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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

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

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Nov 24, 2017

SUMMARY:

Self-proclaimed taining nerd, Hannah Branigan is back to talk about training those clean, precision behaviors that get obedience competitors everywhere drooling... tuck sits and fold back downs. 

Hannah has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 10 years. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP). Hannah is the owner of Wonderpups, LLC, and teaches workshops nationwide, as well as conducting behavior consultations, teaching private lessons, and conducting group classes on pet manners, rally, and competition obedience. She has titled her own dogs in conformation, obedience, rally, schutzhund, and agility.

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Next Episode: 

To be released 12/1/2017, featuring Julie Symons. We will be talking about Handler Scent Discrimination and AKC Scentwork.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 have Hannah Branigan, of Wonderpups Training back on the podcast to talk about creating precise behaviors — things like tuck sits and fold back downs.

Welcome back to the podcast, Hannah!

Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me!

Melissa Breau: I’m thrilled to be talking about this today. To start us out, can you just remind listeners who you are and share a little bit about the dogs you currently share your life with?

Hannah Branigan: Sure. As you said, my name is Hannah Branigan. I married into the name — the last name, not the first name; I was born with that one. My business is Wonderpups Dog Training, and I am very excited/passionate about finding training solutions using positive reinforcement techniques. I can get really nerdy really fast, but I try to kind of tone it down so that it’s appropriate for public consumption. I have a podcast as well. I am a dog trainer/podcaster, and my podcast is Drinking From The Toilet. As you can probably guess from the title, it’s a little less polished than this one, but it’s my own flavor. And my primary sport that I do with my guys is obedience, although I’m a big fan of cross-training, so I tinker in a lot of other sports. We play a lot in agility, Rugby is learning a little fly ball, we’ve tinkered in freestyle and barn hunt, we’ve done a little tracking, and some Schutzhund stuff with the big dogs, not with Rugby. And yeah, if there’s a sport out there, I’ll usually at least dip a toe because I love learning new things, and I love teaching my dogs new behaviors and seeing how everything comes together and how the principles of positive training reinforcement can apply in a wide range of settings. It’s real exciting for me and I could easily get too excited, so I’m going to stop right there. I think that’s most of it. I do have specifically, I have in my house right now, we are down to five, no, we’re down to four. Oh, that’s kind of sad. OK, we’re down to four, and I have three Belgian Tervuren, and they are Gambit, because everybody needs to know the names, Stormy and Spark, and they are, let’s see, 15, 12, and 8, respectively, and then Rugby, who is 3, is a Border Terrier. All of the Tervs are dual-titled in conformation and multiple performance sports, and then Rugby is just starting his career. He will not be titled in conformation due to, well, disqualifying physical characteristic, which he doesn’t like to talk about in public. He has just started novice, and he finished his CDSP novice title with two high-end trials and is looking forward to making his AKC novice debut, I don’t even know what date we’re on, but very soon. In the next month or two, actually, I think.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know that for most people, when they start thinking about precision skills, which will be kind of our focus today, they think fronts, finishes, maybe some heeling. But I know it’s as possible to get just as geeky about sits and downs. So I think a lot of people teach sit and down early on, then decide maybe it’s not as clean or precise as they eventually want it to be, and I wanted to ask you how you handle that. So what do you recommend? Do you just stop paying for what you don’t want? Do you create a new cue? How do you decide?

Hannah Branigan: Those are all really good questions, so just bear with me, but I get real excited! So obedience has a lot to do with sits and downs. If you think about it, the sit is a critical component of so many of the exercises in obedience. If you think about all the places where a sit comes up, so at every setup, the beginning of every exercise, we set the dog up in heel position in a sit, and then all of the halts, those are sits again, every single front, every single finish. So if you add up all of the sits that happen, like, say, in one utility run, you’re into — I did this once, I should have written it down and put it in front of me — but I think we have something like twelve or fourteen fronts and finishes, plus the halts in the heeling pattern, which you’re going to have at least one, maybe two halts and heeling, and then maybe seven or eight setups, so you have, like, twenty-something sits. And so having a dog that sits square, sits fluently, sits quickly, and can sit straight, and then we put it into all these situations, you’re already ahead of the game. And if you don’t have that, then you’re already starting from behind. So having a really clean, square tuck sit is an important piece that we want to have. And what I ran into, and what I think a lot of folks run into, is the way we are taught to teach sit, like in that first puppy class when you take before you know that you think you’re going to do dog sports, because I think most of us rarely get that first dog with the idea of, like, “I’m going to go get a puppy and go do competitive obedience.” Usually we get a puppy because we want a puppy. At least that was me. And then we go to puppy class, and puppy class goes pretty good, and we go to the next one, and the next one, and then what else could we do? And then we start getting into rally or obedience or whatever. So in most puppy classes, most people are taught to teach a sit by putting a treat in front of the dog’s nose and then you lift the treat and push it back over the dog’s back, and so as the puppy follows the treat up in the air and back, they sit down on their rump. And it’s a quick way to lure and teach a sit, and you can get a sit on cue very effectively like that. But it’s a sit where the puppy’s rear feet stay in place and the front feet walk back, so that’s what we call a rock back sit. It’s very much a weight-shifted behavior, because the puppy is looking up and following the treat over his head. A super-fast way to get a sit. And then we’ll often teach a down by luring them up into that rock back sit first, and then we pull the treat down between their paws and forward, and they crawl forward into a down. Again, it’s a super-fast way to lure a puppy into a sit and a down. It takes very little skill on the part of the trainer, the handler, but it is the exact opposite of the mechanics that we need for competitive sports. So a lot of people find themselves in a situation where they had originally taught their puppies to sit and lie down using this particular movement pattern, and then, when their dog is 3 or 4 or 5, now they suddenly care how the dog sits, and not only is their dog not sitting the way they want them to, but they’ve actively taught their dog to sit the complete opposite of what they need for participating in the sport. And that’s what happened to me, and again, I hit that kind of wall when I first started competing with my older dog. I had no idea that there was a different way to sit, like sitting that butt on the ground. And so that’s pretty good, and we had gotten her first title, we had gotten her novice title, and we were competing in open, and I could not figure out for the life of me why on every single retrieve she would hit me in the stomach with a dumbbell and then end up sitting a full arm’s length away. Like, how is that even happening? I was just totally, like, mind blown, perplexed, and some random stranger — I don’t even know who it was — on the sidelines says, “Well, it’s because she’s rocking back into the sit. If you taught her to tuck sit, that wouldn’t happen.” And I’m like, “What are you even talking about? A sit is a sit.” And now of course it’s really obvious, but it was not obvious back then. I don’t know what year that was, 2010 or something, and now I recognize what was happening was she would come in with the dumbbell, bam, punch me in the stomach with it because that’s kind of her style — she’s still like that at 15 — and then, instead of leaving her front feet in place and pulling her pelvis and her rear feet under there, which would leave her close to me, she would leave her rear feet in place and then walk her back feet into that rock back sit, so she would be a full body length away from where she started when she had that dumbbell. Which we were still able to qualify, but it was an expensive deduction that I could have avoided with the correct sit mechanics from the beginning.

Melissa Breau: So what do you do in that situation?

Hannah Branigan: Well, I can tell you we can still fix it, even in a 5-year-old dog, but it is a lot easier to fix it sooner rather than later. Starting with a 5-month-old dog is a lot easier than having a 5-year reinforcement history of rocking back into the sit. But we can actually still, we can still teach the dog, “No, I need you to actually do this differently. I need you to support your weight on your front legs and bring your hind legs underneath you for this behavior.” It is hard, because it … I think you asked earlier should we put it on a new cue, and that would certainly be ideal, because I do think that a rock back sit and a tuck sit — and the tuck sit is what we’re looking for, where the front feet stay still, and a rock back sit is what we don’t want for the purposes of halt or a front or finish — they can be easily defined as different behaviors because there are different body movements, there are different muscles involved in moving the dog through space to achieve. Even if it looks like the same end position, they’re very different movements that get the dog there. But say you have a dog that’s in open, that’s in a retrieve. There is no sit cue there. The cue is the context of you’re doing it in a retrieve, so it’s a part of the cue is that the dog has a dumbbell in her mouth, and part of the cue is you standing there with that formal front posture, and those aren’t things we can change. So we do have to recondition that old cue with a new behavior, which is harder than if we were starting from scratch. But we can still do it, which is cool, and that’s why I get so excited.

Melissa Breau: It often seems like everybody wants to talk sit, but nobody really knows how to get one. Do you want to explain why people go so crazy for a good tuck sit, and then you walked through a little bit of what a tuck sit is, but if there’s anything you want to add there for anybody who doesn’t know?

Hannah Branigan: Because a tuck sit leaves the dog’s front legs in place and this is — I’m actually having a little harder time with this than I expected, because normally when I talk about this you can see me and I can wave my hands and have a whiteboard and video, visuals, and stuff — so with a tuck sit the difference is, if you imagine your dog has four legs — or should, most have four legs, dogs have four legs — and to sit they bring their front and hind legs closer together, because the back is parallel to the ground and then we put it on a diagonal. So the dog goes from being rectangular shaped to a triangle shape. Now he can either do that by leaving the front feet in place and bringing the hind feet closer to the front feet to shorten that base, or he can leave the hind feet in place and walk the front feet back. So either the dog will … since we measure where a dog is, so for our purposes, for our sport, because this is fairly arbitrary but it is what it is, in obedience we are measuring the dog’s position and space based on where the dog’s shoulder is. So when a dog is in heel position, we are measuring that the dogs, our observable criteria, that the dog’s shoulder stays next to the human’s leg, underneath their shoulder, hip, or heel, depending on how tall your dog is, comparatively, and how tall you are. So if the dog is standing in heel position, then his front feet are in line with your front feet. You only have two feet. With your ankles, with your legs. The dog’s front feet are in line with your legs. And if the dog leaves his hind feet in place to sit and walks his front feet back, well, now he’s going to be actually out of heel position because his shoulder will move backward in space. If he leaves his front feet in place and tucks — this is where tuck sit comes from — tucks his hind legs up underneath, so he walks his hind feet closer to his front feet, his shoulder stays in one place, stays in a plane, and so he stays in heel position. So for all of our setups in heel position, all of our halts, all of our finishes, we need that tuck sit so that the shoulder stays in place, so that the dog starts and finishes the whole action in heel position. And then front’s the same basic idea, that we’re measuring front by how close a dog’s front feet are to your front feet, your hind feet, your feet, feet, feet. Your human feet. And so once the dog places those front feet there, I need them to stay put and I need him to bring his hind feet up underneath him. And so how well he can manage that action is part of how we’re scored on those halts, those finishes, and those fronts. So being able to have that set of actions, move the dog from a standing position to a sitting position, is really pretty important for performance.

Melissa Breau: For good scores in performance, at least.

Hannah Branigan: Well, for good scores and even to the point of an end cue. Because for any of our fronts, that threshold between points and an end cue is the dog has to stop within arm’s length of you, so you have to be able to reach the dog’s collar or reach for the dumbbell without moving your feet. And of course if you have a Chihuahua, it’s not going to make a big difference because a 9- or 10-inch dog can sit 9 or 10 inches further away and that’s not going to make that much difference, but if you have a big, let’s say, German Shepherd or other longer dog whose body length exceeds the length of your arm, then your dog could actually conceivably start off standing as close as possible to you for a front and end up sitting in end cue territory if they sit back further than you can reach. So it is important for the scores but may also actually be the difference between a title and no title.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people, even people who know they want a tuck sit and understand the difference, still really struggle actually to get one from their dog.

Hannah Branigan: Totally.

Melissa Breau: Why is that so hard?

Hannah Branigan: Most of the dogs that I work with, that I have seen — I don’t want to claim all dogs in all of the world, but the dogs that I have had the chance to work with either in person or online usually offer … they fall on a spectrum. They’ll offer a range of sits. So we’ll see a sit that is 100 percent tuck. The front feet plant and stay put, and everything about the dog’s weight moves forward into that sit. And we’ll see dogs that 100 percent rock back, where it almost seems no matter what the circumstances are, the hind feet stay put and the dog walks back into the sit. And then most dogs are somewhere in the middle. They’ll offer some of the time they’ll tuck sit, and some of the time they’ll rock back, and we’ll even see what I consider a hybrid, where they’ll almost move on a diagonal, and they’ll rock back with one front foot and tuck with one hind foot and so they’ll end up a little bit crooked, which also of course affects the straightness of the front or the finish. And so for some dogs that conveniently fall in the middle of the spectrum, it’s just a matter of setting up a situation where a tuck sit is a little more likely. Maybe we’re luring them into a tuck sit, or even just reinforcing them for the tucks and not reinforcing for the not tucks. And there are dogs that you get it for free. So after the dog where I learned about the difference between rock back sits and tuck sits, my next dog, Gambit, came with a tuck sit. I did nothing. It was lovely.

Melissa Breau: Lucky, lucky dog.

Hannah Branigan: Right. The universe loves balance, and I’ll tell the story about my third dog following that. But Gambit came with a tuck sit, so he came at 9, 10 weeks old. If he sat, nine times out of ten it was a front foot planted tuck sit, so that was pretty easy. I could just selectively reinforce those and then all I really had to worry about was straightness. But then my next dog was the opposite. Again, the universe loves balance. And it was … actually it’s kind of funny because it was around the same time I’m really becoming aware of these things, I’m refining my shaping skills so that I have the mental space to pay attention to that kind of detail, and she was the complete opposite. If she sat at all, it was a rock back. It was a real rock back. She’d move one-and-a-half body lengths backwards into that sit, and I was like, “That’s OK, because I’m a dog trainer and I can fix everything if I just love it enough.” I’m just kidding. But I felt like for sure this is a solvable problem, and so I was, like, “Well, I’m going to lure her into a tuck sit,” and I would put food on her nose and I would follow the very best, most effective luring motion up and forward, and she would rock back away from the food into a sit. And we would both just look at each other with rumpled brows, like, “Why aren’t you doing this right?” “No, why aren’t you doing this right? This is how we sit.” And it was actually I started to freak out a little bit. I took her to see a local trainer that was very experienced in obedience, and she basically had me doing what I was already doing and it still didn’t work, so I took her to see a seminar with another nationally recognized, very successful obedience trainer and she helped me problem-solve. We tried a couple of other things, and she couldn’t get her to lure her into a tuck sit, and we tried a couple of other things, we put her on a platform, and there was no tucks. I may as well have asked her to fly. No matter how good the food, no matter how talented and skilled the luring hand that held the food, we could not get her into a sit. She would sit all the time, but it was just a rock back sit. And so I put it on the shelf for a little while, like, I don’t know, seven months, because I couldn’t put a cue on this rock back sit because I was going to compete with this dog in obedience. And so I made, like, a really nice mental block for myself. And the piece that I realized was missing, so then I go, one of my primary defensive strategies is research. So if I don’t know what to do, or I don’t like the answer, I’ll go and “Let’s just do more research.” We can learn more about it, and that’s better than acting and actually making a decision or something. So I go and I start watching a lot of video of dogs sitting, and I watch dogs in person in trials, coming into a front, tucking and sitting, like, what are they doing, what are they doing that my dog is not doing, so that I can break this down into its individual motions. And the first thing that I’m seeing that these dogs do that’s different is that the dogs that tuck into a sit are shifting their full body weight onto their front legs before they even bend a single knee. And my dog was doing the exact opposite. Her head was coming up and she was pushing her body backwards, so her whole weight was rocking backwards to get into the sit. And so then, what happens, if your weight’s shifting backwards, you’re going to tend to move your body backwards. If your weight’s shifting forward, you’re going to tend to move your body forward. So what I needed to do was get that forward weight shift. So I started experimenting with what are places where I get that kind of weight shift. And I tried a lot of it because luring just wasn’t working. So I couldn’t get a full sit, but I could put her front paws on a target, or a low platform, or a step, and she would lean forward over that step. So then I had the weight shift and I could reinforce that. And that turned out to be the pivotal behavior to get a tuck sit out of this dog, and then of course because I’m a good scientist and so I have to test it, so then I tested on all my local clients, and then I tested on my online clients, and so dog after dog, this is the piece for all of those dogs that just seem to be incapable of tucking into the sit. Once we get that forward weight shift, not a sit but just a standing forward weight shift where they lean their weight onto their arms — their front legs, our arms; you can tell I do a lot of projection and gesturing when I’m working through these problems, and if you could see me on video now you would see that I am doing all these actions with my own body on my desk and chair, but anyways. So yeah, once we get that forward weight shift, getting the tuck sit becomes really pretty easy. And if we try to somehow skip that, it’s really hard to get the tuck sit and everybody gets frustrated. So that was the piece that finally clicked into place. And there’s lots of ways to get that weight shift, but the front feet planted, lean your weight forward, and watching her shoulder muscles — at this time she had really no coat; she has a lot more coat now, so it would be harder to see — but I could see her shoulder muscles actually working as she leaned her weight forward onto those front legs. And being able to mark and reinforce that and then work from there into the sit, then from there it was just like rolling a ball down a hill. It was really easy.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My next question was going to be, can you break it down and explain how you were teaching it, but I think you’ve got that covered, unless there’s anything you want to add.

Hannah Branigan: Really, that’s the main thing — if you can find a way to tap into that weight shift. Early on, I was using a lot of front foot targeting, which required the dog have a huge reinforcement history for sticking their front feet to a target, because still front feet is part of it. Since then, I’ve discovered a few shortcuts, like, for example, using a front edge, like a step. I use the front step on my porch, or I have into the training space that I use has three steps into it, so there’s just a front edge. It’s not a full platform, because I don’t care about the side-to-side limitation at this point. I really actually want the dog to feel comfortable leaning, and we tend to feel more comfortable leaning if we have space to spread out, sort of. But, like, a front step, preferably one that the dog has already existing in their environment. A lot of my clients have the sunken living room where it’s one step down into their living room space. I don’t know if that makes sense. So a lot of folks seem to have that. Or a step on their porch. So your dog’s already used to this in their environment and it doesn’t take a lot of extra training to teach them to stand on the top of the step and to lean forward. And the visual I have in my mind as I’m shaping towards this is, if you ever tried to lure your dog into your bathtub, or lure a horse into a horse trailer, or lure your dog off of the dock into the lake, it is amazing how long the dog or the horse’s neck can stretch forward without a single paw or hoof stepping into the bathtub or onto the trailer. And if you pull them forward over this edge and they are sufficiently motivated to stay on the edge, now with a bathtub or a horse trailer there’s a negative reinforcement instantly because they don’t want to put their feet in the trailer or in the bathtub, but if we fed them a bunch of times for staying up on that step and then we present a target or whatever a little bit further forward, they’re going to be a little bit used to having their feet up on that, so we can use positive reinforcement here. And as they lean forward without stepping down, they lean forward to get the carrot, to get the treat, you’ll actually see their front legs take the weight and their back feet start sliding forward up underneath them. And when we start getting that, because they’re leaning as far forward as they can without moving their feet in order to not just flip head over heels off of the step, their haunches come up underneath them. There’s no weight on them yet, we have to fix that later, but again, it’s that first action of moving from the stand, shifting the weight forward, and letting that pelvis come up underneath them. We can capture that, and then it’s really easy to shape into a sit from that point. But trying to get a sit from the stand without that weight shift is really, really hard. So we get that first little activation energy, that first step, and then it’s all really very easy.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask a little bit about age. At what age can you really start working on a behavior like that with a puppy? I know I’ve seen mixed recommendations in the past and was curious to hear your take...

Hannah Branigan: I think with puppies there’s a happy medium, as with everything. I would definitely put a lot of energy into making sure that that puppy was really confident and able to shift weight forward and back as a balance proprioceptive, that kind of thing, which I think people do. It’s becoming more common, more popular as part of our puppy raising, getting them used to different kinds of surfaces, getting them used to using their body in different ways, and just a forward backward weight shift with a standing puppy is it’s very low impact, you can do a whole bunch of them in a very short amount of time, keep a really high rate of reinforcement, really keep it really positive, really simple, and easy for the puppy. So I would put a lot of energy into that forward backward weight shift because then, whether you’re looking for that tuck sit or whether you’re looking for the fold back down, having a puppy who can confidently balance on front or back and control that movement is going to find any of the other actions that we want to teach easier. I don’t want to put a whole lot of — and maybe this is a human problem — I don’t want to put a whole lot of pressure on myself or on the human side for getting a perfectly square sit, but I want to be setting up situations where I’m encouraging the mechanics that I do want, because it is easier to teach these correct mechanics when you have that brand new, soft, moldable brain and central nervous system to play with than it is with a 4- or 5-year-old dog who’s been sitting a certain way for several years and you have that reinforcement history to overcome. So I think following good puppy training procedures of short, fun sessions, you don’t have to do … certainly not 10 minutes of sitting, but do three reps here, three reps there in between while you’re teaching him to play with you and cultivating your reinforcers. So you’re teaching them about their body, you’re teaching them how to move their body in space so they can be safe, and they can be confident, and then gradually, and I would start this as soon at as they’re ready to start training, so 5-and-a-half weeks, 6 weeks, whenever they’re interested enough in our food and in our interaction that we have leverage, and or 8 or 9 weeks when you bring them home, if you don’t have access to them that early. But we can start setting those things up in the context of all the other normal puppy stuff that we would do without getting super-rigorous and formal about it. I’m looking at these sorts of behaviors are the function of a well-balanced, physically well-balanced dog, and we can start that very, very early, for sure.

Melissa Breau: So, the other precise behavior I want to talk a little bit about is a fold back down. Can you again just talk about what’s the big deal there and describe the behavior a little bit?

Hannah Branigan: The fold back down is sort of the opposite of the tuck sit. In the fold back down, I want everything about the dog moving backwards. And the two places where this matters is the drop on recall and the down in the part of the signals exercise in utility. With the novice, the only down that we have in the novice is the long down for the stay, and it doesn’t really matter how the dog lays down in that context. But by the time you get to open, the drop and recall and signals exercise, both of those are again scored by the dogs … well, they’re kind of scored by the opposite, by how not forward the dog comes after you give the down cue. So ideally you want them to drop in place or even kind of push back into the down. So that’s the fold back down idea. So again, if we look at the dog as being sort of a rectangle, we want to flatten that rectangle. And I don’t know how many Amazon Prime deliveries you get per month, but you may be breaking down some boxes for recycling periodically. If I have the top and bottom punched out and I’m left with hollow rectangle, I can fold it forward or I can fold it back, and with the dog we want them to fold back, so that everything about their body, their weight shift, is pushing backwards, their hind feet stay planted for this transition from stand to down. And the reason that I want that is (1) in signals the judge is looking at the dog, he starts off in standing position, you’re going to give a cue from 40 feet away for the dog to lie down, and the judge is looking for the dog to lie down without coming forward. And so if the dog pushes back, folds back into that down, you’re good, you’re golden, because he’s not going to come forward at all. In the drop on recall, we have that plus the dog is moving towards you like a freight train. So we need not only for the dog not to come forward as part of his down, but we need him to put on the brakes. And what’s kind of cool, and again I get kind of excited, is that the same muscles that fold the dog back into a down from a stand-up push the dog back into the down are those same muscles that put on the brakes when a dog is moving fast. So the same muscles that stop a dog who’s coming down a contact on a dogwalk, those are the same muscles that are pushing against that forward momentum that are pushing him back into a down. So dogs that have really clean, fast, sharp fold back downs are going to drop really cleanly on your cue, and a dog that needs to move his legs forward and out — doesn’t need to because he can learn this — but if his habit of moving into a down is to walk his front legs forward, and he’s already moving forward, hurtling forward through space, then that momentum plus the mechanics of that down are going to carry him even that much more towards you forward. And that’s definitely scorable and again to the point of an end cue, because if he moves more than maybe a body length forward after you’ve given the cue, then we’re potentially end cuing. And that drop on recall is such a common weakness in an open performance, it’s something that I’ve put a lot of attention into because I get a lot of folks that come to seminars and, “You know, we’re doing really good in open, but we can’t seem to qualify on that drop on recall.” It seems to be one of the first things that breaks under pressure, and when we pull it apart we’ll see that certainly imperfect drop mechanics can still qualify, but you really have to have a sharp cue response. And since the cue response tends to degrade a little bit under pressure, we get a little more late and see a little slower responses. It doesn’t take a lot to take an adequate down and turn it into an inadequate down in that setting. So we certainly want to do what we can to improve ring stress, we certainly want to improve the stimulus control over the down, but we can buy ourselves a lot of buffer on those very fragile parts of the performance with a down that is a fold back down because, and even if the dog does take a split-second to respond to the cue, at least once he starts responding, he’s not going to come forward any more than he already has. So we get a lot more robust performance with a dog that is, and again we get some overlap there because they’re both fluent in putting on the brakes, they’re fluent in stopping their forward momentum, and they’re fluent in pushing their body back into the down. Those things come together and we get those really flashy drop on recalls, which are also way more likely to hold up under pressure than a little less sharp drop on recall.

Melissa Breau: When teaching a fold back down, where do people struggle, and I guess if you have any tips for how they can teach the behavior, those would be great too.

Hannah Branigan: Again, one of the problems is how we’re taught to teach that down. Teaching the dog to lay down in puppy class is counterproductive to our goals. I mean, it’s truly like a dead end. So if the dog is taught that he has to sit and then lay down, and that’s what a lot of dogs learn because we teach them to down from a sit, we lure them into the sit and then we lure them forward into the down, and then we put that on cue and the behavior becomes sit and then lay down as, like, one big piece. And so if the dog is standing and you say “down,” the dog puts his butt down and then walks his front feet forward to lie down, and again, that’s not helpful. We want that push back into the down. So one of the first things is making sure, “Can my dog actually go from a stand into a down without sitting first?” That’s the first and most important and critical piece. Most dogs actually can. If you pay attention, they often lay down from a stand all the time, and we can take those moments and we can build on them so that we’re teaching a stand from a down because, or sorry, teaching a down from a stand, because a down from a stand is closer to a down from motion than a down from a sit is, in terms of mechanics, in terms of what muscles are being used and how the body is moving them. So teaching it right off the bat from a standing position instead of cuing or luring the sit first is half the battle. After that, I really find that the most effective thing to look at is the hind feet, making sure that the hind feet stay still. I was originally … I think a lot of us were originally taught to watch the front feet, and those are easier to see, especially from a distance, but they are less predictive of the ideal down mechanics than watching the hind feet. If the hind feet stay in place, then the dog’s body tends to stay in place. If the front feet, the front feet can stay in place, but the dog can still kind of hunch up into a down, which again tends to turn into a creep forward when we add any source of pressure or stress. So looking for, it’s the opposite of the tuck sit, so I’m looking for a backwards weight shift, I’m looking for the rear feet to be planted, instead of a forward weight shift with the front feet planted. And we can do this with a target, we can do this with a platform, there’s lots of pieces, but again it’s that focus on the rear feet is what I’ve observed makes the difference between an OK down and those really snappy, sharp, pretty ones that we all want to replicate.

Melissa Breau: Just looking again at sits and downs as a group, and just the idea of precision, are there any common misconceptions people have when it comes to teaching these kinds of behaviors, and can you set the record straight?

Hannah Branigan: I think really the biggest misconception is either that we can’t change it, like, that’s just how your dog comes, which is total crap because we don’t have to give that away. I’m not going to let you off the hook. We can completely change that. Even if your dog is 5 or 6 years old. We had in the last Devil in the Details class, which is where we work specifically on these behaviors, we had dogs that were, like, 9, 10, and 12 years old, and we were changing mechanics, which was kind of cool. I did not actually expect that. I would have probably not counseled someone with a 12-year-old dog to try and change how their dog lays down. But you know what, they did great, which was really pretty cool. So I think it’s that “This is how my dog comes,” He’s just not good at,” or using a label or qualifying is a characteristic of the dog when it’s just a behavior and we can shape it. All behavior is modifiable, including these. And then the other side of that is, “Well, it’s boring.” And of course that’s not true at all, because dog training is awesome and it’s really exciting, and having clear criteria and a shaping plan — dogs love that. They love clear criteria. So I think there’s this idea of, “Well, if my dog doesn’t sit square and I try to teach him to sit square, then he’ll hate me, he’ll hate obedience, everything sucks, the world sucks,” and that’s really not true. It’s all the same game to the dog. So then it becomes a matter of “How can I set this dog up for success? How can I break down the criteria so that they’re reachable by this dog on this day?” “How can I set up a shaping session that takes me from what my dog currently does, the highest probability version of this behavior, to what my goal for that behavior is?” And being really clear about what each of those steps look like. And when we’re doing that, if you get as excited about shaping as I do — which most people probably don’t and hopefully don’t, for the betterment of the world — then we have these little training projects that we can do, and I’ve not met a single dog that didn’t get more motivated with clearer criteria. As long as they’re reachable, like having more clear criteria first is where we do get in trouble, especially with things like fronts and finishes is if we’re using the word “enough” in our criteria and particularly in our head. Like, if you’re working with your dog on fronts, and you’re watching your dog come into a front and you’re asking yourself, “Is that straight enough to reinforce?” As soon as we’re saying “enough,” then yes, we’re absolutely creating frustration, because if you are thinking, Is this straight enough? you are too late in clicking, you’re too late to reinforce whatever has already happened to impact the outcome. So again, breaking the movements down and having it really, really clear, “What, exactly, what am I reinforcing?” so that you can mark that instant, and when we’re that clear, and our timing is that good, there is absolutely nothing to lose in building that precision. We’ll only create more motivated, more clear dogs that love training because they know exactly what they’re doing, and they feel good about doing it, and they can earn that reinforcement.

Melissa Breau: You snuck in a quick mention there of the Devil in the Details class, and I know it’s coming up again and somehow we managed not to mention it before then, so I want to talk about that for a second. Can you just tell us a little bit about the class and what it is?

Hannah Branigan: The Devil In The Details, I think the title kind of effectively describes it, this is definitely a dog nerd class. It is written for those who enjoy a certain amount of hairsplitting, that love peeling away all the layers and seeing what muscles are moving, and what’s the physiology behind this behavior, and how can I manipulate and adapt my training sessions to effectively change the behavior that my dog is doing. It’s definitely not for a casual, brand new dog trainer. Most people would be bored by it. The right people are going to get totally pumped because it’s really very nerdy. What we really do is we look at these core behaviors, which are certainly critical to obedience but also to a lot of the conditioning and trick behaviors that we want to do involve some of the same mechanics, and so can we look at what’s really going on. If we’re having a problem with teaching a particular behavior, what is the dog doing that needs to be changed, and what are the muscle movements that we need to activate, how we put together a plan to systematically activate the right series of muscle movements to take the dog from stand into that beautiful tuck sit, to square up any straggly feet or crookedness, and build this kind of awesome sit, down, and stand. So it is six weeks on sit, down, and stand, and you’d think, How can you spend six weeks on that? And I could easily spend twelve because you can just keep going. There’s such a rabbit hole there. But if you’ve had trouble teaching a tuck sit, and you are interested in behavior, and you’re kind of a behavior you’d feel like you would maybe qualify as a behavior nerd, then this is a great class for you because we will absolutely get a tuck sit out of your dog. I feel pretty confident in saying that. But we dig pretty deep in terms of mechanics and physiology and criteria and breaking things down to get that, because that’s what the dogs need from us.

Melissa Breau: And that’s offered in December this time, right?

Hannah Branigan: Yes, December. It’s in our December session.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Hannah!

Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Julie Symons. We will be talking about Handler Scent Discrimination and AKC Scentwork.

Don’t miss it! It 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.

CREDITS:

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.

Nov 17, 2017

SUMMARY:

Sarah Stremming is a dog trainer, a dog agility and obedience competitor, and a dog behavior consultant.  Her credentials include a bachelors of science degree in psychology from Colorado State University, and more than a decade in the field of dog training and behavior.  Her special interest area is problem solving for performance dogs.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 11/24/2017, featuring Hannah Branigan getting geeky about tuck sits.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 have Sarah Stremming, of Cog-Dog radio and the Cognitive Canine back on the podcast to talk about… dog behavior.

Welcome back to the podcast, Sarah!

Sarah Stremming: Thanks, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, I know it’s been a little while since you were on the show, can you just remind listeners how many dogs you have now and who they are?

Sarah Stremming: Sure. Between my partner and I, we have five. I’ll tell you about my two. I have Idgie, who’s an 8-year-old border collie, and Felix, who’s a 2-year-old border collie, and my primary sport’s agility, so that’s what they’re both working on. Idgie doesn’t really train much in agility anymore, she just competes, and Felix is mostly training with hardly any competing. And then I also play around in obedience, so they’re both working on some of that stuff as well.

Melissa Breau: So, I know that last time we talked, we just touched on the 4 steps to behavioral wellness briefly, covering what they are… but since I definitely want to dive a little deeper this time, do you mind just briefly sharing what those 4 steps are again and giving folks a little bit of background so that they’re not totally confused when we start talking about it?

Sarah Stremming: Sure, of course. The four steps to behavioral wellness are something that I came up with a long time ago when I was primarily working with pet dog behavior cases, and they are exercise, enrichment, nutrition, and communication. And basically they’re the four areas that I find are often lacking in our basic dog care, and that includes sport people. What I found is that when trying to modify behavior, if one or more of these areas was lacking so the dog’s basic needs were not being met, we would always hit a point where we couldn’t progress with the behavior modification. So that’s where they came from.

Melissa Breau: Now I believe — though I could be wrong — that most of your students today come to you because of a problem training for a specific sport, but listening to your case studies in the podcast and talking to you a bit, it seems like the solution is often a lifestyle change. So I wanted to ask why it is that a dog’s lifestyle can have such a huge impact on their performance in their sport?

Sarah Stremming: That is true. Most of my clientele now, really all of my clientele now, is sports dog people who are having some kind of behavioral issue, usually a behavior problem that is preventing their dog from being able to compete or being able to compete well. And we definitely do work on specific behavior change protocols, so we definitely do go through behavior modification. But I’ve just come to find out that, over the years I’ve seen that if a dog’s basic needs are not being met, you will not get where you want to get with the behavior modifications. So when we go through a lifestyle change, it is typically about meeting dogs’ basic needs. I think a lot of people look at what I’m doing and they think I’m trying to give every single dog an exceptional life. Now, yes, I would like every dog and every person to have an exceptional life, but that’s not necessarily the goal. The goal first is to meet basic needs, and I think that, unfortunately, that few people understand what some of those basic needs are. And so I think that’s what shines through a lot of the time when I’m talking about my cases is I always want to look through those four steps of behavioral wellness as I want to look at what adjustments were made there, and then after that’s done, we can then get into the nitty-gritty of the behavior modification work.

Melissa Breau: Can you tell me just a little bit more about that? What are some of the common problems that you run into where those 4 steps can help?

Sarah Stremming: Some of the most common things that I deal with are things that people label as “over-arousal issues,” and they’re usually in agility, though I’ve definitely worked with a few obedience clients and a couple other clients from other sports on these issues. The behaviors that we label as over-arousal behaviors tend to be biting the handler during agility, oftentimes at the end of the run but a lot of times during the run, inability to hold front line or contact in competition, and then things that I just call spinning, barking, madness. The dog might spin, might bark, might also bite, just basically explosive behaviors that occur on course or during work. Those are some of the biggest issues that I deal with. Some of the ways that the four steps can help those issues are that when I see these dogs that have these … what we call over-arousal issues, especially in agility, often this is because agility is the most fulfilling thing the dog experiences in their life. So if their agility time is the only time that they actually feel satisfied mentally and physically, they become what I think looks like desperate to do the sport. Anybody that has ever felt desperate for something understands that that’s a yucky way to feel, and I think that I observe dogs feeling desperate to do agility when I’m at trials. I’ve certainly seen it in my own dogs as well. And I think that some of the ways we train them encourage that, but the ways that we can help them feel less desperate are through exercise and enrichment, so those two steps out of the four. With adequate exercise, the dog’s going to feel more like its body has been worked adequately, so that agility isn’t the only time that the dog’s body actually feels physically satisfied. And then enrichment needs to be part of  … environmental enrichment needs to be a part of every dog’s daily life, because they do have brains and they do get to use them and they are not a couch ornament for us. If that sounds a little harsh, I don’t mean to say that most people think that way. I do think, unfortunately, it’s very common in the agility world to feel like agility class is enough. If we’re going to agility class tonight, I don’t have to do anything else today. Or if we had a trial all weekend, I don’t have to do anything else this week to fulfill my dog physically or mentally, and that’s just not true and that can definitely create problems. A couple of the others, just hitting on a few other steps to behavioral wellness, anything I deal with that has to do with generalized anxiety, so things like separation issues or fear responses that keep dogs out of the ring, anything that has to do with overall anxiety, my anecdotal experience is that diet can have an enormous effect on that. So when you feed the gut appropriately — and there is actually some cool research coming out about, cool research that exists and then also more and more research coming out about the relationship between mental health and gut health — but what I have observed anecdotally is that when a dog has a healthy GI, its overall anxiety is reduced, and so diet is a place that we look at. There’s some nutrition being the one of four steps that I emphasize on the anxiety front, and then there just isn’t any behavior problem that isn’t going to be helped with better communication. Communication helps everything. No matter what we’re talking about, that definitely helps everything.

Melissa Breau: To go back a little about the couch potato bit, even if someone doesn’t necessarily think that way, it can be hard if you’ve worked all day for eight hours and then come home and you have agility class. It can be hard to fit something else in. So even if it’s not intentional, sometimes it can be totally easy to de-prioritize those things.

Sarah Stremming: It is. It’s easy for us to go, “OK, the dog box is checked because I have agility class tonight.” Where I want to encourage people to at least provide environmental enrichment for the dogs during the day when you’re gone. So feeding them out of puzzle toys or Kongs as opposed to out of a bowl is a really simple, easy way to do that. And then just basically enrich their environment. Take a page out of the zookeeper’s book and provide them with things in their environment that they have to forage through or rip apart or something. Even if they’re crated during the day, give them stuff in the crate so that they literally aren’t just left to lay around with a bowl of water and maybe a Nylabone that they’ve had for five years.

Melissa Breau: I know that you recently published a series of podcasts on behavior change, talking about things like replacement behaviors… How can someone decide if what they need is just to teach a dog not to jump all over them or if they have a stress problem? And when is it time to look at things like nutrition and exercise — you got into this a little bit, but — versus going back to foundations to prevent frustration and stress through clearer communication in that sport?

Sarah Stremming: The answer is yes. The answer is you should always be doing all of the above. Trying to look at behavior as one thing, or trying to look at a problem behavior as one thing, meaning a behavior is always serving a function for the animal, so it doesn’t exist if there isn’t reinforcement present for it. It doesn’t exist if it doesn’t serve a function. So you always want to look at it like that first, and you always want to make a plan to change it that way first. But you have to understand that if the dog’s needs are not being adequately met that you may not be able to get anywhere with that plan. And then, as far as deciding between “Do I just need a training program, or do I also need a lifestyle change,” I think when most people get down to it and examine their dog’s lifestyle, they will see the answer. I have certainly had clients who showed up and they were pretty much doing everything right. They just needed to tweak some training stuff. That is rare, but that has happened. So I think, to try to make it a simpler answer, I think we should always, always assess the functionality of the behavior you’d like to change. So if it’s jumping all over you, try to look at what the dog is getting out of that, and try to help them to get that a different way, and make a plan to do that. And then also be sure that the dog’s needs are being adequately met, because if you make a plan to solve this problem behavior, so let’s say it is jumping all over you, what do they need? Is it that they are missing you all day long and feeling lonely? A little bit of assigning some human emotions here, but is it that? I mean, I do think that my dogs can feel lonely, but who knows? We can’t ask them.

Melissa Breau: It’s a dog podcast. You can absolutely do that.

Sarah Stremming: Right! So if it is that they’re missing out on that human connection, can we address that as well as making this behavior change plan? And not just saying, “I want to change this behavior, therefore I will,” but also respecting that that behavior has a function, and that behavior came from a need that this dog has, and it’s up to us to fulfill it always.

Melissa Breau: Most of our listeners are probably pretty familiar with the idea of stressing up versus stressing down… that is, having a dog that’s easily over-aroused versus one that completely shuts down. I know you have classes for both ends of the spectrum. So I wanted to ask a little bit about, now that we’ve talked about these four steps and a little bit about behavior change, how are the solutions to the problems different, depending on which end of the spectrum the dog falls on? Can you talk about that a bit?

Sarah Stremming: Sure. And the two classes are Worked Up, which are the dogs that are worked up, just as it sounds, and then I call the other class Hidden Potential, which is about more of the stressed-down types of dogs. And I get this question probably every time I teach a seminar on one or the other. So if I’m teaching a seminar on worked-up types of dogs, the hidden-potential dogs come up and vice versa. And the reason that that’s OK, and the reason that that should be expected, is because the solutions are similar. Both dogs are dealing with states of arousal that are not optimal. So if we’ve got a dog that is in a hyper-aroused state, he’s not able to do his job because his adrenalin is off the charts. And if we have a dog in a kind of suboptimal arousal state, he can’t do his job either, because he would rather go back into his crate and sleep and just may be bored. If we are talking about anxiety or stress, then that’s where things start to change. So if we’re talking about almost a temperament difference, we’ve all seen dogs that movement for them is cheap. They move a lot and they move quickly, versus dogs that … if you’re training a border collie versus a bassett hound, you’ve got the border collie, movement is cheap for them. They will jump a bunch of times, they can heel a bunch of times, and that’s cheap for them. They have a lot of energy. Versus maybe your basset hound has less energy than that and movement is more expensive for him. So then we’re just dealing with differences in arousal states, and what we would do is play games to either bring the arousal up or bring the arousal back down. When we’re dealing with anxiety or stress, that’s where I might deal with it … that’s where I see most of the dogs that fall into the hidden-potential category are. It’s usually more of an anxiety-based or a stress-based or maybe a fear-based issue, and that’s where I would address it in a different way. So if we can identify what the stressor is, I would actually want to tackle that head-on with a specific treatment protocol for whatever the stressor is. A lot of those dogs are worried about other dogs, and then we go to a dog show where there are tons of them. And then a lot of them are worried about people, and we go to a dog show and there’s tons of them. The good news is they can be helped with those things. Certainly some of the worked-up dogs are experiencing environmental arousal or environmental anxiety, and if they are, then we want to go down that path as well and again address it the same way. So a lot of the times the same solution exists. It’s just that we’re looking at a different picture in the beginning and still trying to get to the same picture in the end.

Melissa Breau: What are some of maybe the misconceptions people have about those kind of issues, or what do people commonly think about that maybe isn’t 100 percent accurate when it comes to stressing up or stressing down and managing that? Can you set the record straight?

Sarah Stremming: I think that for the worked-up types of dogs the most common misconception that I hear about is that these dogs lack impulse control, that a lack of impulse control is the problem. Or that a lack of … if we’re going to be very accurate, we would be saying a lack of impulse control training is a problem. Just the phrase “impulse control” makes my eye twitch just a little bit because I think that it implies that there’s this intrinsic flaw in these dogs that if they can’t control themselves that there’s something wrong with them, or that teaching them to control their impulses is something that we can do. I don’t think that we can control their impulses one way or another. We can certainly control their behaviors with reinforcement. Whether or not we’re controlling their impulses is probably one of those things that we would have to ask them about, kind of like asking them if they were lonely and if that was why they were jumping all over the person coming home. So I like to stay away from stating that lack of impulse control is a problem. I also think that in agility specifically we accept that our dogs will be in extremely high states of arousal and be kind of losing their mind, and we almost want them that way, and any kind of calmness is frowned upon. The dogs that are selected to breed for the sport tend to be the frantic, loud, fast ones, and looking at behaviors, there’s just kind of a distaste in agility, I feel — and I’m going to get a million e-mails about this — I love agility, people! I love agility! I’m just going to put that out there! But there is a distaste for calm and methodical behaviors in agility. We push for speed, speed, speed from the beginning, and we forget that sometimes maybe we should shut up and let the dog think through the problem. So I think, to get back to your original question, “What’s the misconception?” The misconception is that we need to put them in a highly aroused state to create a good sport dog, and that impulse control is the be-all, end-all of these things. And then, for the hidden-potential dogs, I think the misconception is just that they lack work ethic. They say, “These dogs they lack work ethic, they give you nothing, they don’t want to try, they’re low drive,” yada yada. I think that’s all misconceptions. Everything comes back to reinforcement. When you realize that reinforcement is the solution to everything, you can start to solve your problems and quit slapping labels on the dogs you’re working with.

Melissa Breau: To be clear, it’s not that people who have a dog that’s shutting down in the ring aren’t rewarding their dog enough. It’s that there is a kind of misstructure there somewhere, right?

Sarah Stremming: Yes. Thank you, Melissa. And actually I’m really glad that you said the word “reward” instead of reinforce, because they probably are rewarding their dogs plenty, but they’re not reinforcing their dogs enough. And the difference is that a reward is just a nice thing that doesn’t necessarily affect behavior. Reinforcement, by definition, affects behavior. So if behavior is not increasing, improving, etc., reinforcement is not present, though rewards well may be present. So if you get a Christmas bonus at work, that’s nice, but that’s not why you showed up the rest of the year.

Melissa Breau: Well, maybe! But …

Sarah Stremming: I’m going to argue it’s not. I’m going to argue the paycheck that you got every other week is why you showed up the rest of the year, and then the reward might have affected your feelings about the job. It might have made you feel nicer about it. It might have made you feel nicer about your boss. Or it could have the total opposite effect, and be a $20 Starbucks card and you’re, like, thanks a lot. But my point being there’s so many

lovely, kind people who are rewarding frequently who don’t have enough understanding of the reinforcement procedures that they could be utilizing to actually increase the dog’s behavior or change the dog’s behavior. I don’t mean to imply that those people are not training well or training nicely and training kindly and being generous. I think they probably are. In fact, they’re probably a lot more generous. But a lot of the people I see training those super-high dogs, I see a lot of super-high dogs that do not get a high enough rate of reinforcement in training, which that’s just amping them up, whereas the other end of the spectrum is that the other dogs are shutting down. So thank you for bringing that up, and I think, yeah, it’s about the fact that understanding that if reinforcement is present, then the behavior will be present as well.

Melissa Breau: I am glad that we went into that a little bit more. That was good information that people maybe don’t hear often enough.

Sarah Stremming: Good question, thank you.

Melissa Breau: Thanks for answering it. Before I let you go, I mentioned earlier that you have a series that you’ve been publishing on effective behavior change, and I wanted to ask a little bit about that. First, what led you to explore that topic?

Sarah Stremming: I’m just excited about the topic constantly, but to be honest with you, I decided to explore the topic based on dog trainers on the Internet. I saw a dog trainer on social media talking about behavior change as a kind of mystical thing, when I’m very passionate about training as an applied science and understanding training as an applied science. That certainly does not mean that I discount the art side of training, because there certainly is an artistic side to it, and before I ever knew anything about the science, the artistic side to it is what kept me in it. And so I think that’s very, very important. But I do think that our industry would be better if all trainers recognized training as an applied science, and when I say “better,” I mean just serving the people and the dogs better. I think that all dog trainers, no matter what kind of training they do or what kind of training background they have, are in this because that’s what they want to do. They want to serve the people and the dogs. They love dogs, and they hopefully like the people who own them, and they want to help people to have better connections with their dogs. I think all dog trainers are after that, no matter what kind of dog training they do. But I do see a general lack of recognition of dog training as an applied science, and specifically I think that a lot of positive-reinforcement-based trainers, especially on the Internet, can be very unkind to each other. I know this seems like, “How did you come up with this podcast series based on that? This has nothing to do with it.” Where I came to it, and where I wanted to talk about it, was because we really all should be generally training, generally the same way, or we all should understand some general basic principles, and I just don’t see that as being reality. We should all be able to talk to each other about the effects of reinforcement and punishment and what makes for effective behavior change instead of … I think what we talk about instead on the Internet is how that person over there is doing it wrong and “This is how I would do it, and that’s the right way to do it,” when in reality the right way to do it is treating it like an applied science. And then there are certainly variations within that, but I’m basically talking about it because we need to be talking about it as an applied science, and I think we do that over at FDSA, and Hannah Branigan does that on her podcast really beautifully. And the more I think we talk about it as an applied science, I think the further we can get and the more undivided we can become, and then the more dogs we can help.

Melissa Breau: Not to ask you to take these three episodes and condense them into one tiny, short, little blurb, but to do exactly that I wanted to talk a little bit about what you cover in them. I definitely fully recommend people go listen to all three, if they haven’t already. The first two have been out and I’ve listened to them and they’re absolutely excellent, and by the time this comes out I know that you’re planning on a third one and hopefully that will be available. But I did want to ask you to share just a couple of the key points or major takeaways that you really want people to walk away from after they listen to those episodes.

Sarah Stremming: Definitely. Thanks for the plug there!

Melissa Breau: Absolutely.

Sarah Stremming: I’m glad that you liked them and all three should be available; two of them are as we record this, and I just recorded the other one today, so it should be out soon. The first one I did just talked about replacement behaviors. So if we are trying to modify a problem behavior, we want to use a replacement behavior to come in instead of that behavior. What that means is that instead of squashing a behavior, getting rid of a behavior, we just want to swap it out with something else. And so we generally think about incompatible behaviors, so an incompatible behavior, an example of that would be the dog is dashing out the front door. That’s the problem behavior we want to solve, and we can train the dog to go lie on a mat when the door opens instead, and that would be an incompatible behavior because the two behaviors cannot happen at once. I also talked about the concept of alternative behaviors, which are not necessarily incompatible. I think that’s a really interesting concept, that you can actually train the dog to sit, let’s say at the front window, let’s say the dog is barking at passers-by, you can train the dog to sit instead. Now that’s an alternative behavior. My dog Idgie can tell you, she can bark while sitting just fine. She doesn’t need to be standing to be barking. So it’s alternative because both the behaviors can still happen at once, but what’s really nice about it is that if you’re reinforcing an alternative behavior, the problematic behavior still does decrease. So in the first episode we talk about what are some good qualities of incompatible or alternative behaviors, so basically what makes a good replacement behavior, and to really sum it up in short, what makes a good replacement behavior is that (a) it’s incompatible or alternative and (b) it’s already fluent, so it’s something the dog already knows how to do. There’s a little bit more to it than that, but you’ll have to go listen to it. In the next one I talked about antecedent arrangements, or basically just the principal of manipulating the environment in which the behavior occurs, as opposed to attempting to manipulate the behavior itself. I think a lot of times, as dog trainers, we really focus on trying to manipulate behaviors when we should be thinking more about manipulating environments. The third one, that I recorded today, is kind of the other end of the spectrum of the second one. So you can manipulate the environment, and then you can manipulate the reinforcement. You can manipulate the consequences to the behavior. So the third episode is about reinforcement, and specifically, building what I call reinforcement strategies, so that you have a huge toolbox of reinforcement from which to draw from. So the more ways that you can reinforce an animal’s behavior, the more effective you’re likely to be in attempting to change its behavior. So those are the three that I’ve got.

Melissa Breau: I’m curious now and looking forward to hearing that third one and rounding out the series. I really am glad that you tackled it and it’s been a great series so far, so cool.

Sarah Stremming: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Sarah! I know that you’re in the middle of a long drive, so I will let you get back to that. But thank you.

Sarah Stremming: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Hannah Branigan, who Sarah mentioned. Hannah and I will be talking about detail oriented training -- things like getting that miraculous tuck sit or the perfect fold back down.

Don’t miss it! If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in itunes or the podcast app of your choice and have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

CREDITS:

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.

 

Nov 10, 2017

SUMMARY:

Dr. Patricia McConnell is a Zoologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals.

She is known worldwide as an expert on canine and feline behavior and dog training, and for her engaging and knowledgeable dog training books, DVDs and seminars. Patricia has seen clients for serious behavioral problems since 1988, and taught "The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships” for twenty-five years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her radio show, Calling All Pets, was heard in over 110 cities around the country, where Patricia dispensed advice about behavior problems and animal behavior research for over fourteen years.

She is the author of the much-acclaimed books The Other End of the Leash, For the Love of A Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend and Tales of Two Species. Her latest book is a memoir that came out earlier this year, titled The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 11/10/2017, featuring Sarah Stremming, talking about effective behavior change.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 have a special guest -- I’m talking to Dr. Patricia McConnell. Although she probably needs no introduction, I will share a bit from her bio.

Dr. Patricia McConnell is a Zoologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals.

She is known worldwide as an expert on canine and feline behavior and dog training, and for her engaging and knowledgeable dog training books, DVDs and seminars. Patricia has seen clients for serious behavioral problems since 1988, and taught "The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships” for twenty-five years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her radio show, Calling All Pets, was heard in over 110 cities around the country, where Patricia dispensed advice about behavior problems and animal behavior research for over fourteen years.

She is the author of several much-acclaimed books The Other End of the Leash, For the Love of A Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend and Tales of Two Species. Her latest book is a memoir that came out earlier this year, titled The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog.

Welcome to the podcast, Patricia!

Patricia McConnell: Thanks for having me, Melissa. What fun.

Melissa Breau: I’m so excited to be talking to you today. To kind of start us out a little bit, can you just share a little bit about the dogs and the animals you currently share your life with?

Patricia McConnell: Oh, absolutely. The most important animal is the two-legged one, my husband, my wonderful, accommodating husband who puts up with my obsession for dogs and sheep and cats and animals and gardening. So that’s Jim. And so we have three dogs. We have Willie, a 10-year-old border collie who is one of the stars of The Education of Will, and we have Maggie, a 4-year-old border collie who’s my competition sheepdog trial right now and the silliest, funniest, most adorablest dog that ever lived, of course, and Tootsie, who’s the other most adorablest dog, she’s a little Cavalier who was a puppy mill rescue. And we have two cats, Nellie and Polly, and we have 16 sheep.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Patricia McConnell: Here we are. And we have Teresa the toad, who’s living in the cat bowl often, and I could go on and on. We have a little farm, it’s about 12 and a half acres, and so there are lots of critters on there, but the family ones I’ve already mentioned. I’ll stop there.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Well, I know that you’ve shared kind of in some of the other interviews you’ve done that you’ve been in love with dogs and behavior for as long as you can remember. So I wanted to ask a little bit about kind of when you decided that was what you wanted to do with your life, and see if you could just share a little bit about those early days.

Patricia McConnell: Oh yes, you know, it’s almost like a feminist manifesto, because when I was … I was born in 1948, and when I was 5 — there’s a story about me being asked what I wanted to do when I was 5, and I said, “I want to marry a rancher,” because in 1953 in Arizona, women made babies and casseroles. They didn’t make, they didn’t have careers, they didn’t, you know, make shopping centers and business deals or even be veterinarians. And so gradually over time I had all kinds of different careers. I moved a lot with my first husband, and eventually I got to the point where I thought, You know what, I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to study animal behavior. And what I envisioned is that I would teach it. I would teach at some small private college, and I would teach animal behavior because I loved animals and I loved behavior. And I finally realized in my 30s, early 40s, you know, this is a way I could really enmesh myself in my passion and what I love.

But then I went to an animal behavior society conference — it’s a conference of academics, people who study behavior, mostly wild animals, mostly in the field — and I ran into John Wright, who was an academic, actually a psychologist who was an applied animal behaviorist, and so he took all of his training and behavior and used it to help people solve problems with family dogs. And I was like, Oh, really? I didn’t know that was a possibility.

So it ended up that my colleague, Dr. Nancy Raffetto, and I opened up Dog’s Best Friend as a consulting service. Most people had no idea who we were, what we were doing. Nobody did it then. I mean, nobody did it then. People would call us up, Melissa, and say, “Do you guys groom poodles?”

Melissa Breau: Oh goodness.

Patricia McConnell: Yes. So this was in the late ’80s, and this was a really new field. So it all progressed from there, but it certainly wasn’t linear, and anybody who’s in a path right now of, like, who do I want to be and what do I want to do, or maybe I’m going in a direction that I don’t want to go, is don’t lose heart. I mean, I didn’t get into this until I was in my 40s.

Melissa Breau: And you’ve quite clearly achieved quite a bit of success, so …

Patricia McConnell: It’s been very satisfying, you know. I feel so lucky. I feel very grateful and lucky and privileged and honored to be able to find the right niche, you know? Yeah.

Melissa Breau: I think the rest of us have been pretty privileged that you’ve decided to do this too, so …

Patricia McConnell: Well, thank you.

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to ask, you mentioned that, you know, you’ve been in the field for quite a while, and I wanted to ask kind of how your philosophy is today and maybe a little bit of kind of how even it’s changed over that time. Obviously the world is a very different place for dogs.

Patricia McConnell: Oh, man, so true. I mean, I’ve written quite a few places about the first dog training class I went to when I was, I think, probably 19. The dog trainer was a Marine, and he hung a Basenji — as in, with a choke-chain collar — picked the dog off the ground, so all four feet were off the ground, and hung him there until he started running out of breath and was dying. Actually, it was not all that long, shockingly, not all that long ago somebody, a dog died from that and someone tried to sue, except they didn’t … they weren’t successful because they were told that that was standard in the industry. That was standard practice, so you can’t blame the person for doing it.

Yeah, so boy, have things changed. Boy, have things changed. My philosophy now is very much along the lines of “least intrusive minimally aversive,” you know, the LIMA protocol that I think is fantastic. I would say 99.95 percent of what I do with dogs is positive reinforcement, and I do use, I will use a correction. I mean, if Maggie starts to eat something I don’t want her to eat, sometimes I’ll say “Leave it,” or sometimes I’ll go “Ah-ah,” you know, and that’s positive punishment because I added something to decrease the frequency of a behavior, right.

So, but, I think, you know, besides the really important focus that you see now on positive reinforcement, which I think is just so vital, I think interspersed with that, entwined with that, is a change in our relationship and the way we see our dogs. I mean, it was all about dominance before. It was all about control, and you’re in charge, and sometimes it was just simply, like, well, you know, “You have to be in charge,” and other times it was suggested as a way, as something your dog needed, you know, the old “Your dog needs you to be the alpha of the pack.” But it was always about control.

And now it seems to me, don’t you think, it’s more with many of us about relationship. They are our best friends, you know. They’re great friends of ours, and that’s what I want. You know, my dogs have to do what I ask them to do. Sometimes they have to. They have to lie down if they’re chasing a rabbit towards the road or something. But I value them as members of my family and friends. I don’t think of them as furry people. I think that’s disrespectful to dogs. But they are an integral part of my life and my family and my love.

Melissa Breau: That’s definitely something that is kind of a core part of the kind of Fenzi philosophy, so I mean, I definitely think that we’re seeing more and more of a shift to that, obviously. Not everybody’s there yet, but hopefully they will be one day, right?

Patricia McConnell: Absolutely, yeah, and I think the kind of work that, you know, Fenzi Dog Sports Academy is doing is vital to that, you know? We just, we all need to be out there as much as we can, just spreading the word, because it’s, you know, it’s not just more fun, because it works better. I just heard, I was just at APDT not too long ago and somebody was … it was Pat Miller was talking about Bob Bailey saying — who was a professional animal trainer, he trained for movies and commercials — and he said, “I use positive reinforcement because it works better,” he said. “I don’t do it for welfare, I don’t do it to be nice, I do it because it works better and it’s more efficient. I would do, if I had used punishment if it worked better in order to do my job, that’s what I’d do, you know, but,” he said, “it just, it works better.” But so it does work better, but it’s also so much more fun, you know. It’s so much more fun to not have to be a drill sergeant in your own living room.

Melissa Breau: I did hear that you were awarded an award at APDT. Is that right?

Patricia McConnell: I was so honored. They gave me the Lifetime Achievement Award, yeah.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Patricia McConnell: Yeah, thank you. I was really honored, yeah. Thank you.

Melissa Breau: Obviously, you’re really well known for your work in dog behavior, but I know from your first book that early on in your career you did quite a bit of research on cues, especially across languages. And I know that cues are always kind of a big topic and of interest to people, so I wanted to ask you to kind of share your top takeaway or two from that work.

Patricia McConnell: Oh, thanks for asking, because, you know, that’s how I got into this. I mean, I was … I started as an undergraduate looking for a project, a research project. As an ethologist, somebody who studies animal behavior, I had no thought of working with domestic animals or being an applied animal behaviorist. I was working with a professor who worked with fish, and so what I did is … the question at the time that was really hot in the field at the time was, why do animals take the risk of making noise, you know, what are they doing, are they just sort of expressing an emotional state because they can’t help it, are they, is there some function of what they do? People honestly were asking questions about why are animals making noise, because it’s risky, right, it attracts attention.

So I used working domestic animals, the relationship between handlers and working domestic animals, as a kind of a model for that system. So I recorded the acoustic signals from over 110 handlers who work with racehorses and all different kinds of dogs, different kinds of horses, and they spoke, I think I got 16 different languages, and what I found was I found patterns in how people speed animals up and and how they use sound to slow animals down. And so basically what I learned was short, rapidly repeated notes are used all over the world, no matter what language, what field, to speed animals up, and long, slow, extended ones are used to soothe them, and quick, abrupt ones with an instant onset are used to stop them. So, you know, so it’s the difference between [makes sound] or [makes sound] right, those are all used to speed animals up. “Whoa, lie down,” soothe, slow versus “Whoa!” to stop a quarter horse, for example. And so yeah, so what I learned was it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and that’s had a profound influence on how I work with animals and how I think of how we communicate.

Melissa Breau: So how does that kind of continue to influence what you do today?

Patricia McConnell: It does professionally and it does personally. So, you know, with clients I was always paying attention, and I think we all are. All good trainers, when we’re working with dog owners, we’re paying a lot of attention to how people use sound and how they say things, you know. So, I mean, this probably happened to everybody who’s listening is you had a client who would say, “Jasper, come!” and Jasper would stop in his tracks, you know. And that was standard obedience, by the way, is to shout it out like that, and to stand really stiff and really still and look straight at your dog and, like, “Come!” you know. And dogs had to get over, like, OK, I guess I’m supposed to come forward, rather than their natural instinct, which is, I clearly should stop right now because they’re telling me not to come here. So I pay a lot of attention to how clients would speak, and, you know, I have to work on it too. I mean, I work with working border collies and who are sometimes 500 yards away from you, so you really have to pay attention to tone, you know, and how you sound. I mean, I’ve learned … Maggie, for example. Maggie’s super sensitive and she can get really worried, and so when I ask her to lie down, I say, “Lie down, lie down,” just really sing-songy, really easy, and she’s so responsive that she’ll do it right away. So both personally and professionally I just pay a lot of attention to that. Am I perfect personally? No, of course not.

But the other thing I learned, Melissa, after I finished my dissertation, after I finished all that research on sound, when I started doing dog training classes is I discovered how, yeah, sound has a huge effect on how dogs behave, but they’re primarily watching us, and how unaware most of us are of how our … the movement of our body affects dogs. So that’s the other big takeaway that I’ve learned about cuing is that just whether you’re leaning forward a half an inch can make a profound difference in whether your dog is comfortable coming towards you, or breaks its stay, or you turn your head away from a dog who’s uncomfortable, or stare at it, make it uncomfortable. So, you know, all my training as an ethologist, and study communication and subtle, subtle, tiny, subtle little signals, I think stands everybody who loves dogs in good stead because it’s so important to be aware that less is more. The tiniest little change in inflection, the tiniest little movement, can have a huge effect on your dog’s behavior.

Melissa Breau: And it goes back to, like, the example you mentioned kind of of somebody standing straight up and strict as they yell “Come.” It’s not just the language. It’s also the body language there that’s just so counter, counter to purpose.

Patricia McConnell: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to make sure we talked a little bit about the new book, because I know there are a lot of people who are very excited that you wrote it. So how does The Education of Will differ kind of from some of the other books that you’ve written?

Patricia McConnell: Oh, well, thanks for asking about it, first of all. It’s hugely different. It’s … this is a totally different work than I’ve ever done before. It’s a memoir, so it’s very personal. It’s a memoir about me and Willie. That’s why the subtitle — on the hard cover, anyway —  is A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog. I intertwine stories about getting Willie as a puppy who came as if he comes straight from Afghanistan with some canine version of PTSD. He was the most, he was fearful, he was sound reactive, he was pretty much a mess as a young dog. He really was. But he also, you know, he was … when he was good, he was like the best dog ever. He has a face on him that can just melt your bones, and he still does. I mean, there’s something about Willie’s face. That’s why the publisher put his face on the cover of the book, which I still am not crazy about because I don’t think it tells people what the book is really about. But his face, he’s just got the most gorgeous face, and he’s so loving and so friendly and so playful, you know.

The best of Willie is, like, just the dog everybody wants, but he came with all this baggage, and his baggage, as it turned out, triggered all kinds of stuff that I thought I had resolved from my past. I had a lot of traumas in my past. I was raped, I was molested, I had somebody fall and die, literally out of the sky and, like, fall by surprise out of the sky and fall at my feet and die. Yeah, and you know when things like that happen, it really changes … structurally, physically, changes your brain. I mean, when individuals get traumatized with that kind of a trauma and they can’t, they don’t, have enough resilience to bounce back from it, it literally structurally, physically, changes your brain structure. Your amygdala gets more active, your hippocampus shrinks, I mean, all kinds of things happen.

And so I had my own version of PTSD and I thought I’d resolved it, but when I got this super, super sound-reactive little puppy who, when a butterfly in China came out of its chrysalis, would leap up barking, and it set off, it triggered, all this old stuff and all these old symptoms with me. And so I basically figured out eventually that I couldn’t heal Willie until I really healed myself. So he forced me to go farther down and face some of the things I thought I dealt with but I really hadn’t finished.

So I didn’t start writing it to publish it. I actually started writing just segments of it, of some of the traumas that happened to me, as part of therapy, because it’s very therapeutic to write out just about anything. I highly, strongly advise it to any of us. I write in my journal almost every morning and I find it so balancing. But so I started … I wasn’t going to publish this, Melissa. I was just therapizing myself and trying to get better. And then, as a part of that process, I read a couple of books that literally changed my life. I mean, you know, that sounds, it’s used so often and I know we can overuse it, but they really did. That really is how it felt. And I started thinking if I could write this book where I intertwined Willie’s story and my story to show people that both people and dogs can, that the effects of trauma on both people and dogs, because dogs can be traumatized, and I think a lot of people don’t acknowledge that. Horses too, any mammal, but to also that we are ultimately so resilient, and that if we have the right support around us, people can heal from just an amazing amount of things and so can dogs. So that’s why I ended up finishing it, publishing it, and putting it out in the world.

Melissa Breau: How are you and Willie both doing today?

Patricia McConnell: Oh, we’re good, we’re good. He’s 10. I can barely believe that he’s 10 years old. He’s really happy. I think he loves having Maggie there. Maggie is great with him. You know, he’s so much better now. I mean, he recovered so much. He’s still super reactive, but now it’s like happy reactive, you know, it’s not panic, scared reactive. But he’s also … he’s not the best dog around other dogs, and so when Maggie came she’d, like, try and play, and he’d get grumpy and, you know, do a little one of those little tiny little, you know, grumpy tooth displays, you know, like, [makes sound] and she literally would be, like, “Oh Willie, come on, let’s play,” and you could just see he’d be, like, “OK.” So yeah, they play, he gets to work sheep, he gets, he and I still cuddle, and he gets a belly rub, he’s really good, he’s really happy, and it makes me really happy, yeah.

Melissa Breau: Good.

Patricia McConnell: Thanks for asking.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. When you wrote the book, what do you hope people will take away from it? I know you mentioned that you wrote it kind of inspired by these other books that changed your life, but when somebody finishes reading the book, what do you hope they’ve kind of learned or that they walk away with?

Patricia McConnell: Yeah, yeah, thanks for asking. I would say, one, that about that resilience, about the fact that it’s amazing if you know how to handle it, you know. You have to have the tools, you have to have help, you have to have a village. That if you have help and you know how to handle it, it’s astounding how resilient people can be. And I’ve since heard stories, and we’ve all heard stories, about people who have been through just unbelievable nightmares and yet they’re doing good, you know, like, how do you live through that? So people are really resilient.

I really want to emphasize and get out into the world, past sort of the Dog Fancy world, that dogs can be traumatized, you know. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you or listeners is that so much of “aggression” and “disobedience” are is basically behavior that’s motivated by fear, you know. And I see … I saw a lot of dogs who I think were traumatized, I mean, even just in the dog park they got attacked from behind by some dog and then they become dog aggressive. And so knowing that, you know, this is not about dominance, this is not in the, this is not a bad dog, you know, that we need to be really thoughtful.

Veterinarians need to be really aware of how terrifying it can be to a dog to have certain medical procedures, and I think veterinary medicine is starting to come on board, which is really gratifying. Dr. Marty Becker has a book coming out — it’s actually available through Dogwise, it’s coming out in April commercially or everywhere else — it’s called From Fearful to Fear Free, and a lot of what he’s trying to do is to change vet clinics so that they’re more conscious, you know, using a lot of the kind of methods that Sophia Yin did such a great job of spreading out into the world. So that’s another one of the things that I want people to be aware of — that animals can be traumatized and they need understanding. They don’t need dominance. They need understanding.

But, you know, the last thing that I would love people to get is that we all have stories, you know. We all have stories, and we all have things that we’re ashamed of or afraid of. And I’m a big supporter of Brene Brown and her work about facing those fears, about putting light onto some of that, rather than hiding it in the dark. And, you know, we need to be aware of the person we’re sitting next to, or the person who was rude in line at the supermarket or something, you know. We don’t know their story. And even when people are successful and productive, you know, you don’t know. You don’t know. So the more empathy and benevolence and kindness we can have to everybody and anybody, whether person or dog, the better the world will be.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s such, like, a powerful and important message to kind of get out there and think about and to be aware of, not just in your interactions with dogs but also with people.

Patricia McConnell: Thank you. And don’t you think — and this is an authentic question I’m asking you — maybe because of social media, I don’t know what it is about the world, is it in the water, I don’t know, but, you know, it’s true in many fields, and sort of parts of social behavior of humans, but there is a certain amount, in the dog world, of snarkiness, of, you know, of snappiness, of a lack of real thoughtful, benevolent consideration of other people, and I think that’s too bad. I do think it’s partly because of social media, but I just want everybody who loves dogs and is promoting positive training with dogs, if we all — and we all need to be reminded of, believe me, I am no saint, I have to take a breath sometimes too — but we all need to remember that no matter what method somebody uses or how much we disagree with them, we need to be as positive with people as we are with dogs.

Melissa Breau: I think especially in kind of the sports world, or the competitive world, you’ve got a dichotomy there between competition where people want to be better than the others around them and they also do have that relationship with their dog, so I definitely do think that there’s a snarkiness, and we all have to be conscious of our own behavior and our own words and kind of fight against that a little bit.

Patricia McConnell: Yeah, yeah, you know, I don’t do, I don’t go to agility, I never competed in it, but I don’t go. I watch it sometimes, but I don’t do it a lot, but I’m in sheepdog handling and, you know, we all know how competitive some people can be. And I love the people who are competitive in a really good way, you know? They want to get better, and they love to, and yeah, it’s way more fun to win. I mean, it’s way more fun to do well. No question about it. It’s way more fun to do well. But overriding all of these has got to be the health and happiness of our dogs and our relationship with them.

Melissa Breau: I could not agree with you more.

Patricia McConnell: Oh good.

Melissa Breau: So I know we’re kind of getting towards the end of the call, but there are three questions that I ask everyone who comes on the podcast and I wanted to make sure we kind of got them in and I got your perspective … so to start out the first one is what is the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Patricia McConnell: Well, you know, I have to separate it out. Personally, I think I’m proudest of giving my dogs a good life. I feel all wussy when I say that. I could just get all soppy and Oprah-ish. But I, you know, I’m not perfect and, I mean, I can beat myself up over things I haven’t done perfectly and I could have done better, but I think, in general, I think I’ve provided quite a few dogs a really, really good life, and understanding them as individuals rather than just dogs and making them fit into some kind of a slot that I wanted them to fit into, so I’m really proud of that. And I also, I guess professionally, I think I’m proudest of combining my respect for good writing and my passion and love for dogs and my interest in science, combining all those three things. I love to read, I love good writing, I don’t think anybody needs to hear how much I’m just stupid in love for dogs, and I think science is really important, and I found a way, sometimes, you know, I get on the right track and I combine all those three things in a way that I feel is good enough, and when that happens I feel really good about that.

Melissa Breau: I love that, especially the bit about just knowing that you’ve provided a good life to your dogs. That’s such an awesome thing to be proud of. I really, I like that answer.

Patricia McConnell: Thank you, thank you.

Melissa Breau: So this one may be a hard question, but what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Patricia McConnell: Oh man, oh wow, oh wow, let’s see. Do I have to pick one? OK, I’ll be really fast.

Melissa Breau: You can share more than one if you want. I’ll let you get away with that.

Patricia McConnell: Good. The thing that pops up in my mind the first time I hear that is actually … it’s not a piece of advice. It’s just a saying and it makes me want to cry. I sound like such a crier.

It makes me want to cry. The saying is, “We train by regret.” It just hits home so hard to me because I think every one of us who cares deeply about dogs and is really honest, and insightful, and learned, and grows, you know, admits that there’s things we’ve done that we wish we’d never done and, you know, some of them are just tiny little stupid things. It’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that,” or, you know, so I think that’s a really important saying. But I think that the most important part about it is to remind all of us to be kinder to ourselves. I think a lot of the people I work with who are progressive dog trainers who just adore their dogs and move heaven and earth for them, we’re so hard on ourselves. Don’t you think? I mean, we’re just, you know, I work with clients who are just … they’re just, oh, they’re being so hard on themselves because they haven’t been perfect. They made this one mistake and it’s like, oh man, you know, we are all human here. So I think that strikes home with me a lot.

And I guess the other just sort of solid, quick, concise piece of advice is basically “Say less, mean more.” I just made that up, but I’ve heard people say versions of that, you know, so basically another version is “Just shut up.” I think, I mean, you can hear I like to talk, right, so I can get badly with my dogs, and I think it’s confusing and tiring to our dogs. And I think, you know, some of the people who, you know, those people who dogs just don’t ever want to leave, you know, they meet them, and the second they meet them they sit down beside them and don’t want to leave. There aren’t many of them, and I was never one of those people. I sometimes am now, which makes me really happy, but those are often people who are really quiet. So I think being very mindful of the way we use words and sound around our dogs is really, really important because, I think, frankly, our dogs are often just simply exhausted trying to figure out what the heck we’re trying to convey to them, you know? So I guess I’d just stick with those two things.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Well, thank you. Kind of the last one here is who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?

Patricia McConnell: If you had asked that first we would still be talking. That’s cold to ask me last when we run out of time! OK, I’ll talk really fast. Susan Friedman — I’d kiss the hem of her skirt or her pants. I bow down to her. I think she’s brilliant, funny, amazing, wonderful. I love Fenzi Dog Sports. I think that incredible work’s being done. Suzanne Hetts is doing great work. Her husband, Dan Estep. Julie Hecht at Dog Spies. Karen Pryor, oh my goodness. Trish King. Steve White. Chris Zink, the … everybody in, you know, dog sports knows. Those are the people who just, like, rattle off the top of my head right now, but I could go on and on and on. There are so many amazing people in this field right now. It’s just so gratifying.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Patricia McConnell: Those are just a few of them, yeah.

Melissa Breau: We’ll have to see if we can get a few of them to come on the show.

Patricia McConnell: Oh absolutely, yeah.

Melissa Breau: Well thank you so much for coming on the podcast Patricia! I really appreciate it.

Patricia McConnell: Oh, it was really fun. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in.

We’ll be back next week with Sarah Stremming. Sarah and I will be talking about life with your dog outside of training… and how what you do then impacts that training.

Don’t miss it! It 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.

CREDITS:

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.

Nov 3, 2017

SUMMARY:

Shade Whitesel returns to talk about toys and the process of introducing work to play. For those of you who haven’t heard the previous episode with Shade, Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. She has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring and her focus is really on clear communication with your dog.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 11/10/2017, featuring Patricia McConnell, to talk about what she’s learned over her time in dog training.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 have Shade Whitesel back with us again, this time to talk about toys and the process of introducing work to play. For those of you who haven’t heard the previous episode with Shade, Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. She has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring and her focus is really on clear communication with your dog.

She also recently launched a blog on her website, which all of you should check out at www.shadesdogtraining.net.

Welcome back, Shade!

Shade Whitesell: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be back.

Melissa Breau: I’m glad to have you. So I kind of want to jump straight into things here. So when we talk about play, I think most people think, It’s play, and think it should just kind of come naturally to them and to their dog. But all too often that’s not the case. So why is it that play can be hard?

Shade Whitesel: I think when you’re talking about competitive dog sports, we’re thinking about play as a reinforcement, and so the dog’s idea of what’s reinforcing and our idea what we want to teach them might be different. So it’s not always easy. And also I think we have in our mind this ideal thing, this ideal of our childhood dog who always brought the ball back, and things like that.

My childhood dog didn’t. Maybe that’s why I teach this, because I had work to do to get her to bring it back. But, so keeping in mind that I’m talking about play with toys, it’s basically an interaction between the dog and the handler using toys.

It’s hard because it involves shaping on the handler’s part, where they’re working from approximating a little behavior that the dog is giving you to a bigger behavior that you want to eventually use to reward stuff. So it’s kind of like even though it’s play, we still have to train little parts of it and make it more … train rules in it might be a good way of putting it, where you’ve got, you know, you can reward with a ball, but you’ve got to get the ball back. So kind of like those things are all caught up in our word of play, basically.

Melissa Breau: So you mentioned in there kind of the bringing the ball back bit, and I think probably one of the most common issues that you hear about when people are talking about play is the dog takes a toy, runs away in the corner, and enjoys it all on their lonesome. What’s going on there — and how do you go about teaching the dog that you really can be part of that fun?

Shade Whitesel: Well, the dog, when they’re going away and they’re chewing it, they’re really fixated on the object itself, and so they’re thinking that the object itself is fun. And what we need to do is we need to teach the dog that they need us for the interaction. So they need us to activate the toy, whether that’s taught or whether we’re throwing it for them to chase. And that is more fun and we need to create more value for that, rather than the dog taking the toy away and chewing it off in the corner. And one of those things that we need to do is figure out how to play in a way that the dog likes.

It really starts there. And once they figure that out, once you figure out how to play in a way the dog likes, they bring the toy back to you automatically. And then value building for having you in there just works. The problems come when we expect the dog to play how we want them to play, like, for instance, how another dog we have played, or, like, what our sport wants our dog to play like, and then it’s no longer play and the dog may have other ideas of what they consider play. So it’s important to take what the dog offers to you and then reinforce that by giving the dog what they want, which is normally possession of the toy.

I find a lot of people just don’t want to give the dog the toy because they’re so afraid it’s going to take it away and chew it up, because that’s what they do when they’re babies. But in order to get what you want, you kind of have to give the dog what they want, and a lot of times in the beginning of training that’s giving them possession, and honoring that, and being OK with that.

So later on, and this affects right at the beginning, it is you also need to think about the tugging itself. One of my favorite things is to tell handlers to make it 50-50 when you’re tugging with your dog. And that means that 50 percent of the time the dog pulls you around. The other 50 percent you pull the dog around. Most of the issues I see with dogs and handler play is that the handler is pulling the dog around 95 percent or worse, and then the dog doesn’t think you’re fair. They don’t think they can beat you. So then when you finally let them have the toy, they leave.

They’re kind of saying their opinion of your playing and it’s not all that fun for them, so ... And sometimes that’s hard to hear, you know. We’ve got to start with little tiny parts, so …

Melissa Breau: It is a little funny in some respects that kind of the dog wants the toy, but the person wants the toy too.

Shade Whitesel: Right, and you need to learn, too, the word that occurs to me is cooperate. I’m not sure I mean that. To compete in a way that each creature has fun with it, and compete in a way that the dog thinks they can win, and maybe look at it that way, not that you’re just tugging them around because you think that’s what they should do.

Melissa Breau: So you mentioned kind of the dog has to think it’s fun. And we’re talking mostly tug and fetch here. So what kinds of cues should people be looking for in their dog’s body language to make sure their dog’s enjoying the game and actually having fun?

Shade Whitesel: Well, they kind of really have to be all in. So I’m not going to really describe what their actual body language looks like, that’s probably different with each dog, but one of the things that I don’t like to see is a dog that I think is frantic or hectic. And so I want to see a dog that’s calmer than frantically tugging backwards.

So I think many handlers are conditioned by their sport, or what they’ve been exposed to, to think that a dog that is frantically tugging backwards, growling and thrashing, is happy, and I’m not sure that that’s always the case. It might be frantic and hectic and not so happy.

The simple thing to ask the dog is, you know, when you let them have it, do they like it? Do they run laps? Do they come back and play with you, in which case they like that type of play, or do they race away? So that’s kind of what you’re looking, the actions that they’re doing, rather than, like, their actual body language, because I just think that’s open to a lot of interpretation based on people seeing other dogs play, things like that. It’s really what does the dog do when you give it and how into it are they. So, yeah, that’s what I’d be looking at.

Melissa Breau: Looking at tug specifically, what are some of the common mistakes maybe that people make -- either in your toys class or in general -- and how would you address them?

Shade Whitesel: Well, the biggest thing is we have to remember we’re bigger than the dog, and so we kind of overwhelm the dog with the tugging, especially if the dog is young or if it’s smaller than us. I mean, you know, really what I see people accidentally doing is they’re dragging the dog all around and they’re never allowing the dog to drag them around. And the dog has to affect you, they have to feel like they can pull you down and get the toy, or make you move, or make your hands go loose, or something like that.

And then the other common thing is people never give the dog the toy, and that’s just a big deal, because they’re scared that the dog might not bring it back, and so they don’t give it to them. It’s a teaching thing. It’s teaching trust around your hands near toys. Hands near the dog. My dog thinks hands are good. He thinks they’re for shoving toys into. And that’s what I want dogs to learn, rather than being overwhelmed.

So that’s kind of why I’m really big on letting the dog have it and then choose to come back. That gives me information on how I’m playing and if the dog likes that.

Melissa Breau: With fetch or with ball play, are there common mistakes you see people make?

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, they start, like, they get really concerned with the dropping, which, you know, we have to get the dog to drop it, so, but they start commanding it and cuing it and verbally making the dog do it, and using a little bit of coercion to get the dog to come back and drop it. And those, I’d say, what I want my dogs to figure out is that their dropping activates me, so when a dog drops a toy at my feet, that activates me to bring out another ball in sight and throw it. That’s what I want them to look at the out as, rather than this thing that has to be commanded.

So dogs will tell you a lot about what they think of the game when they’re coming back to you. So, like, people get really concerned with dogs circling, with arcing, and all that kind of stuff, and it’s good to notice that, but when you’re training that, it’s OK as the dog works it out that, yes, I can come back and drop it. So that’s a little bit of a common mistake.

Melissa Breau: Everybody kind of probably has heard the idea that you should start with the fun and then gradually add work in. So can you talk a little about that? How do you decide when and where you add work to the game?

Shade Whitesel: Well, I have, like, a rote fetch game that I teach with rules, where the dog has to drop it, the handler has to have a marker word, and eye contact has to be added. And the dog needs to know that it dropped the ball to make the other ball in sight.

So it’s kind of a two-ball game, but you have to make sure that the dog understands that their dropping produces the other one in sight and that you’re not bribing or prompting them with the one in your hand to drop. So once you have that basic thing for the chase game, then I would feel confident adding some behavior skills through either obedience or agility. With tugging, the dog needs to be bringing it right back.

But also with tugging, the dog needs to have the self-control of not just jumping all over you. That self-control with the tugging is a big thing, so I want to physically cue the dog to jump on me when it’s allowed, and that way when they’ve got, when they want to come back right away, but they’re also looking for that signal that they’re allowed to come back and shove it at you, that’s kind of they’ve got some self-control in the game and some thinking in there.

It’s not just a frantic thing. When I see that, then I say that you can start to add simple behavior skills, and say you’ve got the rules, and you can start adding behavior skills. And your focus, especially at first, is to add the skills to the game. You don’t want to just run an agility sequence and reward the dog with the ball. You want to basically put the behavior skills into the game itself.

So it might look like you throw the ball to the dog a couple of times and then you cue a jump. And then you throw the ball for the dog a couple of times, and if you’re doing obedience you might cue a sit. And then throw it a couple of times and then a hand touch. So what you’re doing is you’re adding those behavior skills in gradually, and you’re keeping in mind that it’s about the play and the reinforcement of the play. And then in fact it’s easier for the dog. You can start to make that reinforcement of play thinner and thinner. And then, when you start doing that, so that leads to a whole other thing, basically, where eventually you’re going to want to thin the reinforcement schedule so that you can get some stuff done.

You don’t want to have to, for the rest of the dog’s life, have it three ball throws for one sit, you know? But that’s what I call a tell, where, assuming you’ve got all your games really well taught and the dog is bringing back the ball, your dog’s tell are what starts to deteriorate when your rate of reinforcement is too low, or the environment is too hard, or the behavior you’re teaching is too hard for the dog. And so in a fetch game a lot of times what the dog will do is, let’s say you only gave one ball throw for the sit and they thought that was kind of cheap. Then they’ll arc on their way coming back to you when previously they would have run straight back to you. Or they’ll not drop the ball quickly. They’ll chomp it a couple of times. So those are the things that the dog will start deteriorating, the game skills will deteriorate, and that’s what I call the dog’s tell.

So in tugging, the dog might start growling on the tug, or it may jump on you before being cued, or it will re-bite the toy. All those things that you hopefully trained past in your game skills when you were training for reinforcement will then start to resurface when you add things, behavior skills, too quickly. So, like, thinking of behavior skills as work and the game skills as the fun and the play, your game skills will start to deteriorate if your work is too much, in the dog’s opinion. And then you want to figure out as the handler what how your dog is telling you that, because they each have different ways they tell you that.

Like, a border collie will usually always give you the ball, but they’ll usually arc. Arcing is usually what a stereotypical border collie will do. Whereas a German Shepherd will fully come back to you, but he’ll stop dropping the ball. So different types of dogs have different tells.

Melissa Breau: Gee, I wonder if I’ve ever seen that behavior before. Maybe a little.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah. Anybody who’s had a German Shepherd has seen the “Drop? What’s that?”

Melissa Breau: The chomp, chomp, chomp.

Shade Whitesel: Chomp, chomp, exactly.

Melissa Breau: I know kind of before we scheduled this to have you come back on, we chatted a little bit about the idea that you’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about training loops and kind of how they feed into how a dog feels about a training session…. And I wanted to dive into that a little bit, but before we go too deep, just to make sure everybody kind of knows the terminology, can you explain just a little bit what a training loop is and why it’s really important for the dog to feel good about the training session?

Shade Whitesel: Well, I’m not sure this technical way of describing it, but for me right now what a loop is, is think about behaviors as a three-part process.

You’ve got first the dog doing behavior, let’s say it’s sit, and then the second part is he’s collecting his reinforcement, let’s say a treat, and then that little part between the treat and when you cue sit again is what I’m calling a reset. I’m sure there’s another technical name for it. So you’ve got behavior, collecting reinforcement, and a reset. And what I’ve really been interested in, so that all that forms a loop, because once a dog resets back to you, you can then, you know, cue another behavior.

What I’m really concentrating on nowadays is that little part of the reset, because we train it, you can, you know, start paying attention to the dog noticing you and then cue a reward or something, but that’s where it all starts to deteriorate. You’ve got your big loop. And what you’re doing is you’re seeing if the dog decides to do the behavior again or connect with you.

So things happen right there where they’ll start to deteriorate, and what I mean by that is the dog will start sniffing, they’ll start glancing at the environment, and all those are little signs that the dog, how the dog is feeling. So with treats, you give the dog a treat and he’ll always eat the treat, but they’ll sniff around before they look back at you for the next cued behavior. For toys, that’s exactly what the whole toy class is about, basically, teaching the dog how to give up the toy. So they won’t give up the toy if that little reset isn’t trained, or if they think the reinforcement is too thin. So what I’ve been noticing is that part of a behavior loop deteriorates before everything else.

So you’ll have a dog that’s sitting, but they’re glancing away. And so I’m really interested in that, because as positive trainers we really need to notice that, because it’s telling us that the dog is not all into the training session, and I want to know that as their teacher right there. So it’s just that reset, where the dog shows they’re stressed or their conflict, is just something that I’ve really been noticing lately and trying to train better and also to address when it happens.

Melissa Breau: So you talked a little bit there about some of the things that you’ve been doing. Is there more you want to say about that? I mean, I know you mentioned you get a little ahead of yourself, but is there more you want to say about what you've been playing with or you know, what you've been doing?

Shade Whitesel: Well we need to intentionally notice it. I feel like I never noticed it until the last couple years, and so we need to intentionally also train it so train the reset. And how we do that is we, instead of prompting a dog to look at us — we can call it focus, we can call it engagement — but instead of, like, prompting them to look back at us after they’ve eaten a treat, we can actually wait and have the dog notice us, OK, and then reinforce that. And so that’s we’re reinforcing the dog’s check-in, and the dog understands that it leads to work or another behavior.

So being positive trainers, kind of like I said before, we need total buy-in. And if they’re looking away, or they’re sniffing, or they’re not dropping balls, or arcing on the return, we don’t have total buy-in. And so it’s really, I think it’s awesome because we can, like, address that there in the training session instead of waiting for our behaviors to deteriorate. Hopefully that makes sense. It’s, like, the action the dog does between eating a treat or chasing the ball and then doing the next behavior starts to show the stress of the training session on the dog before the actual behaviors deteriorate.

Melissa Breau: You know, most of the time you don’t notice until the behavior starts to change.

Shade Whitesel: Totally, totally. We don’t notice until the sits get slower, or the dog doesn’t sit, or — heaven forbid — we notice when the dog’s not taking food. But I want to notice that stuff before, and I want to address it right then. Because my dog, like, say he starts chomping his ball and he doesn’t want to give it up. Then that tells me he doesn’t trust me to give him enough reinforcement for what behavior he just did.

That tells me that it's hard. Like, if I ask for 50 steps of heeling and I throw the ball, and he brings it right back and drops it at my feet, he’s telling me that 50 steps of heeling was not hard. If he doesn’t drop his ball right away, he’s telling me that was hard, and he needs a lot of ball throws, and he doesn’t trust me to do that.

When you start noticing that — I call it listening to the dog — then it’s so helpful, for me anyway, in my training to know that. And then I can, like, cue another chase. I can throw the ball a couple more times. I can tug a little bit before I ask for 50 more steps of heeling. I can go, “Oh, you can do 50 steps of heeling at home, it’s not that big a deal. But here out in the field with lots of other dogs around, this is a really hard behavior.” So I just like knowing that kind of stuff, and so I’ve been really interested in that the last, especially the last six months. Anyway, lots more questions about that kind of stuff as we all train.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, no, I think it’s really an interesting concept to kind of think of, and I think you hear everybody kind of say, you know, they have that “just one more rep” problem, right, and that seems like such a good way to kind of check in with yourself and check in with your dog before you ever get to the “one more rep” problem.

Shade Whitesel: Yes, exactly. And you know, I think, I think as trainers we all notice this and we call it different things, you know, focus, or engagement, or I call it the reset.

So I think we’re all kind of talking about the same thing, but we all describe it a little differently. And it just, it’s neat and fascinating for me because I always want to know my dog’s opinion. I want to know, so yeah.

Melissa Breau: So for those kind of interested in learning more about this stuff, how much of this do you explore in the advanced toys class, since it’s coming up in December? What do you focus on there?

Shade Whitesel: So the advanced toy class is, it’s Part 1 working on impulse control and making sure everyone, the handler and the dog, has the mechanics down. So we work on presentations, we really work on the different marker words, so “In spite of the tug in front of your face, when I say ‘yes,’ you need to take food,” that kind of thing. And then the second part of it is kind of figuring out where your dog’s tell is, adding the work to it.

Some people can get through that in the regular toy class because I do include it there, but the advanced toy class I usually get a lot of students who really want to concentrate on, like, adding behavior chains and things and figuring out how arousal plays a part, because a toy’s arousal is always there.

Melissa Breau: Of course, yeah.

Shade Whitesel: So and it catches you by surprise sometimes. So yes, we do really work on that reset, basically, and trying to figure out how individual dogs are feeling about their session. Dogs who would do best in class are ones obviously … the prereq is the basic toy class, but they don’t have to have all the skills from the basic toy class, but they do have to have the basics of the fetch game and the tug game. But they just need to work on the specifics. So yeah.

Melissa Breau: Awesome.

Shade Whitesel: Yeah, it’s really a fun class.

Melissa Breau: Hey, Shade, I think any class with you would be fun.

Shade Whitesel: You’re too kind!

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Shade. It’s always a joy to talk to you about this stuff!

Shade Whitesel: Good, yeah, I love to, so thanks so much for having me a second time. I feel honored.

Melissa Breau: Well, for all of our wonderful listeners, we’ll be back next week with Patricia McConnell. Patricia will be on the podcast to talk about what she’s learned over her time in dog training.

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CREDITS:

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.

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