many things, and not necessarily competitively related that I’m very proud of. I would say I’m proud of the first dog i ever trained competitively, he became an obedience champion and that was a bit of a personal journey as well as a dog training journey, so that was something that I’m immensely proud of.
And the other thing that I’m also proud of when it comes to dogs, was being involved with Dogs Might Fly, a project where we took rescue dogs and we taught them to fly a plane as part of a project on television. The proudest moment in that is that those dogs were largely just discarded; they were rescue dogs. The impact, all those dogs found homes, but that was members of the production crew, largely -- like the makeup artist had one, the cameraman had another, a couple of trainers took dogs on, and it was great; everybody was so for the dogs in that project, it was all about the dogs and showing what can be achieved with good dog training and also that rescue dogs are capable of such great things, so I’d say that was something I’m very proud of, to be involved with something that had such a positive outcome.
Melissa Breau: So, wait a minute - back up. You taught them to fly a plane?
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, yeah! So it’s a project I did - oh god, it’s got to be about two years ago now. We took 12 rescue dogs and we were with them for probably about… oh gosh, it was all the summer, so it must have been 6-8… probably 6 months? And we took these 12 dogs and they were literally sourced across the country, all rescue dogs, like one of them was due to be put to sleep the next day, another one was discarded… loads of different background stories, and we were involved with rehabbing them, from whatever issues they had and teaching them basic skills, and then the end goal, 3 of the dogs from the 12 were selected to go on to be trained to control and fly a plane. It was on Sky television - I don’t know if you have that in the States, but it was a really, really great project to be involved with. Victoria Stilwell was involved with it, a guy called Mark Vette, who was involved with the driving dogs, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that on YouTube…
Melissa Breau: I haven’t, but now I’m going to have to go look it up.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, search for Driving Dogs, Mark Vette. So that was, it was his brain child and I was one of the trainers involved with doing it, so that was a really really rewarding project.
Melissa Breau: So when you say fly a plane, what exactly were they doing? What was the behavior…?
Kamal Fernandez: The dog had to control the plane. So it was on a rig. The plane was got… by a pilot up, because they couldn’t do it to land and to take off, but once the plane was flying, the dog had to control the plane and perform a figure of eight, and they ended up with 3 dogs -- actually I saw one yesterday, Thursday and Friday, a friend of mine now owns him -- and they took 3 dogs and they flew up in the air. If you google it, Dogs Might Fly, you’ll see all the information about it.
Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah and one of the dogs that I trained, because what happened was there was two phases, there was the initial phase, where they had the 12 dogs, and then they selected out of the 12 dogs the 3 dogs, and then they were passed on to 3 trainers to work intensively on it, and initially there were 4 trainers who were given 3 dogs each, and then they were whittled down to 3 dogs and then they took 3 trainers on. And one of the dogs that I worked with closely, his name was Reggie, he was a labrador-german shepherd cross, he went on to be one of the dogs that flew the plane.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.
Kamal Fernandez: So that’s really rewarding and he now lives in New Zealand, and when I went back to New Zealand recently I went and met him and he gave me the most amazing welcome, and I put it on instagram and what-have-you; just an amazing dog.
Melissa Breau: For our listeners - I will try and find the links to those videos and share them in the show notes, so you guys don’t have to go google a ton. They will be right there for ya. Okay, so this is usually my favorite question, though i think you might have beat it with that last one…
What’s the best piece of training advice you’ve ever heard?
Kamal Fernandez: The best piece of training advice I think is a Bob Bailey-ism, and I those well versed in dog training, or animal training… it’s just Think. Plan. Do. Review. So think what you want to train, plan your training sessions, then go do it and then go and review your training sessions. That’s one thing and the other thing is use video recording devices to record your training sessions; it’s absolutely revolutionized my own personal training. It’s like I have my own instructor that’s with me 24/7 and whenever i want him to he can turn up and give me feedback about my dog training. If nothing else, I would suggest that everybody do both, which is what the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is so great for, using the medium of the internet and video to facilitate great learning and i think it just encapsulates how powerful that resource can be if used effectively. And I know people are a little bit self conscious and a little paranoid about watching themselves, but by gosh, you will glean the benefits 10-fold over. So I’d say those two bits of advice -- Think. Plan. Do. And review your training - so be a mindful dog trainer as opposed to a reactive or responsive dog trainer, be thoughtful, be efficient in your use of your time and also video your training sessions.
Melissa Breau: And then, finally… who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?
Kamal Fernandez: The first person who really really influenced my training was someone called Sylvia Bishop, she lives actually down the road from me now, but she was a pioneer in the concept of play equals work equals play. And Sylvia trains a lot in the states, and our training is different a little bit, now… we don’t necessarily follow the same approach to training dogs, but what i would say about Sylvia is that Sylvia was the first person that talked through the concept of -- or brought to my attention the concept of breaking exercises down into component parts and also making your training a game. And she was so far ahead of her time, when she was around and god she’s been training dogs for… it’s got to be 40-50 years now. And when she first came into dogs or obedience it was very very compulsion based and she was one of the first people that openly used toys and play, etc as a medium to train dogs. So she was somebody that was a massive influence, although as I say our paths are different now, and that’s absolutely fine, i have the utmost respect for her in terms of the influence she had on me. The second person, or group of people, I would say is a really close friend of mine -- somebody called Susanne Jaffa, who is a british obedience trainer and working trials trainer, and she trains australian shepherds and she’s one of the people that really really influenced my change over to clicker training, and she’s again one of the first people that made - or one of the first people that was very very successful clicker training. There was somebody else, who now lives in Canada, a friend of mine called Kathy Murphy. They were the people that were really vocal about, we’re going to clicker train our dogs, and we’re going to do it and be successful at it.
The other person who I’m sure numerous people will quote is Susan Garrett; anybody that knows me knows that I’m a massive, massive Susan Garrett fan. I think she’s phenomenal in what she does, I think being a bit cynical, the internet and good marketing, often create the illusion of somebody being a good dog trainer but having been in Susan’s presence when she’s trained her dogs she’s a phenomenal, phenomenal… her timing… and I would say all those people have what i call dog training hands. You can tell if somebody has dog training hands just by watching them; You know, the way in which they move, they interact, and she has a very comprehensive knowledge of science, and the science behind what she does. But her ability to interact, read, and the relationship she has with her dogs, there’s nothing put on or fake about it. What you see is very much what you get. Yeah, but those are the people for me that I look up to, admire, and I constantly, if i was ever going to look for… and I look in the most weird and wonderful places for inspiration and ideas for my own training, but those would most definitely be…
And the other person is Bob Bailey. Bob Bailey, world-renowned animal trainer, a constant reminder of what is effective dog training or animal training, reinforcement placement, etc etc, the endless list of pearls of wisdom that Bob gives out. So yeah, those are the ones that have really influenced me, or that I look up to, I should say.
Melissa Breau: Awesome, well thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Kamal Fernandez: No, my pleasure.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week with Melissa Chandler to discuss nosework, parkour, and problem solving for soft dogs. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in 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 BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Amy is the owner of Great Dane Photos and teaches the dog photography classes offered through FDSA.
She is the also official show photographer for many of the premier agility events in the United States, including the AKC National Agility Championships, AKC Agility Invitational, USDAA Cynosport World Games, and NADAC Championships, as well as numerous local trials, regional events, and breed national specialties. She has photographed a wide variety of dog sports, including agility, obedience, rally, and conformation, and dog events, including FDSA camp.
Her start in professional photography came by taking pictures of her friends' dogs at conformation shows, and quickly grew to outpace her interest in showing her own dog -- and today she’s here to talk to us about the reason a great number of people use the internet each day -- dog photos!
To be released 8/11/2017, featuring Kamal Fernandez talking about FCI heeling and balancing motivation and control.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sport using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Amy Johnson. Amy is the owner of Great Dane Photos and teaches the dog photography classes offered through FDSA. She is also the official show photographer for many of the premiere agility events in the United States including the AKC National Agility Championships, the AKC Agility Invitational, the USDAA Cynosports World Games, and the NADAC Championships, as well as numerous local tryouts, regional events, and breed national specialties.
She has photographed a wide variety of dog sport including agility, obedience, rally and conformation, and dog events including the FDSA's Camp. Her start in professional photography came by taking pictures of her friend's dogs at conformation shows, and it quickly grew to outpace her interest in showing her on dog, and today she's here to talk to us about the reason a great number of people use the internet each day, dog photos. Hi, Amy, welcome to the podcast.
Amy Johnson: Hi, Melissa. Thanks so much for having me on.
Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat.
Amy Johnson: I am too.
Melissa Breau: So to kind of start us out, do you want to just tell us a little bit about the dogs you have, who they are, and what you're working on with them?
Amy Johnson: Sure. I have two dogs and one of them is here in my office with me, and well, if he makes any noise, but his name is Costner, as in Kevin, and so he is a Great Dane, a Fawn Great Dane, if anybody is interested in those details. He's about 39 inches at the shoulder, about 190 pounds, and that is ribs still visible kind of. That's just how big he is. so he's kind of a goof. We joke that he just has 3 neurons, he can eat, sleep and poop, and you know, he's just a really good hang out around the house dog. And then our other dog is a 60-pound Yellow Lab mix and her name is Dora. We don’t do a lot with our dogs. They are companions, they like to go on walks, they like to go for hikes in the woods, they like to just be near us, and so they don’t have any real special skills.
Melissa Breau: I assume they can pose.
Amy Johnson: They can pose. Although Costner is…if I try and put a camera in his face he generally kind of backs off and is like, what's that? So his actual special skill is that he is an AKC Breed Champion, and I cannot take any credit for that because we got him after his championship was finished from a friend of ours who were involved in the breeding of him, so he can look really pretty, so that’s his special skill. He just doesn’t really enjoy looking pretty, so what gets posted online of him are funny things where he's got drool or his lips are spread out on the floor where he's lying down, or you know, he's massive, and he takes up huge amounts of space, and so the pictures that I take are the ones that are just trying to show that and communicate that. We joke that he's a house pony, you know, he's not even really a dog, he's horse size, and then Dora…it's funny because she's the small dog in the house that people look at me and suddenly say we have a 60-pound dog that's considered the small dog, and then they, you know, okay, but she's got a few more brain cells in there. I do joke that I have to have dogs in my house that are dumber than me, so to call Costner not that smart is really, in our house, it's not an insult. That's just my reality. I admire the people who have the Border Collies, and the Jack Russells, and the Shih Tzus, and all those really, really smart dogs. That is not who I am and what I want to live with, so we have just dogs that are really good dog citizens and they know the routines. Costner knows that he has to sit before he gets his food. Sometimes he just stays sitting, even after I put his food down, but so we have our routines, but basically, we just want our dogs to be good citizens, and I think we've kind of got a good balance of that, so.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. So I mentioned in your bio that you got your start taking photos at conformation events. Was that kind of where your interest in photography started? Where did kind of you get started just in photography in general?
Amy Johnson: In general, I got started back in junior high. My dad had a Minolta film camera, SLR camera, manual focus, and he taught me the basics of photography, the basics of exposures. So he taught me about shutter speed, and aperture, and at that point it was called film speed, now it's called ISO, but he taught me the basics of the exposure triangle, as it's called, and how to focus a manual focus camera, and how to set my exposure so that I expose the film properly. I never did any dark room work. It was always take the 35mm film canister to the WalMart, or wherever, and get it developed, so I'm not quite that much of a purist, but my beginnings definitely were in film, and with my dad, and we would vacation on the North Shore of Lake Superior here in Minnesota, and so he would take pictures, and then he would show me how to take pictures, and so kind of that father-daughter bond was really enhanced by our experience with him teaching me how to use a camera, and how to take pictures, so I kind of babbled with it throughout the years as I was growing up.
I was given by my brother and my parents one year for my birthday they gave me a film Sor of my own, and this was a little more advanced. It was a Canon EOS Elan II, I think, and it had autofocus, so I didn’t have to do the manual focus thing anymore, which you know, there's a little skill involved in manual focus, and I admired the photographers who could do it, and do it well. It's not my thing, but I understand the appeal of it. It kind of forces you to slow down and really takes things in, but so I had a film Sor that I, again, just kind of kept babbling, and various things, and then I got into dog shows, and that’s a whole long story that we could talk about some other time, but I was showing my second Great Dane, her name was McKenzie, I was showing her in conformation. I was terrible, awful. She didn't have the temperament for it. I didn’t have the skills for it. We tried for about a year and didn’t really get anywhere other than I made a lot of friends, and really enjoyed learning about the conformation world, and understanding even just the rhythm of a conformation show, and understanding okay, these dogs are going in the ring, and then they're coming out, and then they're going back in, and so you know, it's very confusing at first, and then you kind of figure out oh, okay, I know what's going on, those dogs aren’t going back in, and yeah. So I learned a lot about dog shows, and I learned a lot about the people who breed dogs, and that was fascinating to me.
I was taking a camera to most shows that I went to and just taking pictures of my friends, and then one time, and this was actually with a digital camera, one of the very, very early digital cameras that actually use the three and a quarter inch floppy disks in it, so not even memory cards. These were, you know, not the five and a quarter, but I think they're three and a half inch floppy disks, and that was your memory card, so and that didn't respond very fast to a dog moving across the ring, you know, you'd hit the shutter button and about two seconds later it would actually take the picture. Well, there's no more dog left in the frame if it takes that long to take the picture, so one time I brought my film camera with me and really enjoyed the success I had with getting dogs moving in the ring, rather than just the ones where they were stacked. So then my vet invited me to photograph her club's agility trial, and that's where it really kind of took off for me, so I really enjoyed the different games, I think it was a USDAA trial, but I'm not 100 percent sure, but the different games were, you know, some were all jumps, and some where you didn’t know where the dog was going to go, which I know now are gamblers, and again, that camaraderie around the ring, of all the people and their dogs, was really intriguing to me, and just was very welcoming and fun, and there was a market for the photos there. There was nearly no market back in ‘99, 2000 for candid photos ringside at conformation shows. Nobody was doing them, nobody knew what those were, you know, but agility trials, on the other hand, there was a market for that, people understood what that was, people likes pictures of their dog doing agility, so there was a market there for it being a business, not just a, you know, I'm going to show up and have fun.
So I did one agility trial with a film camera, and then quickly realized that I would go broke on film and processing, and then digital SLR's were just coming out, so this was in 2000, and I convinced my poor husband to let me buy a digital SLR, the Canon D30, and as he's hitting submit order on B&H's website he's looking at me saying, "just promise me you'll try and make some money from this," and the camera paid for itself in I think two shows. We realized we had kind of a winning formula there, and so I never have even thought about going back to film, of course, and digital cameras have gotten amazingly good, and amazingly fast, and responsive, and make my job easier with every new camera that I get, so.
Melissa Breau: Can you show a little more about how you went kind of from that stage of your business to where you are now, because now you do really, really, big shows, and I mean, just kind of interesting evolution.
Amy Johnson: Right. Yeah. It started out as me and the camera, and sometimes my husband would come. My first national event was actually in 2001, and you know, I look back on this and I really had no business doing it, but I was invited, again, so the social aspect of it, I had made friends, and they said will you come, and I said okay, sure. So 2001 they'd have championships and it was in Minnesota, it was in Mankato, which is about, I think, five hours south of me, and so it wasn’t like going out of state, and I made the leap. Now, the only really interesting part of this was I had a five-week-old baby at that point, so it was me, and a camera, and Ben, my husband, and Mika, our five-week-old baby, who made the trip down to Mankato, and I had told my friends who were in charge of the show, I had said if this isn’t working for me with having a baby here we're going to just have to cut and run at some point, and they were like, that’s fine, you know, you do what you need to do, but it all worked, and we had an amazing time, and I got an exposure to what a national events was, and there's a lot of adrenaline that comes with that.
In 2007, I was invited to AKC Agility Nationals, so from 2001 to 2007 I was just mostly doing weekend stuff, 07 was AKC Nationals, and again, it was still just me and Ben. Ben was in the booth running the sales side of things, I was taking pictures. Gradually, over the years, I've added photographers, and over the past two years, maybe two and a half, when I go to a national event I've really tried to make sure I had a photographer in every ring, and then also increase the size of my booth staff so that if someone comes through the booth and wants to look at pictures they don’t have to wait to get some help to do that. So the whole business has been a very gradual…well, let's try this now, and let's add this now, and what if we do this, or what if we change this. I've never taken out huge loans for the business. It's always just kind of grown under its own as it can support more, you know, I'll put a little more money out, and then it's just been a very gradual, making sure everything still feels as comfortable as it can be when you're running your own business.
Melissa Breau: You started to talk for a minute there just about having a photographer on each ring and things like that. What's that process, like you mentioned, you know, having a booth, and then having people shooting photos. I mean, how do you get from one to the other and handle all of that in the midst of a big show going on?
Amy Johnson: A lot of deep breaths and a lot of screaming in my head that I don’t let come out of my mouth. No, it's all good. I think if I had tried to go from me, and a camera, and my husband to covering six rings, and having six staff in the booth, you know, and the funny thing, I would have probably decided it was crazy and I was never going to do that again, but it went from…so one of the early AKC Nationals that I did probably in 08 or 09, there was me that was there, Great Dane photos was there, plus another photography vendor was there, so we just very amicably divided it. Well, okay, I'll take these rings on these days, and you take those rings on those days, and so there were two photographers there, and each of us had, I think, at least two photographers that we could cover all the rings, but it was between two different companies, and so that’s okay. I can manage a few people in the booth and a few people out shooting for me, and then it's just gradually shifted to where AKC and these different agility organizations have said, you know, I mean, if you can cover the whole thing we're happy to allow you to do that, and so if It was a sudden transition I would've probably not managed it, but just gradually adding more and more. It's like anything, once you are comfortable at one level of participation you kind of go oh, let's see, how else could I get involved, or what more can I add onto my plate, and you know, at some point you may go oh, that’s too much, but adding photographers has been kind of just word of mouth, and knowing people from other events.
One photographer who had shot for me I had seen his work from a previous special event, and he did a really nice job, and so I invited him to come and work for me, and that's actually happened a couple of times. One of my photographers is someone who approached me at a trial here in Minnesota, and said you know, I'm really interested in this, do you want to just take a peek at what I've done, and she lived close enough to me that she could come to a lot of my different local shows, and I could mentor her, and well, okay, that shot didn’t work so well, so what could we do differently, or oh, well, that’s a great one, if you get a chance to do that kind of a shot again, go for it, so I think that’s the beginnings of the education peaks, you know, I really enjoyed that mentoring process, and she now shoots…I mean, our styles are very similar, and so it makes it really easy to have her in the booth or as a photographer because the experience for the customer is that’s a Great Dane photoist's photo, not that’s Amy's, and that’s so and so's, and oh, that’s another person. It's all very cohesive and that's really important to me that the experience is one of I can go in any ring and get a good photo, not oh, shoot, I'm not in that ring today, so I'm not sure what I'm going to get, so yeah.
Melissa Breau: So I'd imagine that there are probably more than a handful of unique challenges that come with photographing dogs, especially sorts dogs, compared to people, or other common photography subjects. Do you mind just talking about what some of those challenges are and how you guys deal with them?
Amy Johnson: Sure. The most unique challenges really do come with the dog sports, especially…it all comes down to speed. You can have an Olympic sprinter in an Olympic stadium doing their race, and I can track that with a camera really easily. Cameras have been tuned to recognize the human form and whatever algorithms are built into their little tiny brains these days. Well, and if you think about it, so many cameras have facial recognition, well, how does it know what a face is and what is a face? Well, it's not looking for dog faces, it's looking for human faces, so there's something about the human from that a camera has been tuned to identify, and prioritize, and its ability to focus. So I'm constantly fighting against some of those things that are engineered into the cameras, so fast, black dogs in bad light are like my nemesis. They are, and the smaller they are, and the fuzzier they are, the worse it gets, but I've taken that on as a challenge. Okay, so that is my hardest subject, fast, tiny, fuzzy, black dogs in bare light, so what I do is make sure that my film and my gear is all prioritizing being able to take a picture of that worst-case dog, and it's nothing against black dogs, believe me, but they are just the hardest thing to photograph, and there's nothing like that in the human sports, or even cars, or you know, whatever.
There's nothing like it out there, and so that’s the most unique challenge I think, and so every time a new camera comes out I'm always hoping for some feature that makes my job of photographing a small, fuzzy, black dog in bad light a little bit easier, but even just the typical dog, you know, they do move very fast, they can move in very unexpected directions, they have really good reflexes, and so tracking that motion can be very difficult. They don't speak English, so if you want to tell them hey, pose for me, you got to figure out what that word is, you know, is it treat, or is it go for a ride, or is it are you ready. Figure out what the trigger word is to make their ears go up, and their mouth close, and their eyes kind of get a little brighter and go oh, oh, something's going to happen, and then that's the moment you click, as opposed to a human where you just say okay, look at the camera, and then you say cheese, right, and everybody follows directions. Now, when you get a teenager who's really not into this you might still get some not so great results, but at least you can speak to them in a common language. Well, and the other challenge I'm fighting that is actually fascinating to me is as people work on their relationship with their dog, which is a fabulous thing, and that’s one of my favorite things about going to a dog show and seeing those relationships, but as they do that it makes it really hard for me if I'm trying to do a picture of the human, and the dog, and a ribbon, the dog is gazing adoringly at the human, and I can't get them to look at the camera. I don’t care what word I throw out. There are times where the dog won't look at me because they are so engaged with their human, and that's a lovely thing, and generally, it's not been a problem, you know, the person is generally okay with that, but still, if you want to get the dog it's kind of a funny, you know, it's a good thing that the dog is so engaged with their person, but it makes my job just a little bit harder, so it's those weird things.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned kind of following gear, and new things coming out, and things like that, so I was curious what equipment you use and you know, you kind of got a little bit into the why there, but if there's more you want to elaborate on?
Amy Johnson: Sure. No, and oh man, I could talk gear for hours. I love gear. I love camera gear, and it's a really good thing I have a job that lets me write it off because otherwise, that would be a problem. So I shoot canon, primarily, and I have canon's top of the line sports camera. It's called the 1D X Mark II. It is their latest and greatest and it shoots 14 frames a second. It has a really high ISO rating or can shoot at a really high ISO, which is the piece that's critical in shooting in the really bad lighting, and actually, my definition of bad lighting is somewhat different than the average Joe Shmoe on the street, you know, a camera needs a descent amount of light to shoot in, and our eyes are amazing, our eyes can really come in the huge range of lighting conditions, and cameras aren’t quite to that point yet, so I need to high ISO so that I can have a high shutter speed so I can stop the motion of my small, fuzzy, black dog in bad light. A Canon Body is the best that money can buy, at least in terms of an SLR. I use what's called fast glass, and that means that it's a lens with a really big opening for the light, it's a big aperture, and so my favorite lens for shooting agility is a 400mm F2.8, as my husband says, it just means is has a really big light bucket so it can collect a lot of light, and make sure I'm getting enough light to again, get that fast shutter speed so that I can stop motion.
I also have a Nikon camera, and I bought that about six months ago, primarily, because I felt like I needed to learn Nikon camera bodies for my students. I am able to give really specific advice and troubleshooting information about Canons, and I was not able to give that same level of troubleshooting advice for Nikons, so I got a Nikon D500, which is not quite the top of the line, but it's a really good performance camera for wildlife, and I got a big lens for it, and I use that for a lot of my bird photography these days. So learning the other major brand of camera has been a really good experience for me. It's given me a new appreciation for oh, yeah, this is what it's like to open up a camera that you've never had your hands on before, and be a little overwhelmed by all those buttons, and dials, and menu items, and all that, but yeah. So my equipment, I tend to get the best I can, which is easier for me to justify, again, because it's a business, as opposed to just a hobby, you know, you got to be a little more careful about how you spend that money, but I do love gear. You know, there's also of course, all these accessories. There's monopods and tripods, you know, there's more lenses than just that 400mm, and that could be a whole other podcast episode.
Melissa Breau: It's really kind of awesome that you are able to provide that kind of support in a class or to a student when you're talking about a Nikon versus a Canon. I would love to dive a little more into what you cover in your classes at FDSA. What are some of the skills you teach? I know right now I think there are two classes... Are there more than that on the calendar?
Amy Johnson: Right now, what's coming up in August are two classes. One of them is my foundation class called Shoot the Dog, and in that class, we really just start from assuming people are starting from ground zero. We learn the basics of exposure, we talk about shutter speed, we talk about aperture, we talk about ISO, we talk about the effects that each of those has on the way a photo looks, as well as just the technical details of, what does it mean to have a fast shutter speed, or what does it mean to have a wide open aperture versus a closed down aperture, and then what does ISO mean? We don’t delve too deeply into the uber techie stuff, but we do talk about that a bit, but really, it comes down to if I change the shutter speed how does that change how my photo looks? If I change the aperture how does that change how my photo looks? When should I care most about aperture, and when should I care the most about shutter speed, and we really work on kind of creating photos that communicate to a broader audience than just you yourself.
So one of my students used the phrase that she had read somewhere, and I don’t where, but the difference in doing an emotional portrait and a photograph, and we kind of laughed about it at first, but the more I think about it I think that’s an important distinction. If I take a quick snapshot of my dog and it's not really in focus, and the light's really not that great, but there is something in that expression that just screams oh, that’s my dog, that’s like the essence of my dog. It doesn’t matter about the technical bits. It doesn’t matter if it's not quite as sharp as I would want it to be. It's an emotional portrait. I have an emotional connection to that. Now, if I post that online my friends are probably going to say oh, that’s great, yes, that looks like Costner, that is so Costner, that's wonderful, but if I post it to a photography site in general, they're going to think I'm crazy because they can't see that emotion, they don’t know my dog, they don’t understand that, that is his quick, essential, expression. They think I can't really see what's going on in his face because the photo's a little dark, and I can't see his eyes all that well because it's really not that in focus, so what I really want students to do is to be able to conquer those technical bits, the sharpness, and the exposure so that they can make the soul of the photo really come through, and be obvious to anybody, rather than have all the technical stuff be in the way and mask the true soul of that photo, the true meaning of that photo. So that's a hard thing for people to do because it takes stepping back and really applying a critical eye to your photos and saying oh, yeah, I see how I can see the dog's expression, but I can see how someone else wouldn't be able to see it and read it as clearly as I can, because they don’t have the emotional connection to the dog, to the subject that I do. So that's something that really has started to be a common thread in all of my classes. We want to move beyond the emotional portraits, and believe me, they have their place, you know, I don’t have any beef with them, but in my classes I want to move beyond that and into something that can speak to a broader audience, and get that emotional connection across.
Melissa Breau: So in August you're teaching a foundational class, and what's the other class that you're offering?
Amy Johnson: The other class is called Chase the Dog, and this is kind of my wheelhouse, and that is dogs motion, so we'll talk about…I kind of break it down into two different kinds of motion. There's motion that's predictable, and motion that's unpredictable, so the prime example of motion that’s predictable is agility, and you know, in general, there are always exceptions, but in general, the dog will go where it's supposed to go. There's a pre-established path, their obstacles are numbered. You do this one, and then you do that one, and then so I know when I can anticipate where the dog is going to be at any point in that run, so I can do things differently with that than if I'm just photographing a dog that is having a good romp in the field for play time, so that would be the unpredictable motion. So you let your dog out and you want to take pictures of it just playing around. Well, unless you set up some sort of fencing it just portions the dog's path, you know, you have no idea where that dog's going to go, so tracking that…camera's, you know, there's a limit to how fast they can track that motion, and then there's a limit of how fast I physically can track that motion, and this is where our fast dogs…you know, this is tough, there's a lot of skills, and a lot of practice that just has to happen of getting that muscle memory in you, and once you can track your own dog really well that doesn’t necessarily mean you can track another dog, because all the dogs have a different rhythm, they all have their own unique characteristics about how they move.
So the class is really about offering some skills for how to do both predictable and unpredictable motion, but it's also about setting some realistic expectations of what can I expect to get out of, you know, a 10 minute photo session with a dog just running and playing in the field? Well, you're not going to end of with every photo being perfectly in sharp, or perfectly in focus, and you know, a true winner. You're going to get a lot of junk, and that's okay, and that process of being okay with the junk is really hard, and take someone like me saying it's okay, I have those too, and what students in the class are going to see are a lot of my…you know, rather than just the edited versions, here are the ones that I kept, they're going to see well, here was a whole series that I shot, and notice how many of those were actually good photos, and notice how many of those were not so great. Here's my junk. They're going to get to see my junk photos. Okay, well, I better be a little more careful here. They're going to get to see my junk photos, and I think that’s a really important process to understand that there's no camera in the world good enough to capture everything, so let's talk about what's realistic, let's talk about what you can expect, let's talk about ways to increase the percentage of those keepers, but let's also become comfortable with the idea that you're going to have some clunkers in there.
Melissa Breau: Now I wanted to ask if there's one piece of advice that you can give listeners, something they can start working on today or tomorrow, to help them take better photos of their dogs, what would that be?
Amy Johnson: The first piece of advice I give everyone who asks me that question is to get down to the dog's level, and it's really easy, and it's really basic, and it does not matter what kind of camera you have, but if you change your perspective instead of shooting the photo from your standing height and looking down on the dog, get down to their level. You know, if you've got a tiny little dog it may mean that you are on your belly in the grass taking a picture of that dog, but you will be amazed at how much of a difference that makes in the photo of your dog. If you don’t want to get down to their level then bring them up to your level, so if you have a grooming table throw a nice tablecloth over it and put the dog up on the grooming table. Bring the dog up to your level. Just be on the same level as the dog that you're trying to take a picture of and it transforms the whole thing, so that’s my go to piece of advice for anybody.
Melissa Breau: That's great because that’s something that people can really just go do.
Amy Johnson: Yeah. Exactly.
Melissa Breau: I know that we're talking about kind of a little bit of a different subject than we usually do here on the podcast, but I still wanted to ask you those key questions that I always ask at the end of an episode, because I'm going to let you go into photography related stuff if you so choose. So to start, what's the dog or photography related accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Amy Johnson: There's the experience of going to the national and that's huge, that's great, and there's a feeling of kind of I've arrived with that, but the most recent thing that I'm proudest of is actually my experience at camp. I had five of my students that came and were my minions, as I called them, and they were the ones who actually did all of the photography for the events at camp, and being able to stand back and watch them in action I was really proud of them, and that was a more of a feeling of accomplishment than going to a national. Don't get me wrong, I love going to nationals, I love interacting with people, I love watching a great run, and then being able to find them later and say I saw that run and that was phenomenal, and it was beautiful, and I was so happy I was able to capture that for you, but working with students and then watching them take the skills they've learned in my classes and do that for others, you know, capture those moments, that was cool, that was really hard to beat. And now to extend on that, one of my sons is showing interest in photography, and he was able to shoot the jumpers courses at AKC trial that I had shot last weekend, and so again, when I had a break I went over to his ring and just stood back and watched, and seeing the next generation whether it's, you know, the literal next generation or just a new group of photographers that have come through my courses, being able to pass that information on has been really an amazing experience.
Melissa Breau: That's really cool because it's something that you managed to learn from your father and now you're passing it on to others.
Amy Johnson: Exactly. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: What is the best piece of advice, and this can be either production or photography, that you've ever heard, and bonus points if it applies to both, but it doesn’t have to.
Amy Johnson: The best thing that I've learned to do over the years, and I don’t know that it's ever been told to me exclusively, but it's the thing that I have learned to do is to slow down, and to think, and to just breath, and so that is the thing that I try and tell my students all the time because there's this urge to…the action in front of me is happening really fast and so that means I have to grab my camera fast, and throw it up to my face, and press the shutter, and get the picture really fast, and it doesn’t work that way, or it doesn’t work well that way. So taking a moment to make sure your camera is set correctly for the situation you're trying to photograph, making sure that you understand what's going on in front of you, and can maybe anticipate what's going to happen next, and then just breathing because if you get out of breath or find yourself holding your breath because you're just so excited you end up messing it up more often than not. And that advice I think applies to dog training as well. Slow down, think, just breath, and that kind of brings you back to center, and lets you focus on what's important, and focus on what the task at hand is. Block out everything else that is going on around you and just take it one thing at a time, and the results will be much better.
Melissa Breau: Bonus points earned. So our last question, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?
Amy Johnson: There are two people that come to mind immediately, and it's not because of their dog training skills, it's because of the way they handle pressure in running their dog businesses, and so the first one is Denise. Who isn’t amazed by Denise and the way she handles FDSA really, and not trying to get brownie points from her, but as a business owner myself it's really important to find those people who are running their own business, and who I admire how they handle that business. You know, Denise has the pressure of thousands of students. She has the pressure of all of the instructors who…meeting some of them at camp was an eye-opening experience, and I love them all, but I admire Denise even more for her ability to handle all of us and our quirks, but to watch her handle that pressure of both the negative and the positive has become important to me. I know one of her things is people won't remember what you say, but they'll remember how you made them feel, and that is a phrase that runs through my mind constantly as I am dealing with customers, or if I'm dealing with students, and even with my family. It's changed the way I interact with everybody, including my family, and to say in my mind, you know, yes, I really want to make that snarky comment, but that's probably not the best way to handle it because it's going to make me feel better, but it's not going to do anything for our relationship, and it's not going to do anything for them and the way they feel, so that's been a really good thing for me.
The other person that I look up to for similar reasons is Carrie DeYoung, who is the head of AKC agility, and I work with her a lot because I do both of AKC's big agility events for the year, so I watch her and how she interacts with her staff, and then watch how she interacts with the exhibitors at those national events, and her calmness, and her…I have never seen her flustered. I'm sure inside there are probably moments of, you know, face palm, or screaming, or whatever, because we all have those, but she does a really good job of on the outside she holds it all together, and that’s something that I don’t always feel like I do very well, but watching her has helped me do that better, so she's another person I really admire in the way that she…granted, she doesn’t own AKC, but she is the queen bee of the agility piece, and I just really admire the way she handles all of the…I mean, if you think about any agility organization there are things that people want to tell them to do differently, things they like, things they don’t like, and to be able to handle all of that constantly takes some real talent and skill. I mean, I admire anybody who trains dogs because I don’t have that talent, and I don’t have the patience to develop it. I know that I could, but it kind of goes back to the whole I live with dogs that are dumber than me, and so I mean, I love watching good trainers, I loved coming to camp and watching all of these amazing instructors that I get to call my colleagues. I loved watching them work with people, and with dogs, and that kind of level of discipline fascinates me, so there's lots to admire about the training side in the dog world in that respect, but for me what's been most important is to find those people, and specifically, women that are at the top of their game and dealing with those pressures that come with being at the top of their game.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Amy.
Amy Johnson: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure.
Melissa Breau: It was. It was a lot of fun to chat. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Kamal Fernandez to discuss what it's like to be a man, in a female dominated job. Just kidding. We'll be chatting at FCI style of heeling and more. If you haven’t already subscribed to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.