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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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Jun 15, 2018

SUMMARY:

This week we talked to Denise Fenzi about FDSA Training Camp 2018!

In previous years, we’ve shared the audio from Denise’s opening talk, but unfortunately the camera this year didn’t do a great job picking up her voice, so instead we’re just going to talk through all the themes from camp.

Next Episode: 

To be released 6/22/2018, featuring Sue Yanoff, talking canine sports medicine!

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’ll be talking to Denise Fenzi about FDSA Training Camp 2018!

In previous years, we’ve shared the audio from Denise’s opening talk, but unfortunately the camera this year didn’t do a great job picking up her voice, so instead we’re just going to talk through all the themes from camp.

Hi Denise. Welcome back to the podcast!

Denise Fenzi: Hi Melissa. It’s always nice to be here.

Melissa Breau: For anyone who is new to the podcast or to FDSA, can you share a little bit about camp? What is it? Why is it awesome?

Denise Fenzi: Well, camp is probably the highlight of my year in relation to FDSA. For starters, we have so much going on at any given time. I think we had 15 or 16 instructors this year, and we run six sessions at a time. So if you come, you have a whole lot of opportunity to see pretty much anything, and we cover a lot of dog sports now, you know, nosework and obedience and behavior, and it goes on and on.

Probably the thing that stands out for me is how consistent all of the instructors are with things we really care about, the wellbeing of the dog, and at the same time how different we all are in what we care about and where we choose to put our energy. So it’s a pretty amazing experience for me and I think for most of our participants as well.

Melissa Breau: I definitely agree. I feel like a lot of seminars and things, as an attendee you go and at the end you feel, OK, I’ve got some stuff to work on. Whereas I feel like the biggest takeaway for me from camp was the end of it I heard over and over and over again, “I’m so proud of my dog. They did awesome this weekend.” And I really think that can be attributed to the staff and the way the instructors work with the students. I think it just makes them feel good about their relationship with their dog.

Denise Fenzi: Yeah. I think the corollary to that is that the instructors spend a lot of time saying, “I’m just so proud of my students.” Because the dogs got that from somewhere. Those dogs didn’t just show up being amazing. They’re amazing because the people who work with them have spent so much energy making training a wonderful experience. I’m so proud of my instructors because my instructors give so much to their students, and I’m so proud of my students because they give so much to their dogs. So it’s an amazing cycle for all of us.

Melissa Breau: This was the fourth annual FDSA Training Camp, and each year, camp has a theme. Do you mind sharing what the theme was for this year?

Denise Fenzi: This year we did Face Your Fears. So many students, they want to do it right, they care so much, and that’s amazing, but sometimes it’s also a little paralyzing, and what if? What if my dog pees in the ring? What if … you can fill in any blank you want, people are all over the map. And so I think that is something that is holding us back. So our theme this year was Face Your Fears. What can we do to allow us to succeed?

Melissa Breau: Do you mind … can you share the story of the dream that inspired all of that?

Denise Fenzi: That was not our original theme. We changed it. What tends to happen each year is something happens during the year that sparks a topic. So, for example, the first year was The Red Dress. That was because one of the students drew a picture of me which is often associated with the school, it’s our logo. But she put me in a red dress with heels, and it was kind of cute and fun and a lot of people talked about it, so what the hell, I dressed up in that outfit, which was actually quite hard, but it was fun.

The second year, we did a lot of conversation about the idea of ripples and bubbles, so the idea that you want to go out in the world and make change, and at the same time you’ve really got to have a safe space, so that’s a bubble that you hide in, and so I dressed up as a mermaid and represented that theme.

The third year, we had talked a lot about advocating for your dog, which is very much a focal point at FDSA, as we just talked about, and so I dressed up as a superhero, Wonder Woman.

This year, I’m not going to tell you the original theme because, who knows, we might come back to it. But I had a dream, not an amazing dream, just a regular dream, but it was something of a nightmare. What happened was at first I showed up for camp and there was some fellow teaching a lecture, a lab, and everybody was there, and he was somebody I did not know, and all of the students were riveted by him and he was teaching them about football. I remember being a little bit like, Wow, that’s different. I didn’t expect somebody I don’t know to be here teaching football, but I’ll figure it out later. And then I went outside and I saw all of these lions in cages, and I thought, I really have to talk to my instructors about telling me if they’re going to do something like that. But I was kind of OK with that too. I’m pretty easygoing. Then I came back in and looked at the clock and I realized I was about to teach, and I looked down and I was wearing a towel. I hadn’t gotten dressed yet. Of those events, a stranger teaching at camp football to the students and lions in cages outside, those didn’t particularly bother me. But being in a towel bothered me very much. And I did teach, by the way. I think in my dream I went ahead and taught. I don’t remember how it went beyond that.

But as I brought that up on the alumni list and I talked to the students about that dream and said, “Oh, I must be anxious about camp,” and that led to an amazing discussion where people talked about things that had happened to them for real at dog shows. Funny things, mostly. Well, it depends — funny is from your point of view. It’s not funny when your skirt falls off. It is funny when somebody else’s falls off. But the thing that came back to me is that people overcame those experiences and did continue to show, because they’re on the alumni list. They’re still in the community.

That led to my thinking about how is it that some people are able to face the fears that have happened, the clothing failures, and how other people are really more worried about what might happen, and how much of that is centered around the issue of being embarrassed. It’s not physical harm that most people were worried about. It’s emotional harm. So that was the dream that inspired our theme, and that was where we went with our discussion.

Melissa Breau: I think it’s funny that you say of the three things, the thing that bothered you most is talking in a towel, so you actually made that happen. For anybody that wasn’t there, Denise came out in a Pac-Man towel.

Denise Fenzi: I did, yeah. I think next year I’m going to go for a lot of clothing. It’s a little easier.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. During your opening talk, you had three tips for helping to deal with embarrassment. Can you rehash those for us?

Denise Fenzi: Sure. The first one is a little bit of an understanding of biology. When you are anxious, your body releases a variety of hormones that tells you, “Oh my goodness, you’re having an emotion.” But what’s interesting is those hormonal experiences are the same if you’re excited or anxious. It’s your brain that tells you, “I’m really excited because this amazing thing is going to happen,” or “I’m really anxious because this horrible thing might happen.”

That’s actually a fascinating and powerful thing to know, because if you know that, then you actually have a lot of control over the situation. So rather than saying, ‘I’m really anxious about showing my dog. She might pee in the ring,” you have the option of saying, “I’m really excited about showing my dog. I’ve never done this before. This is going to be new.”

And admittedly you have to do a little mental gymnastics, because our natural tendency, I think in particular for women, is to assume anxiety maybe when it really isn’t anxiety. Maybe we really are excited. They’ve done some really interesting research on that topic that you can tell yourself “I’m excited,” and that will help you become excited as opposed to anxious. So that would be one thing I would recommend is an awareness of that, and then just keep telling yourself, “I’m so excited to be at the dog show. This is going to be amazing,” rather than “I’m so scared.”

The second thing I talked about was preparation. When you’re afraid, instead of hiding it and smushing it down in your head, pull it out. What are you concerned about? And then prepare to make those incidences less likely. So if you are afraid that your dog is going to pee in the ring, teach your dog to go to the bathroom on cue, if that’s important to you, if that will give you comfort, so that when you go in the ring that is less likely to happen. Or if you think that you might go in the ring and your dog is going to have a meltdown of whatever type, ask yourself where that is coming from and is it a legitimate concern, because if it is, there are things you can do to prepare your dog and yourself to make that less likely. Don’t turn away from the things that concern you. Address them.

The final thing I suggested was train yourself and treat yourself with the kindness that we treat our dogs. We talk a lot about criteria with our dogs. Don’t put your dogs in circumstances that will over-faze them and make them uncomfortable. Don’t put yourself in circumstances that are above your readiness.

Your first dog show does not have to be a great big show with six rings and a lot of activity. Maybe start with some video competitions or a smaller local trial or a fun match. Ease into the dog show world or the world of competition. You may never go to a dog show, but I guarantee you will be just as nervous at your first video competition when you turn on that video camera as you will at a show.

So treat yourself with some kindness and set yourself up for success, because success really does breed success. That is absolutely well researched. We know this is true for dogs and people, that when people have many successful experiences they build confidence in themselves and they are willing to keep trying and moving forward. Failure, it’s wonderful to say “Well, just get back up,” but the fact is failure has a tendency to beat people down and they don’t keep getting back up. They stop trying.

So those were my three suggestions: a little understanding of biology, prepare yourself well so that you can feel like you’ve done everything in your power, and set some criteria that will set you up for likelihood of success.

Melissa Breau: You also shared some advice on what to do if it DOES all go to hell. How would you recommend people handle that?

Denise Fenzi: I’m a pretty big fan of preparing for everything, because I find that if I have a plan for how I’m going to handle it if it doesn’t go right, so just in a very straight training sense, I have asked my dog to do something, I have asked my dog to spin, and my dog just looks at me, has never heard that in her life or his life, it’s actually important to me to already know exactly what I will do. I asked you to spin, you didn’t do it, I am going to move my hand in a way that is going to cause you to spin and make it more likely.

When I do that, what I find is two things happen. One, I am more likely to recover quickly because I’ve already made a decision about what I’m going to do. But the second thing is, in a very subtle way you send off signals to your dog that tell them you have a plan and you are in control.

So if I think it is possible that my dog might run amuck in the ring and take off, I’ve already worked on an emergency recall and I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to kneel down and call my dog to me, because standing and looking paralyzed, not only is that very, very hard on you emotionally, and your dog, it creates long-term issues. Often if I give someone a plan for when things don’t go wrong, I’ve noticed that they have this instant change in their demeanor and then they never have a chance to practice their emergency situation because the dog reads their confidence. So I absolutely believe that you should have some ideas for everything if it’s going to go right. You can’t pick every possibility, but the ones that are biggest in your head you can pick some strategies in advance.

Melissa Breau: Our shirts this year all said, “Game on,” and they had a Pac-Man theme. I’d love to hear how you came up with that, and obviously it connects to the
“eating your fears” concept. So I’d love to hear where all the awesome designs come from and where the thought process occurs for that.

Denise Fenzi: Well, the school, FDSA, is quite a bit more than me. It’s many, many, many people. Teri Martin is sort of, well, she’s kind of everything, you know, she’s always right there supporting me in many ways. She is the one that came up with the idea of the Pac-Man creature eating up your fears. And then Rebecca Aube is my designer, and she’s designed all of the T-shirts for camp. She took Teri’s ideas and said, “I can run with that.” There’s always a process of back and forth, so we had power-ups. Eating the fruits in the real game of Pac-Man gives you power, so for us, eating up your fear, your anxiety, your worries. So it’s a cumulative process and effort of many people on our team to come up with these ideas.

Melissa Breau: That was all for the welcome talk or the intro talk, but you also gave a short closing talk, and your focus for that was on the importance of being happy in order to learn. I’d love to have you elaborate a bit more on that, why it’s important, and what made you talk about that.

Denise Fenzi: Well, I think most of us are aware that when we are embarrassed or afraid, we do not learn well. If something happens in a circumstance and we find ourselves embarrassed, most of us lose the next 15 or 20 minutes of the talk or the event or whatever it is, because we’re stewing. I mean, some of us lose days or months or years, even, over embarrassment. And fear is the same. When you are uncomfortable and nervous, really, fear dominates everything and we tend to focus on that.

Now, if you think about it, camp can be a very high-pressure situation for both the human and the dog. You’re standing in front of maybe a hundred people, you’re about to be taught and directed, and that’s stressful, so it’s so important that we have people as comfortable as we can possibly make them.

As a result, everyone — the instructors and the students and the dogs — we all think so much about the importance of maintaining happiness, and I know our students think about it a lot in relation to their dogs because we talk about it so much. That’s called a CER: a conditioned emotional response. We want our dogs to be conditioned to loving being with us and training and finding it fun and low stress. But the same is true for the people, and as a result, staff at FDSA and the design of camp is set up to minimize the human stress as much as possible, and to make sure that people are happy and feel loved and warm and excited to be there and understand that if they make an error, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s OK.

What I found as the years go by this becomes easier for all of us. We all become more comfortable with how this works. You could see the effects in camp. You could see that people were able to learn in real time and they were happy, so then of course their dogs are happy, and then of course the staff is happy, and again you have that circle.

I do not choose my closing speech in advance. I just talk about whatever stood out for me at camp. And it really stood out for me, was almost a bit of an epiphany for me, that CER, that conditioned emotional response, the importance of it, the importance of happiness and feeling good is just as important for the handler as it is for the dog and that we all take some responsibility for making that happen.

Melissa Breau: Of course the other thing you talk about during the closing talk every single year is the date and location for next year. I want to talk a little more about that, but first, where and when is it next year?

Denise Fenzi: All right. It is May 19 through the 21st, it’s three days, 2019, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The location is the Lebanon Valley Exposition Center. Once again we have lots of space. We go to some trouble to ensure that we have a lot of space so that we have the best possible sound. Once again we’ll have a wide variety of instructors. We do have a few changes, I think people will be excited about that, a couple of new people coming in.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to get in a little bit more into what goes into choosing the location and the space and stuff like that. I know everybody at camp was pretty excited about where camp would be, but obviously choosing that location is a very involved process, and I know usually Teri is working on it pretty much as soon as one year ends, trying to plan for the next year. So how do you decide where to have camp each year? What goes into that?

Denise Fenzi: It’s actually, it’s really quite complex. Planning camp is actually a two-year cycle, so we are already picking our 2020 facility now because you have to start really far in advance.

For 2019, we have a contract signed, but I think maybe more goes into camp than people realize, and it’s a very complex thing. Just finding a facility that can host us is hard because we need large, open working spaces. Many conferences don’t have working dogs that require large open spaces. It’s just the nature of our dog sports. That alone takes a lot of space.

The second one is sound. If you’re going to run six rings at the same time, you need six distinct spaces. But you don’t want six huge spaces, because one, sound does not, it’s not as efficient to be in a huge building with a smaller number of people, and the second thing is just expense. You pay for all those large spaces.

Just logistically there are only so many places in the United States, and each one that we investigate ends up taking us several hours, once we narrow it down, and then we find something that’s just not going to work, so lack of air conditioning or no airport nearby or whatever is part of that.

Some of the criteria, we are looking for heavy student population centers because experience has taught us that people generally drive within about an eight-hour radius, although I did notice this year people are coming from further. So we’re looking for places where we already know we have a lot of students.

In addition, we are trying to rotate it around the country, sort of a north, south, east, west, but it’s not that clean because again we’re looking for population centers. So this year we’re about eight hours east of last year because we feel that we can fill that effectively at this time. We can pull people down from the northeast, it was too far for them, and we can pull people up from the southeast because it was too far for them, and hopefully we’ll also pull people in from the middle of the country, and we have an airport within about an hour. Next year we’ll probably make a more radical change the year after that and head back to the other side of the country.

It’s actually very, very difficult for us to pick locations, and we worry and we want everyone to be able to participate, but we recognize the difficulty of that. And we do generally have people come internationally, so hopefully people from Europe and, well, Europe in particular will consider coming over next year, because it’s really only about six or seven hours to get to the East Coast, so we’re trying to maximize, and Canadians tend to represent very, very well at camp, so we’re hoping they’re going to come down. They’re some lively people, those Canadians.

Melissa Breau: I’m sure they’d appreciate that. I know that you were talking about the sound thing, and a lot of the time when those threads pop up on the alumni list, people suggest places where they’ve had great nationals and things like that. I think there’s often a failure to realize what you said that not only do we need the space to have six rings essentially, but they need to be divided into their own rooms, because otherwise you get so much bleed from sounds. I know that’s been an issue in past years. And you’ve worked to remedy food issues from past years and bathroom issues from past years. There’s just so many factors. I think it’s incredible.

Denise Fenzi: We do ask. We do a survey every year and it’s incredibly valuable for us. We get feedback about what does or doesn’t work. It also comes when I read the survey that I understand that some people just don’t understand. For example, we don’t choose the caterer. Most of the time the facility tells us what our options are, so we don’t say, “We’re going to bring in pizza.” They say, “No, you’re not.” For example, that is one. They tell us where we can do it. They tell us if we can or cannot have outside alcohol. They tell us what the prices are going to be. We do not make money on those things. So we have to work within the constraints that we have, and I think people are unaware of many of our constraints. However, we always get suggestions every year that we look at and we say, “This we can do.”

So if you are really passionate about something and you don’t understand why we are ignoring you, it’s not necessarily that we think it’s not a good idea. It may be outside of our control, or there may be other expenses or other things that people are not aware of that we have to dovetail all of these things together. It’s a very complicated and rewarding experience for us.

Melissa Breau: I just have one more question on my list, but before we get to that, I wanted to give you an open choice question, for lack of a better term. Is there anything else fun or exciting going on at the academy or favorite moments from camp that you want to share?

Denise Fenzi: There’s so much. You know, you go home from camp on such a high, and I think a big part for me is this sense of wonder. I’m amazed at what FDSA is and who it is. It is the people. Where did I find a Teri and a Melissa and a Rebecca? Where did I find these amazing people? So, for me, camp is really the people. Where did I find these amazing students? The volunteers — they’re fantastic. They work so hard, they’re focused, they just do so much.

I think the thing I flew home with on my airplane as I came home was that sense of people, how amazing people can be, if you’re looking for what’s going right. Camp is a great example of what went right, and that will hold me probably for months. I’ll stay excited about that.

Melissa Breau: So I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been trying something new at the end of each episode. The three questions at the end of every interview were definitely one of my favorite things early on, but it obviously doesn’t make sense to ask them over and over when people come back. So I’ve come up with a new question for returning guests, and I think you’re the second or third person I’ve had the chance to ask it. What is a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Denise Fenzi: This is one I talk about a lot for other people, but it came home to roost. I would like to talk about videotaping. Has anybody not heard me tell you, “You have to videotape your work if you really want to improve.” Of course you can do it other ways, but my goodness, if you videotape and look at it — this is the second part — look at it from an outside perspective, don’t watch yourself training your dog, watch your friend training a dog, and that extra step of removal will show you things. It will allow you to relax your brain and your defensive side that says, “I know I’m doing it right,” because we all have that, and it will allow you to say, “Oh, that’s really a quick tweak here, just let’s change that little thing.”

It did kind of come home. I’ve been doing some new stuff with Brito, and I was reminded that I need to pay more attention to my basic mechanics. Many of these things are fairly muscle memory for me, but if you don’t pay attention, you will start to slide. You’ll just get a little bit sloppy. And I realized as I’m trying to teach him some new skills, I am reminded that I need to pay more attention to my mechanical skills. Think about it. You give your cue, you give your hand help if needed, you take your food out of your pocket. That simple sequence has started to blend together over time. So I would say that has been my lesson, my recent lesson that is serving me well.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Denise! This was great.

Denise Fenzi: Oh, it’s always great to be here. Thank you, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! As a last-minute reminder, this comes out on Friday the 15th, which is also the last day to register for this session at FDSA. There are a ton of amazing classes running this term, so if you haven’t, you should go check them out. And we’ll be back next week, this time with Sue Yanoff to talk about canine sports medicine.

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.

Jun 8, 2018

SUMMARY:

Amanda has been traveling the country and teaching seminars for 20+ years, teaching all levels of agility with nearly all dog breeds. She focuses on teaching teamwork and how to create a strong connection between dog and handler.

She works with all styles of handling, from running with your dog to distance handling, and tailors each training session, large or small, to the dog and handler. She’s always looking to help bring out the best in each team.

Amanda’s handling system, “Cues for Q’s,” works off her three base cues: Upper Body Cues, Lower Body Cues, and Verbal Cues. This system was derived from the natural cues that most dogs read and pick up quickly. Amanda teaches handlers how to use all of these cues together to create a customized handling system that can be tailored to their unique dog. All of these techniques have resulted in Amanda earning numerous top agility titles on her own dogs.

Next Episode: 

To be released 6/15/2018, featuring Denise Fenzi, talking about camp this year!

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’ll be talking to Amanda Nelson.

Amanda has been traveling the country and teaching seminars for 20+ years, teaching all levels of agility with nearly all dog breeds. She focuses on teaching teamwork and how to create a strong connection between dog and handler.

She works with all styles of handling, from running with your dog to distance handling, and tailors each training session, large or small, to the dog and handler. She’s always looking to help bring out the best in each team.

Amanda’s handling system, “Cues for Q’s,” works off her three base cues: Upper Body Cues, Lower Body Cues, and Verbal Cues. This system was derived from the natural cues that most dogs read and pick up quickly. Amanda teaches handlers how to use all of these cues together to create a customized handling system that can be tailored to their unique dog. All of these techniques have resulted in Amanda earning numerous top agility titles on her own dogs.

Hi Amanda! Welcome back to the podcast.

Amanda Nelson: Hi, it’s so great to be back again.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To start us out, can you just refresh our listeners’ memories by telling us a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Amanda Nelson: Technically three dogs, although one of them is my boyfriend’s. My older dog, Nargles, is 9 years old, and I’m spending most of this year getting her ready to go to the NADAC championships in the Stakes Division, which is a distance class, basically.

My young dog, Ally, is 5 years old, and this will be her first year going to championships, again hopefully in the Stakes Division. So I’ve been practicing a lot of distance stuff with them, really trying to fine-tune Nargles and build up Ally’s confidence and all that good stuff for her pushing out and doing all that good distance stuff.

And then my boyfriend, Jimmy, has Tripp that I’ve trained with him. He, too, is going in Stakes, hopefully, so it’s a whole group of them all going together, so that’s a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: I don’t train agility with my dogs — at least not yet. I do know that most competitors who do have a lot of foundation skills they work on with dogs for jumps and tunnels and contacts. How common is it to include foundation skills for distance specifically in that “beginner” work?

Amanda Nelson: I think it’s fairly common, especially if that’s something that you’re wanting to do in the future, it’s a goal or something that you’re looking towards. I think it’s fairly easy to go ahead and incorporate those distance skills in with the foundation skills. I do it a lot with my young dogs.

With that being said, I listen to the dog quite a bit, and I don’t want to push them too much or ask for too much distance work right off the bat. But I do start incorporating some of that confidence work and some of those skills to help build up that confidence and build up that drive to want to work away from me, especially with those younger dogs, and get them used to that kind of work and that kind of distance right from the get-go.

Melissa Breau: When you’re training your own dogs, at what point do you start that, do you begin working on those distance skills?

Amanda Nelson: It really depends on the dog. Nargles, right from the very beginning, was very much into … she liked moving away from me, she liked doing the distance work. So I started incorporating it pretty much right from the start. When I started doing even my groundwork skills with her, my targeting and working with cone work and things like that, I started asking for quite a bit of distance from her because that’s really what she wanted and really what she liked.

Ally, on the other hand, who I said was 5, she is just now this year really wanting to get into that distance work. She’s just now coming into her own and thinking that maybe she would like to do something like that. So her foundation I did incorporate distance work and distance skills, but I definitely didn’t push for it or ask too much of her, just because she just wasn’t mentally quite ready. So with her, I let her tell me when she was ready to start adding more and more distance. But I still incorporate it, I guess, in her training. I just didn’t push it, I guess would be the best way to explain it.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned cones a little bit in there. What do those early steps in training look like, for those that are out there and interested?

Amanda Nelson: I start with the cones, and pretty much the early steps when I start doing foundation work, with my distance training even, the cones are great, even if your eye is not looking towards distance, you’re just looking at handling and commitment skills.

I start teaching my dogs to work with the cones — when I say “out,” that means go to the outside of the cone, “here” means come to the inside of the cone — I developed working with the cones and working my dogs on those because I didn’t have a lot of space and I still don’t, and I travel extensively without equipment. Using the cones, I can set them up at campgrounds, or I can set them up just about anywhere, and I can work my young dogs on all their distance and directional skills with four to six cones, depending on how much space I have.

So when I’m beginning with them, it basically is just, “Here, we’re going to send you out around a couple of cones,” build their confidence to go out away from me to get around those cones, and then I can also work on my handling timing, because my dog’s definitely going faster just going around a cone, as opposed to going over a jump and things like that. So it improves my timing quite a bit by using the cones, and I can also work on not only their distance skills but their directional skills as well.

Melissa Breau: How do you then take those and build on them? What are some of the intermediate steps between go around a cone, and sending to an obstacle that may be a few yards away?

Amanda Nelson: What I usually do  — it’s what I did with Ally, I think again is what really helped build her confidence and build her drive to want to work away from me — is once I have my dogs doing what I call cone work, so they’re doing six cones and we’re doing a bunch of directional changes, distance work, and things like that, I’ll take the cones and I’ll place them next to jumps or hoops. They can be placed next to the wing of a jump, and because I’ve done so much foundation and value-building for those cones, when I give my dog an “out” cue, or whatever directional cue I want to use, they’re going to see that cone and go, “Oh, OK, I know that cone, I know that,” and be able to push out around that jump wing and start applying the cones to obstacles.

I can also use them in sequences. What I really like to use them for is in-between, say, a contact tunnel discrimination, so when I say “out,” they can go out tunnel, or here into the contact walk-it.

I like to start blending them in with my equipment, and it gives my dogs something that is a visual. So when I say “out,” they see that cone and like, “OK, yes, I need to go out around that cone,” and then I can start fading that cone back a little bit.

I’ve also brought them back in for my older dogs. As an example, Nargles, for some reason she’s having a brain fart on her discriminations. In her old age she’s forgotten what that means.

Melissa Breau: It happens to the best of us.

Amanda Nelson: That’s right. So in her training sessions I’ve actually brought the cones back, and I’ve put them in-between the contact and the tunnel and just helping her remember that “out tunnel” really truly does mean “out tunnel.” So they’re great for that too — to help those bring older dogs, if they need a little tuning up or something like that, to bring it back into perspective for them.

Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned “out” and “here.” Do you mind repeating which ones which way again? I know people are always interested in cues.

Amanda Nelson: My basic cues, “out” means for my dog to move out away from me, “here” means for my dog to move in towards me, just like a discrimination “out” would be out to the outside obstacle, which is usually a tunnel, and “here” would be to come to the inside obstacle. A “switch” means for my dog to turn away from me, so if they’re on my left side, they’re going to turn away from that left side. And then I have a “tight,” which is basically just my wing wrap cue when I want them to wrap a hoop, or wrap a jump, or something similar, and I need them to turn very tightly back towards me.

Those are my base cues, and I tend to blend them together. For instance, today I’m at an agility competition, and Ally needed to change directions, so I needed to give her a “switch,” which meant I needed her to turn away from me, and then I needed her to wrap the jumps. So I would say “switch,” which meant for her to turn away, and then I would say “tight,” which meant for her to wrap the jump towards me.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, because it really helps communicate all those different spatial things, the different directionals.

Amanda Nelson: Yeah, yeah.

Melissa Breau: I know distance is a pretty big element in the competition venue you usually compete in. Is it beneficial for dogs in other venues too? What advantages does training for distance really give an agility team?

Amanda Nelson: I definitely think it’s beneficial. A lot of venues now, I think, are all asking for more and more distance, and I think it’s beneficial no matter what agility venue you want to do with your dog, especially for the distance classes — NADAC, Chances, or Gamblers, Fast, any of that, it’s great to have those skills. Each venue asks for just a little bit of a … they’re all a little different in the distance skills they ask. But the core quality or core skill that you’re looking for is for your dog to move away from you, and so I truly think distance is great for that.

And distance is great to be able to use to get where you need to be as a handler. To be able to send your dog out away from you to go do that jump so you can get somewhere else — that, I think, is the biggest benefit of distance. Especially for me, I’m not perhaps the speediest handler in the world, so I like to use that to my advantage that I can send my dog out and away, and then I can get to where I need to go to help them on a piece of the course where they really need me to be there as a handler. So I love using distance for that.

Melissa Breau: Is this something that all teams can learn? Is it something that all teams can at least work on?

Amanda Nelson: I definitely think so. Between teaching online and teaching in person, I feel like I’ve dealt with just about every breed in the whole wide world, mixed breeds, it just feels like I’ve seen them all, which is fantastic because I love going to seminars and seeing all these different breeds. At one seminar I taught last year, in the same session I had a Great Dane and a Chihuahua and it was fantastic. It made my whole year.

But each dog is going to be a little different in how they learn. Each dog is going to be a little different in how much distance they can give. I have three Border Collies, and all three of them are vastly different in what they’re comfortable with, what distances are comfortable.

I really tend to listen to the dog, and I do believe all handler and dog teams are capable of distance. It’s just a matter of, in my opinion, confidence is the biggest thing with distance. Being clear in your cues and your dog having the confidence to perform those cues away from you is huge, and I think once you’ve crossed that bridge, once you’ve taught your dog that “When I say ‘out,’ I really mean ‘out,’” and you’ve built so much value for moving out away from you, whether it’s with the cones or whatever system you would like to use.

But once you’ve built all that confidence, and built that drive to move away from you, I think dogs really like it. I loved watching, for instance, the little Chihuahua I worked with. She just lit up. Every time her owner said “out,” she was like, “I can, I can, I can,” and her little legs were going a hundred miles an hour, and she was so excited because she got to do something all by herself sort of thing. She was so happy to go show that she really could do that. It was very cool.

Melissa Breau: I was waiting for that c-word to come up, because I know what we talked about heavily last time was the fact that confidence is such a huge component of good distance skills, and so I knew it was going to come up sooner or later. Your class on Intro to Distance — I know you’re teaching that this session, so it starts on June 1st. I can’t remember if this is coming out right before this or right after that, but would you be willing to share a little more about the class itself, what you’ll cover, maybe who would be a good fit?

Amanda Nelson: Yeah, definitely. I love this class. It’s definitely one of my favorites. I love the beginning stages of teaching distance. I love watching dogs light up when they start putting pieces together.

So this class is going to be … it covers all of my foundation work, so it’s very minimal equipment. I do think towards about Week 5, Week 6, we start using jumps and hoops, but it’s very minimal.

A lot of it is focusing on the handlers, making sure that our handlers are all using the feet in the right direction, the arms in the right direction, that the verbals match what all that should be saying, and teaching the dog to really … a lot of it, again, is confidence — building that confidence to go out around that cone, building value for the body language and the verbal cue of “out,” so every time they hear it that they light up and they want to go out do it. This class really focuses on building that up.

As far as who it’s good for, the last time I ran this class, I had a bunch of foundation, like puppies and young dogs who were just coming in and really wanting to get that foundation training right from the get-go and really wanted to build that confidence. But then I also had about three older dogs that came in, and the dogs are competing, they’re high-level competition dogs, and the dogs just weren’t giving that same spark that they were, so the students really wanted to see if this class would help bring that back, and that was a ton of fun.

So it is a foundation groundwork class, but whether, I think, you have a young dog or even an older dog who maybe you want to start working on some distance skills because maybe you haven’t previously, or want to build that confidence back up, I really like this class in that respect. The focus is all about bringing up that spark and bringing back the confidence and that push to get them to want to go out and do things all by themselves sort of thing.

Melissa Breau: This wasn’t necessarily in the questions, but I know earlier you mentioned that one of the reasons you like using your cones is because it lets you work in a fairly limited amount of space. How much space is somebody going to need to work on the exercises from this class?

Amanda Nelson: Very minimal. Like I said, towards the end of class I set up some more advanced-type exercises that have a couple of jumps, a couple of hoops, that sort of thing, but they’re more like bonus lessons. Most of the stuff is focused around the four cones, and most of the lessons that you’ll see if you sign up for the class, most everything, all my lessons are filmed, I’m in a very tiny little area. I would say maybe, oh geez, 25 feet wide maybe by 25 feet. It’s very small, if that. Enough for four cones set up. Some of the videos you can watch my progression of travels because they’re filmed in a different location almost every week. So it’s a very small little area. I think I usually recommend people have about 30 by 30 feet, somewhere in there, so they have enough room to get around. But I tend to modify any of the lessons if it doesn’t quite work for someone’s space.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Now, in addition to that class, you’re also teaching an agility Handler’s Choice this session. I’d love to hear a little bit about what kinds of problems students could work on if they wanted to take that class.

Amanda Nelson: Again Handler’s Choice. That’s again another favorite class. Apparently all mine I like a lot, so that’s probably a good thing.

Melissa Breau: That is a good thing.

Amanda Nelson: That’s a good start, right? I was just getting ready to say that’s my favorite class. Handler’s Choice I think is a ton of fun. There’s other instructors in the school that offer Handler’s Choice, and I always sign up for them at least at Bronze because I love seeing … in one six-week class you get to see so much stuff. It’s just so awesome.

The last time I ran Handler’s Choice we had people wanting to work on weave poles, we had distance, we had handling. I had one handler who wanted to prep for an upcoming championship, and then I had a couple of puppies that were just working on cone work. I believe one dog didn’t want to do any agility. She just wanted to focus on her start line and things like that.

So the Handler’s Choice, as long as it’s agility-related, so obviously equipment-related, you want to work on your weave poles, jumping contacts, that sort of thing. Also, skill-wise, you want to work on your directionals, distance, start line. We cover it all, as long as it’s related back into agility at some point for me.

But the Handler’s Choice I think is so much fun. Again, anytime I see an instructor in the school offering Handler’s Choice, I always sign up at Bronze because it is such a wealth of information. You get to watch all these Gold students working on a ton of things. It’s like having … if there’s ten Golds, it’s like watching ten different classes all at once. It’s fantastic. I think Handler’s Choice is fantastic.

Melissa Breau: It’s definitely, I think, one of the more undervalued classes on the schedule. Folks don’t really realize that even if they were to hire an instructor for private lessons for six weeks, compared to the cost of Gold class they’d be in a very different situation, and they’d be working once a week, not several times a week. So basically anything agility-related that’s not on the schedule specifically in the class they can come to you for.

Amanda Nelson: That is right. That’s right.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, for our last question here I want to try something new, and I’m hoping it goes well. Originally we had those three questions at the end of every interview, which was one of my favorite parts of doing a call with somebody, especially asking for favorite pieces of training advice, and I used to get all kinds of great feedback on them. Now that we’ve had all the instructors on a couple of times, it makes it a little bit harder to … we don’t ask the same question over and over again. So I’ve been coming up with a new way to ask a new question for returning guests, and I think I’ve finally come up with one. You get to be the first guest to try and answer it, so no pressure! What’s a lesson you’ve learned, or that you’ve been reminded of recently, when it comes to dog training?

Amanda Nelson: Honestly, it just happened today. I’m at a competition right now — see, this is perfect timing. That’s a good question. I’m actually at a trial this weekend. Nargles isn’t competing this weekend, so I’m putting all my focus into Ally, and I found myself today … because I’ve never put a lot of pressure on Ally because I’ve let her blossom and become her own little doggie, but I’ve always had Nargles to run.

I realized today, I was running Ally and I found myself just putting all this pressure on her of … now Nargles can’t run for a couple of weekends because she’s got a little injury, so I’m letting her have some time off, and all of a sudden I just found myself putting all this pressure on to “Well, you need to do this, and you need to do this, and we should be doing this.” I learned today, and I’ve been doing it for the past couple of weekends, patience and let your dog be your dog. Let them just be.

I found she completely changed. She was really coming up, and I was running her and Nargles together, like, “Wow, look at Ally go, she’s giving me so much good stuff.” Then all of a sudden these past couple of weekends, to me, until somebody pointed it out, I keep telling myself, “She’s going backwards, she’s not doing well, she’s not doing her contacts very well, she’s not doing this very well, and the big thing she’s not wanting to change directions really well, she’s regressing, I need to do this, I need to retrain this.”

And then I took a step back, and a friend of mine was like, “You know, you’re treating her like she’s already this elite-level competition dog, and she’s not. Because all your focus is on her.” Definite lesson I learned, but I think everybody — I think every dog trainer, every handler, no matter what sport — you find yourself falling into that trap of “My dog needs to be this. My dog is this old, and all these other dogs have all these titles, and my dog should have that title,” or “The littermates from that litter are all going to World Team, but my dog is not.” That sort of thing. I found myself doing that. I found myself going, “She’s 5, she should do this and she should be this and we should be here.”

I’ve never felt that way with her before because I’ve always had my other dog to focus on, and I found myself falling into that trap.

So it’s a lesson I don’t quite know how to put into words. I guess the one word would be behind it, but I guess it’s more of let your dog be who they are, I guess is what I’m trying to say in a roundabout jumble of words.

Melissa Breau: I honestly think it’s a great lesson, because I think anybody who’s ever competed in anything, not just agility, knows that feeling. You start to get nervous before a competition, especially if you only have one dog that you’re running. You get a little hyper-focused, you get a little hyper-attentive, you start to stress about little things that maybe wouldn’t bother you if you had another dog to think about running before them, or something else to think about or focus on. I totally get that. That seems like it’s something that will resonate big-time. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Amanda! This is great.

Amanda Nelson: Thank you so much. I love this. This is just fantastic.

Melissa Breau: It was fun to chat. And thank you to all of our wonderful listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week, this time we’ll actually be back with Denise Fenzi! We’ll be doing a short recap of Camp from this year, and I’ll share a recording of her opening talk, so you won’t want to miss 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.

Jun 1, 2018

Summary:

Heather Lawson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a CGN Evaluator and a Freestyle judge. She has been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years, after deciding that the corporate world just wasn't cutting it anymore.

She is the owner of dogWISE Training & Behaviour Center Inc., where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally, in addition to providing behaviour consults and private lessons.

Next Episode: 

To be released 6/8/2018, featuring Amanda Nelson, talking about introducing distance to your agility 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’ll be talking to Heather Lawson.

Heather is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a CGN Evaluator and a Freestyle judge. She has been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years, after deciding that the corporate world just wasn't cutting it anymore.

She is the owner of dogWISE Training & Behaviour Center Inc., where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally, in addition to providing behaviour consults and private lessons.  

Hi Heather, welcome back to the podcast!

Heather Lawson: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me again.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To start us out and to refresh listeners’ memories a little bit, can you just tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Heather Lawson: I currently am down to just two dogs, two German Shepherds, Piper, who will be turning 3 at the end of May, and my old boy, Tag, who just turned 12 a couple of days ago.

Tag obviously is now retired and having the good life with my husband when I take off with Piper.

Piper, I’m working on confirmation with her and trying to get my last two points I need for my championship. At the same time, I’m also working and training her for obedience and rally and all the other fun stuff that I’m going to do with her.

Melissa Breau: We chatted a little bit before this about what we were going to talk about today, and I asked you to chat about some of the fundamental skills that are covered in TEAM that can be reused over and over again throughout a dog’s career to teach a variety of other skills — those things that serve as a building block. It’s in the back of my mind ever since you did your webinar on all the different ways you use a chin rest to teach other skills, which I was a little blown away by the so many different things you do with chin rests. To start us out, for anyone who didn’t join the webinar, would you mind just sharing some of those things that you use that chin rest skill to build out?

Heather Lawson: The chin rest I ended up starting mainly because I needed a way to just get my dogs’ focus. So I started using the chin rest for that, just to say, “Here I am, check in, look at me.” And then I started to turn it into a whole bunch of other things and realized I can use it for my cooperative care, which is your veterinary care and anything else that I have to do with the dogs.

When, for instance, I’m administering medication to ears or eyes or anything like that, I can just ask for a nice easy chin rest and I can apply the medications. There’s no fuss, no muss. My dogs are used to putting their head in the chin.

I can also, as I said, use it for confirmation, so when I’ve got Piper in a show and I need to settle her down, or to stack her for presentation to the judge, I can just hold my hand out and she puts her chin there, and I can move her back and forth or keep her in position while I appropriately stack her legs and get her ready for examination. It also allows me to put out my hand for her to put her chin on for the judge to take a look at her mouth. She keeps her head there nice and quiet and I can lift up the lips, I’ve even taught her to open her mouth on cue, and he can take a look nice and easy, and he doesn’t have to put his hands into her mouth.

The other thing that I like the chin rest for is teaching the concept of holding still. Once I’ve taught the chin rest, or even a nose target, a duration nose target, I find that once the dog understands that concept of holding their nose or their chin rest somewhere, they actually can translate holding still to many other behaviors that I need them to do.

I can also use it for the dumbbell hold by using the chin rest for the dog to place their chin as they grip the bar of the dumbbell, and it’s an easy, just a slight, holding up. It teaches them quiet and allows me to gradually decrease my hand from that position.

I can actually turn that chin rest into a nice close front as well. Teaching Piper, this is the first one I’ve used the chin rests for the fronts, with Piper is I wanted her nice and close, right up touching me, so I got her to target my hand, and then I transferred it onto my body, and now when she comes in for her fronts she is 90 percent straight most of the time. We’re still working on it, but she’s 90 percent straight most of the time and she’s close. At this point she is touching me, but that’s fine. I will take the points if she continues to touch me in a trial situation, but generally that will back off a little bit when you get different kinds of ring stress and things like that involved that dogs usually don’t come in quite as close sometimes, but I’m still going to keep her working at that. So that’s basically what I do with my chin rest. I’ve got all different kinds of things that I can use it for.

Melissa Breau: Especially anybody who’s ever trained a German Shepherd knows that getting the dog in nice and close can be a little harder than with some other breeds, with space sensitivity and whatnot, so that’s awesome.

Heather Lawson: Exactly. And that’s why teaching her, it also, like, the chin rest was a really great exercise to teach her overall handling. She’s not afraid of anybody coming in and doing all those different kinds of things that they need to do to her, because I’ve got that chin rest and she trusts that chin rest, and she trusts that I’m not going to let anything negative happen to her, and it allows me to do that much more with her.

Melissa Breau: Would you mind just taking one of those examples and maybe walking us through it in a little more detail and breaking it down a little bit, how the chin rest helps you get that end behavior?

Heather Lawson: Since I’m doing TEAM 2 at the moment, and it seems to be a bugaboo for everybody, what I like to use the chin rest for is, as I mentioned earlier, just the dumbbell hold. I teach the dumbbell take with teeth on it and with just a little bit of a tiny grip separately, obviously. Then, if I’ve got a little bit of a problem with, for instance, trying to shape the dog to hold it even more, I can turn around and take that chin rest, and I get the chin rest separately on its own, and I can turn around and take that chin rest and add it to the dumbbell hold.

What I do is I will hold my flat hand as if I’m asking for a chin rest, hold the dumbbell just up above it, and as the dog comes in to take the bar on the dumbbell, I can just hold my hand up a little bit more, get that little bit of a hold, hold, get stillness, it allows me to mark stillness.

That seems to be the hardest part for everybody to get is that initial stillness, and by using the chin rest behavior and adding it to the dumbbell take, it allows you to progress onto a really good hold from that point.

Melissa Breau: I know another tool that you’ve mentioned you use in a number of different ways is a platform. I was hoping we could get into that and talk about platforms a little bit. What kind of things can you use a platform to teach?

Heather Lawson: Oh gosh, there is so much that you can, and also, again, it depends on the type of platform. For instance, many people have difficulty in trying to create distance and to have their dogs actually anchored at that distance.

Say, for instance, you’re sending out on your utility go-out. Lots of times your dogs will go out, and then they’ll turn around when you say “sit,” and they walk in three or four paces. That’s not so good. A platform can help to keep them out to that anchored spot.

You can use a platform for fronts. Again, depending on the type of platform you’re using, you can use it to teach heel position, you can teach change of position and precision using the platforms. If I’m wanting to teach my dog different positions in heel position, such as a sit-stand-down all in parallel, having a narrow platform for them to perform those behaviors on helps them remain in that parallel position, and then, of course, gradually you fade it out.

If I want to teach my dogs to go out to a specific spot anywhere, I can place a variety of platforms and I can do directional sends, and because they’re heavily magnetized to them, and by magnetized I mean they have a huge reinforcement history on the platforms, they are just raring to go because that’s what they want to do is they want to get there and they want to get their food.

I use platforms a lot when I’m teaching outside of obedience things. I use it for a stationing behavior, so teaching stays, and things like when I’m doing some of my concept classes, where the dog has to return to a station and wait for their next direction. So it helps the dog when they’re not getting any direction from you, they return back to station or to platform.

Melissa Breau: If somebody out there listening is used to teaching something like a front or a heel position without a platform, what are some of the advantages of using one, or maybe even if they’ve already taught those positions, going back and teaching that platform skill later on, if they, say, taught a front without it?

Heather Lawson: Say for instance you’ve got the issue of the dog maybe not coming in all the way. You can turn around and use a smaller platform to get a smaller, tighter sit in front, you can use a foot-to-target type of little tiny platform to bring the dog in closer. If you’ve got a dog that tends to be quite footsy, for instance in heel position when you’re doing your stands, you can use the platform to teach them how to remain still and not move forward. If you don’t normally teach with a platform, sometimes giving the dog something different allows them to grasp the concept.

You know how sometimes a student will hear something from you numerous times, and you’re going over and over and over, “I’ve told you that before, I’ve told you that before,” and then somebody will come along and say, “Oh, why don’t you do this?” and it’s the exact same thing that you told them, but just slightly different, and they go, “Oh, did you know so-and-so told me to do this?” and you’re going, “Uh, yeah, that’s what I was trying to tell you.” Well, sometimes I think by changing your equipment, or changing how you present a particular concept to your dog, sometimes that’s what helps the dogs take that leap and get more precise, or understand the position, or understand the concept that they’re not to move. I think by going back and maybe even taking a look at the platforms and seeing how you can help convey that concept, you’re going to get more precision later on.

Melissa Breau: Are platforms and foot targets basically the same thing? Can you use them in the same ways? I’d love to hear a little bit about what you can or can’t do with one that you can do with the other.

Heather Lawson: With the platforms they’re generally longer, so the length of the dog, so that if, for instance, you put the dog down in a sphinx down, the dog would not be hanging off the edges. The platforms are generally quite narrow, so that, again, when the dog either sits or lies down, they are in a very, very specific position. Foot targets are dealing with just the front feet or just the rear feet. They’re not the same thing, but they can do the same job, if that makes sense. When I want to fade out a large platform, I will go down to a foot target. With foot targets I generally can use, if the foot target is low, I can generally use them for fading out the platform, and if I’m teaching, for instance, position changes, you go down to a small foot target or even a flat foot target, and now you can ask your dog to change positions.

My foot targets that I usually recommend for people to use are generally the size of a 2x4, and generally no wider than what your dog can actually put their two front feet on comfortably and stand at a normal position. Especially if you’re teaching nice, close fronts, the dog comes and puts their feet on that front target, they can then sit properly. If you use a round foot target, like a perch that we use for pivoting, you’ll find that the dogs kind of have a rear-end splay and they therefore won’t sit as straight as they should be.

So when I’m working distance and I want to get rid of the big platforms, I’ll go down to a foot target. It’s basically just a mini-platform, but we call them foot targets because it makes more sense to people.

Melissa Breau: Right. What are some of the different types of platforms or targets that you use and some of the different ways that you use them?

Heather Lawson: The long narrow platforms basically are for position, as I said, either straight in heel position or straight out in front of you. Same thing with the foot targets. They are used for the front and the rear feet. And then your perch, and I like to use a round perch when I’m first teaching the dog how to use their rear end for pivoting.

Later on, if I’m working with the handler for footwork, I’ll use a small square so that you can do quarter-turns to teach the dog also to turn with your body language, and it gets the handler ready for their footwork and how they’re going to use their body to turn their dog.

If I want to do a really nice tight sit in front and still use a platform because, for instance, the dog is coming off crooked, then I’ll use a shorter platform, more so so that the only thing the dog can do is basically sit on this little platform, so you get a nice tuck sit and you can then get straight.

Also, too, you can teach the dogs with the platforms for the various things, you can teach them whether or not you want to have a default stand on a platform, or whether or not you want a default sit on the platform. For long platforms I usually look for a default of a stand. If I’m using a small rectangular platform, I’m looking for a default of a sit. Foot targets, I look for a default of a stand on that foot target, and the same thing, a default of a stand, on the perch as well.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people may recognize how valuable a platform behavior can be, but they don’t want to haul all those different platforms everywhere they train. Can you use the same platform for more than one skill? How does that work?

Heather Lawson: You certainly can, and as I said, with the long platform, you can certainly use it for a whole variety of skills and behaviors and positions. You just have to be very careful that you’re encouraging the dog based on the behavior that you’re training.

So if you’re looking for a front, you want to make sure that your dog has learned to plant their front feet as close to you as possible and then bring their rear in so you’re getting a nice little tuck sit, versus standing and then you saying “sit” and they rock back, and now you’ve got a foot-and-a-half distance between you and the dog. You want to get that up as close as you certainly can.

Some people actually make platforms where they can split them off, so that you’ve got a shorter platform for the sit and a longer platform that you can attach to it with Velcro that makes for the long platform that you need. And then you can take the Velcro and split it apart and now you’ve got a short sit platform.

I know I’ve done that a couple of times. I made one like that. They’re easy to make, easy to haul around. The platforms really aren’t all that heavy. You can really make some very, very lightweight ones; you’ve just got to use your imagination. They’re mostly made out of interlocking foam mats. My foot target for my dogs is actually a cork yoga brick that is generally, I think they’re about 4 inches high normally, and I just went and cut it down on the saw, and cut it in half, so now I have about a 2-inch-high small cork platform that is heavy enough that the dog’s not going to tip it, but it’s not so heavy that I can’t cart it around somewhere. It weighs less than a pound of butter. It’s easy to chuck in my car and it’s no big deal.

An upturned food bowl — if you’ve got your dogs in your car, a stainless steel food bowl works for a perch. You can definitely use your equipment for a variety of different things, but most people can be discouraged by the fact that they do think that they have to carry a lot of stuff around. But most of the stuff, if you look at what your regular gear is, you can interchange a whole lot of things.

Melissa Breau: One of the other behaviors that I wanted to talk through that I think maybe people don’t immediately grasp the importance of is the TEAM tests behavior of a “fly,” or a behavior that teaches a dog to go out and around an object. To start out, before we get into the uses, for anybody who isn’t familiar with the behavior, can you describe a little bit of the criteria for it in the TEAM test?

Heather Lawson: For the fly, the handler sends the dog around an object. It can be anything from a cone to a pole to a garbage can to a chair, doesn’t really matter as long as it’s placed 5 feet away or more. The purpose is to teach the dog to go out and around and to work at a distance, so this is obviously useful for more advanced exercises.

You can also use the cone to teach the dog how to find front and/or heel position from a variety of angles, especially if you’re on the move with heeling. Basically, the handler stands 5 feet from the cone and cues the dog from heel position. The dog must start in heel position, which can be standing or sitting. They can send them with any combination of your hand, your arm, verbal, and/or even a forward foot motion is acceptable.

The exercise begins after the handler cues the dog and then ends when the dog has circled the object 180 degrees, so that means the dog must go out to the cone, circle it, and be on their way back. As soon as they’re on their way back to you, that ends the exercise.

So it’s not hard at all. It’s just making sure that you’re getting the dog to go out with one cue and that you’re not moving until after the dog has basically come around the crest of the cone and is on their way back. It’s a pretty easy exercise to do. It can be used for a whole bunch of things, and if you want to go into that, we can cover that too.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That’s my next question for you: What is it meant to teach and how can we use it?

Heather Lawson: It’s meant to teach, as I said, distance work. It also can be used to teach your dog how to stride out after a broad jump. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the dogs that kind of cut the corner of the broad jump and you think, Oh my god, they’re going to slip, they’re going to fall. I’ve seen that happen, where the dog has, and the only reason that they cut the corners is that basically they want to get back to you as soon as possible and get to that front position.

So in order to get them to take at least two strides out, you can use a cone placed out in front of your broad jump as a way to pattern that two stride out by asking the dog to jump and then fly — most people use the word fly, or away, or around — you can teach the dog to go out, take those two strides, and then turn and come back to you. That eliminates that broad jump injury.

You can also put the cones out in the beginning stages of teaching your directed jumping, so you can teach the dog how to go straight center and have a cone on either side, and it gets them used to coming around at an angle without interfering with your actual jumps or putting your jump stanchions out as you’re working through those initial stages.

You can also teach your dog to go out and around, and especially over a high jump, if you want the dog to go out, round the cone, and come directly back over the high jump without going around the high jump after they’ve picked up their dumbbell, which so often happens.

You can also use it as a way to bring down a dog and give them a brain break when you’re heeling. If you have a couple of cones placed out, and you’re going to be doing some heeling, and it’s going to be a little bit of a … maybe you’re working on something that’s a little bit more difficult for the dog, all of a sudden you can send them off to a fly, they can go out, run around the fly, and then they come back up and catch you in heel position. So you can make more of a game out of your heeling.

You can send them over the jump, over the fly, come back to you, and if you take the cone and you use it, instead of just going out and around the cone and coming straight back to you, you can actually teach the dogs to do tight 270’s in either left or right direction, and that you can do by either shaping it, clicking it, or what I normally do to start the dogs off is I will send them and then I will … whichever direction I’m going to send them, so if I’m sending them from my left and they’re coming around and they’re going to end up on my right, I will take off to my left, and all of a sudden now I’ve got a really nice, tight 270 to the left and the opposite way, 270 to the right.

And you can get them going around the cones more than once, you can add multiple cones, which actually is a way to introduce figure 8s, you can stand in the middle and send your dog on their own figure 8s and their own cones, doing a clover leaf or any other types of things, and it gets them used to working around an inanimate object.

For me, what I do is I have these little scarecrow people that I then stand in my cones, and I will send the dog out and around the cone so they get used to funny things that they have to work around. And I think it would be helpful … if I’m not mistaken, you do what’s the …

Melissa Breau:  Treibball.

Heather Lawson: Treibball, yes. You could probably use it to teach your dogs how to go out and away to your left or your right, and straight out, if you needed to. So I’m sure that if people are doing sports like that, or even if you’re doing agility, teaching your dogs to go for directional cues, cones are excellent because they’re not interfering with your actual jumps, and it’s just teaching them directional cues.

Melissa Breau: That’s certainly a lot of different ways.

Heather Lawson: I know. I could probably come up with more, too, but it’s just some of the things that are on the top of my head. My biggest one for me, for my own personal use, is I like to teach the dog to stride out a couple of steps after that broad jump, because I’ve seen dogs be badly hurt because they’ve slipped on floors, and if you’re working a dog and you’re campaigning a dog and they’re jumping and they’re doing the broad jump over and over and over again, that’s a lot of concussion and twisting on that one right front leg when they land. So if they can start to land, start to go out straight, take a stride or two and go around, and then come back to you, that’s much better for their health and long-term working ability.

Melissa Breau:  One last question for you, Heather. Are there other behaviors that are super-versatile like the chin rest and platforming and even the send around an object behavior?

Heather Lawson: As it pertains to TEAM there’s all kinds of little behaviors that people don’t really realize how much they’re going to affect as you go through TEAM.

If you’re familiar with TEAM, which I know you are, there’s ten behaviors in the very beginning, and then, as you get further on, you’re actually using all of those little behaviors that you learned in the beginning.

So in the beginning of TEAM we’re very precision-oriented, and then as you get further on in TEAM we’re less precision, and we take that because we know that you’ve learned how to teach your dog the platform, you’ve learned how to use the equipment, you’ve learned how to fade the equipment, you’ve learned how to use the core, the foundation behaviors in the very beginning such as targeting and sending out and away, bringing your dog into heel position, finding front, all these things.

No matter which way you go in obedience, you’re going to use all those different pieces, so there’s not one super behavior; it’s just that they’re all super-versatile. I think what throws a lot of people off is, Hey, I’ve got to learn all these behaviors or I’m never going to get this, and really, once you’ve got the core foundations, you can pretty much do anything you want. You should be able to step into almost any kind of dog sport, take a look at what they have and what they’re doing, and then take what you’ve learned with your send-outs, your targeting, your sends, your holds, your come into heel, come into front, and apply them to those specific behaviors that are required for that dog sport.

So for me, versatile like the chin rest platforms and even send around an object, I use those all the time to teach the precision that I need so that I can now apply that and teach that concept. I’ll say to my dog, “OK, you know that target thing that I kept sending you out to? Well, now I need you to go out there and I need you to stay out there while I go this distance away from you.” And the dogs are quite comfortable to do that because they have, as I said, that reinforcement history on those pieces of equipment, and when I take them away it’s not a big deal because I’ve gradually decreased their requirement for those pieces of equipment and shown them that, “Yes, you can still do this even though I’m maybe fading the equipment out for you,” so that when we finally do get to the final exercise, they understand it completely. There’s no holes.

And if I have a problem, I’ve got something to go back to. I can take out that little piece, I can pull out that platform, I can show my dog again what I need from them, and show them that, ‘Yes, you can do that. Remember that thing that I taught you way back when? I need you to apply it here and I need you to do it this way.” And it’s like a little refresher. If I glossed over all of that and didn’t use those bits and pieces and put that foundation into place, I’d have nothing to be able to work with and I’d have to go back to square one each and every time I had a problem. This way, all I need to do is pull out a little bit and then reinsert it again.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Heather!

Heather Lawson: You’re very welcome. Thank you very much for having me.

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

We’ll be back next week with Amanda Nelson to discuss introducing distance into our agility training.

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.

May 25, 2018

Summary:

Sara Brueske has been training dogs for over 15 years. She became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.

Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri, where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 400 shows each year.

She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving -- plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.

Sara has also recently re-entered the world of competitive Disc Dog and was the 2016 overall UpDog International Champion as well as the 2017 UpDog Freestyle Champion.

Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.

Next Episode: 

To be released 6/1/2018, featuring Heather Lawson, talking about all the ways you can use a chin rest, platforms and the "fly" cue!

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’ll be talking to Sara Brueske.

Sara Brueske has been training dogs for over 15 years. She became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.

Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri, where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 400 shows each year.

She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving -- plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.

Sara has also recently re-entered the world of competitive Disc Dog and was the 2016 overall UpDog International Champion as well as the 2017 UpDog Freestyle Champion.

Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.

Hi Sara! Welcome back to the podcast.

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To start us out, I know it’s a big crew, but can you just refresh listeners’ memories a little by telling us a bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Sara Brueske: Sure. I have a lot of dogs. I actually have thirteen dogs, and yes, they are all house dogs. They sleep in my bedroom with me, they hang out on the couch, they watch TV, they do everything normal dogs do.

Quick rundown of what I have: I have a couple of Malinois, a little Papillon, a shelter Boston Terrier mix, a couple of Border Collies, a Border Staffie, and a bunch of Koolies, Australian Koolies, and I actually breed Koolies as well.

We’re working on a whole bunch of different things. The Malinois are doing mondioring as well as dock diving right now. Famous my Malinois, also does Frisbee. The rest of the dogs do diving, they do agility, they do disc dog, they do pretty much whatever I get intrigued by. Sometimes it’s scent work, sometimes it’s tricks, sometimes it’s the flavor of the month, the cool thing people are teaching. They do everything, really.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know you’re a pretty big proponent of teaching lots of tricks, and I wanted to ask you what you thought of as the benefits of doing lots of trick training.

Sara Brueske: There are so many benefits to trick training. My biggest one that I try to preach a lot is I treat tricks kind of like throwaway behaviors. I don’t mean that in the term that tricks aren’t important to teach, and they’re not really cool to teach, and they don’t have their own purpose, but the behavior we can teach to get all the kinks out of our training.

They can teach concepts. If I want to teach a head target for heeling, for instance, and I want to shape that, I might start with some simple trick like a head target on a piece of glass so I can smush my dog’s face up against it. I might do something really cool like a chin rest, or the head down, or “look sad” trick where the dog looks super, super sad.

If I want to train something like, for instance, a really nice foot finish for heel work, I might teach my dogs to back around backwards around me first, because that gives them really good hind-end awareness as well.

So there’s a whole bunch of really cool tricks out there that can teach our dogs concepts for competition behaviors, and that way we’re not really experimenting on the final behaviors that we want to have. I’m not going to work out the kinks on head targeting while I’m teaching the actual head targeting from a heel position, and for that reason that's why I call those throwaway behaviors. They’re also really cool because they teach us about our dogs, and they teach our dogs about us, and they teach body awareness and balance and control. I mean, they’re pretty cute, too. There’s a whole bunch of cool tricks out there as well. So tons of reasons why we should do trick training with our dogs.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned a little bit as you were talking about how you use one skill to teach the concept for another skill. Are there “foundations” for tricks the same way there are for other sports? And I’m pretty sure you’re going to say yes, but I won’t go there all the way. If so, can you share some examples of what that looks like?

Sara Brueske: I feel like I should just say no now just to throw you off your track! “No, there’s no foundations. You treat the behavior just as it is.”

There’s always foundations for every behavior we teach our dogs. The way I teach tricks, and the way the upcoming tricks class is going to be situated, is they’re going to be broken up into concepts, so front-paw targeting, rear-paw targeting, hind-end awareness, head targeting, and then there’ll be some miscellaneous tricks as well.

What I do is I teach the concept of that, and then I can branch those into different tricks, and then those tricks can turn into different tricks and so on and so forth. I might start with something really cool like rear-paw targeting, and then teach back up from that. My favorite trick is the fake pee on something, where you tell your dog to go pee on something and they don’t actually pee, obviously, but they look like they are.

That all comes from the same place as rear-paw targeting, and that’s used for wall handstands and actual independent handstands later on. It’s all the same idea just branched off one off of another.

Melissa Breau: My next question was going to be, How do you build on those foundation skills to create those more complex tricks later on? Do you want to talk about that little bit more, how that progresses, I guess?

Sara Brueske: Sure. I’ll use a different example here: pivoting. We all know pivoting from heel work, but pivoting is a huge component of a whole bunch of tricks that I use as well. Pivoting is where your dog’s front paws are stationary on an upturned bowl, or something along those lines, and their back end rotates around it, kind of like a circus elephant. They rotate around a pedestal using their hind end. I use that for teaching my back-around, and my reverse leg weaves, and my scoot for disc, and even to teach agility weave poles. I can teach that backwards using that same concept.

So where I do that is I would start with the dog pivoting around a bowl, fade that bowl, use it on a body cue on me, and then put it on verbal cue from there, and then I’d be able to use it for the agility poles later on as well. So it’s a whole process, but it’s all that same behavior just used in different ways.

Melissa Breau: That’s interesting, because those are pretty different end behaviors, backing around you and reverse leg weaves. I could see how they have similar components, but they’re definitely different end behaviors. They’re very different concepts.

Sara Brueske: They’re definitely different in the final product, but if you look at what the dog’s actually doing, they’re just swinging their back end around in different ways, and so therefore to the dog it’s the same trick. It’s just where they’re doing that trick in relation to you, where they stop that trick, where they start that trick, and then obviously with the agility poles, using that as a prop outside of just the handler.

Melissa Breau: Is there maybe a particular trick that you usually teach first? Is that something that differs depending on the dog? What are some examples of that?

Sara Brueske: The tricks I teach, first I teach my core concept behaviors all at one time, obviously in different sessions, and that goes into my little puppy foundation program that I’ve developed. So the big ones I want to knock out right away so that I can start using them in different ways to teach behaviors off of them is head target — that one’s really really important for me, chin rest, nose targeting, extended moving nose touches, because all that stuff turns into holds and stuff later on, and then to pivot, like I talked about earlier. I want those puppies really working their hind end as soon as possible so they get used to it.

And then teaching them to shape with different objects is a huge thing. It’s one of the first things I teach them to do, and so behaviors like all four paws in a box is super-important. It’s something that … most dogs learn touch within a session, and then we can work with it from there. I think those are the important ones.

The other thing I really try to knock out with my young dogs, my new dogs, right away is three different concepts as far as shaping. These aren’t really tricks, but I want them to learn to shape in relation to me, the handler. So using a chin rest or a hand touch, for example, for that I want them to learn to shape with an object, so all four in a box, or the pivot work. And then I want them to learn to shape by themselves, so something like shaping a down or a spin that way. Those are really the three concepts I need my dogs to learn right away, regardless of what tricks or behaviors I’m teaching them later on.

Melissa Breau: It’s really interesting because it teaches them both to operate independently, to operate with an object, and to operate with you, and having a dog that’s learned one really strongly before learning any of the others, it’s very hard to get those mindsets if they don’t learn the three simultaneously.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so going back to that point of what I teach first, I really look at the concepts I need first, and those are the three ones, and I basically pick my behavior based on that. It might be a different behavior for the dog previous to this one, but it teaches that same concept, so I look at that rather than which behaviors I’m actually teaching.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned this earlier, but it’s also in the description for your upcoming class — that tricks not only teach our dogs how to learn, but they teach us how our dogs learn, as well. Can you explain that a little bit more? What do you mean by that, maybe with an example?

Sara Brueske: Sure. I’ll start with the first part of that. Tricks teach our dogs how to learn, and so that comes to that whole conceptual learning that I was talking about, things like luring, teaching our dogs to lure, dogs have to learn to lure. Not all of them just follow that cookie in your hand, and not all of them know how to fade that lure. That’s a training tool that we have to teach our dogs. Same with shaping. I’ve already touched on that.

Things like reverse-luring or zen hand, all those things need to be taught to our dogs, and tricks are a great way to teach those tools to our dogs. That way, we can take those tools and teach a different behavior later on.

As far as us learning about our dogs, every time we teach our dog a new behavior, we’re learning something about them. We’re learning about their frustrations, or we learn what they enjoy as far as rewards go, how they want that reward delivered. We learn the signs that teach us that our dogs are getting pushed too far. Are they getting to the end point of that session? How far can I actually push that dog? Do they do better with short sessions, like 15-second sessions with a couple of reps here and then switching to something else, or do they do better working on it for six or seven minutes straight, which I don’t typically recommend, but some dogs are OK with that.

And so tricks, again because they are that throwaway behavior — typically they’re not things that we win ribbons or anything like that for, other than obviously the AKC trick dog titles and the Do More With Your Dog trick dog titles. But typically they’re not behaviors that need to be done with such precisions that we’re worried about screwing them up, and that’s why I like using tricks to be able to learn from my dog and figure out how they like to learn.

Melissa Breau: Do you have any examples of something, maybe a trick that you taught one of your guys that really taught you something about how one of them tends to learn?

Sara Brueske: I want to use Brilliant, my Koolie, as an example because I’ve learned so much from working with her. She was the keeper from my litter, my first litter I bred. She has a wonderful work ethic, but she doesn’t work like her mom does. Her mom is very, very fidgety, very, very fast, very, very crazy, and has a very low frustration tolerance as far as being right and getting that reward. Brilliant is methodical She is very thoughtful with her process. She’s slow, but not in a bad way, just slow as in she thinks things out before she does it. Duration is her favorite thing to work on.

So instead of really talking about a trick that taught me that about her, I want to talk about the type of tricks that I learned that she enjoys the most. I tried teaching her fun, fast things with food, like wrap around the cone, spins, and leg weaves, things that other dogs enjoy, and they’re moving, and stuff like that. It was always slow, and it was getting me frustrated with her, like, “Why aren’t you more like your mom?”

And so I started playing around with other tricks, tricks that her mom isn’t really good at, things that make her think, so stacking bowls, putting this inside that, nosework. All of those things that require a little bit more of a thoughtful process, Brilliant is really excelling at.

While she was becoming older and her repertoire is getting larger and larger, it still has all of these other tricks that I didn’t teach her mom, and that’s because her mom didn’t enjoy learning them. So it was a cool insight to her. She knows all of the stuff that her mom does, but she doesn’t really enjoy doing those in the same way, but she enjoys the more methodical tricks, and so that’s a cool thing that I’ve learned about her.

Melissa Breau: That’s really actually neat because it shows how different personalities come with different dogs, and it doesn’t even matter that they’re blood relations.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: I know you do a lot with your dogs — you do a lot of different skills and train a bunch of different sports. How does the trick training that you do benefit or carry over into teaching them some of those other skills?

Sara Brueske: There’s a lot of ways. I’ve already talked about the conceptual theory, how I’m teaching head targeting with this behavior, teaching pivots and all that stuff. But I think that the more broad answer to this question is about our relationship. Because I haven’t experimented in the behaviors I need for other sports or anything like that, those behaviors, my dogs’ emotional response to those other behaviors, and their enjoyment of those behaviors, is always higher.

So because my dog comes with the tools ready to learn things like heeling, or ready to learn things like sequencing for agility, because we’ve done the behavior chains with tricks first before fading out rewards and everything else like that in agility, I feel like that is the biggest benefit with tricks. Being able to use those to prep my dogs for the skills they need in other sports and helping our relationship that way.

That way, when I go out there and I start doing our 20-minute mondioring routine without any rewards, my dog’s ready to go, our relationship is stronger, they love and enjoy those behaviors without any failures or errors that come with teaching our dogs new things.

Melissa Breau: Twenty minutes is a really long time. That’s a long time to be showing.

Sara Brueske: Mondioring’s hard.

Melissa Breau: The Tricks and Purpose class — what led you to create the class? Can you share a little bit about it?

Sara Brueske: I love training tricks. It’s definitely one of my favorite things. When I was 11 years old and I had my first Border Collie, he got washed out of agility because he ended up with a shoulder injury that ended his career before he was even 2 years old. I was 11, so I get home, I train my dog to do tricks, and it’s still something that I’ve always enjoyed. It’s something that’s always part of my relationship with my dogs. Always in the back of my mind is, What else can I get this dog to do? What cool thing can we play around with? That’s why I wanted to share the enjoyment I get from training tricks, and I wanted to show people the other side of trick training, the purpose behind it.

I just spent the weekend with a whole bunch of production-sport people. People don’t train in production sports, they typically don’t cross-train, they don’t train tricks for sure. So showing them that there is a purpose, there is a thing to be gained from training tricks, it’s something that I wanted to share with the community as much as I can.

Melissa Breau: Did you want to talk a little bit about what skills you’re going to cover in the class?

Sara Brueske: Like I said, we’re breaking it down into concepts, and then we’re going to branch tricks off of there. My vision for this class is to spend each week, so each of the six weeks, on all concepts.

I think the first week is something like front-paw targeting, and then I’ll show a couple of tricks you can do along with those things. That way, students aren’t required to train a certain trick or anything like that. They can pick and choose those tricks, cover as many as they want. If they want to do all four, then go for it. If you only want to do one, that’s cool too, as long as you get that concept of it done.

So we do front-paw targeting, we do rear-paw targeting, head targeting, there’s some miscellaneous fun ones in there, like we do this really cool trick in our shows, it’s math, so you ask your dog a question like, “What is 2 plus 2?” and then the dog barks out the answer. I thought that would be a really cool one to share because it’s a crowd pleaser, and it works really well for a bark and hold and IPO or Mondio too, by the way.

Melissa Breau: That’s actually neat. It’s the crossover that most people probably have not thought about.

Sara Brueske: Yes. My Malinois are the ones that do that trick because they have bark and holds.

Melissa Breau: The other class that you have on the schedule is a disc dog class. Just to give people a little bit of background, how did you originally get into disc?

Sara Brueske: I got into disc in a funny little way. I was an agility girl. I did agility. I loved agility with all my heart. I trained my Great Danes in it. I finally got this little Border Collie mix, a little rescue dog, and for some reason I was looking on Craigslist — this is the weirdest story ever; I don’t know if I’ve shared it a lot — but I was looking on Craigslist, and somebody was selling a box of dog Frisbees from the local club — the local disc dog club. I’m like, hey, that seems kind of cool. I should probably go check that out. I always wanted a disc dog.

I went and met up with this lady, and she sold me her box of dog Frisbees for, like, 30 bucks. I started throwing them for my dog and I’m, like, this is pretty cool. I watched a couple of videos on how to train different tricks, and I’m, like, yeah, my dog’s really enjoying this. This was Zuma, eight years ago, this was Zuma, and I’m, like, this is really cool.

I posted on Facebook a photo of her all happy after a session, her tongue was hanging out, and there’s the disc with the Minnesota Disc Dog logo on it. Apparently I was friends with some members, and they commented, like, “Hey, we have a competition this weekend, come on out. It’s Raspberry Fest in Hopkins, Minnesota. It’s a UFO local.” I’m like, “All right, I’ll go check it out.” I went, and we won first place in Novice Freestyle and Novice Toss and Catch, and I met some of the coolest people I’ve ever met in my life that are still my really great friends today, and that’s what started my addiction.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That’s fantastic. It’s kind of like random. There’s nothing more reinforcing than going to your first competition and walking away with those kind of placements.

Sara Brueske: Yes, it was a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: For anybody who’s never been to a disc competition and isn’t super-familiar with the sport, can you share a little bit about what some of the competition skills and games and stuff look like?

Sara Brueske: The traditional disc dog format, and there’s a few different organizations that have it, is they have freestyle, so that’s what most people think of when they think of disc dog competitions. The dogs are vaulting off the handlers, they’re doing flips, they’re doing crazy routines set to music. That’s my favorite thing.

But there is so much more to disc dog than just that component. You can be super-successful in the sport without ever even doing freestyle. Then there’s the other traditional games called Toss and Catch, or Toss and Fetch, or Distance and Accuracy, depending on the organization. This is a distance and speed and accuracy game, so you’re throwing one Frisbee down the field to your dog and they’re bringing it back. It’s a timed event. You get extra points for distance and for accuracy. That’s Toss and Catch. Typically there’s a champion for both for Toss and Catch and then there’s a champion for Frisbee or freestyle combined with Toss and Catch for an overall champion. So that’s really cool. That’s the main traditional format.

Then there’s a whole bunch of distance competitions, so who can throw the Frisbee the furthest. It’s not timed. It’s just the longest throw wins, typically, generally, in a tournament-style format. After that, there’s a whole group of strategy games. Skyhoundz Disc Dogathon started this whole idea of strategy games. You have to get “this catch in this zone,” “that catch in this zone,” or it’s a timed trial how fast you get three catches.

And then this organization that really rocks, called UpDog Challenge, started … some friends of mine and some other people created this organization, and it’s all strategy games. They also have Toss and Catch and they have freestyle. There’s personal achievements you can win, it’s really cool, there’s different world championships and stuff like that. It’s really beginner-friendly and it’s a ton of fun.

Melissa Breau: It sounds that way. For people just getting interested, what skills does a dog need to compete in some of the different games, or what skills could they be working on, maybe beginner skills, for all of this?

Sara Brueske: The big one, obviously, is they need to have toy drive. Frisbee drive is obviously what they need to have. There are some organizations like UpDog that allow you to use any Frisbee as long as it doesn’t have a hole in the center, so soft, floppy, fabric Frisbees work just fine, or whatever you normally use for any of the other competitions. So Frisbee drive is really important, obviously, since that’s the sport. We want the dog to catch the Frisbee in the air, and that actually is a taught skill. UpDog allows you to actually throw rollers, which is a throw that’s along the ground. It rolls on the ground, so it’s little bit easier, depending on the games. Sometimes it’s harder. We also want a handoff, so we want our dogs to bring the Frisbee back to our hand and we want the dog to drop the Frisbee at a distance as well.

Melissa Breau: Interesting, because those are definitely different skills, bringing it back and dropping it where it is.

Sara Brueske: Yes. It’s kind of technical. And then there’s a few other behaviors, like go-arounds, where you send your dog around behind you so that you can get a head start throwing the disc and timing it a little better, and little skills like that as well.

Melissa Breau: In the class that you’re offering, is it for beginners, is it for people who are a little more advanced, what are you covering in the class or how is the class formatted? I know it’s a little different than maybe a typical class.  

Sara Brueske: It’s a little bit of a hybrid class. I wanted to offer a handler’s choice in this dog class just because I know I’ve run the foundation class a few times and there’s some students sitting in limbo. We don’t ever have quite enough people to do a Level 2 all the way, but I know there’s that group of people that want a little bit more. I wanted to do a handler’s choice. That way, they can work on whatever they need to work on with their dog.

But, at the same time, I always want to grow the sport, so I wanted to add a little bit of a foundation curriculum so it would be more of a bare-bones curriculum based on the foundations class. It won’t include all of the things we work on in that class, but it will be definitely enough for new teams to come in, have a good idea of what to work on using that curriculum, and personalize their class based on that stuff.

It won’t be a class where you have to do everything in the curriculum. In fact, I’m expecting you not to. I’m expecting you to pick things that you want to work on, based on what you need. That way, you can utilize the time in the best way you can and hopefully get more out of the class that way.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. It sounds like a lot of fun, and I know at least a couple of people who are looking forward to it. It should be a good one. Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Sara! This has been great.

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Heather Lawson, and we’ll be chatting about breaking down foundation skills and using them as building blocks to teach multiple useful behaviors.

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.

May 18, 2018

Summary:

Amy Johnson is the owner of Great Dane Photos and teaches the dog photography classes offered through FDSA.

She is also the official show photographer for many of the premier agility events in the United States, including the AKC National Agility Championships, AKC Agility Invitational, USDAA Cynosport World Games, and NADAC Championships, as well as numerous local trials, regional events, and breed national specialties. She has photographed a wide variety of dog sports, including agility, obedience, rally, and conformation, and dog events, including FDSA camp.  

Her start in professional photography came by taking pictures of her friends' dogs at conformation shows, and quickly grew to outpace her interest in showing her own dog -- and today she’s here to talk to us about the reason a great number of people use the internet each day -- dog photos!  

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 5/18/2018, featuring Sara Brueske, the benefits of teaching tricks … and a little bit about disc dog!

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’ll be talking to Amy Johnson.

Amy is the owner of Great Dane Photos and teaches the dog photography classes offered through FDSA.

She is also the official show photographer for many of the premier agility events in the United States, including the AKC National Agility Championships, AKC Agility Invitational, USDAA Cynosport World Games, and NADAC Championships, as well as numerous local trials, regional events, and breed national specialties. She has photographed a wide variety of dog sports, including agility, obedience, rally, and conformation, and dog events, including FDSA camp.  

Her start in professional photography came by taking pictures of her friends' dogs at conformation shows, and quickly grew to outpace her interest in showing her own dog -- and today she’s here to talk to us about the reason a great number of people use the internet each day -- dog photos!  

Hi Amy, welcome back to the podcast!

Amy Johnson: Thank you so much for having me back.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to talk about this stuff today. I know we want to chat about the behind the scenes stuff, but to start us out, can you share a little bit about some of the big events you’ve covered recently? What kind of events were they and what did they involve, a little bit of background?

Amy Johnson: Sure. The most recent one I covered was actually just this past weekend. I was the show photographer for the AKC World Team Tryouts. While that’s not one of the biggest events that I do, since it’s a relatively small number of competitors, it still is really high profile. AKC sends all of their big guns to the show to be involved. It’s not just a local trial. It definitely is a national-level event. I did AKC’s National Agility Championships in March, those were held in Reno, Nevada, and I’ve got several more nationals coming up for later in 2018.

Melissa Breau: As somebody who covers those kind of big events, how much traveling are you doing, how much travel is involved? Are you often on the road for this stuff, and how much of a factor is distance in whether or not you take a job? Can you share a little bit?

Amy Johnson: I do a lot of traveling. There are times when my family wonders if I’m actually part of the family anymore, I think. Modern technology of texting and that stuff has been very good for that.

For the local weekend trials — I say local, but the one that’s closest to me is an hour away, but most of them are in the Twin Cities, which is about three-and-a-half hours south of me, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area — I travel even to just do smaller trials, the normal weekend trials. But those are just in Minnesota. I leave home on the day before, so if it’s a three-day trial, if it’s a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I head to the cities on Thursday, usually set up on Thursday night at wherever the show is, and then shoot Friday and Saturday and run the booth on Sunday, and then I head home Sunday night and get home usually between 8 and 10 at night.

The national events definitely are something that take me out of state and I’m gone a lot longer, but they’re also much larger in terms of the number of competitors. The amount of business that I do at those is significantly larger than the amount of business I do at a local trial, so it’s worth the extra distance and it’s worth the extra staff I bring in. So I will travel out of state.

All the nationals that I do other than World Team Tryouts this year were in Minneapolis, so that was a nice, close event. That was easy. AKC Nationals in March was in Reno. I’m going to Arizona, I’m going to Tennessee, I’m going to Orlando, so I get kind of coast to coast over the course of a year or two.

Melissa Breau: That’s pretty awesome. That’s getting to see a lot of awesome places.

Amy Johnson: Yeah, I do, and I drive everywhere because I am the person who has all of the gear. I have all the photography gear, but I also have all of the sales booth gear, so that doesn’t pack up and ship very well. It certainly doesn’t fit on a plane. I have a pickup truck and I fill it from tip to tail with everything I need and drive across the country, so not only do I see the places I’m going to, I also see everywhere in between, which sometimes is not very interesting.

My dad’s a retired geography teacher, so I think part of my desire to travel came from him instilling a love for the land that we live in, so being able to drive it rather than fly over it has been part of the appeal of the job itself, which is kind of weird, but what it is, it’s a good part.

Melissa Breau: That’s kind of neat. I’m getting ready to do a crazy road trip myself, and there is something to be said for driving a long distance and having that time to explore on your own a little bit. I’d imagine you’re working on a lot more of a deadline, so it may be a little more intense.

Amy Johnson: Now that my kids are older I can extend my travel time by a little bit. I’ve never driven through the night. I need my sleep too much. I’ll drive all day, but I’ve started to add an extra day or day-and-a-half so I can stop somewhere and do a little birding, see a local landmark or something. I’m actually starting to get off the Interstate and be able to have some time to explore places along the road, which has been fun.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine that makes it a lot more fun. You mentioned going all over the place, and I’d imagine that that comes with its own challenges. How do you prep for some of these big shows? What do you need to think through, especially if it’s a

facility maybe you’ve never been there before? What do you do?

Amy Johnson: The national events or the events where I’m going somewhere where I’ve never been before is a little scary. My biggest concern, and the one that I can’t do anything about to prep for, is the light in the place. A lot of the big events are held in state fairgrounds, coliseums, horse arenas, and they’re generally fairly well lit, but for the human eye and even for video. But for photography, for still photography, to stop the motion of these dogs that are moving so incredibly fast, you need a lot of light, or you need a camera that can handle the relatively low amount of light that is found in these places.

My stomach used to be tied up in knots when I would get to a place before I walked in the door and just go, Please let there be enough light, please let there be enough light. In fact, ten, maybe twelve years ago I walked into a horse barn, a horse arena, where a championships was going to be held and I almost — I had just driven for a day-and-a-half to get there — almost got back in my car and turned around and went home because it was so badly lit. I didn’t, I’ve never done that, but the thought crossed my mind because it was just so incredibly dim.

I pushed through and I did it, and the thing that I consoled myself with was, if I’m having this much trouble photographing in here, nobody else is going to be able to do any better. In fact, I’m going to do OK because nobody can photograph anything in here unless they have the kind of gear that I have. So I did OK. People were appreciative of the fact that I was there and stuck it out, and they understood the difficulties that I had getting images and that they just weren’t up to my normal standards, but that was as good as anybody could have done in those conditions. The nice thing is, going back to that place after a couple of years, they had swapped out the lights, they had put in new lights, and it was about four times brighter than it was the first time I went in there. So I don’t mind going there anymore, but it was terrifying the first time. So that’s always my biggest concern.

In terms of prepping, I have to arrange housing, I have to make sure I’ve got my contracts signed with the organization that’s putting on the event, I have to line up my staff. These days I have a bunch of photographers that come and work for me, and then I also bring in a sales staff that works at my booth. So it’s gone from me, myself, and I, or me and my husband, because in the early days he would come with, and he’d be in the booth and I would be shooting, and now it’s evolved into I have some events where I bring in ten to twelve people — four to five other photographers, and then five to six booth staff.

There’s a lot of logistics involved with that. They come from all over the country. I have photographers coming sometimes from the East Coast and some from the West Coast and everywhere in between. A lot of my sales staff comes from the Minneapolis area because they are customers who have become friends who have become loyal salespeople for me. They know my product, they believe in me and what I do, and that makes them really good at selling the images.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That sounds like a huge team. That’s phenomenal that you’ve grown to that point where you’re bringing in that many people.

Amy Johnson: It’s fun. It used to be that I would go to these big events and there would be two different photography outfits there, me and somebody else. We’d divide up the rings. I’ve always worked really well with other photographers. I enjoy talking to them, and the last thing I want to do is be snotty about “Why are you here?” or anything like that. There’s enough room for both of us to play in this.

But over the years I’ve been able to bring more and more photographers, and the organizations I work with have liked having only one point of only one photographer or company that is there, and so I’ve pretty much gone to being the exclusive photographer at all these big events. But part of the deal is if I’m going to do that, then I make sure I bring enough photographers and enough booth staff to fully staff that whole thing. We cover all the rings. I don’t bring two other photographers and let two of the rings go without any pictures. If there are five rings, I have five of us. It’s complicated, but it’s worth it.

Melissa Breau: Most of our listeners probably primarily compete rather than work at the events, and I’m sure that working at an event is super-different from being on the competitor side. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you balance things like trying to be in the right spot to capture that perfect image, but at the same time you don’t want to be “in the way” or in a spot where you may be distracting for the dogs. How do you manage to blend into the background? How do you manage to set up in a way that allows you to accomplish both ends?

Amy Johnson: One of my favorite compliments, it’s a weird one, but one of my favorites is when somebody will come up to me and say, “I didn’t even know you were here.” It’s not that they didn’t know that I had a vendor booth, and it’s not that they didn’t know there was a photographer, but if they don’t see me in the ring that they were running in, that means I’ve really done my job well. It’s one of those backhanded, weird compliments, but I always appreciate hearing it because then I know I didn’t distract anybody.

Making sure that I’m in a place — me and my other shooters, of course — that is always right at the forefront of my mind.

I think at most events we’re outside of the ring. There have been a few events where the boundaries of the ring are … at World Team Tryouts, it was held at a soccer arena, and so the boards that are the boundaries of the soccer field and there was netting above those — we can’t shoot through that. I can’t see through walls, and to put a net in front of the lens would be kind of a problem as well. So we do sit inside, but we keep our backs to the wall, just like a bar setter would. We try and make ourselves as small as possible. So we’re outside of the ring in general.

I’m always looking at the equipment and which direction they’re taking the jump, or which end of the tunnel they’re coming out of. I’m looking to see where  — and when I’m talking about “they,” the dog — I’m thinking about where the dog’s sightline is going to move. If they come over a jump, will they see me as they’re turning their head to look at the next obstacle that they’re going to, or as they’re turning their head from one thing to the thing that they’re going to take that’s close to me, are they going to look at me and find me to be a distraction?

If they’re far enough away, it’s usually not a problem. They’re so engaged in what they’re doing, especially at national events, the level of competition is so high, these dogs are so accomplished, they’re so prepared, the handlers have done such an amazing job of getting them ready that it’s generally not a problem. But I still am really paying attention to the line that the dog will take and making sure that I’m not going to be something that will catch their eye and cause them to misstep, or to miss something, or to not pay attention to their handler.

I try not to move very much, so if the dog is taking a jump and it’s coming directly over the jump towards me, I’ve got my shot lined up, all I’m moving is my shutter button, and I wait until that dog has moved past me, or moved through that obstacle and a little bit beyond, before I move to set up my next shot, rather than click and then move while they still might be able to see me, because movement catches our eye. If you think about if you’re watching something and there’s just a little bit of movement inside of a bigger area of things that aren’t moving, you’re going to see that movement really fast, so that will grab your attention. So my goal is to not be the one moving thing in the dog’s line of sight. Not being a distraction is a really, really high priority for me.

Then, of course, the flipside of that is we have to get good shots. So I look at the course. Usually I manage to get hold of a course map so that I know what direction everybody’s going and what the order of things is. So we’re looking at … I know that I want to get a jump picture, I’m always prioritizing contact obstacles, so the A-frame, the dog walk, the teeter, if it’s that type of a course. If it’s a jumpers course, those won’t be there of course. I want to make sure we get contacts. I want to make sure we get a good variety of jumps, not just straight-on but also maybe coming across at a bit of an angle.

I’m looking at where the dog is coming from, the obstacle I want, and then I’m looking at where the dog is going next, because it’s not just about, Oh, if I set up right in front of this jump, they’re going to come right at me. They may not. If they’re coming from the left out of a tunnel and then they’re going to move to the right and then take the A-frame — I’m making this all up — if they’re moving from left to right, then I have to make sure that I know where that dog is going to be looking, how the dog is going to be positioned over the jump when it takes it, and then set up my shot so that I make sure that the dog is sharp in focus when they are over the jump.

Tunnels, it always helps to set up with them coming a little more straight out towards you, because then you can see them coming and take the shot at the right moment.

There’s all sorts of angles and lines, and even knowing the handler moves. I will watch the walkthroughs because I need to know if maybe a jump that I’ve picked out is going to give me a beautiful shot, except all the handlers are doing a front cross in front of it, so they literally are putting themselves in between me and the dog coming over the jump because that’s the best way to handle the course. So it doesn’t help me, I can’t take that jump shot if I can’t see the dog, so I’ll watch the walkthrough and see how the handlers are thinking about handling it. And it might set up a really nice team shot where I can see both the dog and the handler in the shot at the same time, the kind where the dog’s going one direction and the handler’s already moving on to the next thing, going the other direction, and you get this real interesting dynamic and action shot that people seem to really like.

Melissa Breau: Is it really possible to be in one spot and be able to capture multiple obstacles like that? How do you figure that out?

Amy Johnson: Going back to the whole distraction thing, we don’t move around the ring while we’re shooting. The thing that takes so long for us to set up our shots is that — I’m saying “our” because I’m thinking of the big national events where there’s five or six of us shooting — and usually it’s a whole conversation of, “Did you see this?” and “Did you see that?” and “What about this?” and “Should we try that?” So it is a “we.” It’s not just me being royalty here, even though I am kind of the queen!

We plant ourselves in one spot for any given course, and once you’re there, you’re not moving. You’re swiveling in your chair back and forth. The camera’s on a monopod so you can swivel around it. The monopod’s holding the weight of the camera so you’re not carrying that the whole time. But we’re sitting in a chair and don’t move. If I find that the spot is just terrible because there’s a judge in the way or a handler in the way — nothing against them, they’re just doing their job — but I didn’t anticipate something about the way that course was going to run, I may pick up after four dogs and move over or somewhere else that I find that I got better shots. But in general we are planted in one spot and don’t move for the duration of that course.

These dogs are on course for about 30 seconds, so I would die to have them on course for a minute-and-a-half, although I’m not sure how interesting that would be because that would mean the dog was really not having a good day. So a jumper’s course generally is in the neighborhood of 30 seconds. The standard course where you get the contacts sometimes will go to 45, and that’s for the big dogs. The littler dogs, you’re talking 35 - 40 seconds for the jumpers and maybe 45 - 55 for the standard courses. But it’s definitely, for the dogs that are doing what they’re supposed to and not messing up, it’s under a minute.

So the trick is find a spot where you can get at least three solid shots. There are some courses where I can get five or six, and those always make me really happy. I get done shooting those courses and I’m kind of floating because I’m like, “Yeah, that was great!” It’s like someone coming off the course saying, “That run, ooh, it just all came together, it really clicked, and it was amazing.” That’s how I feel if I get a course where I can get five or six really solid shots. Oh, there’s nothing like it.

Four shots is a really good number. If we can get — again going back to a standard course — if we can get a jump, a contact, the weave, or maybe two jumps, a contact obstacle, and the weaves, that would be great because then we’ve got a little variety. Generally we will see the dogs more than once. I may not, I may not see any jump height more than once, but over the course of a weekend, since we are covering all the rings, then that means we’ll see the dogs three or four times, maybe five if they get into the finals. So that means we’ve got plenty of opportunities, hopefully, to get a wide variety of different types of shots.

The preparation, the knowing where the dog’s going to go, I don’t know all the fancy names of all the new moves that people do. I know basically what a front cross is, I know what a blind cross is, I know what a rear cross is when I see it. I couldn’t do it, don’t ask me to try to do it, but I could probably, if you showed me a video, I could probably name those crosses. I can’t name all the other fancy stuff, but I pay attention to it because it helps me know how the dog is going to take an obstacle, if I know how the handler is going to direct the dog to take that obstacle.

As a team we’re always looking at the course and deciding, “What kind of thing do you think they’re going to do?” Because I haven’t actually ever run agility, then that means I’m at a slight disadvantage to a few of the other photographers that work for me. Two of them have run dogs, and so they are very valuable to me in terms of being able to say, “For this thing they’re going to do this, so we’ll want to consider moving to a different spot.” It’s a group effort when we’re talking about where we go, where we plant ourselves for any course.

Melissa Breau: How much do you really need to know about the sport you’re photographing to be able to make informed, intelligent decisions? I’d imagine that that’s been a learning curve.

Amy Johnson: I shot my first agility trial knowing nothing about the sport, so it is possible to do it. I shot a lot of jumps because those are obvious. It makes sense. The dog is going to go over the bar, and you can follow the numbers and you can figure out where they’re going to go. In the most basic sense, it is absolutely entirely possible to photograph agility or any other dog sport without knowing anything about it.

Now, does that mean that’s the best way? Probably not. I know that I can get shots these days that I never could have anticipated 18 years ago when I started in this. I know that my reaction time is faster, my ability to visualize how the shot’s going to look before the shot even happens is much better than it was 18 years ago. The more you know about your subject — and this applies to any type of photography; this doesn’t just apply to dog agility photography — anything you can know about your subject, if it’s something that’s alive, if you know more about its behavior, if you know more about its environment, if you know more about its habitat — I’m thinking about birds or wildlife — the more you know about your subject, the more you can predict what might happen, the better you’re going to be able to capture that moment that you want.

I also do bird photography, as all of my students know. One of the things that I’ve really worked hard on, especially this past winter, was getting some flight shots of a Great Grey Owl. I’ve been watching these birds for several years, and I’m starting to pick up on the really subtle signals that they give before they take off to fly. There’s the not subtle one of they tend to poop before they fly. That’s the one that everybody jokes about, “Oh, the bird just pooped, it’s getting ready to fly.” But they don’t always do that, so it’s not always that obvious. They start to shift around on their perch a little bit, they might fluff their wings out a little bit, they turn their head, or you notice that something catches their attention. All these little body movements are giving you a clue that the bird is about to take off, so make sure that you have your shot lined up for the bird taking off.

Same thing with agility. If I know where the dog’s coming from, I know where the dog’s going to, and I know basically how the handlers are going to be handling the course, I can generally predict exactly how those photos are going to look within a range. There are always outliers, and unfortunately, if a dog does something really unexpected, we might miss that one jump shot if they jumped really high, or they crashed the bar, or if they don’t even take the obstacle, or they do something weird to mess up their timing. So the outliers create problems for us, but for the most part, as long as we have a sense of the rhythm and the flow of the course and understand what the dog’s going to do, then that greatly increases the likelihood that we’re going to get a good shot.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier the idea of getting a couple of different obstacles, maybe setting up so that you can get a shot of the dog and the handler. Are there types of pictures that competitors seem more likely to buy? Are there things that they are looking for? Are those what drives you to get those specific shots, or is it more about what shots you can get that are going to be good shots?

Amy Johnson: I mentioned I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and for every trial I’ve been to, if I had only taken the shots that I thought people would buy, then I would have been wrong for at least one or two people at every single trial I’ve ever shot.

Just like with anything, people have a huge variety of opinions. Some people really like the jump shots where the dog is coming right towards you. Some people really like the jump shots where the dog is kind of slicing the jump and taking it at an angle. Some people hate the pictures on the contact obstacles. Some people love them. It is across the board. Anything I get, I can get a person who loves it and a person who hates it.

My goal, because of that, is to try and get the biggest variety possible. So we try and make sure that there’s some sort of teamwork shot in the mix. We want to make sure that we hit all the contact obstacles. Now, we aren’t always successful, because we’re restricted to what sides of each ring we’re allowed to be in. For instance, at Nationals in Reno in March, they had three rings running in the main arena, and then one ring was off in another section. Well, those three rings were touching in the middle, so to speak, so we could access the backside of all three rings, we could access the side of Ring 1 and the opposite side of Ring 2 — excuse me, Ring 3 — but all we could access on the middle ring was the backside.

If the course isn’t set up where I can get a shot of an A-frame from that side of the ring for the whole weekend, like, I never get that shot, then those dogs that ran in that ring, maybe we don’t have A-frames for that jump height.

The goal is always to get that variety working within the boundaries of the courses and the way they’re laid out, and again working with that idea that we don’t want to be a distraction. I have passed up shots that would be awesome shots, but I can see that where we’re sitting is too close to another obstacle. Even if we’re not trying to shoot that obstacle, but it’s the end of the weave poles and where I want to be puts me too close to the end of the weave poles, I won’t set up there because I know weave poles are a touchy obstacle. Not every dog is as solid on the weaves as they maybe would be on a jump or a tunnel.

The last thing I want is for a handler to come off the course and say, “Man, if that photographer hadn’t been there.” We’re great scapegoats. That is the one thing that I hear that makes me want to cry, but it also drives a lot of what I do. I don’t want to be a scapegoat. I don’t want to be the reason why someone thinks their run didn’t go well. Even if I didn’t have anything to do with it, I have to avoid that perception. I’ve passed up shots because I don’t want to even have a hint of being in a place where someone could say, “Well, if that photographer hadn’t been there, then we would have qualified.”

But going back to the idea of the variety, it’s all over the board, and I wish that there was a way to narrow it down to, “Oh, people only like jump shots.” “Well, great then, we’ll just take the jump shots.” But you know what? That just is never going to happen. And actually I think I would get a little bored, too, if all I did was the jumps. So yeah, yeah, so it works for everybody.

Melissa Breau: We’ve talked before, I think you actually included it in one of the webinars you did, about the challenges of capturing black dogs in particular. I’m assuming you don’t have a ton of time between competitors at some of these events, so how do you work with the variety of the dogs you may see in the ring, both based on color and size and what have you? How do you have to adapt to that?

Amy Johnson: The one thing we do at the national events … generally the light in these arenas, especially these days with modern LEDs and the modern fluorescents that don’t have the same kind of patchy flicker … older lights are a nightmare to deal with, but the newer lights are quite nice. So we set our exposure for each ring. Like at Nationals, where we had three rings in the main arena, the exposure settings were the same for all three of those rings. We had different exposure settings for the fourth ring that was out in another section, but we set the exposure settings and then leave them alone.

I don’t try and adjust for a black dog and a white dog, and the biggest reason I don’t is because I will screw it up. Like you said, we’ve got so little time, and if I’m trying to make adjustments because, oh, I see it’s a black dog coming up — and I can’t always actually see the start line very well from where I am, depending on where I’m shooting — so if I’m trying to adjust that and I say, “Oh, it’s a black dog, let me adjust my settings,” great, shoot the black dog, looks wonderful. Then a white dog comes to the line and I forget that I’ve adjusted for the black dog, then I shoot the white dog at the black dog’s settings, and I’ve screwed them both up, or I’ve screwed up the white dog.

So I prefer to find that middle ground. The way I set the cameras is that we shoot in RAW, which is a file type that is very easily manipulated in Lightroom and Photoshop, so I can brighten the dark dogs and I can darken the light-colored dogs, because it isn’t really off by that much. It’s much better to pick that middle ground, because I have other things I would much rather put my brain power to, like making sure I get all the shots I want, and making sure I know what dog is in the ring, because we do a lot of data collection, and we can get to that in a bit. I don’t worry so much about the color of the dog.

What I do worry about — you mentioned the height of the dog and I’ll mention the way a dog runs. The heights at a national event are nice because I may only see one jump height for most of the day, or half the day at least, so I might only have the 16-inch dogs. All of those dogs are jumping, they’re very similar height, which means if I am visualizing things correctly, then that shot I’ve got is going to work for all the dogs I’m going to see. Little dogs, we can line things up. We can use a longer lens for a ring that has just little dogs in it, and shoot much tighter, rather than having to worry about using a lens that’s going to work for everything from the 4-inch dogs all the way up to the 24-inch dogs.

That’s one of the things that’s very nice about a national event versus a regular local event. When I’m setting up shots for my local events, I have to accommodate all the different jump heights. Sometimes at a walkthrough I’ll go grab a different lens, but usually I can do everything with the same lens.

The last piece of this, though, with the variety of dogs, goes back to understanding your subject, and that is, I need to understand how different breeds run and how different breeds take obstacles. What I mean is, if you put a Border Collie on the course, they run very efficiently. They run low to the ground, they come in really tight to those weave poles, and they just skim right over the top of the jump bars. They come tight up to the jump standards. They run very small, and I don’t know if that makes sense, but they’re very efficient, they’re very compact in that respect.

Then you put a Doberman out on the course. They run very upright, so you’ve got long legs. If they have cropped ears, you’ve got to make sure you’re incorporating that into the frame. They take up a lot more vertical space in an image than a Border Collie. So even though they may be jumping the same jump height, I have to frame the shot completely differently for a Doberman than I do for a Border Collie. Now, there are exceptions. There’s a Doberman in the Minneapolis area that runs like a Border Collie, and when he comes to the line — I am not joking, this dog is phenomenal — when he comes to the line I have to literally tell my brain, This is a Border Collie, this is a Border Collie, this is a Border Collie, because if I shoot him like a Doberman, he’s only going to be taking up about the bottom third of the frame because I added extra space to treat him like a Doberman. I can’t shoot him like a Doberman. I have to shoot him like a Border Collie.

Poodles are another one that run very upright. Great Danes, the few of them that are out there running, run very upright, and I have to make sure I have enough vertical space for them. The little dogs, there’s less variety in that way. Of course there’s always the Jack Russell Terriers that think they should be jumping 20 inches, even though they only jump 8 or 12.

There’s an advantage that my local clients have that my national clients don’t, because I know my local people. I know how their dogs run. I know the little dogs that run as if they’re 20-inch dogs, and so I can be set up for that. I have pictures where all I have are toes in the frame because the top of the dog is cut off at the top because it jumped so high. I have the jump bar in there, and then I have about 8 inches of space, and then I have toes. Sometimes those are really funny shots and the people really like them, but not at a national so much.

Understanding the breed, and even if it’s a mixed breed, you still can see, you watch the dog go over the first jump and you have a clue about how they’re going to run the course. That’s another part of knowing your subject. You’ve got to understand how the different dogs run, and that’s just something you learn after observing dog after dog after dog after dog.

Melissa Breau: Can you walk me through what a typical day looks like at one of these major events from your perspective?

Amy Johnson: One of the things I always want to know is what time does the building open, because I want to be there as early as I possibly can. The reason for that is I want to have as much time as I can to see the course, to look at the different angles, to look at the way it’s going to run.

If there’s a course map, if there are multiple courses in the day, hopefully they put out course maps that are for everything, and so then I can start looking ahead. If we’re going to have a course change in the day, I can also start looking ahead for the second half of the day, when you need to switch, consider this, this, and this, so I can prep my team for what they’re going to be looking for midday.

I get there, and usually a couple of my team of my photographers will be there that early with me, and we look at the courses and start thinking about what shots will work. Once everybody gets there, we make sure everybody’s got their chairs, everybody’s got the right lens, because if they’ve got little dogs, they might need a 400mm, if they’re shooting things that are all the way across the ring, they might need a 400mm lens, if they’re shooting things that are closer, they probably need a 300mm. Everybody keeps track of their own camera body for the week, but we swap the lenses around, depending on what jump height and where the obstacles are physically located in the ring, compared to where you’re sitting.

There’s a lot of … you’ve got to make sure your cards are formatted. One of the things that is key to the way I do business is that we keep track of what image numbers belong to which dog. The way we do that is we have the running list loaded into a spreadsheet on an iPad, and as you’re shooting, you’re looking in the back of the camera and recording the image numbers that correspond, the last image number that corresponds to the dog that just ran. We’ve got data collection that goes on as you’re shooting, so we’ve got to make sure that the iPads are charged, that camera batteries are charged, cards are formatted, cards are loaded in the camera. I have sat down — because I’m trying to get everybody else situated — sat down and realized I don’t have any cards in my camera, so then it’s a quick scramble.

Once the shooting starts, then things settle into a rhythm, and time just becomes weird, and you keep going and you fall in to … your muscle memory takes over. After four or five dogs, you have the pattern, and you don’t have to think so hard about I’m going here, oh wait, then I’ve got to go there. You just settle in.

The day … you are always happy to get a break, but they’re never very long. We’ll shoot from probably 8 o’clock in the morning — earlier on … some nationals start the day even earlier than that — 8 o’clock and sometimes we’ll go on until 4 or 5. We’ve even gone until 6. In fact, World Team Tryouts started shooting on Saturday morning at 7:30 and finished that night at 7. That’s a little bit of an extreme, but ten hours of shooting isn’t … eight to ten isn’t out of the realm of normal.

But then the day doesn’t end, so we’ve got to go back to the house and download images, and I have some data stuff, so I suck into my computer the spreadsheets and everybody’s images, and through the magic of the scripts that my husband has written for me, we come out on the other side with images that are sorted into directories named with the dog’s name. So if I click on Ace Smith, then inside of that folder are all of the pictures that are of Ace Smith — or we hope so, if we’ve done the data entry correctly.

Then we take the time to edit the photos, and editing meaning deciding which ones to keep and which ones to delete, not post-processing in Photoshop or Lightroom. None of that happens. We go through and delete all the bad ones, because there are bad ones. There are lots of bad ones. Keeper rate is probably about 25 to 30 percent of the images are kept.

On an eight- to ten-hour day I probably shoot minimum 5000 images, probably closer to 6 or 7. On a day where I’ve got one of those courses where I’ve got six shots and they all work really well, I can get up to 8000 images, and then we go through and delete the junk, because there’s always junk. I don’t want my customers to see the junk. Some stuff does slip through that I would probably prefer not be out there, but for the most part we get rid of a lot of things that just don’t need to be seen by anybody. We keep the best of the best, and that’s part of what keeps people coming back for more.

So the day starts really early. I have trained my booth staff to do editing so we can distribute the images, so I may not have to do all my images. I can split mine between me and someone else. All my photographers, we generally can split so they’re only doing half and then one of my booth staff is doing the other half, and that’s made a huge difference in how early we can get to bed, because we’ve divided that work so much. For Nationals I was in bed by 10 or 10:30, but there are times when I’ve been up until midnight or 1:00 and then had to get up at 4 or 5. You just run on adrenalin at that point, there’s not a lot else. And coffee, lots of coffee. I often wish that I could sit ringside and just have a caffeine drip, but nobody’s offered to do that for me yet. So adrenalin and coffee. Now, those are the days where all we’re doing is shooting, like on the first day of the event. On the Saturday and Sunday of an event, I also have to make sure that the booth gets up and running. Not only am I trying to look at courses and get everybody set, I’m also trying to get the booth. My staff is really good about doing most of it, but there’s still some of the computer stuff that is really just me, so I have to make sure that’s all working properly.

I also have two of my photographers who have become regulars know how to set up the shots the way I want them. I’m getting much better at delegating. It’s very hard, but I’m getting better at it, delegate that stuff, getting the shots set up, to them, and then I concentrate on getting the booth up and running, and then hopefully they’ve even found a spot for me, so I just sit down and start shooting and hope that they did their job well, which they always have.

Melissa Breau: That’s important. Having good people is an important piece of the process. Having photos available next day for competitors — you mentioned that’s not the norm, that’s not standard. What led you to make the decision to do that? You talked about being up really, really late the night before, so I’d love to hear what led you down that path.

Amy Johnson: There’s a lot of things that I do that are not standard. Being willing to stay up late and edit pictures until all hours of the night is the biggest one, I guess. Sorting by dog name is a really big thing to me, and it’s not something that most other agility photographers have done. The ones that I’ve trained are doing it, and it’s a very small number, but it’s growing. Usually it’s sorted by jump height or by group or by arm band number, something.

The decision to do that is based on I want my customers to spend their money, not spend their time hunting for their dog. I want them to be able to find their pictures within 30 seconds of walking up to one of my viewing stations. In that 30 seconds they’re just typing in their name is all they’re doing. And it should — if all their data is correct — it should pull up their dog’s pictures as soon as they hit the login button. That makes them feel important, too, because we took the time to know who they are and who their dog is, and to find a way to match those up and to not waste their time with, “Well, here’s all 500 20-inch dogs that ran yesterday. Go ahead and look through them and see if you can find your Golden in amongst the 500 other Goldens.”

I think that’s not respectful of their time as a competitor, and it’s certainly not respectful of my sales booth time for my employees to be looking for … to help these people find their pictures, because by the time they find their pictures, then they’re exhausted — “Oh, well, here they are. Now I have to decide what to do with them? Really? Oh.” They’ve made decisions all week or all weekend. They’re trying to decide how to handle their dog, they’re trying to decide what to do that is best for their dog. I don’t want to add to that mental load by making them hunt for their pictures. That’s the motivation for me is I think it’s a better use of all of our time if they can find that stuff really quick.

A lot of agility photographers or dog event photographers will actually find a way to have images up within even on the same day, but the editing piece for me is too important, and so I want the chance to see all the images, or to have a photographer look at all the images, before they go in front of my customers.

I sometimes talk about this whole organization is kind of like I’m the chef, and all of the food that comes out of my kitchen has to taste like my food. Even if I’m not the one who actually cooked it, it’s still my food. It’s still got to taste like my food. So my photos need to look like my photos, whether or not I was the one who actually clicked the button. I’m kind of a control freak. “Kind of” — yeah, right. I’m a total control freak and my students know that. It’s the whole premise of how I teach photography is, “You can be a control freak, too, and take better pictures because of it.” Anyway, I don’t want to rush through the editing process. I would much rather save it for the evening, and then we get it done and we get it done well, and then my customers are only seeing the best images. Those two pieces: the sorting by dog and then the edit at night and don’t have things available until the next day. For day three, if we’re shooting on a Sunday, that makes things a little bit complicated, but we’ve found ways to help people, “Well, I know I want to buy a collage, but I haven’t seen all the pictures yet,” we have ways to work around that.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine that at some of these big events, things are pretty high stakes and pretty high pressure. You joked earlier about slipping a memory card in last-minute, but have you ever had something just go totally wrong, and if so, will you share?

Amy Johnson: Sure. There’s always things. And there are so many moving parts to this that it’s amazing in some ways that there aren’t more things that go wrong.

There are a couple of things that come to mind immediately because they’re the most stressful to me. There’s a lot of things that could go wrong, but I have learned to just let it roll off me, not a big deal. But the two things that could go wrong are if a camera breaks or if my software in the booth goes a little wonky.

I did actually have a camera break. My camera, the one I was using, suddenly quit working in the middle of the last day of Cynosport last year in Tennessee. Literally it just … and found out later, after I sent it in for repair, the whole mirror assembly inside of the camera just came apart. I don’t have any explanation for it, but it wouldn’t focus, the shutter button couldn’t make the camera take a picture anymore. Well, I’m a huge believer in backups, and that applies to both computers and it applies to cameras. So I had a backup camera. I called up to my booth, and one of the guys came down with the backup camera. I probably missed maybe ten or fifteen dogs, I mean it felt like forever, but it wasn’t. It just felt like, Oh my god, there’s another dog that went, oh my god, there’s another dog that went. So I missed dogs and that about killed me, but we made it through. I had a camera up and running again in probably ten or fifteen dogs, finished out the day, no problem. That is the only time it’s ever happened. Oh no, I take that back. It did happen with actually a rental camera just was not working right at another show many years ago.

So that doesn’t happen a lot, but I do have backup gear. I can’t come to one of these events and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we can’t shoot that ring because we don’t have enough cameras because one broke.” That’s just not acceptable. It’s not like we have double the number of cameras, but we certainly have, even if everybody’s shooting, there’s always at least one backup.

My software that is running in the booth is actually custom software that my husband wrote because he’s brilliant. So we have this point of sale software, and because it’s custom, it’s also a little bit … it’s not finicky, but I’m the only one at the show who knows all of the idiosyncrasies and all the ins and outs. If something happens, if it’s not just the wireless network going down or the printer not responding, if it’s anything more than that, then it usually involves me having to go up there and fix it. Both at the Nationals both this year and a year ago, I had one of my booth staff come down and hover behind me and say, “Amy, the pictures aren’t coming up. What do we do?” Thankfully, this year, one of the other rings was idle, and so the shooter for one of the rings came over and he took over for me, and I was able to go up to the booth and fix it.

Those are the two things that stress me out the most: if the software goes wonky or if a camera breaks. There are other little things. Someone’s camera wasn’t set up with the right file format, and there are ways to work around that. We’ve never lost images because of it. I don’t know. There’s always weird things going on, but the major things are if gear goes down or if software goes down.
Melissa Breau: What other behind-the-scenes things are there that competitors or novice photographers might not have thought about? Any advice for others who are interested in getting involved in this stuff?

Amy Johnson: The first thing I’ll say, the behind-the-scenes, it is fun, it’s really fun, because I always get there a day early to set up the booth, so I’m kind of in on the setup. I’m watching, whether it’s USDAA or AKC or NADAC, I get to see some of their behind-the-scenes stuff as well. The people that I work with in each of these organizations are amazing, and we have a really good working relationship, and it’s always, “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.”

The thing that impresses me is how much they are as concerned about making sure they do what’s best for the dogs as the handlers are concerned about doing what’s best for the dogs. Not everybody agrees with every decision that an agility organization makes, but the message that I keep seeing over and over and over every time I work with them is that they’re in this for the same reasons. I hope that comes through to exhibitors, but I know that that can get lost in the chaos sometimes.

My photographers and I live and die on those courses with all the dogs. We sit there and see every single dog that runs. We see everything that happens, and we rejoice in the great runs and we are destroyed a little bit with every run that doesn’t go quite as planned. We feel bad, and if we could get the dog through the course ourselves, we could probably just will it to happen, because we are your silent cheering squad, whether you know it or not.

If there’s a photographer, one of my photographers, at your ring, they are cheering for you silently, because we don’t want to distract the dog. We are thrilled when you do well, and we love watching your runs, and we love watching the cool things that happen, the relationships that we see when it all comes together, or you get to the end of your run and it went well or it didn’t go well and it doesn’t matter and you’re having a good time with your dog. You will always have at least a cheering squad of one when we’re there.

A weird thing that I’ll throw out there — this doesn’t happen so much at a national, but at my local shows I’ve had people approach me and say, “Can you just sit there and take pictures and let me get my dog used to the click of the camera?” I would just say that I love that, because rather than being a scapegoat — we talked about that earlier — this is someone being proactive and saying, “I want to help my dog work through this,” and I am thrilled to death to be able to help with that. We’re not scary people, even though we have these big, giant pieces of metal and glass in our hands. We’re really not scary people, so come and ask us to help, and we’re happy to do so.

Novice photographers, the biggest thing you can do is learn how your camera works, like, really well. Not just where the shutter button is, and not where the auto mode is, but learn how it works. Learn about exposure, learn about how to capture motion, and learn about the behavior of your subject. Make sure you know your subject.

If you’re thinking about going into dog events, don’t feel like you have to know it all at the very beginning. Yes, you need to know how to take good pictures, but in terms of actually doing the business side of it, make sure you do all the things that you have to do from the legal standpoint of course — register as a business and sales tax and all that good stuff. But you don’t have to have a full booth. You don’t have to have twenty-five different products. Just start somewhere. Go take pictures, try things out, see what works, see what doesn’t, and then the next time you go do a trial, you do a little bit better. And eventually, 18 years later, you find yourself at a national event managing eleven other people and you wonder how it happened.

But start with baby steps. Everything I’ve done in this business has been very incremental. I didn’t suddenly go from just me to having a staff of twelve or thirteen. It’s been very gradual and very incremental all along the way.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, where can people go to learn a little bit more about this stuff?

Amy Johnson: Isn’t it amazing, but FDSA offers photography classes!

Melissa Breau: Imagine that!

Amy Johnson: Imagine that! If you don’t know anything about photography, I will say Shoot The Dog, which is my beginner intro course, is coming up in June. That’s a great place to start. If you know a little bit, just enough to be dangerous, then you might consider doing Chase The Dog, which is my course on how to photograph dogs in motion. If you don’t want to take courses through FDSA, that’s fine, or if you feel like you’re beyond that, that’s fine as well.

I do offer mentorships on an informal basis, but I have had students come through my classes who are now working for me. The way that happens is they take my classes, they do well — these are Gold students; you can’t do this at Bronze because I have to be able to see your work. But if you think you want to do this, frankly, the best way to get on my radar as someone who has the chops to do this is to be a Gold student and to come through that way.

I have students who came through all my courses and came to a national event and shot the event but didn’t have their images included for sale. It was still just me, or still just my regular staff. But then I got to see the images and we could evaluate. The next time it’s now you’ll be double-covering a ring and you just are responsible for getting one or two shots, as opposed to the normal four to five shots that a full-fledged photographer would do.

It’s something that has worked really well for several of my students. I’m on … I think number three is working with me now. So it’s a really good way to get into the business. It won’t help you develop a clientele locally, but it will let you see an event photography business from the inside, and you can decide if you don’t want to edit photos at night in terms of when you do your own business, you can see what pieces of my ideas you would want to retain and what pieces you maybe aren’t interested in doing. It doesn’t hurt me. You have to build your business the way you want to build your own business.

But that is something that I’ve slowly been offering on a very limited basis to students that have expressed that interest. That’s kind of the advanced level of stuff, but definitely if you are interested in photography, start with Shoot The Dog, and then Chase the Dog definitely is the one where we really work seriously on the dogs in motion. And not just for agility. We try and cover all sorts of different types of motion.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Amy!

Amy Johnson: It was great fun. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: It was so interesting to learn a little bit about behind-the-scenes stuff. That was awesome. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in and joining us for that!

We’ll be back next week with Sara Brueske. We’ll be chatting about the benefits of teaching tricks … and a little bit about disc dog!

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.

May 11, 2018

Summary:

Dr. Amy Cook has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She’s the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She’s also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.

Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 5/18/2018, featuring Amy Johnson, taking us behind the scenes of a major dog sports competition from a photographer's perspective. 

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’ll be talking to Dr. Amy Cook.

Amy has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She’s the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She’s also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.

Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ. She also recently started a blog at playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.

Hey, Amy, welcome to the podcast.

Amy Cook:  Hi Melissa. So glad to be here. Favorite, favorite thing ever. Glad to be back.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you, and today I wanted to talk to you about thresholds.

Amy Cook: Thresholds [makes “doom music” sounds] …

Melissa Breau: Threshold is definitely a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to reactivity. Do you mind sharing a little bit about what it typically means?

Amy Cook: It’s great that we open with that, because of course you want to open with a definition, it makes sense, except that that very thing is a huge can of worms. It takes a lot of time to unpack it all fully, and I’ll be doing a webinar on this in June. I think it’s just after camp, I think it’s June 7 or so, where I’m really going to go into depth about all the stuff you need to know about it.

But to get you thinking about it right now, thresholds is one of those things where we say it and we know what we mean by it, but when other people say it, either about our dogs or about their dogs while we’re teaching them, we don’t know exactly what they mean by it, and we don’t have any real assurance that we both mean the same thing, even in the same conversation about thresholds, because if you really think about what thresholds are, it just means that it’s a border between two different things, even; the two different states, if you will. So there’s a threshold between the way I feel now and the way I’m going to feel next, whatever that feeling is that is coming, and not all thresholds are particularly of interest when we’re talking about rehabilitation or dog training. There’s only really a few that we care about.

I say sometimes in my seminars, “Do you care about the panic threshold for your dog?” And I see some people saying yes, because of course we want to care about panic, but that’s not what it says. Do you care about the panic threshold? The answer should be no, because there’s plenty of other thresholds that you should have cared about well before we got anywhere near panic. So threshold is that state between one thing and another, and it’s no more than that.

When someone says, “Hey, your dog’s over threshold,” the only thing I think is, Over what threshold? What exactly are you talking about? What state are they in now that they weren’t in a bit ago that you want them not to be in or want to help them get out of? Until we have common language — and I’m not even saying that we all, as a training community, need to have one language, because this isn’t one of those scenarios. This scenario is the word makes a lot of sense, but what we haven’t defined is what states that we’re talking about. So over threshold in what way? Can or can’t do what kind of thing?

It’s worth a lot of thought, because if I just say, “Hey, my dog’s over threshold now,” if I can be honest with you, I think it’s becoming a shorthand for “My dog can’t do this right now. I’m just going to call that ‘over threshold.’ Oh look, he won’t eat. He’s over threshold. He’s having trouble with latency here. He’s going slow. He must be over threshold.” I think it’s losing a little bit of meaning because you’re not thinking about exactly what threshold you’re talking about. It matters, because where you want to put your therapy is dependent on how the dog feels and how stressed he is, so you do really have to know where your thresholds are. So it’s something people need to pay more attention to than I think that they are.

Melissa Breau: How do you even begin to start to pin down, regardless of which threshold necessarily, how do pin down exactly where a specific dog’s threshold may be between any two states?

Amy Cook: It sort of depends on what your goal is in the given moment. Is my goal right now just to get past this dog with my dog and nothing happens? I have a different definition, a different threshold in mind for a behavior I don’t want, that I’m trying to prevent and keep him under the line of expressing. That’s not the same thing as if I want to do some therapy with him. For me, that would be play therapy, and if I want to do play therapy with him, that line of where I say threshold is is going to be much, much, much lower, because the line for me would be between he can play and he can’t play. But if we’re just talking about getting past a dog, the line might be the line between “he can stay on my food and look at me and keep walking and keep himself together,” and “he can’t do that.”

So first you have to think … you asked me how can we figure out what the threshold is. Tell me what threshold you want to figure out in the first place. From there we can define what would it be to be under it and what would it be to be over it.

Why do you care about this particular threshold? “Because I want to get past the dog and I don’t want barking.” OK, so any kind of barking would be over that particular threshold, and anything under where we’re managing correctly — or managing successfully, I should say — is keeping him under. But I wouldn’t call that under threshold for, say, learning a brand new trick, because he’s probably way too busy inside, cognitively and emotionally, to learn something new.

So if it’s like, I want to keep him under threshold, I’d say, OK, what for, what is your goal? “I want to do shaping with him, and sometimes he gets …” — whatever his problem is. And I don’t say I want him under a shaping threshold. I’m not telling the world to start adding new terms for everything. It’s not like that. But if you want him clearheaded and able to be in a shaping session, then that’s what you’re trying to be under.

How can you figure out what the threshold is? Well, that’s a moving target. You need to tell me what you need to accomplish, and from there we can simply make sort of tests for it. What I do is, I have a really low threshold for The Play Way and I have tests for that. But since everyone’s definition or goals might be a little different, I would encourage people to just give it even five minutes of thought of, What are the states I’m trying to define here and get below or get into, and how would I know if I were there? It’s a question you almost have to answer for yourself.

I have answers for the kind of work that I do, but not everybody’s doing that. Thresholds is all over dog training, and so I can’t just tell you that threshold is the one I use only and not the ones you use. But I will say if you do think about this and use them, then you should put more thought into definitions and identification of them.

Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit in there about how you use them differently in The Play Way, and I did want to get into that a little more. Can you explain a little more how you use them and what you mean by that?

Amy Cook: For the Play Way, what that is, if you’re not too familiar with my work, it’s using social play, so that would be play without the help of toys, like you’re playing tug or playing fetch, and without the help of food, although certain exceptions will apply. So social play with your dog to help them relax, to help them feel a lot better about where they are, and to help you read how they’re feeling so you can determine whether you are under threshold or not. That would be under my threshold, under the threshold of interest to me, in this case.

Really, the whole reason why play is so important, there are two reasons. One is of course it’s really fun, it’s relaxing, and it’s relationship-building. But the other real function of it is directly to help me determine a threshold. The threshold I want is one between the two states of interest for me are the dog is perfectly fine, absolutely nothing wrong as best anybody could tell, just like I can tell in you, you feel perfectly fine, you’re not stressed, you’re not tired, you’re just being you, just being Melissa, and then whatever you are one step away from that.

That’s not super-specific, but it can’t be. It’s when the dog or you feels perfect, everything’s fine, totally normal, nothing wrong, and then the first step away from that state is happening, and if you keep going on that path, if you keep taking more steps on that line, you’re going right to eventually panic, or you’re going right to stress, you’re going right to upset, you’re going right to can’t handle, you’re going right to trembling or yelling and screaming.

A lot of different things can happen along that number line. I call it a one-step threshold as a shorthand for myself so that I can see it as everything was fine, nothing was wrong, and now we’ve just taken our first step away from that perfect state.

And I’d like to know that that’s happened for you. If I’m trying to help you stay in that really great state, I’d love to know that you have just left it. And because I have language with you and all other people, I can say, “Hey, let me know when you’re starting to leave perfect and you no longer feel that way anymore.” But of course it’s very difficult to ask a dog, and what I use play for, or really, more accurately, the disappearance of play. When it disappears for me, I can infer that something has happened.

You play in your perfect state, and we of course train that a bunch, and we rehearse it a whole bunch, and then you can’t. Something impeded, something got in the way, something interfered with our play. Are you starting on your stress path? Are you starting to leave this great state we’re in? When play leaves, and they’re just starting to have questions about whether they’re OK, that’s when I can best apply my rehabilitation techniques, my interventions for them. That’s the best place because they haven’t gone very far away yet, and I can get them back to feeling OK.

Threshold is super-important to me for that reason. It’s super-important to everyone for that reason. We’re trying to get therapy into a dog who can benefit from the therapy. We don’t do that when they’re over threshold, but we have a moving target for where threshold is, so for me, I want it really codified. I call anything where the dog can’t play like he normally plays at home, and behave like he normally behaves at home, socially with you as over threshold. To me, it’s over threshold for therapy. I wouldn’t apply therapy there. I might switch to management, which is going to be a different topic that we can talk about, but if you want to apply some kind of therapy to your dog to help them feel better, you want something that indicates that they’re crossing the very threshold you care about, and for me, that’s play.

For me, so much is over threshold. So much more is over threshold for me than your average trainer. But I don’t mean to say that therefore everything over threshold is bad. It’s just over my therapeutic threshold. I wouldn’t do therapy now. We’ll do something else.

But you can see how it hangs together. You want to know what you’re dealing with so you can know what to put at it. I’m not going to throw therapy at a dog who’s four steps away from perfect but still many steps underneath flipping out. I still have many things I can do there, which is what management is.

Melissa Breau: Most dogs, to some degree, aren’t quite as relaxed as maybe would be ideal just in everyday life.

Amy Cook: Sure. Are you?

Melissa Breau: Exactly.

Amy Cook: I’m not. For the record, I’m tightly wound, very tightly wound!

Melissa Breau: I just want to ask you, you mentioned management, and I do want to ask, on the flip side of all this, we have this ideal state that you’ve talked about. But what happens when a trainer inevitably … everybody makes mistakes, and the trainer makes the mistake, they misjudge something, they think their dog can handle something their dog definitely can’t, and the dog reacts, whether it’s just a couple of steps further away from that ideal state, or whether it’s dramatic and lunging and barking and crazy. What do you do?

Amy Cook: I don’t think there’s anybody within the sound of our voices tonight that hasn’t done this, and that includes me. I’ll just raise my hand. I assume you’re going to raise your hand. We’ve all had a dog that we don’t want to have react, react. Or conversely — this isn’t really conversely — it doesn’t have to be that they even react. It can be that they have been put in a situation that is beyond their skill set right now, and it might be that they tremble, or it might be that they just are now going into sniffing and don’t want to do this and leave, and that’s a form of being over threshold. You’ve made a mistake in how much your dog can handle or wants to do, and you’re not going to get through a day or week — that may sound like a miscalculation — on the feelings of others who can’t talk to you.

If anyone out there is like, “Yes, that inevitable mistake,” it’s inevitable. You will make it. Because of that, just know that you will, assume you will, try not to in a moment, but don’t try to be a person who doesn’t do that. You’re just going to be your best all the time and accept when you’re not. When that happens, though, you need to stay, as best you can, clearheaded about what your next options are, where your next acts need to be.

Let’s say this is reactivity and your dog has now blown, because it’s a very easy example to use. Your dog has just blown up at somebody who showed up where you were training. I have a video of that in my class in fact, of me recording a video for class and someone just shows up and I had to respond. If anyone wants to see me do that, go in my classes in the videos, in the video section. You have to … or I recommend that you immediately drive the bus or pick up the reins — whether you like horses or cars better, pick your metaphor — pick up your reins and drive, pick up your wheel and steer your horse. You have to take over the situation, make immediate decisions, and those immediate decisions should involve getting distance and getting your dog on something else right then and there. You stop your training, you don’t negotiate, you don’t see if you can get your dog back on you while you’re sitting right where you were, or tell the person that showed up “Hey, can you give me some room?” That’s not the time to think about restoring what you had a second ago. It’s your time to get up and march. I usually tell people “March,” and they’re like, “I don’t know how to march.” No, no. I mean walk fast. Leave. Get out of Dodge. Go.

If you’ve made a big mistake, your dog went [barking sound], or you didn’t notice, you didn’t have to make a mistake, you could have been completely unaware or thought, Maybe that’s a mistake, I don’t know, and something showed up and your dog barked, and too many of us spend too much time frozen right then. You go, “Oh, oh, God, oh, sorry, sorry,” to whoever it was that your dog just now barked at. Or you’re holding, “Dog, dog, cookie, cookie, dog, here,” trying to fix it in some fashion, and I don’t recommend anyone do that. If you were sitting — I was imagining while you were talking, I was imagining sitting because most of my therapy for dogs is done sitting, so I was going to say, you stand up and you get out. You start walking. You take control. If you can’t get out, you immediately get your dog’s attention by hook or by crook. Interrupt that behavior. Get them on something else right away.

The thing is, that can be difficult. I don’t minimize that at all. First of all, you’re frozen. Second of all, your dog hasn’t seen you do this very much and doesn’t have a ton of skills around that. That’s why I have a class on this, because I firmly believe that people need to rehearse everything they’re going to do in the clinch.

If you need to practice getting up and marching out of the way really, really quickly, then you need to practice that when nothing’s going on, so that you get fluent in it and so that your dog sees this picture many, many times before you ever need it. That’s the one thing we don’t do with management is we don’t do that. But aside from the practicing issue, if you flip into your mind that first I was being dog empowered, and we were training a little bit, and you were figuring out my shaping puzzle, or I was doing some play practice with you and I’m listening to you and you tell me what you’re feeling, dog, and then something happened and your dog goes [gasps] “I can’t,” you go, “That’s it, let’s go. You get up and you just take over.

So much of what we’re trying to do here at Fenzi and so many of the classes are about giving the dogs a lot of control and a lot of ability to drive a session and to be really active partners, and this is the one time when you go, “All right. We’re going. We’re not negotiating this. We’re getting out of here.” I think people are a little reticent to do it because they’re trying to stay in the dog empowerment place or just aren’t sure what to do, so I recommend you start driving. You pick up your reins and you drive your car, to mix my metaphors continuously.

Melissa Breau: Pick up your reins and drive your car. There you go.

Amy Cook: Pick up your reins and drive that car.

Melissa Breau: For dogs with reactivity, it’s not just about what happens when something goes wrong in the moment or when you’ve made a mistake. There are some things you just have to deal with. The world can be a really scary place and a really rough place, and there are just normal, everyday things that have to happen, even though they’re scary and unpleasant. You have to go outside to poop. We’re not going to do that in the house. That’s not a negotiable thing. So there are some things that still need to happen in everyday life. How do you handle those things? What do you do?

Amy Cook: I think that should be one of those infographics: The world might be a scary place, but you still have to go outside to poop. You still have to do it. I remember being a baby trainer and being really frustrated with the answer of “Don’t put your dog over threshold.” I had a dog who was over threshold even by any definition, anyone’s definition, outside of a home. Outside of a house, outside of four walls, she was losing her mind, and the answer was you’re supposed to keep her under threshold while you’re helping her classical condition to whatever, doors and things. And I’d say, “But she has to go outside. I can’t keep her under threshold.” I didn’t get much of a satisfying answer. It was like, “Well, try not to.” I was like, “That’s not helping.”

I get it. The world is a rough place, and going about normal, everyday things might be you running a gauntlet, might be you going from challenge to challenge to challenge, and if you’re working with me at all, I’m saying, “Hey, let’s do a lot of play. Let’s keep your dog under threshold as much as possible.” I’m certainly saying those things.

So going hand-in-hand with helping your dog be better in any way, whether it’s through classical conditioning or whatever it is you’re doing, you’re training, you need to have an alternate way that you behave, an alternate plan for times that are not those times. Times when we have to go outside and go potty are not times when we’re going to be working on how you feel about going outside and going potty. We’re going to flip into our management mode. We’re going to get our management boots on and we’re going to behave as we do in management mode.

That means I may have to override you. I will do it certainly as kindly as I possibly can, but we’re not going to go that direction. We’re going to go this direction, because I know this direction is better, even if you want to go that way. Or you’d like to go up and see that gentleman because you’re on the fence about whether you’re scared, and I know that when you get there you’re going to flip out, so we’re not going to. We’re going this way.

So the first thing you’ve got to think about is you’re in control and you’re possibly overriding, although very kindly, your dog. Secondly, your dog needs to know they’re part of the management system. The management system might be all the little tricks that you’ll do to get your dog past a thing.

A certain example might be a magnet walk, a cookie magnet. If I teach you — and you’d think dogs would know this really well, but you’d be surprised how many dogs don’t know how to do this because we don’t practice it — you take a bunch of cookies, a bunch of them, and you put it right on their nose. Don’t just let them sniff it and wish they had it in their mouths, but you’re actually feeding in a specific way out of your hands the whole time you’re walking.

I challenge all of you listening: Can you take ten steps with your dog actively eating the entire time out of a hand, out of your hand — not any hand, your hand — that’s right on their nose and eating all the way through. We’re going to say these are not 10-inch Chihuahuas, but dogs you can reasonably reach with your hand, because they’re the ones you can pick up and we can talk about that later. Can you walk ten whole steps with your dog eating the entire time? No pauses, no time do you take your hand away and put it back, no time for reloading, no time where he’s sniffing it and wishing he had it and licking it, but is actually eating the whole way.

I think most people can’t … maybe not can’t do it, most people can get it done if you practice it a bit, but that’s the whole point of that. You’ve got to practice, because your dog is like, “What’s going on here?” and you’re like, “I don’t know. My hands are dropping treats everywhere,” and you’re not even the good dog-and-pony show, you’re the disastrous dog-and-pony show and you’re the pony. That requires that the dog understands that that’s what’s going to happen, that the magnet should not break. And you’re responsible for not letting that magnet break by making that super-interesting and “Let’s go, and here’s the cookies, eat them, eat them, let’s go, come on, eat, eat, eat, go, go, go,” as you’re walking past nothing because you’re just practicing. If you’re just trying to introduce that to your dog in the moment because you needed it right then and there, but they’ve never seen it before, it’s not going to go so well. They need to see their parts.

But to the larger thing that you asked, which I’m never going to stay on one question because you pressed the button on my chest and I take off, an everyday walk that is scary will need specific and well-rehearsed management techniques to get through. So if you’re going to pass a little too close to something, you flip into magnet walking. If you’re going to see something else pass by you and you only have to pause for a couple of seconds, you might do some Find Its, but you’re going to have a plan.

You’re going to go outside and go … in fact, sometimes, when I’m walking my dog, I might say, hey, you know, if that happened right now, like I’m passing a house, if that door just opened and a dog came running out, what would I do right now, right this minute? There’s traffic in the street right now, so I’m not going to go walk in the street. I mentally rehearse that, and I try to see if I needed to manage it, if my dog were over-fazed right this minute, what would be my choice? That mental rehearsal is very helpful to getting the reality to be like that.

So management is for when you cannot train and you have to get through, and training is for when you can be reasonably under threshold, however it is we’re going to define threshold for that particular task, and you don’t need to drive the bus. When you can give your dog the reins and the wheel of the horse car, then you’re not managing. When you pick up the reins and take the wheel of the horse car, you are now managing, to be tortured with this ridiculous example.

Melissa Breau: That was exactly my next question for you. I wanted it to be specifically on what the difference is between treating reactivity and learning management, because I think sometimes it’s really easy, I know you draw a really clear distinction between the two, and I think for a lot of people it’s a muddy line there. They’re like, “But we’re working on treating reactivity,” and the situation just changed and now you just need to manage it and get out of there. And sometimes it’s hard to understand that those are two sides of the same coin, maybe, where yes, you need to do both.

Amy Cook: They are two sides, and I think of them as flipping back and forth a lot. In the way I learned dog training, we talked about flipping from operant conditioning to classical conditioning too. I’m not saying people don’t do it now, I’m sure they must, but in the sense of “I’m training you to do a thing. Oh, a scary thing happened. I’m just giving you cookies.” Give and give and give and give, it’s a scary thing, and I’m changing right into classical conditioning mode, don’t care what you’re doing, here’s cookies. We flip back and forth on what we can reasonably let a dog do without too much direction and when we have to take over, and I see this as a very similar flip but between two different states, because I do my therapy different now.

So in this case it would be training reactivity for me means I let you have your head — back to the horses — you can make some decisions. I want you to tell me what you need to look at. I want you to tell me how you’re feeling by the quality of your play. We’re having a nice session here where you’re looking at something in the distance and gathering some information about it, and then you can dismiss it a bit and come back to me and we play some, and we’re doing all this and I’m letting you tell me how you feel. I’m not driving it and telling you to sit and telling you to high-five and giving you things to do. It’s very dog-driven.

And then, when I see that something has changed, either you’ve changed or I really see that literally a thing in the environment is now here, I utterly change and flip only into management tasks and I make sure that they happen. I create them all.

In play, and even in other kinds of training, if you’re not doing specifically rehabilitation, you’re doing some heel practicing. The dog is doing the behavior and you’re rewarding it. Once management has to be there, I don’t ask the dog to do anything. I create it all as best I can.

That’s what the magnet walk is. It’s not a heel, which the dog does and looks up at you and you reinforce. however often you’re reinforcing it. It’s instead I put a magnet on your nose and I’m drawing you forward and we’re walking that direction. And the dog is like, ‘I don’t know. I’m just following my nose. I’m not doing anything,” if you think about it that way.

I’m taking as much control and I’m doing the behaviors. I’m making sure the behaviors happen. I’m insisting as kindly as possible so that the dog stays contained and stays focused on me and the world can pass by. If the world isn’t going to pass by, I’m going to run out of there.

And you know what? Running has to be practiced too. If you’re going to run away from stuff, you better run the right way. You don’t want to run in panic. You don’t want your dog to go, “Why are we running? Oh my god!” It’s a practiced skill, like any other. You practice running away, yay, from stuff so that it’s not surprising for the dog and they don’t have to go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what?” There should be no “what.” There’s only a lot of “Oh, we’re doing this? All right. I can do that.”

So the distinction I make between training reactivity or learning management is that in one you are responsible for everything that happens and in the other one you’re lightening control. You’re letting the dog tell you a lot more stuff. You’re responding to the dog instead. In management, the dog’s responding to you and you go. Hopefully that’s a clarity moment.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah, and as you were talking about it earlier I was thinking in one situation it seems like you really want the dog to think, and in the other situation you want to remove any need for the dog to think.

Amy Cook: That’s a good way to put it. I want you thinking and driving and telling me on your own. You want to look at something, look at something. I don’t need to interrupt you. I want you to have your process — and more of that in the Bogeyman class — but a dog showed up, “Oh no, come here, you just need to think about me, and I’m going to take care of all of this.”

That’s something that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. We sit there and “Oh God,” and we deliberate, “Should I give a cookie? He barked. I’m so nervous that it’s reinforcing the bark, and I can’t give the cookie.” In that time, while you’re deliberating what you should do, that dog made it all the way to you, or that person got on his phone and started arguing. Everything got worse. You should have left before you started thinking about what you should do for your dog. Leave and then decide. Magnet-walk and go. Take it over.

Melissa Breau: One of the biggest takeaways for me when I took the management class, which I loved, was the importance of practicing the skills. You talked about this a little bit: practice and practice and practice until they become a habit, not just for the person but for the dog, something that the dog and you can really fall back on when you need it, because it’s so embedded and it’s so patterned the fact that it has basically becomes... you don’t have to think about this. It’s so fluent for both of you.

Amy Cook: It’s dancing. We’re all better if we have instructions. We’re all better if we know what we’re going to do. We are all better if things are patterned. All of us. Then especially, and if you want a dog to come magnet-walking with you, that dog’s got to have seen it dozens and dozens of times, or they’re going to go, “Yeah, magnet walk, but I’ve got stuff to yell at.” They don’t have a groove to get into that’s been super-practiced, and you know what, you don’t either.

The class, and the way I teach it to people, we’re not using it maybe ever in the class, maybe. But certainly not until the last week, because I want fluency beyond fluency. I’ll start throwing in little … here’s one thing you can do, anybody listening. If you have a few management skills already, like a find it and a two up, putting two feet on something, maybe some quick sits, something that keeps their attention while all things around are breaking loose.

What I want you to challenge yourself to do is you’re out on your walk today on a regular suburban block, and you see up ahead a fire hydrant, and you see farther ahead than that the tree that’s there, and I want you to manage, flip right into management the second you come to that fire hydrant, and manage the whole way all the way to the tree. Nothing has happened except that you decided you got to the fire hydrant and then you made it all the way to the tree.

The dog might at first go, “What? Why are you managing me?” And if that’s true and he’s looking around, then he’s not that practiced at management. He’s expecting something to go wrong, he’s expecting a big problem, and that’s the last thing you want. You want to teach your dog that management is this crazy game I sometimes play for ten seconds for no reason at all. Every once in a while there’s also a dog there, but that’s not why I did it. I did it because I’m crazy and I just like to do fun things.

Get your dog to believe that, and if you can flip in and flip out when nothing around you has happened, and do that any old time … in fact, some people have their partners say a code word, and then they have to manage right then and there and get out of Dodge right now and for no reason. It lets your dog see a little bit of panic in you, it lets your dog see a little bit of “Oh God, oh God, oh God” in you, and you’re just freestyling, you’re ad-libbing, you’re able to take any challenge that comes up.

I have people practicing that in the last two weeks of class, where they have to freestyle it, I call it. You’ve got to go out there and start responding to the tree and the bumper of the car and the fire hydrant, and make me believe that a dog showed up and you got out of Dodge, so that your dog has all of that before he ever needs to have it used.

You’d be surprised, I’m often surprised, at how much dogs are a creature of habit. You’d think something like this, I hear people say, “My dog won’t eat when we’re outside.” They’re a creature of habit. You don’t start training it outside. You train it inside. You train it in careful places, and dogs really do go with the program. They really do. It’s super-helpful, and even if it isn’t perfectly helpful at every turn, 80 percent helpful is better than what you had before you started having a management system, so really anything is better than nothing.

Melissa Breau: Right. You mentioned a couple of examples of some of the games you include in the management class. You mentioned two paws up, I think, and quick sits. Do you mind sharing some of those examples and describing them a little bit?

Amy Cook: I like to separate the skills into the categories of “We are leaving in some fun way. I’m getting you out of this place.” It might be that I’m just pulling up a driveway. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re leaving far, but I’m taking you and we’re going to a new location. That’s one set of skills.

The other set of skills is “Well, I’m stuck here.” Oops, my exit is blocked. Or oops, that person showed up, but I see that they’re actually just leaving and will get out of here faster than I would ever be able to get out of here, so I might as well stay here for a second and let the trigger leave.

Those are super-separate. Getting out of Dodge, leaving quickly, involves connecting a magnet and then deciding which side your dog is going to be on, because perhaps it’s better if they were on your left and now they need to be on your right, so you need to execute that really smoothly without breaking your magnet. Perhaps you need to make a U-turn. Can you do it without breaking your magnet? Most people don’t. They make a U-turn and then connect the magnet again after they’ve made the turn.

So we fix all those mechanics, how always you can leave a scene, all the directions you could go, all the sides your dog could be on, front crosses and all that stuff.

You get one of those a week, and then you get a skill in the “Oops, you’re stuck” series. I should call it that. I should just rename it that in the class: “Oops, you’re stuck.” This is oops you’re stuck, number one.

And the next one is find it. I like those to be on cue, although it’s really OK if the cue is they saw you drop the food, because that’s going to work in a pinch, it’s really fine. But I’d like to be able to say, “Dog, find it,” and then they go down and search immediately, even though you haven’t put food down there yet while you go and get the food because you weren’t ready because it wasn’t in your hand because something surprised you. And so you go, “Oh god, find it!” and they immediately start going, “What? Really?” and they’re looking down and they don’t see anything and in that moment you’re like, “Here it is,” and you spill it all over the ground and now they have something to find. That keeps their nose down and on their food.

And you should get super-involved: “You missed this one, look at this here,” pat, pat, pat, pat, touch, touch, touch, nudge, nudge. “Look at these, you missed these here, oh my goodness.” Keep them super-engaged in that. What it does is first of all control where their head is, which you totally need, and then if it was a dog that was passing by, or even a person, but if it was a dog that was passing by, that dog is not being enticed by whatever your dog was doing, making it then harder for your dog to resist.

Also you look super-busy. If someone was passing by and you’re afraid of what your dog was going to do, or really wanted to protect your dog from that greeting, all of a sudden they’re in a find it, you’re doing training, you’re busy, the dog isn’t soliciting or looking like they’re soliciting attention, which people misinterpret all the time, and is busy. So that’s a great one to train. You might think there’s no training in that one, but there is, because they want to break from that and you need to really get involved and you need to teach them that on verbal.

I like them also to perch on things, so a two up and a four up. Two up is just front paws up, and four up they jumped onto it. I see them really differently from each other. The two up, I want you both facing the same way. It’s like we’re standing at a fence and both peering over it. We’re both facing that way, so if something passed behind us, oh no, we didn’t notice because I’ve got a magnet right in front of your face and “Look at these cookies, honey,” and “Look at that view, sweetheart.” It’s not really a view, just imagine it, and then that person or whatever it is, the trigger, can be leaving while you’re stuck there. This is your stuck series of skills.

The four up I see the other way. I want the dog all four up, but you’re going to face me. Tuck your face in close to my chest so I have your head here and you’re up at my chest height, say a half-wall or a bench or something like that, and I’ve got control of your face. I can now look at the trigger passing behind your butt, but you’re not, because I’m like, “Look what I’ve got, honey, look at this,” and if she breaks the magnet to look behind her, you’re like, reconnect: “Look right here, cookie, cookie, cookie.”

Each scenario might require you to … you want to look at the trigger to make sure that it’s going away, so you put them in a four up, or you might neither of you need to look, because if you’re looking, you’re dog’s going to look, and every dog’s a little different, so you want to know how that goes. I like those kinds of stationary skills. There’s a lot of others, like leave its, which a lot of people have already, but if we practice them in this situation, it helps them resist the urge to want to go look at whatever it is that was scaring them.

And we do a thing called a classical recall, so it’s not actually about the closing of the distance. I’ll let that one remain in the class because it’s actually a really long explanation when we do it. It’s a special kind of recall. And a bunch of other things. I like dogs to wait at doors, just as impulse control, just don’t dart out in front of me for stuff. Stay really connected to me when we’re walking. It’s not really a loose leash walking class, but I think it ends up being that a little bit too because there’s so much magnetization when we’re walking.

The class also gets a little customization. If your dog in particular needs this one kind of skill, there’s room. I built in room in the curriculum for a custom-built trick or a custom-built skill that you can use when you’re stuck, your stuck series. So the class is customizable to your situation.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I will say the find it game has worked, I told you this privately a bunch, but it worked wonders for me with my Shepherd, just having that game as a patterned game where she knows what her job is in such a concrete and understandable way and it’s just to find the cookies. Something can pass us by, it can even pass by in the same direction that she’s looking as she finds her cookies on the ground, and she knows her job, so she can focus.

Amy Cook: I think some of them are self-medicating. It’s like, “I wanted not to have to do that anyway, this yelling at dogs thing. I just did. Look, I can do a thing. I can just concentrate on this thing I’m doing.” But if they can’t really do that, then you’re pointing out every one of them until they’re able to concentrate. What I like about the find it is that it can go on as long as you want, because I have an endless stream of pocket cookies.

Melissa Breau: Yes.

Amy Cook: I’m replete with cookies, so if I want find its to go on for a full minute, it’s like, “Look, you missed this one here, and there’s a whole trail of them here. Look at what we’ve got in the grass. Look at all these cookies.” Dogs love to forage, so it’s playing to their strengths, and you can get their attention, walk run another fifteen steps to get a little further from something that changed again, and do another find it. You can do find its the whole way while you’re walking. It’s very customizable.

Find its are the unsung hero, I think, of management, because people think, Oh, I put it them the floor but the dog didn’t really care, so this doesn’t work for me, and it’s actually not a simple matter of using it when you’ve never practiced. Practice is the game changer.

Melissa Breau: Right. I want to round things out by asking you if there’s anything else that you’ve got in the works that you care to share — new classes, other goodies people should keep an eye out for, what you’re working on.

Amy Cook: Goodies. What I’m working on. Well, let’s see. Coming up, I mentioned I’ve got the webinar. I’m going to talk about thresholds solely in that webinar because there’s more to say about it for sure than I was able to say here. And then starting in June, I’ve got two classes. Starting in June, I’ve got this management class. I alternate it with The Bogeyman and The Play Way class because people need access, I think, to the whole picture of it, so I just try to make sure one runs into the other runs into the other. So next up is management, so if anyone is interested, this is the time to sign up.

Concurrently with that, I’m going to run a sound class, which is for dogs who are sound sensitive and who need some classical conditioning essentially, but I use a lot of play and a lot of celebration and a lot less of the dry “I’ll give you cookies after the sound happened.” True to form, I use a ton of play in it, but it’s not just personal play, so if you have trouble with personal or social play, that’s too weak for this class. We do crazy, raucous, amazing play with all the toys of the world that have a sound. That comes up only once or twice a year at most, so if that’s your issue, you’ll want to pick that up now.

In the future, what I’m toying with now, I want to write, I’m in the process of writing a new class about raising puppies or socializing your new dog, if you just got a new dog, in The Play Way style. All this stuff I’m using The Play Way for is usually responding to problems dogs already have, but it would be really great if we could just prevent them in the first place, at least as best we can, and so I’m writing a class that’s aimed at “You just got your puppy, or you just got your new dog, you don’t know too much about him, and you’re in the honeymoon period. What can you do to start off on the right foot?”

Really, for me, that means rethinking socialization. Socialization, at least to my mind, is not about being social. It’s actually about being civilized and learning to ignore a lot of things, but not through forced connections. So I’m going to write a class for people who want to raise their dog in that dog-empowered way and get started on that right foot. It’s in the works, but I take quite a long time to get all the pieces together, so don’t expect it soon. Maybe fall, maybe into the next year, I’m not sure. But it’s going to be a companion class to The Play Way for people who don’t already have a reactivity problem but don’t want to have one, they can get into that way.

Melissa Breau: That sounds fantastic. I am super-excited about the new class. I’m looking forward to it. And thank you for coming back on. It was fun to chat again, Amy. It always is.

Amy Cook: Always a pleasure. You can have me on weekly. I’m available weekly and also daily, if you need more podcast for this.

Melissa Breau: If only that were actually true.

Amy Cook: If people would interview me every evening, I would be happy.

Melissa Breau: In truth, it’s a little after midnight here, so …

Amy Cook: OK, all right, we’ll be done. But it was really great to be here. I’m really happy you asked me back, and it’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

Melissa Breau: It’s always a fun chat. It absolutely is. And I’m glad you could come on. And I’m glad all of our wonderful listeners could tune in to listen to it.

We will be back again next week, this time with our other Amy from FDSA — Amy Johnson. We’ll be chatting about what it’s like behind the scenes to photograph a major competition event, so we’ll be talking to her about the recent … I think it was agility nationals she just shot, what that’s like, what’s involved in that, and all of that good stuff, so it should be fun.

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. And if you don’t know how to do that, we have directions on our website. If you go to the site, we have buttons right at the top that tell you how you can subscribe if you’re on iPhone and how you can subscribe if you are not on an iPhone, if you are using an Android phone. So I hope you’ll go and do that.

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.

May 4, 2018

Summary:

Over her 40 years of dog training, Michele Pouliot has presented scores of seminars and has been responsible for bringing science-based clicker training to guide dog training around the world. In her "hobby world," she has actively competed in both horse and dog sports since 1970.

In dog sports alone that includes A.K.C. dog obedience, attaining three OTCHes, agility, tracking, and then, starting in 2006, the sport of canine musical freestyle.

A short time later, in 2007, Karen Pryor invited Michele to join her faculty for Clicker Expo conferences, where Michele presents on the application of clicker training techniques for a variety of dog sports, general training, and for the training of guide dogs for the blind. Karen Pryor and Michele collaborated for the development of Michele's online freestyle course, which is available from the Karen Pryor Academy.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 5/11/2018, featuring Amy Cook, talking about thresholds and managing reactivity while you work on changing how your dog actually feels.

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’ll be talking to Michele Pouliot.

Over her 40 years of dog training, Michele has presented scores of seminars and has been responsible for bringing science-based clicker training to guide dog training around the world. In her "hobby world," she has actively competed in both horse and dog sports since 1970.

In dog sports alone that includes A.K.C. dog obedience, attaining three OTCHes, agility, tracking, and then, starting in 2006, the sport of canine musical freestyle.

A short time later, in 2007, Karen Pryor invited Michele to join her faculty for Clicker Expo conferences, where Michele presents on the application of clicker training techniques for a variety of dog sports, general training, and for the training of guide dogs for the blind. Karen Pryor and Michele collaborated for the development of Michele's online freestyle course, which is available from the Karen Pryor Academy.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Michele! Welcome to the podcast!

Michele Pouliot: Hi Melissa, and thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I want to thank Fenzi Dog Sports for having me here.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. So thrilled to talk to you. To get us started out, do you want to just share a little bit about your own dogs and what you’re working on?

Michele Pouliot: My current dogs are two. One is my English Springer Spaniel Déjà Vu, who is 8-and-a-half years old now, and I have a 4-and-a-half-year-old Australian Shepherd, Saki. They are both continually working on coming up with new ideas for tricks. It’s what canine freestyle pushes you to do is always trying to come up with new moves and new behaviors to make your next routine interesting. So other than that, they’re having fun just being dogs, running around the property.

Melissa Breau: I know that you got started training horses. Do you mind sharing a little bit about how you originally got into training, and what led you then from horses to dogs? Just a little bit on your background?

Michele Pouliot: Sure. We’re going to go way back now. Straight out of high school, I really wanted to have a career in horses. I’m an Air Force brat, so my father, our family, moved all over the world as I was growing up, and in high school we landed on an Air Force base in Louisiana. My entire life I’d wanted a dog, couldn’t have a dog, my mother was not a dog person and used the excuse of us moving so much as to why we couldn’t have one.

And I also wanted a horse. My father had always promised me that if we ever got to an Air Force base that had a stable, that I could have a horse. Well, we did, when we were stationed in the Philippines when I was in junior high school. I just fell in love with working with my horse, and I thought, This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

My father was very supportive when we came back to the States and ended up in Louisiana. In high school I got another horse, and he went ahead and allowed me to skip college and use the money to go to the Pacific Coast Equestrian Research Farm, which was run by Linda Tellington and her husband at that time, Wentworth Tellington, very well-known equestrian professionals. My whole goal was to be a professional horse trainer and instructor.

After spending a year there with Linda and Went, I got my first job, which was running a new equestrian program in Fargo, North Dakota. What happened there was I was giving riding lessons to a woman who was a dog trainer. I got my first dog as soon as I got there, so I had a yellow Labrador. As soon as I got away from home on my own, I got my first dog. So I had this dog, loved it, didn’t know what I was doing.

But one of the gals I taught riding to was a dog trainer locally, and I look back on that experience realizing how lucky I was that the person I ran into about training dogs was such a good dog trainer. She was a traditional trainer, of course, back in those times, but she was a really good traditional trainer. So she taught me, in exchange for riding lessons, all about how to work with this young Labrador puppy that I had and make it a nice, mannerly pet.

I was intrigued with how easy it was to train the dog versus the horses, so it got me interested more in training the dog versus just training it for being a nice pet. That is how I slowly started shifting my focus for my profession towards dogs, yet I always kept horses, so I haven’t ever been without a horse since then. I just slowly, when I left North Dakota after my first winter — that was a sign that I never wanted to stay in North Dakota for another winter — but when I came back to the West Coast, I just decided, You know what, I really like this dog thing, so let me start that. And that’s how I ended up going into dogs.

Melissa Breau: That’s really quite interesting, and I know you started to touch on a little bit there the similarities and differences in training the species, that dogs were a little easier. Do you mind sharing a little more about what you learned, compare and contrast a little bit for us?

Michele Pouliot: Sure. Of course, when you’re thinking that we’re talking back in 1970 -’71, there was no positive training that was known of, so everything was traditional. We were training horses in traditional techniques, training dogs in traditional techniques, and when you’re training traditionally, the gap between training a dog and a horse was huge, because what you had with this dog was a species that really wants to please in general. So not only are they maybe more domesticated than a horse, but they surely love to work with people. That was what stuck out so much to me. Whereas horses, being traditionally trained, it isn’t like they’re all excited to go out and work with you. It was good traditional training, they weren’t afraid, but they certainly weren’t the way horses can be nowadays when they are positively trained.

So I think my first realization in that frame of reference, when you think of the times of training at that point in time, was just how much easier the dog was to train because they were so much more like, “What can I do for you?” The horse took so much longer to train because you didn’t seem to have that automatic impulse from a horse you’re working with to say, “What can I do to please you?” That was the big difference then.

There’s still a big difference, so even though my horses are clicker trained, as my dogs are, you’re dealing with a big animal, so the difference in your safety is a big one. Even though we’re not talking about an aggressive horse, it’s still a big animal. If you think about dogs that will mug people and get in their bait pouches and jump up and want rewards, well, imagine a 1200-pound horse doing that to you.

You have to be much more thoughtful about every step of the training process with a horse to make sure that you’re not inadvertently creating an excitement or an energy in your positive training that can actually be dangerous for a human on the ground. Whereas with dogs, we don’t really think about it that much as far as something that’s going to be dangerous. If I teach a dog to leg kick and he happens to clock my leg, yeah, that’s not great, but it’s not life-threatening.

Melissa Breau: Right. You talked a little bit about the fact that back then everything was traditional training, that approach. What led you to become a positive trainer and to clicker training?

Michele Pouliot: When I got into dogs, first I kind of got my foot in the door with that first dog I had. Once I had him trained, I heard something about AKC and obedience, and I entered him in local obedience trials, and for some reason I was winning. People would meet me outside of the ring and say, “Ooh, do you give lessons?” and I felt weird because I didn’t think I knew anything yet. But I started giving lessons and I was really enjoying that aspect.

I ended up working at a kennel, figuring, You know, Michele, you’ve really got to learn more about dogs. So I took this entry-level position at a kennel in Long Beach, California. I was cleaning kennels and all that, but in the afternoon I would be giving some training lessons to the public, which was a great experience for me. But I wasn’t there very long before I read an article about guide dogs and training dogs for blind people. Remember, there’s no Internet back then. This is a magazine, and in the magazine was this article, and in the end were addresses of three guide dog schools in the country. The article was fascinating to me, and all I could think of is, Oh my god, what an amazing combination: the love of training dogs, and I’m also helping people. This is what I want to do. It just hit me like a thunderbolt that I had to do this work.

We’re in 1973 now, and I write all three schools. One of the schools never responded. Another one, I still have the letter framed on my wall today. The letter reads, “I’m sorry, but women are not emotionally or physically capable of training guide dogs.”

Melissa Breau: Oh dear!

Michele Pouliot: Understand that in 1973, that was not an affrontive letter. My reaction, as this naïve young woman, was, Oh, I didn’t know that, in my head. Whereas ten years later, my hackles would have gone up reading something like that.

Anyway, I got a letter from Guide Dogs for the Blind that invited me to fill out an application. I filled out the application, sent it in, and they had me come for an interview. Everything was great, I got the job, I was so excited.

I found out later, when I arrived, I was the only woman besides one other woman who had just started working six months prior. It was not an easy place for a woman to step into, because there was a belief system that women can’t do this. It’s way too rigorous physically, and emotionally it’s very difficult. So this woman and myself were like the pioneers of trying to get our feet in the door for proving ourselves that we could do it.

When I first got my job at Guide Dogs, which was really my first serious, in my head, dog training assignment, I also was always focused on trying to do so good that I was paving the way for other women to come and do this work. That was the first goal.

A part of that —which you’re probably wondering, Is she ever going to get to answer my question? — a part of that is that I knew that I could do better what they were doing. I was so surprised when I showed up and realized that I was a darn good dog trainer when I was watching some of the techniques that I saw being used. What I saw was some very harsh traditional training. Very harsh. And I just knew I could do better than that.

So, from the day I arrived, I started putting this subtle pressure from demonstrating that you don’t really have to do it that way. My focus was always to be the best trainer I could be, the kindest, the gentlest, even though I was totally understanding of traditional training and that’s what you do, there was no other option.

But because that was my background in the 1970s, when I started hearing in the 1990s about this new, modern training, I was fascinated. Through those twenty years, before I heard about positive training, I had helped the program get better, better, better, and I mean in the early 1990s, our school was doing really good traditional training. I was so happy that the program had come so far that no dogs were being treated really unfairly. Even though it was traditional, it was good traditional training.

I always have this flavor in my heart of, How can I be kind and gentle and still get the job done? Even when you’re a good traditional trainer, you might be focusing on that, but you also inherited the belief that using a lot of punishment to teach is OK. It’s a belief system that you are born into. So as I started opening my mind to looking at this new positive training thing I was seeing, I was so excited that, oh my gosh, there’s other possibilities, and that’s really what led me to start looking at videos and going to seminars and going to conferences and trying to figure out how this fits into my world, especially how does it fit into guide dog work.

Melissa Breau: So, I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of what you did with the guide dog program, if you don’t mind. I know that you spent a large chunk of your career focused there. How did that evolve? Can you share a little more?

Michele Pouliot: Sure. I retired two years ago with forty-two years, so I’ve been doing it a long time. When I chose to introduce positive reinforcement training to my school, my guide dog school, my intent at that time was just, can we even make this better, kinder, gentler, and overall more positive for everybody, including the trainer. Because it was a very physical type of training when you’re doing traditional training, too, so we had injuries. We had people coming in and being injured.

By the way, by this time the staff was majority of women, so over the twenty years a lot changed. The men were in the minority, and I’m not really saying I even know why that is, because it’s kind of true in the guide dog industry and in the cane mobility industry — meaning instructors who teach blind people how to travel with canes — it’s interesting how through the last several decades the majority are women. I think it has to do with being nurturers and wanting to help is why we have more people in there now that are women versus men.

Anyway, back to guide dogs. When I first brought the idea to my supervisor, my supervisor had a lot of faith in me. I had already done a lot for the program and had everyone training so much better than they used to train, so I had a good relationship with my supervisor, but he looked at me like I was crazy.

Now, you have to understand that in the guide dog world, guide dogs have been trained since World War I. That’s when it started. The techniques used for guide dog training were from World War I, meaning war dogs. How do you train a dog to be a war dog? And you know those dogs were hardy, hardy, tough, courageous dogs. So all the guide dog work that started was with very heavy-duty traditional training, and the thought process was you have to be tough to make the dog reliable. No matter how weird that sounds today in the positive training world, it’s a reality for when it started. It was such a unique idea that somebody had in World War I to do this, and they were doing it successfully.

So imagine if you say, “Can we train a guide dog to help a blind person get around safely and keep them from being injured?” and it worked, what does that do for your ego? It pushes it up there pretty big. So when you join a guide dog school and you are in awe of what they do, I was in awe of what they did. It’s like, oh my god, this is like miracles. Those dogs are saving people’s lives.

So when somebody tells you that you can’t use food when you train guide dogs, and the reason is the handler’s blind and there’s food all over the environment, everywhere you go, there’s food, because of that, you believe it. I believed it. I was totally brainwashed. And I brainwashed so many of my blind clients over the years, like we all did, because we didn’t want them hand-feeding their dogs. It was about food only comes in their food pan two times a day when they get fed.

So the first thing that we had to tackle, we were the first school in the world that tackled this whole belief system, which was, believe me, very deeply entrenched worldwide that you can’t use food in training guide dogs. There are still some outliers now that are holding to that, and their programs probably won’t change until there’s a few individuals that retire or leave the program, just because they’re so entrenched in the belief system, and I understand that because I was there too. Thank God I had an open enough mind to say, “Maybe there’s a way.”

So the first task at hand was to show that we could teach the dogs, with food, how to not take food in the environment, and how to avoid offered food in the environment. If you picture that you’ve got this handsome, cute little dog out in harness and you’re blind, how many people do you think a day come up and say, “Oh, he’s so pretty. Can I give him this cookie? I have a little piece of meat.” You have all sorts of people doing that and not even asking. Guide dogs actually are offered food a lot. And imagine how many restaurants that you would go sit in, and your dog goes under the table, and guess what they find under the table that somebody previously dropped on the floor. There’s food all over the place.

So we thought — ha ha — we were doing this great job of teaching food avoidance through correction. The dog, of course, if they went for food, would be corrected. The comical part about that is although the response we trained looked really good at the end of guide dog training, because that means the professional was handling the dog, and the professional has sight, so the professional can do what? Time a correction. They can see what the dog’s about to do.

Well, hand the dog over to a blind client, and guess how long it takes a guide dog who’s been trained that way to figure out that the blind person isn’t responding at all when they head toward some food. We had ourselves brainwashed that we were doing a good job.

The really cool thing about coming up with “How do we teach them with food to leave food?” was incredibly rewarding for us to go, “Oh my gosh, we just blew that belief system out of water.” The dogs are so much better now than they ever were with environmental food. And it’s because they’re choosing. It’s their choice. They’re not being threatened. They know that, If I leave this food alone and if I refuse this food from this person offering it, I know at some point in the near future I’m going to get a reward too.

That was the huge hurdle to get over because of how entrenched that belief system is in the world. From that point on it was saying, OK, let’s look at this clicker training thing, and look at all the skills we teach, and what can we teach with clicker training?

I’m really glad my school took it really slow. At the time I felt like I was dragging them forward — “Please, let’s do more, let’s do more” — but the reality is traditional trainers have to learn these skills, it’s totally new skills. So for us to just overnight decide we were going to change would not have been a good idea. We took it really slow.

I look back at 2006, when all of our instructors were using clicker training, and it’s comical to me to think that we thought we were so advanced, because it’s come so far. Things that we transfer over to clicker training, it was clicker training, but now it’s been improved to where it’s really good clicker training.

So it was a very long haul. The good news was that when we made this change, we had a couple schools that had heard through the grapevine that we were doing this who asked if we could help them out. Management made a decision then that really changed the course of the entire industry, because the industry could be very protective over what they did and their information, not necessarily willing to share “secrets.” Our management at that time decided that we’re going to share this. We’re not going to keep it quiet. And so at that time, around 2007, they started sending me out on the road to any school that wanted help. That is what kind of started the road to changing the industry, because the word started spreading.

And then we started presenting at the International Guide Dog Conference, which happens every two years. That was like an international community, and presenting and showing video of all that we’re doing, showing them data on success rates that skyrocketed higher than ever historically from the day we started clicker training. There was so much information that our school made available to the guide dog industry besides us actually personally helping. I mean, it’s just wonderful.

Let me give you an idea. There’s about a hundred-plus guide dog schools in the world that belong to this International Guide Dog Federation. In 2006, there were three guide dog schools out of that group that were using positive reinforcement. Now it’s over sixty-five. That’s a big deal in ten years.

It’s a really cool thing to see it happening, and it’s a really cool thing that I get to still do. I’m a consultant. I just got back from South Africa in February, helping a South African school, and it’s just wonderful to see the excitement, because most of the staff are younger people now. There are always still some staff that are more senior, and traditional trainers who are learning new skills, but everyone has gotten to the point where they realize this is really a better way to go. So it’s rare for me to run into people now that haven’t realized, because we proved it. Basically our school proved it.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. That’s got to be such a good feeling to know that you’ve had such a huge impact on that field, and to really be able to look at the numbers and see how much change you’ve really created.

Michele Pouliot: It is. It’s an extremely satisfying time in my life to go ahead and retire.

Melissa Breau:  Fair enough.

Michele Pouliot: It was about five or six years ago now I was considering retiring, and I just had a funny feeling that I needed to give it a few more years to make sure that my program that I was leaving was really set to still move forward and not slide back if they didn’t have me bugging the heck out of them all the time, for instance.

Melissa Breau: Right. It’s fantastic you’ve created this change, but I know there are still some fields that are, for lack of a better word, struggling to make the switch, or fields where traditional methods are still the norm. Do you have any advice for people who are maybe positive trainers in those situations, or positive trainers who are surrounded by others who aren’t, when they’re trying to maybe create change or inspire change in others?

Michele Pouliot:  Over the past ten years — I guess more than that now, actually — I feel like I’ve done this so many times with so many different people and organizations, at least in the guide dog and service dog industry, I’ve been involved with so many now that I’ve learned the hard way what not to do.

Even when somebody acts like they’re open-minded and ready to listen, you have to be very careful that you respect them and avoid criticizing then, because the tendency in positive reinforcement trainers is to look down on traditional trainers as if they’re being mean or even abusive or harsh or whatever. So when they’re talking at a traditional trainer, they have that attitude of, “You need to change because da-da-da-da-da.”

Well, the reality is traditional trainers love their dogs, too, and if you think they’re doing it because they want to be meaner than they need to, that’s not so. They inherited that. That’s what they learned. I never thought I was being mean or harsh or too rough. I was a good traditional trainer and I used techniques that worked. My dogs were happy, they worked happy, they weren’t cowering. But when I look back now, of course I realize, wow, there’s so much of a better way to do this, and the animal is so much more joyous in its work.

But people approach, if you want to call it the other side of the fence, they approach that with criticism, even if it’s not direct criticism. You need to give a person respect for what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished, and not in any way punish them.

The comical part, to me, is if you’re truly a positive reinforcement trainer, then why are you punishing these people? Are you going to punish them long enough that you think they’re going to change? You should know that punishment isn’t very effective. It only works with threat, so are you going to threaten them? No. The way you get them to change is reinforce them for their efforts, support them when they’re having trouble, and sometimes that means you have to ignore something that’s still happening and just go, “That will come in time. Leave it alone.” Right now, give them something you can actually help them with, because that reinforces them.

When you solve a problem for someone or some organization with positive reinforcement and it’s a problem they continue to have, you are now God. Now it’s like, “Wow, we were never able to solve that with traditional training, and they just solved it.” That’s all about reinforcement, so it’s no different than applying positive reinforcement to animal training. It’s how do I get this animal, which happens to be human, I have to want and get them inspired and motivated, don’t I? I have to have something they want. So I have to give them the feeling of reinforcement, and usually that comes in the shape of showing them how it works. Don’t just tell them. Show them.

There are a lot of people in the horse barns, for instance, that are certainly surrounded by traditional horse trainers, and they’re the one person in their barn that wants to do clicker training with their horse, so they day in and day out feel like they are one against a hundred. The best thing they can do is just smile and say, “Thank you. That’s really cool that you’re doing that, but I want to do it this way. I’m really enjoying this. This is really fun.” And then, on the side, you’re showing them, from them noticing, that it really works.

There’s no sense in having a war, because the war never gets you anywhere. I’ve been at those wars. I’ve been the positive reinforcement and the traditional trainer wars. It doesn’t work. It just makes the traditional trainers dig their trenches deeper because you’re making them feel they have to defend themselves. The last thing you want to do is make a traditional trainer feel like they have to defend themselves. You have to get them curious so that they’re really interested in how that works.

The good news is in the guide dog world it’s been proven now. We were on new ground when we did it, and when we did it, we didn’t have anything telling us it’s going to work, so we were just hoping we’d get the same quality of response at the end of training, and what wowed us was how much better all the responses were. We were just hoping that going to this new positive thing would be kinder-gentler and we’d still get what we had. We never, never imagined we would get better and better responses than historically the school had ever had.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. I know there are a lot of people out there who are in that exact position, and they’re surrounded by so many trainers who are doing things other ways. They feel like they’re fighting that battle, so I think that’s really useful for folks to hear. What about for those folks that are out there, maybe they’re on the edge, or maybe they’re in the process of crossing over, I think anyone who has done that knows it’s not easy. Do you have any advice for those folks?

Michele Pouliot: The best advice I can give for someone who wants to cross over, they’re in the process, is realize that learning never goes away.

I think in the traditional training world you get to a point — and I say this not just from my experience, but being around so many traditional trainers for so many years in the ’70s and ’80s — you get to a point where you think you’ve learned everything. It’s a little phenomenon. It’s like, I’m there, I’ve got it, I’ve done my thing, and now I just keep practicing it.

As a positive reinforcement trainer I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about training. It was like, wow, I might be good at actually doing some certain things with animals, but I had never even thought about how the science would affect everything that I’m doing. So realizing that it doesn’t end.

When I first joined the faculty of Clicker Expo, Karen Pryor’s faculty, I was totally intimidated by being on the faculty. It’s like, Oh my god, all these people, they are so much better than me. And then I started getting more comfortable after a few years, but every time I went, I realized I still feel like a novice. Every single time I go to an Expo, I’m learning something else from a faculty member, or two or three of them, that I went, wow, I never even looked at it that way. That has not ended, so I realized it’s an open book. It’s an open end that never stops.

And if you do stop and you say, “I’ve learned enough, this is all I need to know,” that’s sad to me because there’s so much more available to you, even within your own little world and how you’re using it, because it’s constantly got the ability to give you more information and make you even better and better at training both the animal and the student, the person.

Melissa Breau: Even if you’ve learned, say, everything that was out up to a year ago, when you really talk to some of the leading trainers out there, there are always new ideas that they’re trying and they’re testing and they’re playing with, and then going out there and sharing.

Michele Pouliot: Exactly, exactly. Even through things like this, a podcast. You’re listening to a podcast and you go, “Oh, well, that’s interesting. I never quite heard that before.” Or you hear it said a different way, and even if all that gives you is ooh, when I teach that next time, I have another way to say that that might make more sense to that individual person who I’m having trouble getting that concept across to.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I know that that, for me, was a big, big thing when I was teaching pet dog people was that I’d often sit in the class, or listen to somebody talk, and you just come away with, “Oh, well, that was a really great analogy. That was a really good way of phrasing that,” that you can reuse or turn around.

Michele Pouliot: For sure, for sure. And to me, I really always look at myself as when I’m working with somebody, an individual and their animal, I’m never really teaching the animal. I’m teaching them. So it’s my job to be able to be a hugely successful communicator and adjust on the fly when it’s not working, because obviously the way I’m explaining it is not working, so I’ve got to find another way.

Melissa Breau: I know that I mentioned in the intro you’ve done competitive obedience and agility, and that today you mostly compete in musical freestyle. For those who maybe aren’t super-familiar with the sport, can you share a little bit about what it is and how it’s judged?

Michele Pouliot: Most everybody has at some point in the Winter Olympics watched the ice-skating. If you look at that event, the Olympic ice skating, and the short program, long program — years ago they also had the figures that they don’t do anymore because it wasn’t very interesting to watch — but it’s very similar in that you have a piece of music, and what you’re doing is you and your dog are performing certain behaviors and you’re interpreting the music. So freestyle, in its own right, is meaning anything you want to do. Anything goes, so it gives you the open ability to choose a lot of interesting things to do.

Most organizations that you can compete under, and there’s about four or five organizations worldwide, do have some limit in freestyle for safety. In other words, the one limit can be as long as it looks safe for human and dog. Other than that, there really isn’t a limit, other than don’t do something in really bad taste, for instance.

But if you look at the Olympic ice-skating, in that they are judged both technical and artistic, it’s the same thing. In most organizations you have two basic element types you’re being judged on, which is the technical aspect of the performance, including the precision, including how things flowed, and then you have the artistic, which is the creative part, how unique was this, how emotional was it, was it funny, was it dramatic, was it just really amazingly entertaining. If you look at it with that ice skating analogy, I think you’ll realize, yeah, that’s an easy to understand sport.

It is still a bit of a subjective sport, meaning you could have the exact same performance in front of two different judges and they may judge it a little differently. But that’s not really any different than if you get in a high level of competitive obedience. You’re looking at who’s going to win the classes a half-point ahead of the other, and that could be a subjective judgment between judges, so one judge saw it as a perfect sit and one judge saw it as a half-point-off sit.

So no matter what, the subjectivity comes into most sports, agility being one that probably not. The dog either does the … but you still have some judgments about did he make the contact point, did he miss it, so it is a subjective sport.

The cool thing about the sport is everyone going in the ring is doing something different, so you’re not watching the same routine, like an obedience routine or the agility course. You’re not seeing the same thing again and again. Every single person that goes in the ring is doing something different, even if you — by horrors — happen to have the same music as somebody else, which has happened to me. It happened to me. But they’re still totally different routines because you have a different person and a different dog interpreting it. So it’s very cool that it’s your own creation.

I have tons of video of my dogs doing competitive obedience at way back Games Nationals, really cool stuff, and agility runs. Do I ever pull that footage out and watch it? Not really. But do I pull out my old freestyle routines and watch those? I do. It’s more like you created art yourself, you and your dog together created this thing, and nobody else has done that thing.

It’s something that you did, and when you are in freestyle long enough that you’re losing dogs, obviously they die, I mean, that was the first time that hit me was when I was watching my Springer Spaniel Cabo’s performance to Phantom of the Opera at a seminar. Somebody wanted to see it, and I showed it for the first time after he had passed, and I mean I got really emotional because it wasn’t just seeing him on the screen as much as all that we put into that routine to make it an entertaining routine.

The cool thing to me about freestyle, which is why I got so excited about it when I discovered it, is everything keeps changing. It isn’t that you get to this high level and then you’re doing the same skills and maintaining those same skills. You’re always trying to do something new, inventive, because of the piece of music you’ve picked. It brings out the creativity and it really pushes you as a dog trainer.

So it’s been wonderful for me because it keeps pushing me to what is the next thing I’m going to clicker train — not necessarily that I’m going to use it in the next routine, but maybe the routine after that. So it really does help me, personally, get inspired and motivated to train, because my goal is to come up with some sort of performance that is entertaining to the audience. I just love that.

Melissa Breau: You obviously bring it to the sport. You’re very passionate about it. Is there anything, in your opinion, in particular that has led to your success?

Michele Pouliot: I think for anyone’s success, you have to say you’re obviously doing good training. Again, it’s motivating to me to keep pushing myself to become a better and better trainer for that reason, because it’s going to come out in the performance. Creativity is something that I think I probably was born with, because I always had a wild imagination, and my brother is a very creative person too. I actually don’t know how to teach people creativity, but you can get a lot of great ideas from just watching Broadway plays, movies, shows, you can get some great ideas for what might make a very cool routine.

I would have to say that I entered this sport at a point in my career when I’d only been clicker training on my own with my own animals for maybe four or five years when I got into freestyle. But I had already learned the power of it for teaching really great behaviors, entertaining-type behaviors, so that really inspired me to, like, what else can I do?

When you envision something in a routine that might seem a little up there — meaning, well, maybe I shouldn’t really expect that I can make it look that great by teaching a dog to do something like that — and then you actually do it, that’s really rewarding for yourself as a trainer, but rewarding in that you were able to show the audience something.

It also is a really good ambassador for clicker training, because when you see a good freestyle performance, the one thing you know is there are behaviors you just watch that you know you couldn’t train any other way except with clicker training because it wouldn’t work. There’s no way you could teach that traditional. It just wouldn’t happen.

Melissa Breau: I know we’re getting close to the end here, and there are three questions I always ask at the end of my first interview with someone. The first one is what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of — and I feel like you probably have some good ones.

Michele Pouliot: I kind of feel like I have two different worlds that I’ve been in. One is a very serious type of work with the guide dog world and the other is my hobby in the sports. I have to say that being able to look back on my career with the guide dog industry, knowing that I’ve made a big change, now I am one of the catalysts that’s really helped to move that whole industry forward, certainly is something I’m extremely proud of and makes me feel really content that I left that career, officially left the career, when everything was really moving along. That would be the guide dog side.

The dog-related side would probably be just individual great performances I’ve had with my wonderful canine partners. When you said it, I probably had to think of my first Aussie in freestyle, Listo, who passed in 2014. But we’ve had some incredible performances. I don’t know if I can pick one out. But one thing that he did do that no other dog has done is he — I know I should say “he and I together,” but I think of him as such an amazing dog performer. He was like an actor. He was so good at this that I felt like he was carrying me through some of the performances. He not only scored perfect scores from judges once, he did it twenty-four times. It is incredible, and a few of those were at international competitions where there was a judging panel of three judges, and all three judges gave him perfect scores. And I realize gave us perfect scores. But I would have to say that probably is one of the highlights of my hobby career.

Just a couple of weekends ago, my young Aussie, we debuted a brand-new routine, and it’s a very cool routine. I’m very, very proud of this routine. In fact, we dedicated it to Listo. It’s a very cool routine, and he did it so well for his first time. I was totally blown away with how well he did, and he got a perfect score.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Michele Pouliot: For my young boy to get a perfect score was a really cool thing. So there I gave you the serious side of dog training and the fun side.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on the new perfect score. That’s awesome.

Michele Pouliot: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: The second question on my list is about training advice, and I wanted to ask what the best piece of training advice you’ve ever heard is.

Michele Pouliot: Oh, so many to choose from. I am going to reach down deep to the first one I ever remember hearing that changed my life, and that was Linda Tellington. In 1970, I was having trouble working with a horse. She stopped me, and she walked over and very quietly said, “Listen to him.” And ever since then, I listen so hard to my learners, and that includes horses, dogs, people that I’m teaching. It’s listening, paying attention to what’s happening, because they’re giving you so much information that so many people ignore.

So I think that would be the first one, because it has affected me, it’s so much a part of who I am when I train is really noticing what’s happening quickly, not waiting until we get five minutes into it to go, “Oh, I guess that’s not working.” Then the other one would be Dr. Phil’s mantra, “How’s that working for you?”

Melissa Breau: I like that.

Michele Pouliot: I say that at seminars all the time. I say it to myself. It’s like somebody comes up with all these questions, “Why is he doing that? Well, I’ve been doing it this way.” And I go, “Well, how’s that working for you?” It’s a great mantra, so I find myself going back to that. It actually is usually quite appropriate for most situations to ask yourself that, or to ask someone else, so I’ll just stick with those two for now.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and it relates back to the first one. If you’re not listening and you ask yourself, “How’s that working for you?” it’s going to remind you... My last question here: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Michele Pouliot: That would probably be Ken Ramirez and Kathy Sdao, both. They have been my lights in the distance when I started this guide dog movement to change to positive reinforcement training. Both of them … without them, I don’t know if I could have made it happen, because they again were so supportive of what we were doing, and yet knowing a lot of what we were doing they did not like at that time. They were able to put blinders on and ignore some of what they were looking at, and focus on the stuff we were getting better at, knowing that when more time went, we’d be ready for the next step to improve.

And then, on a personal note, when I joined the faculty, just to have them be so wonderfully friendly and open and warm, and so interested in the way I think about training and what I do. They’ve just always been really dear to me.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for coming on, Michele! This has been great.

Michele Pouliot: You’re welcome, and I thank you for having me. I enjoyed every bit of it.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Amy Cook to talk about the true meaning of a threshold and how to manage your activity while you work on changing your dog’s feelings about the thing.

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.

Apr 27, 2018

Summary:

Kathy Sdao is an applied animal behaviorist. She has spent 30 years as a full-time animal trainer, first with marine mammals and now with dogs and their people.

She currently owns Bright Spot Dog Training where she consults with families about their challenging dogs, teaches private lessons to dogs and their owners, and coaches novices and professionals to cross over to positive-reinforcement training.

She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere worth reading — at least as far as dog info is concerned — consulted with organizations including Guide Dogs for the Blind, appeared on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is one of the original faculty members for Karen Pryor’s long-running ClickerExpos. She is also the author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 5/4/2018, featuring Michele Pouliot, talking about being a change-maker in the dog world.

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’ll be talking to Kathy Sdao -- Kathy is an applied animal behaviorist. She has spent 30 years as a full-time animal trainer, first with marine mammals and now with dogs and their people.

She currently owns Bright Spot Dog Training where she consults with families about their challenging dogs, teaches private lessons to dogs and their owners, and coaches novices and professionals to cross over to positive-reinforcement training.

She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere worth reading — at least as far as dog info is concerned — consulted with organizations including Guide Dogs for the Blind, appeared on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is one of the original faculty members for Karen Pryor’s long-running ClickerExpos. She is also the author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Kathy! Welcome to the podcast.

Kathy Sdao: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for the invitation. This is going to be fun.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you mind just sharing a little bit about your own dogs and anything you’re working on with them?

Kathy Sdao: What an embarrassing way to start! I currently have just one dog of my own. His name is Smudge. He’s a … who knows what he is. He’s a mixed breed. Let’s call him a Catahoula mixed breed. He’s about 3 years old, and as I’m reminded after my walk in the woods with him this morning that the combination of young man in a hoodie on a skateboard with an off-leash dog running beside this young man — too much for Smudge to deal with on our walk in the woods, so rather than dog sports, I’m still training this young dog that the world is full of interesting adventures and you really don’t have to bark at them when they startle you. So we’re still doing real-world training just getting him out with me every day in my environment here in Tacoma, Washington, which is beautiful. We spend a lot of time outside. I also am very good friends with the magnificent Michele Pouliot, and she has offered to choreograph a freestyle routine for Smudge and me, and I feel like that would be crazy for me not to take her up on that. So if I ever dip my toe into the water of dog sports, it’s likely to be freestyle, because I have an awesome friend offering to help me.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic, and hey, I can’t blame him. I think that if a guy showed up suddenly and surprised me wearing a hoodie and a skateboard with a dog running next to him, I might be a little startled too.

Kathy Sdao: I was having such a peaceful walk, and then we turned a corner and I’m like, Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work. Fortunately, that kid was really nice about it. We all kind of laughed, so it ended up well, but anyway, training goes on, right?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. How did you originally get into training? Can you share a little bit on your background?

Kathy Sdao: When I do Career Days at schools. I think kids always think it was planned, like “You had a plan.” I didn’t have a plan. I was a premed student in college and took an elective, animal behavior, a psych course, which I thought, That’ll be easy. The professor, Dr. Pat Ebert, had a need of someone to help her with some research she was doing and just happened to be at the aquarium where I lived in Niagara Falls, New York. She needed a research assistant, and I went to the aquarium and did some observation work there and fell into the rabbit hole and quit premed and changed my major to psychology.

My beloved dad will turn 97 years old next month, and he still has not gotten over the shock that his daughter left premed to do this crazy career he has never once understood. So it was serendipity that got me to that aquarium where I ended up training my first animal, a harbor seal.

My professor, Dr. Ebert, passed away very suddenly and at a very young age, 32, from liver cancer, and I don’t know, I always felt like there’s some way to pass the gauntlet on to me to study the science of animal learning and be brave about it. I applied to graduate school after I got my bachelor’s degree in fields that could study animal behavior, and all the schools I was going to study either rats or pigeons, except the University of Hawaii, where I would be studying dolphins.

I got accepted to the University of Hawaii to study dolphins, got accepted to Rutgers to study rats, it wasn’t much of a choice: Newark to study rats or Honolulu to study dolphins. That was the beginning. The second animal I learned to train was a dolphin at the University of Hawaii, so that started my career in a really different kind of way.

Melissa Breau: I certainly understand that decision. I think most people would choose dolphins over rats or pigeons.

Kathy Sdao: You know, it’s funny, Melissa. Rutgers gave me a big scholarship and I turned it down and they really were mortified. They couldn’t believe I was leaving money on the table there. In retrospect, I think I made a good choice.

Melissa Breau: It certainly served you well. From dolphins to dogs, it’s a pretty big bridge there. What led you to go from marine animals and zoo animals — because you did some of that, too, if you want to talk about that — to dogs?

Kathy Sdao: When I was fortunate enough to start my career working with marine mammals, I actually worked in three different, amazing settings. For several years I worked at the University of Hawaii, when I was a graduate student, on the research done there that included, among other cool things, teaching sign language to bottlenose dolphins back in the 1980s. That was just an amazing way to start a training career.

I got my masters degree and then was hired as one of the first women to work for the United States Navy’s Department of Defense that was training dolphins at the time to do mine detection and detonation work, also a job in Hawaii, working to prepare those dolphins to be turned over to sailors to actually be in the military. Another amazing job and worked there for several years, and then decided that it was time, even though I loved Hawaii, to go to a place that was more reasonable to live, just cost of living-wise. Honolulu’s gorgeous but expensive.

There were two jobs on the mainland in the United States that year that I decided I was going to transition back to the mainland. One was at Disneyland in Orlando and one was at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. I never lived either place, I didn’t know anybody in either place, but decided that I much more preferred the Pacific Northwest and so took a job as a staff biologist at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and got to work with beluga whales and porpoises and sea lions and fur seals and walruses and polar bears and sea otters and an amazing collection of marine mammals.

Having worked at the zoo for five years, though, realized it was a difficult job. It was tough physically, it can be tough emotionally — I know people are listening; if they’ve done some zoo work, it’s challenging — and so made the decision that it was time to leave the zoo. But I didn’t want to leave Tacoma, Washington. I still live here. I love it. So training dogs was my creative solution to earn a living and not have to move, and I can’t even recall to you, Melissa, how humbling that switch was, because I was cocky enough to go, “Hey, I’ve trained really cool, big, exotic animals. Dogs are going to be a piece of cake.”

And oh, they weren’t. I really didn’t know what I was doing at all, and quickly found out that I needed a lot more dog savvy if I was going to do a good job, and opened up the first dog daycare in Tacoma, Washington, back in the mid-1990s. Nobody had ever heard of a dog day care here. I had to get special zoning from the city. They thought we were nuts. But I opened that dog daycare to be able to get my eyeballs on dog behavior more and to be immersed in it. I know you’ve got listeners that work in dog daycares, own dog daycares, it’s a good immersion process for the human to learn about dog behavior.

So that was my entry into dog work, and started teaching classes at night in clicker training, and that was really new at the time, a new way to set up dog training classes back in the late 1990s, so haven’t looked back since. And though I loved my time with marine mammals and other exotic species, I really don’t miss it. I’m just as intrigued working with dogs and their people as I ever was with the exotics.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that there was a little bit of a transition there. Can you share some of the similarities and differences and what they were as you went from training dolphins and zoo animals to dogs?

Kathy Sdao: I really look right now, when I’m looking for teachers for myself … it’s interesting, Melissa. One of the reasons I asked you if you would be so kind as to delay our appointment for this recording was so that I could spend a couple of hours this morning listening yet again to my colleague and friend Dr. Susan Friedman. She was doing a webinar this morning on a topic I’ve heard her teach on before, but I’m like, No, I would like to listen to Dr. Friedman again.

What I look for in my teachers when I’m making choices is I really love teachers who are transparent and authentic. So your question invites me to be transparent and authentic, because I’m going to say to you that transition, which should have been smooth in terms of training techniques, I really was able to learn to be a trainer in some extraordinary settings that really call out the best skills.

People often say, “You know, it’s amazing that the dolphins could learn that mine detection and detonation work,” and keep in mind the work I did for the Navy was classified, it is no longer classified, I can tell you about it. The dolphins’ lives were not in danger. That sounds really dramatic, like we were risking the dolphins. We were not. The dolphins and the sailors, the military, all the personnel, all the military personnel, dolphins and people, moved away from the setting before anything was detonated. I don’t want any listeners to think, oh my gosh, how cavalier I am about that training. It was as safe as possible for everybody.

But in saying that, people go, “That’s amazing you could teach that to the dolphins,” and I say, “No, no. What was amazing is every one of those dozens and dozens of dolphins that we took out to the open ocean every day had to jump back in our motorboats, our Boston whalers, to go back to their enclosures every evening, every afternoon, good training session, bad training session. They were free, and they had to choose to jump on a boat and come back to the enclosures.”

When you have that as your school for learning, you get an ego. So I got an ego to go, “Hey, I trained open ocean dolphins. How hard is it to train dogs?” Not only was it hard, here’s the thing I’m sort of dancing around that I’m humbled by. I didn’t think dogs could be trained using the same methods as marine mammals. So I really, switching over species, switched training methods and apprenticed with a local balanced trainer. That wasn’t a term at the time in the mid-’90s, but used leash corrections and also positive reinforcement, but all mixed together.

So I learned how to pop a choke chain, and I trained that way for, I want to say, at least a year, with only the mildest cognitive dissonance in the back of my head going, Why would dogs be different than every other species I’ve ever worked with? But of course we’ve got a mythology about why dogs are different. We can tell that story about pack leaders and hierarchies, and we can spin a good tale about why all other animals can be trained using positive reinforcement and a marker signal, but not dogs, they need corrections.

Karen Pryor, fortuitously, happened to be talking in Seattle. She was giving a seminar, and I went to the seminar because Karen’s a friend, so I just like, Hey, I’ll go visit Karen. I don’t need to learn anything about training. Now I’m mortified to say that out loud. Karen started the weekend seminar — I still remember it, it was more than twenty years ago — Karen started the weekend seminar to this big room filled with dog trainers, hundreds of dog trainers, and she said, “I’d really be grateful if no one gave a leash correction over the time we’re together this weekend. It’s upsetting to me, and it’s upsetting to the dogs and anybody who has to watch it.” And then she just went on to talk, and like, What? What is she talking about? There’s going to be anarchy in here. What does she mean, no leash correction? I had no idea what she was talking about.

Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I wandered into that seminar with her, because she started the dominoes falling in my mind to be able to say, Why, possibly, would you not do this with dogs? She was such a good friend and mentor to me, to help me be brave enough to teach classes in my city in a completely different way that dog training colleagues were saying to me, “Absolutely impossible. You’re going to fail at this.” So I’m grateful to her and so many people that taught me that it was possible.

But my transition was ugly, so if you saw me in that time of me trying to figure out, does all the learning and training I did with marine mammals for over a decade, does it really fit in with dogs? Aren’t dogs different? And the answer really is, no, they’re not. Good thing I could bring all my other skills into the training. It’s a different way to train dogs, but I’d say it’s a better way and it’s certainly more fun. So that kept me going for a long time, because I don’t think we all agree on that yet, so there’s work to do.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. It’s a specific pivot point or turning point for you. At what point would you say you actually became, to steal a line from your website, focused on positive, unique solutions, and what has kept you interested in positive training and made you transition to that so completely?

Kathy Sdao: I owned that dog daycare for several years, and then at some point felt like I could fledge from that work. It was good work, but it wasn’t really feeding me, so I switched at that point to becoming a behavior consultant, becoming a certified applied animal behavior consultant. And so, at that point, to be able to help people create solutions for challenging problems — that brought out a different level of my knowledge than running a daycare.

So I’d have to say it was at that point that you have to make decisions about … today we’d look at the Humane Hierarchy and we’d go, “Wow, that algorithm, that sort of model for choosing behavior interventions to be least intrusive for the learner” — I couldn’t have given that language back in the late 1990s. That’s in reality what I’m doing with the best teachers I can to help me, because I’m now entering people’s lives and their families to help them resolve behavior problems with a family member, so that changes things.

The idea of that algorithm for interventions, for our training methods with nonhuman learners, comes to us from the work that behavior analysts do with children. And so to make that line fuzzier, to stop saying “humans and animals” like that’s a dichotomy, humans or animals, we are animals, and the that learning we do, the teaching we do with animals and people, I want there to be no line dividing those two.

So to be able to say, to help a family understand they can help their dog become less aggressive through skilled behavior intervention that’s mostly focused on positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors, if I can help a family do that, it changes their lives. It not only changes that dog’s life, but if I do my job right, it helps that family become curious about how behavior works.

And you know what? We all behave. I love the kids’ book Everybody Poops. I want there to be a kids’ book called Everybody Behaves. We had the zookeepers read the Everybody Poops kids’ book. I’m not a parent of human children, but parents tell me, “Oh yeah, that’s a classic book. We read Everybody Poops in our family.”

Where’s the book Everybody Behaves, so that you can understand if you can change the behavior in one family member, and it happens to be your four-legged dog, and you’re successful at that, and you sort of had fun doing it, and you didn’t have to be coercive, oh my gosh, then what does that open up for you in terms of all the other behavior change solutions you can come up with? The reason that’s interesting to me is I like my species a lot. The colleagues I have that say, “Oh, I work with animals because I don’t much like people” are in the wrong business. We should like our species, because I feel like we’re doomed if we don’t learn some better ways of interacting.

So I honestly feel like I’m helping people learn about better ways of interacting. I’m teaching them nonviolence in an around-the-corner, sneaky way to go, “Yeah, we’re just training your dog,” but not really. That’s never how I’m going into a situation. I’m hoping we can all be learning together to be effective at the same time we’re being nonviolent. There’s tons of work to do on that. I’m never going to run out of work. It’s a tall mountain to climb.

Every dog that comes into my consultation office — I mean this sincerely — I’m still fascinated at the learning. I had a new … it’s a new breed for me … I always joke when people first contact me and they say, “What do you know about this obscure breed?” Like, in other words, “Are you an expert in …?” My answer to this is “No, but I’ve trained like fifty different species. Does that count that I don’t know?”

So a new breed for me this month was a lovely, lovely client with two Berger Picards, Picardy Shepherds. Beautiful dogs, but the breeder talked my elderly client into taking two puppies — “As long as you’re going to take one, why don’t you take two?” Breeders! Breeders, breeders, breeders! Anyway, lovely woman, retired, her husband just retired, now have two very active herding puppies. As those dogs come into my office, and they’ve got some behavior issues, but just to watch them learn. Tuesday I was sitting on the floor with them, teaching them just basic behaviors, and to watch their behavior change and their agency kick in that they realized, wow, their behavior is controlling my click, I don’t know, it never gets boring for me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m still as excited with each dog that comes in as I was in the beginning. Aren’t I lucky?

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and it totally comes through in that answer. I do want to back up for a second, because you mentioned two things there that I’m curious. All listeners may not be familiar with what the Humane Hierarchy is, or what it means, and I was hoping you could briefly explain the phrase.

Kathy Sdao: I shouldn’t presume people know it, but I’m hoping it becomes a common term in our conversations about training, because, Melissa, you’ve been doing this a long time, too, you know trainers like to have opinions about what’s the right way to do things. And unfortunately, at least in the United States, there aren’t a lot of laws about what are the right ways to do things, and it’s a Wild West out there, at least in my neck of the woods, about what’s considered acceptable training practices.

I’ve had two different clients come to me, new clients come to me, in the last couple of months, having gone to another local … we’ll call it a trainer. Both of their dogs were in the course of a ten-week package of private lessons. In Week 6, both dogs were hung until they passed out, in Week 6, to make sure that the dogs knew who the leader was. Were hung until they passed out. This is acceptable training. It boggles my mind. So to be able to have an algorithm model to be able to say, “What’s OK when you’re intervening in another organism’s behaviors? Is effectiveness all we care about, that it works?”

I first learned of the Humane Hierarchy through Dr. Susan Friedman’s teaching, and the easiest way, I think, to find out about it would be on her website, behaviorworks.org. I certainly think if you Googled “Humane Hierarchy in training,” you would see that it’s a series of, the last time I looked at it, six levels of intervention. Six choices you would have as a trainer for how you could change your learner’s behavior, starting from the least intrusive way, basically looking at the learner’s physical environment and health situation, to the most intrusive way, Level 6, which would be positive punishment, and that there would be lots of cautions and prohibitions before you’d ever get to Level 6, and that often, if we’re doing our jobs really in a skillful way, we never have to consider using positive punishment, the addition of something painful, pressuring, or annoying, contingent on our learner’s behavior.

Positive punishment is done so casually and flippantly in dog training, especially in the United States, without a second thought, and this sort of hierarchy of methods we might use really calls out our best practices to say we have a lot of other approaches to go through before we jump right to punishing our learner for behavior we find dangerous or destructive.

So I think learning and conversation that continues around the Humane Hierarchy, which comes to us trainers from where? From the rules for behaviorist analysts working with children, human children. They can’t just go in and do whatever they want. They have professional restrictions, as should we, as trainers. But that day is not here yet for us. It’s coming, I hope. So I find that to be a really helpful model. It’s not the only model out there, but it’s the one I go to most often when I’m teaching and also when I’m being a consultant.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. I appreciate you taking a moment just to break that down and explain it for everybody. And then you mentioned Everybody Poops, and I haven’t read that book. So actually I’m curious. Can you give us the gist of what we can imply from the title?

Kathy Sdao: You know what? I’m being really serious. I have not read it since I was a zookeeper and was required. I’m not kidding. It’s a kids’ book, I would think the age group is probably 4-year-olds, to be able to say to your child, “Poop is normal. Poop is good. Don’t worry about your poop. We all poop. We’ve got this thing in common. It’s cool.” It’s actually a powerful message, like, “Wow, all right, there’s nothing weird about that. Everybody poops.”

But seriously, in the back of my head I’ve got this Everybody Behaves book, because if you understood behavior in one organism, seriously … I’ve got dear clients right now, they’re just lovely, they’ve been my clients for a long time. I’m actually friends with the family now, and one of my clients has a 9-year-old son. As a birthday present he got the fish agility set from R2 Fish School, so 9-year-old boy, he’s got his fish agility equipment. What he said to me when I saw him just two days ago, he said to me, “Kathy, I have a science fair coming up. Can you help me teach the fish to do weave poles?” I’m like, This is the best question I’ve ever been asked. Seriously, I’m so ecstatic I can’t even stand it. That a 9-year-old would say, “For my science project I’m going to teach fish to do weave poles”? Aren’t we hopeful what that 9-year-old boy is going to grow into, just for the good of the world? Seriously.

Melissa Breau: That is so cool.

Kathy Sdao: He is going to have the perfect approach to being a parent and a boss and a friend. He’s got it at the age of 9, because he’s going to teach that fish. And how do you teach the fish? The same way I taught the dolphins and the same way I teach the dogs. It’s all the same learning, so that learning principals are general and everybody behaves. Figure it out with one and then it spreads. It’s so exciting. So yes, I’m going to help Ryan with his goldfish-training project. We’re in the process now of choosing the right fish. It’s just making me very happy.

Melissa Breau: I seriously hope you video some of that and share it, just because that’s so cool. It’s such a neat project. It’s such a neat science project.

Kathy Sdao: One of the most valuable books I’ve got on my shelf, and I will never sell it, it was vanity-published probably 20 years ago. The title of the book is How to Dolphin Train Your Goldfish, and the thing that made me buy it in the first place is the author, C. Scott Johnson, was a really high and bio-sonar Ph.D. at the Navy, seriously geeky researcher into sonar. He helped us set up some of the training for the dolphins.

I’m like, That’s such an odd name, C. Scott Johnson. I see it on a book list, I’m like, He wrote a book. It’s a 20-page, black-and-white, vanity-published, it is not a high-end book, but it is a perfect description of teaching five tricks to a goldfish and it’s brilliant. So now everybody’s going to go on Amazon and try to find the book and it’s impossible. I wrote to him once and said, “If you’ve got cases of this book in your garage, I can sell them for you, because it’s awesome.” So I’ve got good resources to help Ryan, and yes, Melissa, it’s a great tip. I will videotape.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I wanted to ask you, as somebody who has been a full-time animal trainer for over 30 years now, and in dogs for quite a while too, how have you seen the field change? What changes are you maybe even seeing today?

Kathy Sdao: Oh my gosh, how long do we have? Oh my gosh, the changes. I don’t even know where to start. I just taught at my 35th ClickerExpo — 35th. I’ve gotten the honor and privilege of not only teaching but attending 35 ClickerExpos over 15 years with amazing faculty as my colleagues, oh my gosh. To look back at the first ClickerExpo 15 years ago, what we were teaching and talking about, and now? I wonder when is it that I need to retire, because everything’s just moved beyond me. It’s so, gosh, I feel like a dinosaur sometimes.

So, first off, I already alluded to the idea that whatever species we train is not unique in how they learn. Now, they might be unique in what reinforces them, how we’re going to choose our reinforcers, or how we’re going to set up the environment, or what behaviors we might teach first, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that the actual laws of learning and that choice of what training methods we will use, maybe with the Humane Hierarchy as a reference for us on how to do that effectively without taking control away from our learner, to be able to say that’s general throughout species, to me, that’s new.

I like that we’re moving in that direction and stopping the conversation, or maybe not having so much of the conversation, that says, “Rottweilers learn this way, and they need this kind of training,” and “High-drive dogs, they need this particular kind of training.” I like that the conversation’s moving to more general. In fact, even the terminology, my terminology, has changed from saying “the animal learned” to “the learner,” so we are actually using a noun that encompasses nonhuman animals and human animals. And actually even the word training is being replaced by the verb teaching. I’m liking that. It’s just a reflection that we teach learners rather than train animals just is taking that it’s not just politically correct, it’s reflecting the science, which says we can use some of these general principals to our advantage and to the learner’s advantage, right?

Melissa Breau: Right.

Kathy Sdao: Even the idea that we want to empower our learners, you know, when I started with dogs, that was heresy. You would empower the dog? You’re supposed to be the leader. You’re supposed to be in charge. This is not about empowering. It’s about showing them their place. They need to learn deference. They need to learn their place in the hierarchy, and if they get that sorted out, all the good behavior will come along with it.

To be able to say that your learner can not only make choices but … I’m so intrigued by this; this is kind of new learning to me and I’m still playing with it. So to be able to say, “Give your learner a way to say “no” to opt out of anything, opt out of a social contact, opt out of a husbandry behavior you’ve asked the dog to do.” If the dog says, “No, I don’t feel like, it,” that we not only accept that no, we reinforce the no — this is like mind-blowing. What does that mean that you say to your learner, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to”?

I’m just intrigued that this doesn’t produce complete opting out, the animal doesn’t want to do anything, you get no compliance at all. No, instead, you set the animal free to feel so brave and safe in your presence that they’re not compelled or pressured to do behaviors. I don’t know. I feel like this is a new conversation that I’ve had with colleagues, again not just about allowing animals to opt out, but reinforcing them for opting.

Ken Ramirez talked about training beluga whales, a specific beluga whale, to have a buoy in the tank that she could press with her big old beluga melon, her big head, and say, “No, I don’t feel like doing it.” The data he collected with his team at Shedd Aquarium — what did that actually do? What did we get in her behavior? Less cooperation? Or did it provide her safety to be able to work with us in a more fluent way? I don’t know. Twenty years ago I can’t even imagine we would have had a conversation like that.

Melissa Breau: That’s so cool. It’s such a neat concept. I’ll have to go look up the specific stuff that Ken’s put out on it, because I don’t think I’ve had the chance to hear him talk about it. So that’s cool.

Kathy Sdao: You know, it’s funny that you say that, Melissa. The timing is really great, because the videos from this year’s ClickerExpo — there’s two ClickerExpos a year in the U.S., one in January on the West Coast and one in March on the East Coast. The presentations, and there’s a lot of them — there are three days, five simultaneous tracks, it’s a lot of presentations — but those are recorded, and they’re usually not available until the summer, but I know that they’re going to be released later this week.

So clickertraining.com, you could actually look for Ken Ramirez’s presentation on — I think it’s called Dr. No — on teaching animals to be able to opt out of procedures. You would actually not only be able to read about it, Ken has written on clickertraining.com about that procedure, you’d actually be able to hear Ken teach on it. So just to know there’s a wealth of educational stuff. Gosh, there’s lots of good stuff out there, but those ClickerExpo recordings are just one thing you can take advantage of and soon.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. And actually this will be out next Friday, so by the time this comes out, those will be available, so anybody who wants to go check them out can.

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa.

Melissa Breau: We talked about the change that you’ve seen. What about where the field is heading, or even just where you’d like for it to go in the next few decades? What do you think is ahead for us?

Kathy Sdao: It’s a different question between where it is going and where I want it to go. I don’t actually know where it’s going. What I dream about. I dream about this. We need some guidelines. We need some legal guidelines. We need some way to have a field that has professional standards, and I don’t know what that looks like, and I know that’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s just not OK. Yes, we continue to educate, and we continue to raise the standards, but I want to bring everybody along with us, meaning all my colleagues. That big line we tend to draw — I’m certainly guilty of this — of this “Us, the positive trainers, and them, the other trainers,” and there’s this big chasm between us. I want to feel like there’s not a big chasm between us. We’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have, and you’re putting more information out there through these amazing podcasts and through all the classes that I’m going to call the Academy, it’s not the Academy, I don’t know …

Melissa Breau: FDSA.

Kathy Sdao: The acronym doesn’t trip off my tongue. But to be able to go, there’s amazing education and I know there is, because I’ve got colleagues teaching for you, and I’ve got students who take those courses and rave and are learning so much. That’s great. I love the increased educational opportunities, and the bar has really gotten higher. They’re better. We’re better at teaching this stuff.

But I feel there’s got to be a way that there’s a professional ethic that comes along with. We’ve all got to be striving and moving toward better practices. It’s no longer OK to say, “We’ve always used these coercive tools with dogs, and we’ve been able to teach them just fine.” I want that not to be so OK anymore.

I’m not sounding very eloquent on this because I don’t know exactly how to say … I strive for the day when I’m not losing sleep over what the dog trainer down the street is doing in the name of training. I would like to not lose sleep over what a professional dog trainer with a slick website can do.

Melissa Breau: And I totally get you. I want to transition for a minute there. I’d love to talk a little bit about your book. I mentioned it in the intro, the title is Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace. Can you start off by explaining the name a little bit, and then share a little on what the book is about?

 

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa. I sort of love my book, so thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about it. I have to credit my publishers at Dogwise. Larry Woodward — what a lovely, kind man. My original title for that book, and I don’t actually remember it because it was so horrible. I didn’t see it. I thought it was really clever. I like puns, and so I’d come up with … honestly, I don’t remember. That’s how much I mentally blocked the bad title I had. Larry so graciously talked me into something else, and Plenty in Life is Free was his idea, and I really love it.

The thing that really inspired me to write the book is I was becoming disenchanted with “Nothing in life is free” protocols that not only was I running into that my colleagues would use, but I used all the time in my consultation practice. I would hand out instructions on “For your aggressive dog,” or your anxious dog or whatever behavior problem brought my clients to me.

Basic rule of thumb we would start at was your dog would get nothing that the dog would consider a reinforcer without doing a behavior for you first. Often these are implemented as the dog must sit before any food, toy, attention, freedom, there can be other behaviors, but it’s sort of like you don’t pay unless the dog complies with one of your signals first.

Those were at the time, and still in some places, not only ubiquitous, like everywhere, but applied to any problem. So not only were they really common, they’re applied to any problem, and the more I used them and really looked at them, I found them wanting in a lot of ways. Not only were they inadequate, but it seemed to me that they were producing really constrained relationships, like not free flowing, spontaneous, joyful relationships between people and their dogs, that everything was all those reinforcers were minutely controlled and titrated.

I had clients say to me, “Oh my gosh, I pet my dog for nothing, just because she’s cute.” I’m like, When did that become a problem? When is loving your dog the issue? And so the more I took a look at them, I realized I and maybe some of my colleagues were handing those out because we didn’t have a way to be able to say, “Yes, we want to reinforce good behavior, but we don’t want to be so stringent about it that we don’t allow for the free flow of attention and love between family members that we aspire to, to have a joyful life.”

Not only did I want to point out the concerns I had for those “Nothing in life is free” or “Say please” protocols — they come by different names — but to give an alternative. So to be able to say, if I looked at my masters degree in animal learning, what would the science say would be the replacement foundation advice we would be giving people. If I’m going to pull the “Nothing in life is free” handout out of my colleagues’ hands — and that’s what some people who have read the book said: “Wait, that’s my Week 1 handout for class. What am I going to do?” “I know, let me give you another handout.”

So, for me, it would be the acronym SMART. I don’t use a lot of acronyms. I worked for the military, you can get really carried away with acronyms, but SMART — See, Mark, And Reinforce Training — is a really nice package to be able to tell my clients what habits I want to create in them. Because I’m actually changing their behavior. Anytime we teach, we’re changing the human’s behavior.

What is it that science says we want the humans to do more of? Notice the behavior. Become a better observer. See behavior in your learner. Mark the behavior you want to see more of. Use a clicker, use a word, use a thumbs up. We’re not going to debate too much about has to be one particular sort of marker signal, but marking is good. It gives information to your learner that’s really important. And reinforce. So to be able to say, if I can develop that see, mark, and reinforce habit in my humans, the animal’s behavior, the dog’s behavior, is going to change, reflecting how much your habit has developed. Just to be able to shift people from that “I’m controlling every reinforcer in your life” strategy to “It’s my responsibility to notice behavior I want to see more of, and to put reinforcement contingencies in place for that to make those behaviors more likely” — that’s a huge shift. If we can get that going, I hope my little book might start the ball rolling in that direction.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know the book came out in 2012, and since then you’ve done some on-demand videos and you have all sorts of other resources on your site. I’d love to know what aspect of training or methods have you most excited today. What’s out there that you want to talk about?

Kathy Sdao: It’s going to probably be a surprising answer to that. In my talks most recently, my presentations most recently, at ClickerExpo, because I’ve been on faculty for a long time there, interesting conversations happen about this time of year between the folks who put on ClickerExpo and me and all the other faculty and say, “Hey, what do you want to talk about next year, Kathy?” When that conversation happened last year, maybe even the year before, one of the things that’s been really on my mind a lot is burnout, is burnout in my colleagues, and so sort of jokingly in that presentation, call it my Flee Control presentation, meaning I see lots of really skilled colleagues leaving the profession. I see some skilled colleagues leaving more than just the profession, leaving life.

It’s a really serious problem for trainers, for veterinarians, and where does this sense of burnout come from when we’ve spent all this time developing our mechanical training chops? We’re actually good at the nuts and bolts, the physical skills of training, and we’re studying the science, and we’re taking courses and we’re getting all this education. How is it that so many colleagues quit?

It’s a hard profession that we’ve got, those of us that are doing it professionally, and it can be exhausting. And so to be able to take a look at how we can support each other in a really skilled way, meaning taking the skills we have as trainers and applying them to our own longevity and mental health as practitioners.

I think we’re missing some sort of support mechanisms that are there in other professions. For instance, I have a client who’s a psychiatrist and she works with a really difficult population, patients who are suicidal, very frequently suicidal and significantly suicidal, so she has a very challenging human patient load. When we were talking a little while back, she was at a dog-training lesson with her Rottweiler, we were working together, she said, “You know, every Thursday at 1:00 I have to meet with three of my peers. I have to. It’s one of my professional demands. I would lose my license if I didn’t. We don’t look at each other’s cases. We don’t offer problem solutions. We give each other support. We’re there to vent, we’re there to listen, we’re there to offload some of the grief and heartache that comes from doing our jobs well, and so that’s just part of our professional standards.”

My jaw sort of dropped open and I’m like, wait, what? I didn’t even know that was a thing. Why is that not a thing for us? Why do we not have structures at least to support us being in this for the long haul? Because really, here’s the thing. When I started out being a trainer and people said, “You’ve got to be a really good observer. That’s what trainers do. They observe behavior.”  I’m like, cool, I’m going to get that 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about on watching animals behave. That’s what the dog daycare did for me, lots and lots of hours watching dogs behave. No one says to you, “Hey, let’s warn you that you’re not going to be able to unsee.” You can’t go back. You can’t stop seeing animals in distress and in difficult situations, and it develops a lot of grief in each of us. So I think I’m losing colleagues not just because they’ve got better job offers. It’s because their hearts are breaking.

I don’t know what the structure looks like to say I want to help prevent burnout in a structured way, but even the title of my book is going to hint the other thing I want to say to you, Melissa, which is intentionally that book title has the word grace in it because I talk about my spirituality in that book, which is kind of weird in a dog-training book, but to me they’re all one and the same. Training, to me, is a spiritual practice, completely, and so I don’t think we have comfortable formats to be able to have the conversation about the overlap of animal training and spirituality, not in a really saccharine, Pollyanna kind of way, but in a really open our hearts to what’s deepest and true for us.

I don’t know. I want to figure out ways to facilitate that conversation. Because this is the conversation I want to have, so I’m brainstorming projects I’m hoping to take on in the next year or so that will let us have some formats to have that conversation. We’re always talking about reinforcement for our learners, and I never want us to forget we have to set up reinforcement for ourselves and the work that we do. I think spirituality talks about how we can develop mindfulness practices that allow us to do good work, but also to stay happy and centered while we’re doing it. I’m sure there are resources out there I haven’t tripped upon, but I’m intrigued at developing even more.

Melissa Breau: It’s such an interesting topic, and it’s definitely something I don’t see enough people talking about or even thinking about, just our own mental health as you are a trainer or as you work towards training. It’s an important topic for sure.

Kathy Sdao: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: We’re getting close to the end here, and I want to ask you a slightly different version of the three questions I usually ask at the end of the podcast when I have a new guest. The first one I tweaked a little bit here, but can you share a story of a training breakthrough, either on your side or on the learner's end?

Kathy Sdao: Anyone who’s heard me teach at all is going to have heard something about my favorite learner of all time. That’s E.T., the male Pacific walrus that I got the privilege to work with at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma.

The very short version of an amazing story is when I first got hired at the zoo in 1990, I had worked with seals and sea lions and other pinnipeds, but had never even seen a walrus. So I spent the morning before my interview at the zoo, walking around the zoo and looking at the animals that I would train, and realized that E.T. — he weighed about 3500 pounds at that point — was one of the scariest animals I had ever seen.

When I went into the interview I got asked the question, “If you get hired here, you’re going to have to work with a new species, a Pacific walrus. What do you think about that?” Of course, anybody who’s been in an interview knows that the answer is, “Ooh, I’d be really intrigued to have the opportunity.” Of course, you’re saying how cool that would be, yet on the inside I’m positive that he’s going to kill me.

I mean this sincerely. I had moved into an unfurnished house, I had no furniture, so I have really clear memories of all I have in that house is a sleeping bag, and I’m waking up in cold sweat nightmares, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor in my empty house in Tacoma right after I got hired, those nightmares are that E.T. is going to kill me.

He is completely aggressive, humans cannot get in his exhibit, he’s destroying the exhibit because it’s inadequate for a walrus. It was designed for sea lions. He came to the zoo as an orphaned pup in Alaska, nobody really expected him to survive, he grew to be an adolescent.

The reason that there was a job opening at that department at the zoo is all the trainers had quit. There were no marine mammal trainers at the time I got hired. I don’t know why they quit, I didn’t ask them, but I suspect it was because E.T. weighed nearly two tons and was an adolescent and he was dangerous, destructive, oh, and he was X-rated — he masturbated in the underwater viewing windows for a couple of hours a day, and you don’t need the visuals for that. Trust me when I tell you, if you were an elementary school teacher in Tacoma, Washington, you did not go to the underwater viewing section. It was awful. We didn’t know what to do with him.

The end of that story that starts with truly I don’t want to be anywhere near him, he’s terrifying me, he becomes one of the best friends I’ve ever had, I trust him with my life. By the time I quit the zoo five years later, E.T. knew over 200 behaviors on cue, we got in the exhibit with him, we took naps with him, I trusted him with my life.

He lived another 20 years. He passed away only a couple of years ago. He was amazing. His behavior changed so much that I am being honest when I tell you I didn’t see the old walrus in the current walrus. There was no more aggression. I don’t mean infrequent outbursts of aggression. I mean we didn’t see it anymore, based on what? We were brilliant trainers? Based on we were stuck with him and we needed to come up — three new trainers, myself and two gentlemen from Sea World — we needed to come up with a plan to make this livable, and what came out wasn’t a tolerable animal. It was genius, and I mean that sincerely. If anyone had had the chance to see E.T. working with his trainers, it wasn’t just that he learned really complicated behavior chains and he was really fluent in them. It was we were his friends, and I mean that in the true sense of the word.

So my biggest breakthrough is that I can say that E.T. considered me his friend. Oh my gosh, that’s it, that’s what I’m putting on my resume. I was E.T. the walrus’s friend, and he taught me more about training and the possibilities, the potential in each learner, that given enough time and resources, we sometimes can unleash and release those behaviors.

That doesn’t mean we don’t ever give up on animals and say, “Oh my gosh, they’re too dangerous, we can’t change this behavior in a way that’s adequate,” but the fact that we didn’t really have that easy choice with E.T., it made us pull out all our best training ideas and to be persistent. Wow, you just couldn’t believe what was in there, and without videos and about ten more hours, I can’t do him justice, but that we were friends? Yeah, that’s my coolest accomplishment.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My second-to-last question is, what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Kathy Sdao: Let me do two. I’m going to cheat. Years ago, this is straightforward training advice, but it’s one that I keep in the back of my head, which is, “Train like no one’s watching you.” Because even when I don’t have an audience … sometimes I have a real audience and I’m onstage trying to train an animal, which is nerve-wracking, but I don’t need a human audience in front of me. I have judges in my head, so I always have an audience I always carry around, my critics, and to be able to free myself from those and to instead what happens if I say, “There’s no audience in my head judging me”? It frees me up to see what’s happening right in front of me.

There’s a quote I have next to my desk and it’s from outside of training context. It’s from a Jesuit priest whom I like very much, Father Greg Boyle, and the phrase that’s on the Post-It next to my desk says, “Now. Here. This.” To be able to be in the present moment with your learner and say, “What’s happening right now? What behavior is right in front of me?” sounds really simple, but it’s not. It takes real mindfulness and intention to be in the present moment. When you’re paying attention to your audience, real or imagined in your head, you can’t be really present. So that would be one: Train like no one’s watching you.

And here’s one that comes from my favorite science book, and every time I have a chance to have anybody listen to me anywhere, I’m going to quote the name of the book so that I can get this book in everybody’s hands: Coercion and Its Fallout, by Dr. Murray Sidman. It’s an astonishing book. It’s not a training book. It’s a science book, but it’s very readable, most easily purchased at the behavior website, behavior.org, which is the Cambridge behavioral site. It’s hard to find on Amazon. You shouldn’t pay much more than twenty dollars for Coercion and Its Fallout, by Dr. Murray Sidman.

Here’s the training advice that Dr. Sidman would give. It’s not training advice, it’s life advice, but it’s my new tagline. Let’s see how this works, Melissa, because, you know, you’ve been doing these podcasts for a while, you’re into training deep. It’s hard to go “positive training,” that phrase is kind of vague and weird, and clicker training is … so what am I? I’m going to take Dr. Sidman’s, one of his lines from Coercion and Its Fallout: “Positive reinforcement works and coercion is dangerous.” That’s a seven-word descriptor for what it is I do, and it comes for every learner. Positive reinforcement works, and coercion, Dr. Sidman’s definition is all the other three quadrants: positive punishment, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement. So we’ve got the four operant conditioning quadrants. Dr. Sidman’s going to go, “Positive reinforcement works.” It does the job. It’s all you need. The other three quadrants, they’re there, I know, we use them, but they’re dangerous. I love that summary. I’m using that with my clients now. I’m seeing if I can let that really simple summary of the science and our best practices to see if it works.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. I love that. It’s a very simple, easy line to remember.

Kathy Sdao: It’s Dr. Sidman’s genius, so take it and run with it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Last question for you: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Kathy Sdao: There’s so many. But because he’s now my neighbor … Kathy, what’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you recently? Ken Ramirez has moved in my back yard. I’m so excited!

That genius trainer, the kindest man you’ll ever meet, colleague of mine for the last 25 years, truly amazing human being, is now not only living a half-hour from me in Graham, Washington, just outside of Tacoma, he’s not only living near me but offering courses. He’s teaching a course this week at The Ranch. It’s Karen Pryor’s training facility here in Graham, Washington. It’s an amazing facility, but that Ken, mentor and friend and genius trainer … a client of mine yesterday said, “Wait a minute. Who’s that guy that taught the butterflies to fly on cue for the BBC’s documentary?” Like, oh my gosh, that’s Ken, yes, he taught butterflies, herds of butterflies, what do you call a group of butterflies, swarms of butterflies to fly on cue to the London Symphony for a big fundraising gig. Oh my god. Now is that someone you want to know more about?

So I’m going to do a shout out to Ken and say you can find out more about the educational offerings at The Ranch at Karen Pryor’s website, clickertraining.com. They’ve got a drop-down on The Ranch, and I don’t live far away from there, so if you want to come beachcombing with me after you’ve visited Ken and learned stuff, I’ll take you beachcombing. I love my beachcombing, so I’m happy to share that.

Melissa Breau: That sounds like so much fun. I keep meaning to get out that way at some point and I haven’t been yet, so it’s definitely on the bucket list.

Kathy Sdao: He’s going to draw some really cool people to my neighborhood, so I’m going to share. I’m going to share.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Kathy. This has been truly fantastic.

Kathy Sdao: Thanks so much, Melissa. You made it fun, and it’s just a real treat to be affiliated with … now teach me the name: FDSA.

Melissa Breau: Yes. Absolutely.

Kathy Sdao: Excellent. So cool to be affiliated with you guys. You do great work, and I’m just honored.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with — she was mentioned earlier in this podcast — Michele Pouliot to talk about being a change-maker in the dog world.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will be 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.

Apr 20, 2018

Summary:

Eileen Anderson is a writer and dog trainer. She is perhaps best known for her blog, Eileenanddogs, which has been featured on Freshly Pressed by Wordpress.com and won the award “The Academy Applauds” in 2014 from The Academy of Dog Trainers. Her articles and training videos have been incorporated into curricula worldwide and translated into several languages.

Eileen also runs a website for canine cognitive dysfunction, which she started in 2013. That site is www.dogdementia.com, which has become a major resource for pet owners whose dogs have dementia. Then, in 2015, Eileen published Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog With Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance and a master’s degree in engineering science.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/27/2018, featuring Kathy Sdao, author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace, to talk about crossing over, how training dogs and marine mammals compare, and the future of 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’ll be talking to Eileen Anderson.

Eileen is a writer and dog trainer. She is perhaps best known for her blog, Eileenanddogs, which has been featured on Freshly Pressed by Wordpress.com and won the award “The Academy Applauds” in 2014 from The Academy of Dog Trainers. Her articles and training videos have been incorporated into curricula worldwide and translated into several languages.

Eileen also runs a website for canine cognitive dysfunction, which she started in 2013. That site is www.dogdementia.com, which has become a major resource for pet owners whose dogs have dementia. Then, in 2015, Eileen published Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog With Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance and a master’s degree in engineering science.

Hi Eileen, welcome to the podcast!

Eileen Anderson: Hi Melissa, thank you so much for having me. I am stoked about this.

Melissa Breau: I am too. To start us out, do you want to just share a little bit about each of your dogs, who they are, and anything you’re working on with them?

Eileen Anderson: Sure. That is the easiest thing in the world to talk about. I currently have two dogs. I have Zani, who is a hound mix. She looks kind of like a black-and-tan Beagle, and for those who have seen any of my pictures and videos, she’s the one who tilts her head adorably. She was a rehome. I found her at age 1, and took her from someone who could not take care of her any longer. She has a fantastic temperament, and anybody would love to have Zani.

What I’m working with her right now on is that she unfortunately had an accident in February and ran full-tilt into a fence, actually was driven into the fence, I suspect, by my other dog. I was there, I saw it happen, and she got a spinal cord concussion. She was knocked completely out and turned into a little noodle, and I thought I had lost her. But I took her to the vet, she got a CT scan, and they said they didn’t see any permanent damage, that she had just gotten this jolt to her spinal cord. She was quadriplegic. I took her home, her not being able to walk or anything.

But the vet was right — she did gradually recover, and she’s still recovering. We’re more than a month out now, but we’re mostly practicing getting around safely, walking, going up and down the steps, and she’s a little trooper. She hasn’t had any mental problems at all. But it’s been quite a challenge for me. I had to make her a safe space where she couldn’t fall down because literally she couldn’t walk at first.

Melissa Breau: That’s so scary.

Eileen Anderson: It was really scary. It scared me to death. I thought she had died. I thought I had seen her pass away. But as those kind of accidents go, ours was pretty lucky.

And my other dog is Clara. She’s an All-American, she’s bigger, she’s about 44 pounds, and she is the one that I found as a feral puppy. I’ll talk about her now and then through the podcast, but she has come so far. Right now we’re working on just widening her world more. We have another friend’s house that we get to go to now. She’s met another dog, she’s liking another person, and actually because of all the work I’ve done with her, she is a lot more stable in many new situations than lots of “normal dogs.” It’s just such a gas to have a dog who’s resilient. But that’s what I’m doing with Clara right now.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I mentioned the degrees in music and engineering science. How did you end up in dog training? Obviously you didn’t start out there.

Eileen Anderson: My career has kind of been all over the place. I was working first as an editor at a university, and then at my current job, which is a social services job helping women find health care for breast problems.

I was all but dissertation in engineering science. I had passed my qualifying exams and was going on to be an engineer in acoustics, and I got a dog who was a challenge for me, and like everybody else, I got into dog training because I got the difficult dog. That dog was Summer. That was in 2006, and she was more than I was prepared to take care of. She chewed everything, she bullied my younger dog — my smaller dog, sorry — she jumped the fence, she was just basically a busy teenage dog.

Right now I think back and it’s like her problems were nothing, but at the time they were huge for me, so bad that I got depressed because it was changing my life so much to have this dog whom I loved, I loved her pretty much right away, but every time I turned around there was a new problem.

And so I looked for help in the usual ways. I got on the Internet, I found a local obedience club and went through the usual things there, and somewhere along the line — of course I got a good teacher — but along the line I got hooked. And actually dog training made me quit graduate school because I was like, This is a lot more interesting than active noise control to me.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you started out finding a club. What got you started as a positive trainer?

Eileen Anderson: I started at the very beginning as a positive That’s what I want to do trainer, a wanna-be. I would read about it on the Internet and I thought, That’s what I want to do. But when you’re on your own and you don’t have any coaching, and you’re going by … and this was in the earlier days of the Internet and there weren’t as many good instructions out there, so you try something and it’s kind of in a vacuum, like “be a tree” when your dog pulls when they’re walking on leash. You know, stand still and they’ll stop doing that. I did that for months and it didn’t work because I didn’t have the other half of it, which was reinforce them for walking by your side. So I figured, Well, this positive reinforcement stuff sounds good, but it’s not very practical, or maybe my dog’s not very smart. I did go … those things we think, you know.

I did go to a balanced obedience club. I’m still a member there, the people there adore their dogs, and we get along just fine. I’ve seen a lot of good changes there while I’ve gone there. But I knew that collar pops were not something that I wanted to do, but I could not find other ways to, for instance, get Summer to keep from wandering off into the wide blue yonder mentally whenever we were together and from physically wandering off whenever she had a chance.

And so I did go that direction. I did the collar pops, I did a prong collar for a while, and then I found the agility part of the club, and that’s a familiar story, I’m sure, to a lot of people as well. They were more positive — not completely, but more positive — and through them I found my current trainer, who is Lisa Mantle of Roland, Arkansas, who was trained by Bob and Marian Bailey — Bob Bailey lives here in Arkansas, by the way — and that’s when I really started to get it. Lisa is a great teacher, and that’s pretty much when I turned the corner.

Melissa Breau: I think you mentioned some exciting news related to your experiences there. Do you want to share?

Eileen Anderson: Yes. I am writing another book. I’m writing Summer’s story. Summer, I sadly lost her last summer at only the age of 11. I thought she was going to live a much longer time. She was very healthy. But she got hemangiosarcoma, and after some misdiagnosis of back pain for about a month, we got the news, and by the time they did do exploratory surgery, but it was too far gone and I did have to euthanize her. I wasn’t ready for that at all, nobody ever is, but I didn’t have any lead time on it.

But she was my crossover dog. She went through all of this with me patiently as I learned how to do things and how to treat her better, and she was a lovely soul, and I’m writing a book about that. It’s the story of Summer and me, and also I’m threading into it how I came to change my training ways, and I’m trying to do it in a non-preachy way. I’m writing to pet owners in the book. Recently I saw an op-ed in … I think it was the New York Times, by somebody who just wrote a nice little piece about her old dog, and there were the hallmarks of someone who didn’t know a lot about training. There were humorous moments about how they had to chase the dog down and force the pills down his throat and it took all this, and it wasn’t mentioned as any kind of morality thing. It was just part of the story.

I want our positive training stories to be part of the story too. Not as a preachy thing necessarily, although I can preach with the best of them, but as just part of the story, incidental, this is how we did things. I am feeling like that would be a very persuasive way to write the book. Also I just want to write the book because I loved my dog. But I’m hoping it will be another way just to get the message out in a very incidental way that there’s nothing abnormal about this. This is how I trained my dog, and this is how we learned to get along.

Melissa Breau: When are you thinking it’s going to be available? Do you know yet, and is there anything more you want to share into how you’re planning to talk about that crossing-over experience?

Eileen Anderson: I’m aiming for 2019, which probably means 2020. I’m telling the story of our lives together, and that is my crossover story. Of course I can pull from blogs, which help me get a timeline there. It’s hard to remember what happened when, but I will be incorporating some of the blogs. I’ve written many blogs about her over the years. But again, I want to tell the story. I don’t want to have villains. I do want to have heroes, and I want to talk about how my mind changed as things went along, how my perspective changed, because it changed my whole life. Having an epiphany about positive reinforcement really does filter through your whole life, once you get it, and I hope I can tell that story in a very casual and again non-preachy way and make it interesting for people.

Melissa Breau: Now, you mentioned that this is going to be another book. It’s not your first book. I do want to talk about that first book a little bit. Can you share a little bit about Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog With Canine Cognitive Dysfunction? What IS canine cognitive dysfunction, first, and how do you talk about it in the book?

Eileen Anderson: Canine cognitive dysfunction is a term for mental and behavioral decline that’s associated with changes in the brains of aging dogs. It’s not just normal aging. We all lose some of our marbles as we age, but this is abnormal aging, it’s a neurological condition, and it has behavioral symptoms. It’s way under-diagnosed and it’s undertreated.

In the book I tell the story of my little dog, Cricket. She was a rat terrier and she lived to be probably 17, could have been even older, because she was a middle-aged dog when I got her from a rescue. She got canine cognitive dysfunction, and she had it for at least a year before I identified what was wrong. I didn’t know what to tell my vet. Her first symptom was anxiety, and so I just thought she was getting nervous. I didn’t realize that that could be a symptom of CCD.

So the book is the story of Cricket, and how things went for her and for me. The message of the book is that there is help out there and that we need to know about this disease so dogs can get diagnosed sooner. There’s no cure, but there are drugs that can ameliorate the symptoms, there are drugs that can help the dogs and the people have an easier life, and there are so many ways you can enrich the dog’s life. They can still have a good life.

Melissa Breau: If you could tell people just one thing about Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, what would it be? What do you wish people really knew about that?

Eileen Anderson: I might cheat and I’m going to say two. One is talk to your vet. I am not a veterinarian. I can’t diagnose your dog. There’s lists all over the Internet now of symptoms, I certainly have one, but you can read all the symptoms but you cannot diagnose your dog. You need to talk to your vet many times about this and get educated, and if you’re worried at all about your dog, talk about a diagnosis.

The second thing is just from my heart. If your dog is diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, your dog’s life is not over. Like I was saying, there are many ways to enrich your dog’s life, and if we can get over our own preconceptions, see the dog standing in the corner and go, “Oh, poor thing,” well, sometimes, yes, some of their symptoms are pathetic and uncomfortable for them and need some intervention, but lots of the things they do, I think they’re just in la-la land. They don’t know what you know about what they used to be able to do.

So that’s my little lecture on that is don’t give up on your dog, don’t think they’re miserable unless you have good evidence that they are, because some of this is just unfamiliar to us. They do odd things, and odd doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog is unhappy. You need to learn about that, and again, talk to your vet about all of it.

That was more than one thing. I’m sorry!

Melissa Breau: That’s OK! Sometimes the best things are the more than one thing, right?

Eileen Anderson: Right.

Melissa Breau: To move from your books to your site for a little bit – and for listeners I will make sure to include links to both of Eileen’s sites in the show notes — for listeners who haven’t been

to your site or aren’t familiar with it, can you share a little bit about the topics you usually write about?

Eileen Anderson: I write about training dogs, I write about learning theory, and the thing that I’m able to do that lots of professional trainers are not is that I write about my mistakes a lot. I show things that I’ve tried that don’t work and I show things that I’ve tried that do work. But on my site you get to see videos of dogs who have never learned a behavior before, and me trying to train them with the best intentions and with a lot of information, but with gaps in my understanding. You can see a typical person training their dog and making mistakes, and you can learn from my mistakes.

I talk about dog body language a lot too. Having all the different dogs I’ve had, I have great footage of the interesting things they do with each other and with us. You know, body language is a whole other part we need to learn about when we’re trying to train our dogs well. But I take a scientific approach to the training, but I show a human trying to do it.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. You mentioned the scientific piece there, and I think one of the things that I like best about your work is that you really do approach things pretty scientifically. A while ago you wrote a post asking the question, “When is citing a research study not enough?” and I’d love to talk about that a bit. When IS citing a research study not enough — at least if we want to be right about the facts and present ideas that are actually backed up by research?

Eileen Anderson: OK. One research study is almost never enough. Usually when we want a research study, it’s because we want to win an argument these days, or we want to know something for a fact, you know, “Let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s figure it out.”

The problem is that we need to look at the bulk of the literature. One brand new study, if it’s the first on a certain topic, that’s just the beginning of the research, and you can’t flap that around and say, “Hey, I’ve proved it now.” You have to look at the bulk of the research, and one example I like to give is that some topics don’t have studies because they are so basic that they are in textbooks. One good example of that is that people will come along and say, “I need a research study that proves that you can’t reinforce fear.” OK, well, as far as I know, there isn’t one, per se, and there’s not one with dogs, and the reason is that that information is implicit and explicit in textbooks and review papers.

To answer that question, all you need to know about — all you need to know about! — you need to know about the difference between operant behavior and respondent behavior, you need to know about how emotions work, and you need to know about the sympathetic nervous system response. And if you put all that together, which is in any psychology book, pretty much — you might have to crack a biology book for some of it — you can see why they didn’t have to do a study to show that emotions are operant behaviors and you don’t reinforce them. You can reinforce behaviors that come around them. But that’s an example of it.

You know, people want one study for something, and it’s either something that’s so basic that you could just open a book and find out, or it’s something that’s so new that we might have one study that shows it, but we need for five or ten more to come in. So I always tell people, “Look for the review study, look for the one that summarizes the research, because that’s going to do the work of assessing whether the study is any good.” Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a psychology degree. I do have a graduate degree. I have two of them. So I’m familiar with research, but I don’t have the basis, the basic knowledge, to really assess a study. So I have to go to the people who can help, and that’s the people who write the review articles and the people who write the textbooks.  

Melissa Breau: I think that’s great advice and a good thing for people to remember, especially in this day and age, like you said, we tend to want to win an argument instead of thinking, Wait a minute, let’s make sure we have our facts straight. The example you mentioned in the post was a post you wrote about errorless learning. I was hoping you’d be willing to maybe share that story with our listeners.

Eileen Anderson: Sure, and this is an example of making a mistake. It was Susan Friedman who told me a couple of years back when I was cringing about making public mistakes and she said, “That’s like science. Science gets it wrong, and then somebody comes along and gets a little better and you get a little closer. You’re shaping the knowledge. So there’s no shame in it, even though it really feels like there is.”

I took exception to the term “errorless learning,” because I read the work of Herb Terrace, who did the famous work, I think it was in the ’60s, with pigeons, where they did thousands and thousands of repetitions of pigeons pecking on a lit disc, and it had, I think, a green light on it. The errorless part was that they made it super-easy to peck on that disc, and then they were teaching them also not to peck on a red disc. At first the other disc was way far away. Then, when they did light it up, they lit it very dimly. In other words, they kept that green disc very attractive and just kind of snuck in the other one. And in thousands of repetitions, when this was done gradually, some of the pigeons had less than one percent error rate, which all of us should aspire to.

Well, I just took exception to that, because they were in completely controlled, a lab environment, the pigeons were starving, you know, they always take them down to a low body weight so they’re wanting to work, they controlled many, many more variables than we ever can, and it just didn’t seem like something we could really emulate. And even the term to me — I nitpick words a lot — but it was not errorless. They had a one percent error rate, so you can’t call that errorless.

So I wrote a little … kind of a ranting article about that, and I snorted around about it. I had a friend — she could have done this through the public comments, but she didn’t — I had a friend whose parents were Ph.D. students under Skinner, so she’s one of the few people in the world who grew up as a human in a positive reinforcement environment, and she said, “Eileen, that’s not quite right. Herb Terrace, his experiments, yes, they were famous, but he was not the first one to talk about errorless learning, and you kind of got it wrong.”

She educated me, and it turns out that Skinner, back in the 1930s, was talking about errorless learning and errorless teaching, because of course to him, if the student made an error, it’s really a mistake of the teacher. And it was — some of us have read about it since then — it was kind of the same principal, but of providing a path for the learner where the easiest path to go is to the behavior you want with the fewest number of errors possible. He had had an argument with Thorndike, who said, “You have to make errors to learn,” and Skinner said, “No, you don’t.” And Skinner kind of won that one.

We think of Skinner as just this dry, cold guy, but he was passionate about teaching and learning, and he was trying to be as humane as possible and make an easy path for the learner, and there’s nothing bad about that, in my opinion. There’s nothing bad. And so I wrote a Part 2, and I left Part 1 up. I was tempted to get rid of it, but I left Part 1 up and I just put a note at the top saying, “If you read this, there are mistakes in here, so please read Part 2, or just read Part 2 instead.”

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I think it’s awesome that you were willing to leave that up. I think that that really says something about your willingness to be transparent about all of this. Like you said, you feel like you can show those errors and those mistakes, where a trainer may not feel comfortable with that. So I think that’s fantastic.

Eileen Anderson: Thank you. That’s something I try to do for the community, even though even for me it’s pretty hard sometimes.

Melissa Breau: How do you try to keep up to date with the latest information, and how do you try to make sure that you’re conducting good research on this stuff when you’re writing?

Eileen Anderson: One thing I learned in my science degree is you don’t just read the paper. Your job is then to go through all the footnotes, to read all the footnotes, and then get on Google Scholar and look at who has cited the paper later. Because if you looked up a paper in 1975 for “Why do humans get ulcers?” that paper would say “From stress and acidic foods.” If you don’t look later in the literature, you won’t find out that, woops, actually it’s from an infection, which they discovered in 1981 or ’82. So you have to look before the research piece that you’re reading and after it.

What I do personally, I set up some Google Alerts, both from standard Google and Google Scholar, and there are a couple topics — one of them is dementia in dogs, and the other one is sound sensitivity and sound capabilities of dogs — and I get alerts whenever anything new is published. Most of it is crap, but I get the good stuff too. I get stuff from Google Scholar when there’s a new paper, for instance, on dog dementia, which one did come out this year.

That’s pretty much how I try to keep up. I try to keep focus because there’s way too much for anybody to learn these days. But I use the tools that are out there and I try to be thorough in terms of also looking at who is arguing against this. That’s the hard part, especially when you get attached to something. You don’t want to read about why it’s wrong, but I try to do that too.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. To shift gears a little bit, you’ve also written quite a bit on your site about Clara, and you mentioned earlier that she was a feral dog and you’ve done a ton of socialization work with her. Do you mind just sharing a little bit about your approach there and how you’ve gone about that?

Eileen Anderson: I would love to, and I have to credit my teacher, Lisa Mantle, with whom … I could not have done this without her. She’s had a lot of experience with feral and other very challenged dogs. She actually says that Clara is one of the most challenging ones she has had.

When Clara came to me, she was between eight and ten weeks old, and her socialization window was in the act of shutting, probably that very night. She was scared of me, and avoidant, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to catch her. She was slinking away and acting like a wild animal. But when I opened my front door, little Cricket, the rat terrier, was barking inside, and Clara pricked up her ears and slunk by me like I wasn’t there, and came into my house and sat down next to Cricket in her crate. And so it was the other dog that got Clara into the house.

Within the evening she decided I was OK, and part of that was because of spray cheese, which she still thinks is manna from heaven. But I assumed, silly me, that since I had gotten in, everybody would get in, you know, Now she likes people, look, she thinks I’m great, she’s sitting in my lap, she’s flirting with me, she’s jumping up and down. And so the next day I took her somewhere, and I had her in the crate in the car, and I said, “Look, I’ve got this puppy,” and opened the door and Clara went, “Grrrr,” this little tiny puppy growling in the crate. I thought, Oh dear, I’ve got more of a problem here than I thought.

Back to getting to socialization, it was technically not socialization at some point because she was past that window — and there’s a terminology dispute about this, and I try to placate the people who say, “It’s not socialization after they’re a certain age.” We were doing desensitization, counterconditioning, and habituation, but we started with people a hundred feet away. That’s how fearful of people, and we had to start very far away. We did very, very careful exposures, and this was over the course of months and years.

We did a lot of it at a shopping mall, which sounds crazy, but the layout of the place was such that we really could go a hundred feet away and there wouldn’t be anybody to bother us. But it was extremely gradual, and every appearance of a person, whether they were fifty feet away or, later on, walking by on the sidewalk, was paired with something awesome, which, you know, spray cheese or something else she loved. McDonald’s chicken sandwiches were also very popular.

But it was just very gradual, and my teacher was very good at, when we’d hit a bump in the road or get to a plateau, sometimes we could work through it, sometimes we’d just take a different approach. She has good intuitions about that. And one day she said, “Let’s just take her down the sidewalk in the mall,” and by golly, she was fine. She could walk among throngs of people, as long as … there’s things she doesn’t like. If someone walks up to her and says, “Oh, a puppy!” and stares at her, she’s going to chuff at them. But people walking by, people brushing against her, sudden changes in the environment, wheelchairs, anything that might bother a lot of dogs, she is great with, and she has come such a very long way. But it was all very gradual, and it was done through desensitization, counterconditioning, and habituation.

Melissa Breau: Just to give people a little bit of an idea, when you say “very gradual,” how old is she now? How long have you been working on this stuff?

Eileen Anderson: She is 6. The point where we could walk her around in the mall was about two years after we started. But she was happy. It wasn’t this, OK, she’s all right walking around. She was great.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. I think it’s interesting to ask for the timeline a little bit there, because it helps people understand how much work goes into it sometimes. But also there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Eileen Anderson: That’s right, that’s right. And thinking back, a lot of people have had harder situations than we have, but we did have a pretty hard one. She basically was like a wild animal. I didn’t see her as a fearful dog, she wasn’t congenitally startling or fearful. She was just different, you know. She was like a wild animal and had that natural distrust of humans.

Melissa Breau: I don’t know about other people necessarily, but I really find that I personally struggle with what feels like two conflicting pieces of advice out there when it comes to socialization or even the stuff you’re talking about. The idea that, Option 1, bring your puppy lots of places, but don’t overface them, make sure it’s all positive, but bring them all the places you go. And the second is never bring your puppy places unless you’re absolutely sure you can just get up and leave if it’s too much for them. I was curious how you handled determining what to expose Clara to, what she’s ready for, and what is likely to still even today be too much for her.

Eileen Anderson: That’s a really great question. With her, of course we had to take mostly the second method. That was being careful that we had a way to get out. She was not a puppy that I could lug around everywhere and expose her to. I think there can be value in that, as long as you can protect the puppy from people who do the wrong stuff, which any reactive dog group will tell about those people who are going to do stuff to your dog if they get a chance.

But today I feel like I need to just be careful and watch her. For instance, even without really working on veterinary visits, she’s good at veterinary visits now, just because of the general work we’ve done. There’s some times you have to take your dog to the vet, and she does really well. And I feel like I could take her to a new place with people and walk around and she would do fine. I would just watch for situations where people would be too assertive towards her. So it’s not so much the environment, it’s not environmental changes, it’s not crowds. It’s that person who zeroes in and says, “Oh, what a beautiful dog! Can I pet her?” while you’re running away.

Melissa Breau: Right. We’re getting to the end here, and I have these three questions I typically ask everybody the first time they’re on the show, so I’d love to work through those. The first one is: What is the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Eileen Anderson: It is that I used classical conditioning to prevent Clara from picking up on Summer’s barking. Summer was a reactive dog and she barked regularly at things that went by the house, particularly delivery trucks and things that were hard for me to control. You can’t control those, and I wasn’t always home. So she had some untreated reactivity, and I did not want Clara, the baby puppy, to pick up on that. She had enough problems.

And so, from the very beginning, very consistently, when Summer would bark, wherever she was, I would give Clara a magnificent treat, usually again spray cheese. It didn’t matter what the dogs were doing, what was happening. So I did a classical pairing of Summer barks, wonderful treats fall from the sky. Lots of the things I think up on my own don’t work out really well because I can’t see down the line well enough to see the end ramifications, but that one worked out great. I have a dog who, when she hears another dog bark, looks at me eagerly instead of running to go bark with them.

Just considering that she had so many other challenges, I didn’t want her to have that challenge. I have a video of her literally drooling when she heard Summer bark, and so I can prove, yes, I have the Pavlovian association there — another dog barking means yummy stuff is coming my way. I am really proud of doing that. It has paid off in so many ways.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and that’s a fantastic idea. The other question, and usually this is one of my favorite questions of the podcast, is: What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Eileen Anderson: Watch the dog. And I can say that in two ways. One of them is learn about dog body language. I posted a blog just yesterday, I think it was, two days ago, about accidentally using punishing things because you’re following a protocol and trying to do everything right, and you don’t notice that you’re snapping your hand in the dog’s face or something like that they really don’t like. So watch the dog. Make sure that what you’re doing is OK, even when you’re concentrating on your mechanics and following the directions that you’ve read from your teacher. So that’s one way. And also I do agility, and so many times when I made an error, it’s like my teacher would say: “You weren’t watching your dog.” And of course there’s times we have to take our eyes off them, but “Watch the dog.” That’s my mantra.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. It’s nice and concise and easy to remember, too, which is a plus. Last question here: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Eileen Anderson: My friend Marge Rogers. Marge and I kind of grew up together in the dog training online world and we started our journeys together. Marge became a professional trainer and I became a writer.

But Marge, before there was ever a Fenzi Academy and people sharing these wonderful ideas of how to be humane to dogs in competition, before there was ever that, Marge trained her dogs way over fluency before she ever competed them. She’s also fantastic at using multiple reinforcers just as a matter of course. Any dog that goes to her is going to end up being able to switch back and forth between a plate of food and a tug toy, and they can tug when the food’s on the ground, and they can eat food even if they love to have a ball. They will get not only multiple reinforcers but the ability to respond to the trainer to transfer back and forth between those reinforcers. She’s just fantastic at that.

She helps me with all my problems. She can usually give a one-line response to whatever stupid thing I’m doing. And not only that, she’s humble. She’s always learning. She’s one of the most humble people I know, and I just love her training.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Eileen. This has been fantastic.

Eileen Anderson: You are welcome. It is my pleasure. I love to talk about this stuff, and I am very honored to be on the Fenzi podcast.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you, and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Kathy Sdao to talk about everything from training dolphins to dog training — it should be a pretty deep dive on behavior!

Don’t miss 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.

Apr 13, 2018

Summary:

Laura Waudby works part-time as a service dog trainer who prepares dogs for different types of service dog work and teaching puppy raiser classes -- plus, she’s a new mom. You can find her online at TandemDogSports.com.

In her “free time,” Laura trains and competes in obedience, rally, agility, and dabbles in disc dog and trick training. She was halfway to her OTCH with her UDX Corgi, Lance, before his early retirement. She has also competed at the Master’s level in agility.  

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/20/2018, featuring Eileen Anderson, author of Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

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’ll be talking to Laura Waudby.

Laura works part-time as a service dog trainer who prepares dogs for different types of service dog work and teaching puppy raiser classes -- plus, she’s a new mom. You can find her online at TandemDogSports.com.

In her “free time,” Laura trains and competes in obedience, rally, agility, and dabbles in disc dog and trick training. She was halfway to her OTCH with her UDX Corgi, Lance, before his early retirement. She has also competed at the Master’s level in agility.  

Due to the special behavior needs of one of her Duck Tolling Retrievers, Laura has developed a strong interest in learning how to create motivation and confidence in dogs that struggle, either through genetics or through less than ideal training, to make it into the competition ring.

At FDSA, Laura offers classes for the Fenzi TEAM titles program and teaches Ring Confidence and several specialty classes including a class on articles and a class on stand for exam.

Hi Laura, welcome to the podcast!

Laura Waudby: Hey. I’m glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you. So, do you mind starting us off by reminding listeners a little bit about who the dogs are that you have and what you’re working on with them?

Laura Waudby: My first dog is Lance, the Corgi. He is basically retired now due to an injury, but we do some obedience and trick training, and he likes to run around barking quite a bit. Then I have Vito, the Toler, and we mainly compete in agility, where we’ve worked on a lot of his ring stress issues. We still train in obedience, working on engagement, motivation, being brave. Then I have Zumi the Duck, who is my younger Toler. She’s 3 years old right now. We are trialing now in agility, rally, and even obedience. These last few months she’s started to awaken, so we’re working on a lot of over-arousal issues now in both sports, but it’s nice having a completely different set of issues than my other dog Vito. Then I usually have a foster dog or two around the house, service dogs in training.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on getting in the ring with the youngster there. I’ve seen some of the videos. It looks like good stuff.

Laura Waudby: Yeah, she’s a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to start out talking a bit about this idea of ring confidence. I think that most people who have a dog that loves training -- or even those who have worked super-hard to teach a dog to love training -- are often a bit surprised when they go into the ring for the first time and find they have a totally different dog than they’re used to. Why is trialing so different from training?

Laura Waudby: Everything about a trial is different than training. One of the biggest things is the atmosphere is really charged. There’s nervous handlers and excited handlers both at the same time. It’s clear that there’s something specific about the ring area by the way that people are all crowding around it, everybody’s watching. And then in obedience and rally, there’s somebody there shouting orders at their mom or dad, so they can see that they’re not really in charge.

There’s also the formality piece, really, even in sports like agility, when you’re not really limited to how you praise and interact with your dog. There’s still the stress excitement of the trial clams people up and you act really different than you would in a trial. So it doesn’t take long for dogs to discover that the ring is very different. There’s no food, there’s no toys, and the absence of the reward can create a lot of stress too.

Melissa Breau: Most people, I think, plan to work on it by taking their dog to lots of fun matches and training there until they think their dog is ready for competition, and while for some dogs, in some instances, maybe that’s enough, I think often it’s really not. What are some of the pieces that are maybe missing from that plan?

Laura Waudby: I tend to find people use their run-throughs as getting that “trial experience.” They show up and their plan is to go through all the exercises or a full sequence of agility obstacles exactly like it was a trial, without rewards and extra praise, and without any support of their dog, who is probably struggling.

The whole idea of doing all the exercises formally is really flawed to begin with. It’s sometimes OK to test to see where you are and how the exercises hold up under pressure, but I think that should be pretty limited when you go to fun matches, because I don’t think trial issues are due to the exercises themselves. It’s more everything else I’ve talked about, with the formality and the pressure and the lack of rewards.

So when I go to a fun match, I want to take advantage of that environment and work on showing my dog what the procedures are, things like, this is how we’ll wait outside the ring, this is how someone will approach you and they’ll take your leash, this is how we’ll go to the start line together, or this is how we’ll move in-between exercises.

But practicing those little tiny things in a trial, I guess that’s really where most of the stress issues tend to occur, and my main goal is just having a lot of fun, playing with the dog, helping them out, showing them there’s nothing scary about being in the ring, having them feel good with all the pressure surrounding it. That’s how I approach fun matches and run-throughs.

Melissa Breau: Those are some of the pieces in the Ring Confidence class. Do you mind talking about how you work on that in that class?

Laura Waudby: The Ring Confidence class has those two main goals of what we just talked about. The first goal is that ring equals fun. It should be a very happy and safe space for the dog, and that’s pretty much through classical conditioning. It’s entering the ring and having a party over and over and over again.

It can take quite a while for dogs who have already been trialing, because you have to work on going to new places. It doesn’t have to be a trial environment, but just going to a park or a shopping area and practicing entering a new spot and having fun. It’s forgetting about training the exercises themselves and just playing with your dog, because if they’re comfortable enough to play with you and focus on you, then they can work.

The second part of Ring Confidence is working on that focus, and teaching the dog what to expect at a trial and what to do with all those little pieces, while turning those previous distractions and previous stressors into actual cues to focus on their partner. So it’s mainly about providing that structure to the dog and to the human about what to do, such as how will they warm up the dog, how will they handle those delays in the ring, how will they handle talking to the judge, etc.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little bit more about what some of those aspects are that you look at that come with a trial environment and some of the ways that you train for those?

Laura Waudby: When you’re starting with a new dog, some of it is trial and error, and guessing how the dog responds to you, because you have to look at what does the dog need when arriving at a trial. Should you crate them inside, should you crate them in your car, how much time do they need to walk around the grounds, how much time works best before going back to the crate and giving them a little bit of a rest, how they need to warm up. So all of that is trial and error.

Hopefully, you can get that from going different places with your dog, even if it’s going to a park and seeing does your dog connect with really calm petting, do they need more energizing tricks and movement to feel comfortable, figuring out how far away from the ring do you need to be. All those little things are just trial and error as you go, but you can work on training different parts of it.

And then looking at all the stuff once you’re actually inside the ring, such as the people, pressure, practicing, the leash runner approaching your dog, practicing how you’re going to keep that connection, and again, either building energy with a dog who stresses down, or with a dog who gets really over-excited, figuring out how you’re going to keep that dog from boiling over as you move to your new setup spots or move between exercises.

Melissa Breau: I know the class covers a couple of different sports. Are there differences there in what needs to be taught for the different sports?

Laura Waudby: The basic concepts are pretty much the same, whether it’s obedience, rally, agility, even we’ve had some freestyle students in the class.

The main difference is that obedience you have a lot more stuff to train because you have a lot more pressure in the ring. You have to train for the judge approaching you, all the people approaching you at different times, and then, of course, the breaks in-between the exercises.

In agility you have a lot more freedom of how you actually interact with the dog in the ring, while you work your way to the start line, how you handle delays. Encouraging a lot more active connections, such as jumping up and even barking, is perfectly fine in agility, so you have a lot more stuff you can do.

And in obedience you just have a lot more things to train for.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. You mentioned handler nerves a little bit earlier, just the fact that there are excited people and there are nervous people and all the range along that spectrum. How significant of a role is that when it comes to a competition environment? Do you address handler nerves at all in class, or maybe you have recommendations from your own experience?

Laura Waudby: Handler nerves are a huge part of trial issues. Dogs definitely sense our stress and this can shut them down or amp them up, depending upon the dog.

Unfortunately, handler nerves are not my specialty at all. I still get very nervous before obedience trials. I’m just so focused on how I’m going to handle my dog for every part that I don’t think other people can tell.

We do a little bit of training in the Ring Confidence class to get the dog used to that picture of a stressed handler. We can work on things like holding our breath to mimic our really tense bodies, heeling to a metronome to mimic that extra concentration we have when listening to somebody else, but in terms of actually teaching the human part how to deal with their own stress and relax, I leave that up to Andrea. Andrea has all the wonderful Mental Management classes, so she is much better at dealing with that than I am.

Melissa Breau: Denise taught the class, now you teach the class. As a competitor, are there any skills from this class that have really been game-changers for you and your dogs? I know that part of it’s that you implemented the class, so maybe you could talk about that a little bit.

Laura Waudby: This class I’ve already been doing for quite a while with my own dog Vito, because he’s been a huge experiment for me in trying to get him happy in the ring.

One of the things that Denise introduced me for this class was the idea that squish was having not just a safe place for the dog to be while waiting outside of the ring, but also that idea of teaching that release to be really … well, for Vito, who stresses down, for that release to be really energetic, drivey, focusing on me. I think that “on switch” has helped him quite a bit going into obedience.

For agility, probably the biggest success for him in agility in implementing this class was actually teaching him to bark at me when entering the ring. It took a long time to get him to bark at me at the start line, and people don’t believe me when I say that anymore, because he’s a Toler and he loves Toler screaming, and he will scream a lot now on the start line.

What that really did was it helped our connection. He used to stare at the ring crew, the leash runners, the judge, really worry about them, and now that we’re entering the ring and he’s barking at me, he’s focusing a lot more on me and yelling at me, instead of looking around to find where all the scary people are. So that was our game changer for agility.

Sadly, obedience does not allow the barking, so we’re working on that squish and that release coming out of it, and all that personal play and jumping at me has been a work in progress to work on that motivation.

Melissa Breau: For those who don’t know what squish is, do you mind briefly describing what that looks like?

Laura Waudby: A squish is a waiting position for the dog when you are outside of the ring. It could be when you’re right up to the ring gates, if you have to wait close to the ring, or it could be further away from the ring. But it’s a place for the dog to relax. They don’t have to focus on you. Actually, you don’t want them focusing on you. I want my dog to look around, to see the world, to look into the ring, see where the judges are, the stewards are, and just relax.

And then we teach a release cue, which is pressure-based. I have a physical hand touch I do with my dogs on their chests, and when I release it, the dog should focus on me, with whatever drive and energy level you need that dog to do.

So with my dog who stresses down, I really work … when I release Vito — he stands between my legs for his squish — when I release him, he should turn to me really quickly with a lot of energy. With Zumi, who stresses up a little bit, I work on a little bit of energy coming out, but a thinking type of energy and not just exploding randomly into the world.

All my dogs wait between my legs for their squish position, but you could have them — whatever works for you. You could hold them in your arms, you could have them leaning against you. It’s a place to feel safe.

Melissa Breau: For people who are considering taking the class, could you talk a little about who is a good fit and how someone can decide if it’s an appropriate class for them?

Laura Waudby: The Ring Confidence class is probably my favorite class of all time. I love teaching it, and I really think it’s for anybody who wants to trial or is trialing.

The main audience are for dogs, though, who do perfectly fine at trials, they’re fine hanging out in the crate area or walking around, but then they walk into the ring entrance, they walk into that ring, and bam, they’re a completely different dog. They either stress down and start sniffing everywhere or just disconnect, or they stress up and have some over-arousal issues and really struggle to focus or have that thinking connection with their person.

My ideal audience would be dogs who have not started trialing yet. It’s kind of, I know, a novel idea to actually prepare your dog what to expect in a trial, but really getting them comfortable with the procedures before actually entering their first trial.

Melissa Breau: In addition to the Ring Confidence in April, you’re also teaching a TEAM 3 class. I know I’ve talked about TEAM, for those who are listening, a couple of times now in a few different episodes, but in case there’s anyone out there listening for the first time, do you mind briefly sharing what TEAM stands for and what the concept is there?

Laura Waudby: TEAM stands for Training Excellence Assessment Modules, and it’s an online, video-based titling program. The first three levels were designed to set a very solid foundation for any dog sports. The emphasis is really on excellent training, breaking down exercises into their smallest pieces, and then seeing can the dog do just this little bit but do it very, very well. So it’s more of that training title than “can the dog just do it,” because we want to see that they’re … we’re gradually adding the ideas of precision, reducing reinforcement, adding distractions, and then doing it in different environments.

Melissa Breau: If somebody wants to compete in Obedience or Rally specifically, how can TEAM help them get there?

Laura Waudby: I think of TEAM as providing a blueprint of how to break down all those advanced exercises into manageable pieces. So instead of spending all your time working just on heeling and recalls, which pretty much makes up most novice obedience organizations, it’s like we introduce all the foundations for pretty much every single advanced exercise right from the start. In Level 1 we not only have pivoting, which is a foundation for really great heel work, but we also have backing up and scent articles and going out around a cone, teaching a vertical target for a go out, all these little things, and it builds from there until you … as the levels start to progress, we start to form little chains of those behaviors, so it starts to look more like the advanced exercises and not just those little pieces.

Melissa Breau: I’ve heard a few times, in the Facebook group and talking to folks, that TEAM 3 is where things get fun. So I wanted to ask how TEAM 3 is different from those first two levels, and if you could talk us through a few examples of how it builds on those behaviors from TEAM 1 and 2.

Laura Waudby: I agree, I do think of Level 3 as where it does start to get extra-fun. I think it’s mainly because it starts to feel real. You’re putting more behaviors together so that it actually looks like real obedience training to people who don’t necessarily train this way.

For example, in Level 1 and Level 2, you’re doing all this pivot work with a prop and without a prop, and finally in Level 3, we actually allow you to heel forward, and that starts to look like really pretty heeling.

We even test that by doing sidestepping in heel. Can the dog move laterally with their person by keeping their rear end nice and tight? And it looks really cool, but the dog already has the foundations for it from all that pivot training that he did in the earlier levels, so it’s actually not that hard when you start to combine it together. With the combined behavior, the chains, it also means that there’s also a lot more movement involved, and dogs just love that movement.

There’s still the technical pieces, but the extra movement they do, the running they get to, now starts to be more naturally rewarding for the dog and that makes it easier to start reducing their reinforcers. So at Level 3 you only get four cookies for the entire test, so it’s like a reward every other exercise. It’s really good trial preparation to gradually reduce the rewards, and the dog’s having a lot of fun by doing all those movement-based exercises.

Melissa Breau: In TEAM 3 submissions, are there any places that it’s comment to see Not Yets — either because they’re particularly tricky to train or because it’s easy to misunderstand the rules and miss something when you’re reading through? Can you talk us through what happens there?

Laura Waudby: Overall, I think the students are doing a really great job with their Level 3 runs. They already have several successful Level 1 and 2 runs under their belts, so they’re doing a much better job with remembering what the pieces are, how to handle their dog between exercises, and remembering where the exercises start. So I think there’s a lot higher success rate at Level 3 than there are at the earlier levels.

But there are two main places I see errors. The first is the heeling, just like Level 1 and Level 2. Level 3, at this point, we require two steps of forward heeling, a 180 pivot left, a 180 pivot right, and then the two feet of sidestepping right.

The handlers can get a little bit over excited and forget that the pivots that they worked really hard on at earlier levels still have to be a true pivot in place at Level 3. We like doing really big, wide U-turns sometimes in heeling, but the dog doesn’t have to move their rear end nearly as much in a U-turn, and they don’t learn to stay parallel to us during the entire turn. The handler just needs to calm down a little bit and remember to do the really precise pivots to the left and to the right when they’re doing the heeling work. Same thing with the side steps. Handlers tend to rush that. They get excited; they’re a little stressed. I recommend doing several small shuffles sideways instead of trying to do two gigantic steps and leaving the dog in the dust. We want the dog to be parallel with you the entire time, so moving those smaller steps for the two feet tends to help with that.

And the second exercise that I see, again, more handler errors than anything else is the directed cone send. This exercise is basically a baby version of a utility go out and directed jumping exercise you see in trials. We just use cones instead of jumps and have a shorter distance. The challenge here is that we also introduce the concept of cuing the dog to return directly to heel versus cuing the dog to come to fronts. They have to find that front from an angle, as the handler is not allowed to move their feet.

What I find people are doing when they’re practicing this is that they’re waiting to cue the dog to find front or to find heel until the dog is all the way to them so they can use their hand signal as a guide. However, for the actual test, the cue to find heel or find front needs to be given when the dog is still at a distance just after they’ve rounded that correct cone. So this is more of a handler error than a training challenge, but if you look where you want the dog to go and give them the information they need soon enough, the dogs can do a great job of learning the difference when you’re cueing them to find heel versus finding front.

Melissa Breau: That’s an interesting thing to include because — at least, I think — most of the time in the obedience ring they’re coming to front, so it really forces some cue discrimination there.

Laura Waudby: It’s definitely not a skill that we need here in America, where the dog’s pretty much always have to find front, except for the utility moving stand exercise. But this is really the first time they’re doing it from such a big distance and with a lot of speed.

Melissa Breau: This came up on the Facebook page, which is why I want to make sure I include it. Do students need to have their TEAM 2 title to take the TEAM 3 class? If not, how can they decide whether they’re ready for it?

Laura Waudby: They definitely don’t need the TEAM 2 title. We actually encourage students to be looking ahead to the next level, or even further than that, and start training for it, even if they haven’t done the lower level test.

Dogs always have some behaviors they’re really strong with that their handler needs to be raising the difficulty with challenging their dog and not just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. With the behaviors that are still in progress, it’s OK to still work at your lower level, even though you’re also working on TEAM 3 or even TEAM 4 stuff with the behaviors the dogs are really good at.

And if you’re not quite there when you’re looking at some of the TEAM 3 lectures, you just may need to add some props in or reduce the difficulty in another way. For example, the Level 2 test looks at getting position changes from 6 feet away with a 5-second pause, and that duration distance takes time to build. You just can’t rush it. So it’s OK if you want to work on Level 3, which adds in handler distractions, but now you’ll just go back to standing right in front of the dog and not working as much duration. So your splitting out the distance and the duration from the idea of the dog listening to their cue, even if the handler is doing something weird, like lying on the floor or turning their back to the dog. That may even help them for the Level 1 and Level 2 test.

Melissa Breau: So, I think this question probably applies to both classes. Probably one of the most useful things competitors can do is to really know the rules of whatever venue it is that they’re competing in inside and out, so that they know what to expect and so they can train things properly. What kinds of things should people look for as they read through rules for whatever their sport and venue, and do you have any tips on keeping it all straight?

Laura Waudby: Probably the biggest help is going to a trial in the sport you’re pursuing or a particular organization, or in the case of TEAM is watching all the videos, and not just watching videos from the level you’re at, but watching videos of the upper levels so you can see what that final picture is, where all your training is going.

You can get a better idea, too, like for agility, what course styles there tend to be out there. For in-person obedience trials, you can also look for the details of where the judges tend to stand, what do the common layouts of the ring look at, just so you’re a lot more comfortable with everything and how things tend to be judged. For in-person trials for terms of ring confidence, sometimes the biggest factor you should know before going into a trial is knowing specifically how that trial site is laid out.

If you have a special-needs dog, like many of us do, you may need to plan exactly where your dog is going to wait before entering the ring, how you’re going to get to that ring entrance with focus. Some trial locations are not easy for the dogs who get over-aroused, reactive, or stress. That’s where TEAM is really nice, because everything is online, but there’s a lot more pressure on you to remember the order and the precision needed for each test.

I recommend that people, besides watching all the videos to know how things should look, I recommend memorizing the exercises in at least in a group of three. If you print out those lists and divide them in three exercises, that will help a lot with your flow. I see a lot of people in the videos stopping to read what the next exercise is, read the rules, and their dog … they’re just left hanging out there and not knowing what’s going on. So read those rules, memorize a little bit of an order, and plan your flow will help a lot in getting through that exercise with much less stress for you and your dog.

Melissa Breau: I think people probably underestimate the value of having watched the videos and attended things in person. I know one of the big conversations constantly on the TEAM Facebook page is being strategic with your locations and where you do your tests, and if you don’t think that through, you may use a location that would have been better for a later level early on, and that can make things a little more difficult on yourself.

Laura Waudby: Yes. As your level goes up, you definitely need more space, so you don’t want to use your biggest space for a Level 1 when you really need that for a Level 3-plus video where you need to go offsite. So definitely start to plan ahead.

Melissa Breau: Finally, as somebody who has competed a fair amount, would you be willing to share a little bit of information on how you prep for a competition and what your pre-trial routine looks like with one of your own dogs?

Laura Waudby: I don’t think I really do any specific prep work before a trial outside of all of the ring confidence work I’ve done. I don’t train differently before a trial than I do on non-trial weekends.

The only thing I make sure of is I don’t put any extra pressure on specific exercises, meaning that dogs make weird mistakes sometimes. Let’s pretend my dog suddenly can’t remember at all how to do a scent article, or how to do their weave pole entry, and it’s a few days before a trial. I kind of ignore it. I’m not going to do any training to try and fix it, because that’s just going to add pressure to it. I really just ignore it and go to trial, don’t worry about it. The last thing I want is my dog getting stressed the exercise because I’m suddenly freaking out about it. Chances are the behavior is taught fine, it was just a weird thing that day, and if you don’t draw attention to it, then it’s not going to stick around.

And if it does happen to stick around, then you have to develop a training plan for it anyway, and you freaking out a few days before a trial is not a good time to come up with a new training plan. So I don’t really do a whole lot.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Laura. This was great.

Laura Waudby: Yeah, it was fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Eileen Anderson, author of Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

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.

Apr 6, 2018

Summary:

Dr. Jessica Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Studies in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics.

Previously, Jessica graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on the behavior and cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/13/2018, featuring Laura Waudby to talk about getting a happy dog in the competition ring.

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’ll be talking to Dr. Jessica Hekman.

Dr. Jessica Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Studies in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics.

Previously, Jessica graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on the behavior and cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

Finally, she is also the most recent addition to the team of FDSA instructors!

Hi Jessica, welcome to the podcast!

Jessica Hekman: Thanks. I’m very excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you, and I was a little nervous reading that bio because I knew there were a lot of things in there that my tongue was not going to wrap around well.

Jessica Hekman: You did great.

Melissa Breau: I’m pretty happy with that. To start us out, do you want to tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, I love that you start with the real easy question, because everyone likes talking about their dogs.

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Jessica Hekman: I have two dogs. I have Dashiell and Jenny. When I got Dash, I knew that I wanted to do dog sports with him. He’s a 19-month-old English Shepherd, and for people who don’t know that breed, they’re closely related to Aussies and Border Collies, so it’s sometimes a little scary how smart he is.

He’s really docile, sweet, interactive, he’s so much fun to work with. We’ve done treibball, and we’ve done agility, which is my favorite sport and one I’ve really wanted to do with him, but he has a chronic shoulder problem right now that we’re in the middle of getting under control, so agility’s on hold at the moment. We’ve also done some parkour. I think that’s his favorite because he loves to jump on things, and there’s still some parkour tricks that he can do, even with his shoulder issues, but a bunch that he can’t. So at the moment he’s in an in-person rally class with my husband. They both really like the structure of rally, even though it’s not really my thing, and then with me he’s doing nosework. We did that Intro To Nosework class with Stacy last session and we both really enjoyed it. Dash is the first puppy I’ve ever raised. I always got rescue or shelter dogs before, but I have wanted to get into studying socialization in dogs, so I wanted to actually go through it with my own dog before doing the research.

My older dog is Jenny. She’s an 8-year-old mixed breed, and I know just from talking to the shelter that she came from that she definitely has some Lab in her, and we also did an ancestry test, which suggested some Samoyed, and she looks a lot like a tiny, little golden-colored Border Collie, and she sort of acts like a herding breed. She’s also super-smart.

She did not get enough socialization at a young age. I got her when she was about a year old, and at the time she was terrified of all people and all new places, and she peed every time I touched her. She spent the first week huddled on a dog bed in terror, and when I needed to take her outside to pee, I would crawl backwards toward her without making eye contact, and then, without looking at her, I would have this leash, and she had a little tab permanently on a harness that she wore 24/7 exactly so I wouldn’t have to touch her by the collar. So I would reach backwards without looking at her and attach the leash to her tab sort of by feel, and then we would go downstairs and outside.

After a week of this, one day I started crawling backwards towards her and she stood up and was like, “I understand the system and I can do it myself.” So I took her downstairs off-leash and she went outside — safely fenced yard, so that was OK — she went outside, she came back in. So that’s Jenny.

She’s really scared of everything, but she’s also game to work through it, and she finds her own out-of-the-box solutions to it. Most of the time that she’s been with me we’ve just worked on her confidence levels, but they are really improving now, and since I got Dash she has also let me know that she is really interested in doing sports stuff too, so she also enjoys doing parkour, and we are doing nosework together as well. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to go to a nosework trial, but that is fine with me. So those are my two dogs.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that Dash is the first puppy that you’ve raised, but you knew you wanted to do agility when you got him. How did you get into dog sports? What got you started there?

Jessica Hekman: I was looking for something to do with my first dog, who was Jack, he was a Golden Retriever, so I was looking around for stuff and we started doing agility and I loved it. Jack liked it. I think he would have preferred to have done dock diving. I never found a good place to do that competitively, but we’d go to a local pond and he’d do his really impressive belly flops, so that was a good time.

We did agility together for two or three years, and we got to the point of going to trials. He cued a few times. I was very impressed with myself with him. But then I started veterinary school, and that was that for any extracurricular activities all through vet school.

As you said, I did this dual degree program, so it was extra long as well, and by the time I got out, Jack was elderly to do sports, I had Jenny at that point, and there weren’t online classes, online options, and she couldn’t do in-person stuff, so I was out of sports then for quite a while, through vet school and through my Ph.D., so that was about ten years, and I missed it horribly. I would watch agility on YouTube and stuff.

Jack lived to the very impressive old age of 16, which is great for a Golden Retriever. After I lost him, I got Dash, and I immediately got back into doing sports then.

Melissa Breau: What about the positive tilt of things? Have you always been a positive trainer? If not, what got you started on that journey?

Jessica Hekman: I had never trained a dog before when I got Jack. I got him in 2003. We went to what I guess you would call a balanced class for basic manners. It was not a terrible class, they didn’t have us abusing the dogs or anything, but we did use some leash popping to try to get good leash manners, stuff like that. At the time I thought that was entirely appropriate. When I first learned about clicker training. I remember saying, “Oh, but there should be consequences if a dog doesn’t obey you.” That was where I was then.

When we started agility together, that was 100 percent positive, of course, and that was when I first learned to use clicker training myself. That was when I started shaping. At the time, though, I was still open to mild positive punishment in basic training, so I think I was gradually converted. I was going to a lot of seminars with positive trainers, I was reading books by people like McConnell and Sdeo, and eventually I started to realize, I can have a better relationship with my dogs than I do.

I’ve realized since then how great the approach is, not just for dogs, but for interacting with people. I use a lot less punishment in my relationships with friends and family than I used to, although I find humans can be hard to reward. You can’t pop M&Ms into everyone’s mouth, and you can’t stop a conversation to have a friendly wrestle, so that’s challenging. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Melissa Breau: We should, as a community, decide that it’s perfectly appropriate to hand out M&Ms left and right. I think that would make the world a better place.

Jessica Hekman: That would make life so much easier.

Melissa Breau: Obviously your day job now is heavily research-based. You started off in veterinary school, you started off in dog sports, how did you end up in research specifically?

Jessica Hekman: That was the long way around, for sure. I majored in medieval studies in college, and by the end of college I was already starting to feel like, you know, I really liked reading the stuff I was reading, I was reading Arthurian romances, it was great, but I was feeling like I was following paths that other people had taken before.

I had this one moment where I had some insight that I thought was fantastic, age 20, I thought I was brilliant, I took this to my advisor and he was like, “That was a great insight. It was exactly the same as this other person said 20 years ago.” Basically he was saying it was so good because it was exactly the same as something someone else did, and I was like, Oh, man, I have to get out of this, and I have to do something new. I have to have some effect on the world.

I didn’t go into biology then. I got into computer programming. It was the mid-’90s, we were in the middle of the dotcom boom, they were hiring warm bodies off the streets to do computer programming. That was actually a fantastic career. I was in online publishing programming for ten years. I got to the point where I was working four days a week, three of them from home, I was making a lot more money than I’m making now, and that was great. It was great for having a dog. I was at home with my dog all the time. But then I got bored. I started feeling again that I was having no real effect on the world.

The dotcom crash happened, there was a lot less money in the industry, and that meant there was a lot less interesting work going on, and right around that time I had gotten Jack, my first dog, and as a result I had also gotten into Retriever rescue. I was working with a local Retriever rescue, and because of that I started getting really interested in dog behavior. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about it, I started going on the seminar circuit, and when I read The Other End Of The Leash, by Patricia McConnell, I was like, Oh, this is it. This is what I want to do. I want to learn all about this stuff.

So I started looking into being a behaviorist, and just a quick spoiler alert — I did not actually end up being a behaviorist, but you can become a behaviorist, either with a Ph.D. or with a DVM. At the time, I knew research was the interesting thing to me, so I tried that route.

It was 2005 at this point, and there were, at that time, no labs studying dog behavior. I talked to one professor, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and he said to me, “Well, you can study wolf behavior, but Ph.D.’s don’t study dogs because they’re domesticated, so they’re not natural animals. Vets study dogs, but they study them medically, no one studies their behavior. No one studies dog behavior.”

So I was like, What do I do? I guess I could go to vet school, and I want to be able to prescribe meds in my theoretical behavior practice. So I went to vet school to become a veterinary behaviorist. At that point I had to do all my basic sciences before I could even apply. As a medievalist turned computer programmer, I had zero sciences under my belt, so I had to do all of that. It changed the way I saw the world. I had been this arty medievalist turned computer nerd, and I was like, Oh, now I’m starting to understand what goes on in bodies and brains. That was real interesting.

I got into vet school, I went to Tufts, they had this combined DVM/Master’s program, as you said. I decided to do that because I thought it would give me some exposure to research. The way it works is the first two years you do the vet program, you take a year off in the middle to do the Master’s, and then you go back and finish the vet program for two years.

My second year doing the veterinary program, I shadowed a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts, and that was the first time I got to, week after week, see a behaviorist in action. That was when I realized I totally did not want to do that with my life. I did not want to try to fix broken dogs. I thought it was much more effective to try to figure out why dogs break in the first place and try to stop that from happening.

Shortly after that, that was the end of my second year, and then after that I did my research year. So I spent a whole year just doing research. I still remember this one day, walking through the parking lot at Tufts on the way to my car, and thinking, Wow, I love this stuff so much. I am not looking forward to going back to vet school. It was like the skies opened and I thought, I don’t have to be a behaviorist! I can go get a Ph.D. after all! It all came together. That was when I was like, I can go do research, and that will help with the prevention of behavior problems.

The research world was really changing while I was in vet school. I said that there weren’t any labs doing dog stuff when I started, but while I was in vet school, people started to realize that, in fact, dogs are totally fascinating models for research. They are natural animals, and the fact that they’ve evolved to live inside civilization along with humans — that makes them more interesting, not less interesting.

So after I finished vet school, I did do an internship, but then I did a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, working with Kukekova Lab, and that lab was actually founded just the year before I came there. I was one of her first two grad students. So it’s very much been a process of when I’m ready to take my next step, things have appeared just barely in time for me to get there. In that lab we studied tame foxes, not dogs, but the tame foxes are a fantastic model for dogs and for domestication. It was a really great opportunity for me. I learned a lot.

But I really wanted to get into studying the genetics of pet dogs, and again, while I was in that program, a few people were starting to do that. No one had quite figured out how to do it at a large scale, so when you’re working not with lab animals but with pets, and there’s so much variety in their genetics and in how they’re raised, you need really, really large numbers of them, and that was really hard for anyone to figure out how to do.

But just a couple of years before I was ready to graduate, again, this new lab sprang up, they were doing exactly that, so that’s where I am now, Karlsson Lab at the Broad Institute. It’s spelled Broad but it’s pronounced Brode, just to be super-tricky for people. I like to say of Karlsson Lab that it’s, like, thank God they’re doing exactly what I thought I would have to do, so I don’t have to organize this massive citizen science approach to studying pet dogs, because my new boss, Elinor, has already done that, and I can just focus on the fun parts. So that’s my crazy journey. It’s probably a longer answer than you were looking for.

Melissa Breau: No, it’s interesting. You’ve had a lot of interesting experiences and steps along the way. I’d love to dig a little more into what you’re doing now. Do you mind sharing a general overview?

Jessica Hekman: Sure. Karlsson Lab, where I am now, takes what we call a citizen science approach to studying pet dogs. What we do is we collect a lot of dog behavior information and DNA directly from dog owners, and we use that to try to find connections between differences in the dog’s DNA and their different behavioral traits.

The main project that has started out collecting that is called Darwin’s Dogs, and you can go to DarwinsDogs.org and participate, and I’m sure that all of you will do that, and you should definitely do that. Right now we’re very much in the data collection phase, so at the moment I’m doing a lot of what turns out to be basically project management, making sure that all the stuff is coming together, that we’re storing the data in a reasonable way, things like that. But I am already getting to do some data analysis. I actually, really excitingly just last week, I got my hands on about 15 years worth of pedigree and behavioral data from a school that breeds guide dogs. I’m getting to analyze that in order to write a paper about it. As the data is coming in from other projects, the plan is that I’ll be one of the ones to analyze that as well.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know we’ve chatted a bit about having your boss on the podcast, too, to talk more about some of this stuff, but I’d love if you want to share just a couple of the projects you guys are working on. You mentioned DarwinsDogs.org, so I’ll make sure that there’s a link to that in the show notes for folks. Do you want to share any other stuff that listeners might be interested in?

Jessica Hekman: For sure. We actually have a brand new project that’s about to launch that FDSA folks can participate in, and it’s actually, even if you don’t have a dog, although I know that pretty much everyone listening to this will have a dog. In my nosework class that I did with FDSA, I was Bronze in the introductory nosework and one person was at Gold with a cat, which was fantastic.

Melissa Breau: That’s very cool.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, that was neat. This new project is called Muttmix. That’s at muttmix.org. The idea is that we will show you photos of a whole bunch of mixed-breed dogs, and you get to guess what is in their breed mix. We will collect guesses from a whole bunch of people, and then we will e-mail you back afterwards and tell you what was in those dogs, based on their genetic analyses that we did. So it should be a lot of fun for you. And then the data that we collect will be used to help us analyze how good people are at looking at a dog and telling exactly what breed is in there, which, just a spoiler alert, it’s really hard to do that by looking.

It turns out that mutts are really, really interesting, and very few people, if any, have really surveyed them. Most of the papers out there on dogs, particularly genetic papers, are about purebred dogs. So muttmix.org, and it’s starting in a few weeks, but if you go right now, you can give your e-mail address and then we can let you know when it goes live. That’s Muttmix.

And then the main project that I personally am working on is called the Working Dog Project, and that is, we collect behavioral and genetic information from working dogs to find out the genetic influences that make dogs more or less good at their job, or more or less able to succeed in training programs. For example, a guide dog school typically only has about half of the puppies that they train succeed at becoming guide dogs. Why is that? Is there anything we can do to help them do better?

And, by the way, if it occurs to you that sports dogs are a lot like working dogs, that has also occurred to me, and I am totally planning to expand this project to include sports dogs, so stay tuned about that. And if and when that happens, I will definitely be letting FDSA folks know.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I look forward to that, and I can’t wait to see what some of the outcomes are of the research you’re working on. It all sounds so interesting.

Jessica Hekman: Us too. It’s sad that research is so slow, because we would really like the answers yesterday.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I know that, talking about research, you did include a bunch of that in the webinar you just did, kind of the other end of things, on the biology of socialization, and you’ve got another coming up on April 12 on epigenetics. Do you want to explain what epigenetics is, and then share a little bit on what the webinar will focus on?

Jessica Hekman: Epigenetics is a way that organisms, including dogs, record the experiences that they’ve had in their DNA. We used to think that the DNA sequence is something that never changes for a particular individual. It turns out, though, that epigenetics is this mechanism that this cell has. It’s like marks that you put on the DNA, so the sequence itself doesn’t change, but there’s these marks that are added on it, sort of like a bookmark in a book, so that the content of the book doesn’t change, but you can put a bookmark in it to save a really important page that you want to come back to again and again.

Animals can do this with their DNA to say, “This is a bit that is really useful for the environment that I live in, and I want to use this bit a whole lot.” So this is a new way that we look at what makes up an animal’s personality — not just their genetics, but

also this way that animals have of recording their experiences in their DNA.

In this webinar I’ll talk about what we know about epigenetics, and I will specifically relate it to dogs. A lot of the epigenetics resources that are out there for people to read are obviously very human-oriented, and so I will focus very much on “What does this mean for your sports dog?”

Melissa Breau: Kind of to take that and ask what is probably a way-too-broad question, what does go into a perfect performance dog from that standpoint?

Jessica Hekman: Lots of things. There’s very complex effects on a lot of different genes interacting with each other in ways that are really hard to predict, but that’s what my job is, is to try to find ways of predicting how that’s going to work.

And then equally complex there’s the effects of the dog’s environment, of course. But the environment — we don’t always think of it as it actually starts at conception in the uterus, with the hormones that the mom passes on to the puppies in nutrition, and then the environment also includes the time in the nest with their littermates, how the puppy is socialized, how the dog is trained. We can only control a tiny portion of all of this, like some of the socialization and the training, and I knew that theoretically when I got Dash as a puppy, but I have to admit I still figured I’d be able to control a bit more of him than I could in the end. So yeah, perfect performance dog.

Melissa Breau: Are there common misconceptions that dog sports people tend to have about this sciencey stuff? If so, what can you do to set the record straight?

Jessica Hekman: I think that a lot of people have this hope that science, and particularly genetics, will be able to give us black-and-white answers to questions that we have, that maybe a dog who has behavioral issues, or issues in the ring, has some underlying genetic problem that can’t be changed and that perhaps could be identified in a test, that we’ll maybe discover one gene for aggression and be able to breed it out.

Of course, in real life, biology is incredibly complex and there’s no black-and-white, there’s really just shades of gray. But of course that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to learn and understand about how the body and brain work that can be really enlightening when we’re thinking about how to interact with our dogs. I hope that answers that question.

Melissa Breau: That’s actually an interesting way of thinking about it, and I think it’s important to note that even science doesn’t have all the answers. It’s a complex topic, and to a certain extent you do need to wade in waist-deep to get a good understanding of all the bits and pieces. What do you think about for the future? Where do you think the future of some of this stuff will lead us, and what subjects are there out there that you hope that science can find the answers to?

Jessica Hekman: Personally, I’m really hoping we’re going to find ways of improving how we breed dogs. There are genomic technologies that can be useful to help the process of selecting dogs to breed in order to produce puppies with the traits that we want, and in fact this is done as a matter of course in the cattle industry. The technology is there. It’s made a massive difference in the ability of the cattle industry to select for traits like milk production.

What we need to make it happen for dogs is just for the community to get together and to pool genetic and behavioral data. The data that Karlsson Lab, where I work now, is collecting could be used for exactly this kind of thing.

But the hard part, I think, will be not so much the science, but will be agreeing on what everybody is breeding for. It’s the intersection of science and society where stuff gets interesting. How do you work together to breed for things like health and solid personalities instead of things like fancier coat colors and flatter faces? That’s really going to be the big struggle, but that’s where I hope to see the dog community going.

Melissa Breau: I guess part of me peripherally knew that the cattle industry had been breeding for things like increased milk production, but you don’t really think about it as a concerted effort, as, like, the industry sat down and looked at it from a scientific perspective. You think, Oh, they did it the same way we do it in dogs, where it’s just two that have a line, or have a history, and let’s just keep going down that thread. So it’s interesting.

Jessica Hekman: They’re massively well organized, and it’s kind of scary if you look at the statistics. The output of milk from an individual cow since 1950, it has more than tripled in individual cows from 1950 to today. One of the things that the cattle industry has going for them is USDA. They have this federal agency that is paid to organize them. We don’t have anything like that, and trying to imagine organizing dog breeders to work together is kind of crazy.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough, yes.

Jessica Hekman: Imagine talking to one person who has their lovingly curated and selected line of dogs, and saying, “OK, for the good of the whole breed, we think you shouldn’t breed this particular dog anymore.” Not going to happen. So it’s a really interesting difference between the two groups.

Melissa Breau: Fascinating. It’s such an interesting concept to think through and think about. To shift gears a little bit, in addition to your webinar, you’re doing a class on some of this stuff in June. I wanted to ask you to share a little about the class and maybe help folks decide whether or not the class would be a good fit for them.

Jessica Hekman: I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be BH510 it’s called The Biology of Building a Great Performance Dog. It’s going to be basically about the biology underlying dog development, like what makes each dog her own individual self.

A lot of what I’ll talk about has to do with genetics and very early socialization, so the class will be particularly useful, I think, for people who want to think through how to find their next dog, what to look for in choosing a breed and a breeder, or in choosing a shelter dog or a rescue dog. But we’ll also talk about decisions on things like spay/neuter, whether to do it, when to do it, so that could be useful for people with puppies or even people with young adult dogs.

And then I also think it should really appeal to anyone who wants to get their science geek on about dogs, like what makes up a dog’s personality. So even if you’re not thinking about getting another dog, just if you want to learn some genetics and some biology from a dog perspective, and a think through what’s going on in their brains, what’s going on in their bodies that makes them act the way they do, it ought to be a great class for you.

Melissa Breau: Since it’s your first time on, I do have three questions I always try to ask each time somebody comes on for the first time. I want to round things out with those. To start us off, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Jessica Hekman: Oh, Jenny, for sure Jenny. When I got her, as I said, she peed whenever I touched her, and now I can actually bring a stranger into the house. She still gets nervous and shakes, but as soon as the stranger tosses her a treat, she flips over into, like, Oh, a treat game, and she stops shaking, her ears come up, she starts making cute faces at the stranger to get more treats.

Very occasionally, if someone really is good with dogs, Jenny will let them pet her, even though she’s just met them that day, which I never would have believed a few years back would ever have happened.

She can go out in public, she can go walking on leash around the neighborhood, she can go off leash in a safe park. So we’ve made some amazing progress together. Sometimes I can’t believe she’s come so far.

You asked for my proudest accomplishment, and I feel like she’s really been working hard on that too, but the two of us together I think have made some fantastic progress.

Melissa Breau: I absolutely think that counts. I don’t think she could have done it without you. What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Jessica Hekman: It’s only in the last couple of years I heard this, I think from Jean Donaldson. She said, “Most people don’t use enough treats,” which I love. It’s simple, it’s concise, it’s totally useful. Use more treats. It’s easy, and it’s so helpful in getting us out of the mindset of thinking, The dog should do this because I asked her to, and into the mindset of, How can I make this more fun for the dog?

Melissa Breau: Right, right. That’s fantastic, and I think we hear similar things in a lot of different places, but I do like it in that concise, easy to digest. For our last question, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Jessica Hekman: Can I have more than one?

Melissa Breau: Yes, absolutely.

Jessica Hekman: OK. The obvious answer, I guess, would be Denise, because in addition to her stellar dog handling skills, she also has stellar human handling skills. She’s so great at helping people learn while making them feel good about themselves, and that’s really hard to do — not just be good at dogs, but be good at people.

I already mentioned Patricia McConnell, whose books are the reason I chose my new career. She had insights into the fact that dog minds are really fascinating in their own right, and I will always be indebted to her for that.

And finally, he’s not exactly in the dog world, but my science hero is Dr. Robert Sapolsky. He learned some amazing things about how the stress response works. He’s a fantastic lecturer, and a lot of his talks are on YouTube and I highly recommend checking them out, if you’re interested in how the brain functions and how stress affects behavior. He does not talk about dogs specifically, but his material is totally relevant to them and to training. So Sapolsky. Highly recommended.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I will try to find a YouTube video or two that we can link to in the show notes for everybody.

Jessica Hekman: Let me know. I can find you one.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That would be great. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Jessica. I’m thrilled that we got to chat. This was a lot of fun.

Jessica Hekman: Oh, thanks. I had a fantastic time.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Laura Waudby to talk about training for a happy dog in the competition ring.

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.

Mar 30, 2018

Summary:

Julie Daniels has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. She is one of the foremost names in the sport of dog agility in the United States. She was one of the early champions of the sport and helped many clubs throughout the country get up and running.

She owns and operates both Kool Kids Agility in Deerfield, NH, and White Mountain Agility in North Sandwich, NH.

Julie is well known as a premier teacher at all levels of play. She has competed, titled, and won with all sorts of dogs through the years, including two Rottweilers, a Springer Spaniel, a Cairn Terrier, two Corgis, and four Border Collies. She is the only person to make USDAA National Grand Prix finals with a Rottie or a Springer, and she did it two times each. She is also a two-time national champion and a two-time international champion.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/06/2018, featuring Dr. Jessica Hekman to talk about building a performance dog.

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’ll be talking to Julie Daniels.

Julie has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. She is one of the foremost names in the sport of dog agility in the United States. She was one of the early champions of the sport and helped many clubs throughout the country get up and running.

She owns and operates both Kool Kids Agility in Deerfield, NH, and White Mountain Agility in North Sandwich, NH.

Julie is well known as a premier teacher at all levels of play. She has competed, titled, and won with all sorts of dogs through the years, including two Rottweilers, a Springer Spaniel, a Cairn Terrier, two Corgis, and four Border Collies. She is the only person to make USDAA National Grand Prix finals with a Rottie or a Springer, and she did it two times each. She is also a two-time national champion and a two-time international champion.

Hi Julie! Welcome to the podcast.

Julie Daniels: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To jump into things, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you currently share your life with and what you’re working on with them?

Julie Daniels: I have three Border Collies at this time, and my oldest, who is 12-and-a-half — don’t tell her that — she recently injured herself. She tore the collateral ligament in her knee. That’s a long rehab, and although she’s 12, it is very difficult to keep her down. But my best friend is Karen Kay, who is an expert in rehab for both people and for dogs, a fitness expert, so we’re diligently bringing Boss back, slowly but surely. But it’s tough. Even at 12-and-a-half, if a dog is used to taking a lot of activity and getting a lot of exercise, it’s very, very difficult to tone that down and do specific things. But anyway, that’s my 12-year-old.

My 10-year-old is Sport, and he’s a finished product. He likes training as much as anybody. It’s just a pleasure to live with and to show he’s quite the guy.

My youngster, now 2-and-a-half, is Kool-Aid, and I’m having a lot of fun with her. Kool-Aid has been a Fenzi-ite her entire life, so she’s one of the stars, even in Baby Genius and also in Adolescent Sport Dogs. She’s just a pleasure to work with and train. You’ll see a lot of her.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know here at FDSA one of the things you’re perhaps most well known for is your “Genius” series. I know a big part of those classes — and all of your classes, really — is about building confidence. Can you share a little bit about why that’s so critical for young dogs and maybe how you go about it?

Julie Daniels: Right off the bat in puppyhood, we want our dogs to feel excited about the environment. We want them to do a couple of things. We want to nurture curiosity so that they feel attraction for novelty, which is the natural puppy trait. It is something they were born with — puppies are born curious — so I feel it’s up to us to nurture that; yes, to guide it and direct it, but not to lose it. Don’t lose that curiosity. Not so different from human children, I think. That’s a very important thing.

The other thing we want to do is develop a small measure of self-reliance in very young dogs so that they offer interaction with the world. And that gives us a chance to choose — to shape, if you will — what we like best about their behavior choices so that we can guide them along the way to a mutually satisfying life with humans.

So yeah, those two things.

Melissa Breau: To dig in a little bit into one of the Genius classes, Baby Genius is on the calendar for April. How much of that class is about teaching skills and “learning to learn,” for lack of a better term, and how much is about teaching the dogs a positive attitude toward life and training?

Julie Daniels: They’re both so important. They’re both pretty much flipsides of the same coin. I think it’s super, super important that you never get away from how the dog feels about life. So that positive conditioned emotional response that we all talk about, the positive CER, is really for interacting with people, interacting with the environment, as I spoke of before. We want to develop the curiosity and the initiative of the very young dog, and that starts in Baby Genius, big time.

So it’s not just about skills, no matter what you do. Even if you are training skills, you’re always working on how the dog feels about life and how the dog feels about interacting with you, training with you, playing with you, if you will. So I have to say that the class is pretty much half of one and half of the other.

It’s not so much about skills. Good question, Melissa. I really thought about how to respond to that, and I’m thinking half and half, but it’s probably more about life and less about specific skills. Guidance, yes, lots of guidance, and puppy’s choice is extremely important in the class. So things are, by design, geared toward helping them choose behaviors that we would like for them to keep, but it’s probably more about life, Melissa, and less about skills. So there you go.

Melissa Breau: With that said, what are some of the skills you cover?

Julie Daniels: Ah! I have to give those away? Let me talk about one that’s both, because I could go on all day about that, and you probably have another question or two for me. So why don’t I talk about one in specific that I think is maybe a good example of the life version and the skills version, and that would be the recall, because you can’t do a baby class without working on recall, and yet I don’t really start out working on recall at all.

I work on name. I want to create extremely high value for name and attraction, orientation, toward the sound of name. So that’s not operant. That’s classical conditioning. And I do a whole lot with that just with the little name game. When you’re playing name game — with any dog, mind you, not just with a baby; it happens to me a lot that I get adult dogs in for board and train, and they need a refresher on how they feel about hearing their name. It happens to many, many dogs that they’ve learned not to enjoy hearing their name, so I change it. But with babies it’s so easy and fun to just play games, and don’t forget: say your dog’s name and don’t think it’s not a recall. Don’t think, Oh, the dog needs to be going the other way when I call his name. No, no. It’s classical conditioning I’m talking about, so I want that dog to love, love, love the sound of his own name.

That’s different from the operant games that we play for instilling a recall, which are also important. That’s the skills part. But when you ask me whether it’s more skills or more enjoyment, you know, life enjoyment, I think it’s life enjoyment. I think name game is much, much, much more important in Baby Genius, much more important than the skill of, for example, recall.

Melissa Breau: I imagine that the skills you focus on puppies has evolved some over time and that all of this didn’t just spring from your brain fully formed. Do you mind sharing just a little bit about how you’ve decided over the years what it is important to focus on with a puppy versus what you really can wait on until the dog is a little bit older?

Julie Daniels: That’s fun, isn’t it? It’s hard to break a brain apart into various classes when you want to teach everything at once. This program started at least twenty years ago with a camp that I did up at White Mountain Agility. I was doing five to eight camps per year, and one of them I decided had to be only for novices. I called it Novice Geniuses, and that camp was a huge success.

It was tons of fun, if you can imagine, and it was very, very useful for a lot of people in learning to start their dogs off on the right foot. It certainly was adamant about how the dog feels about it is much more important than whether the dog takes away this particular skill or that particular skill. So it was a great camp like that.

And that’s what I started out to do for FDSA. I called it Puppy Genius, and it was pretty much the Novice Genius program with a very few elements left out, which were for older dogs. Ultimately it was way too big a territory. It was too large a class in scope, and so I then broke it down into two classes called Baby Genius, for these youngsters, and that’s what’s coming up in April for the young dogs, and then Adolescent Sport Dog is what I called the former older dog elements of Novice Genius. I tried to break the class into two and then expand upon each of the elements within that smaller scope, and I think that worked out really well. That’s what I’ll continue to do.

So Baby Genius really is for the younger dogs, and as we all know, foundation is everything, and so many dogs can benefit from Baby Genius. Any dog could benefit from the Baby Genius class because it is so elementary, absolutely no prerequisite required, and any dog can play. As I said, I take in many adult dogs for board and train who need, for example, name game, which you could play with a 7- or 8-week-old puppy.

Melissa Breau: If people wanted to take one of the more advanced classes, do they need that first class? Is it a prerequisite, or can they just take the one that they need, or what is your recommendation there?

Julie Daniels: When I taught Adolescent Sport Dog, I wanted very much for Puppy Genius or Baby Genius to be prerequisite material. It didn’t work out that that was all that necessary because I ended up going back to those foundations as we needed to do them. So it worked out as a standalone class, and I don’t think I would make it a prerequisite. But it’s one of those classes — I feel the same way about my empowerment class — well, everybody ought to take it! But if, for some reason, you don’t, I can make it work for you! So I’m not worried about it as a prerequisite, but it sure is good stuff for anyone.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I think some people think, Oh, Baby Genius, my dog’s no longer a baby, but like you said, it’s still applicable, it’s still good stuff, it’s still foundation skills that every dog should have.

Julie Daniels: That’s a good way to describe it. It’s foundation.

Melissa Breau: I know we talked a little bit about building confidence earlier, and I know in the description for your shiny, new, shaping class you mention that it will focus on using shaping principles to build confidence and teamwork. So I wanted to ask you why it is that shaping is such a good tool for accomplishing those two things.

Julie Daniels: It’s one good tool, obviously. It’s not the only way to do things, we all know that, but it’s one good tool for building confidence, specifically because shaping done well inspires the dog of any age — it can be any age dog — to offer a little bit more, to try a little bit more, to use the initiative that I spoke about earlier, to develop the curiosity and then use initiative.

What we’re working toward when we build upon those things, we’re working toward a measure of self-reliance, so we want the dog — and that’s where confidence comes in — we’re building the dog’s ability to make a choice and to enjoy the consequences of this choice.

Every once in a while in life it’s really important that the consequence teach the dog not to do that again. We let daily life do that. We let other dogs do that. We humans can use artful shaping to almost eliminate the need for a tough consequence to make it hard on the dog. We can become expert at noticing the tiny little elements of curiosity and initiative, and by rewarding those in specific ways, we can create more and more behaviors along that same line that strengthen the dog’s ability to behave or perform in the way that we would like to see again.

So shaping is artful; yes, it’s scientific — and we will go into the science — but really this shaping class is not as scientific as some other shaping class would be, because it is only using the principles of shaping, which are good, clean mechanics and keen observations — very, very important elementary skills for shaping practices, but we are only using those shaping practices in order to get to the good stuff, the bigger picture of curiosity, initiative, self-reliance, you know, eagerness to work, not just for correctness.

So that’s how this class will run. One of the lectures — I’ll just tease you — that will be one of the first lectures in Week 2, for example, is called, “When Did Silent Shaping Become Rigid Shaping?” Do you get what I mean?

Melissa Breau: Yes.

Julie Daniels: That’s what I mean about you can be scientifically spot-on and not really be creating what you want in your dog.

Melissa Breau: That’s an interesting lecture title, and that will hopefully be a really great thing for people to think about, even before they get a chance to read the lecture. I know in the description you also mention that a lot of your favorite confidence-building games are perfect for practicing shaping. What did you mean by that, and can you talk us through an example of how that works?

Julie Daniels: Oh gosh, I’d love to. Some of the games that we play in confidence-building classes, not just empowerment, but that’s the big one that is well known in the Fenzi world. Empowerment uses many strange materials, and people will talk about they have a cardboard collection, they have a bubble wrap collection, they have a metal utensil collection. People talk about their bakeware collection. Some people actually cook with this stuff. We certainly don’t.

I mean that kind of thing, interaction with things that pop underneath you, things that feel squishy and move underneath you, they’re unstable, things that make noise, for example, metal noise is very big in obedience training and it’s also very, very big in seesaw training.

We did a huge amount of work with noise making with metal, and we use noise tolerance, meaning someone else is making the noise and you don’t have any say about it. That can be tough for some dogs and easy for others.

The other element of that is noise empowerment: what if I’m being invited to make the noise myself. I’m controlling it, I’m in charge of it, I learn what it sounds like, and now it’s up to me whether I want to make that happen again and again.

So we create the dog’s desire to be part of the environment in an active way. We want the dog to be an active participant in the experiences that he’s going to have. That’s about confidence and empowerment and such.

Shaping is the absolute best way to get those things, and you can well imagine that some puppies — or any dog; I’m saying puppy only because I’m teaching Baby Genius, but any dog is invited to play — you can imagine just that taking a closer look at a pile of bubble wrap and plastic on the floor is probably a clickable event for many, many dogs, whereas there would be other dogs who would actually inadvertently scare themselves by jumping in the pile knowing nothing about what is going to happen. That would be handler error. That would be a poor job of establishing operations for the shaping that we want to do. So it’s much better for us to learn artful ways to observe what the dog is doing, what the dog is about to do sometimes, and to offer delivery of reinforcement in such a way that the dog is not going to be offended but is going to be curious about doing more and gradually more. So shaping being the practice of building successive approximations toward an end-goal behavior.

There are two ways that I make use of that. One is that I’m using end-goal behaviors that are not “world peace.” If your dog jumps into a bin full of bubble wrap, good for you, but you didn’t just earn a MACH. So I separate, in other words, the elements that we’re working with from the real-world elements of competition, and to a certain extent remove them from daily life, and embrace the dog’s ability to enjoy silly things. They’re silly things, there’s no doubt about it. But it doesn’t take a big stretch to see that the dog’s confidence with these silly things — if, again, we do a good job of generalizing and creating fluency for these skills — it doesn’t take a big stretch to see their usefulness in the dog’s daily life as he meets other things in the world. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We take silly games and we build, through good shaping practices, we build the dog’s desire to interact with the novelty in the environment, and we build the dog’s enjoyment of the surprises that could happen as a result of that. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and I think there’s a thread here that you’ve hinted at a little bit as we’ve gone through all the questions that’s spot-on for everyone to ask you next, which is this idea that people, when they get into dog training, largely think dog training is about the dog, but the more involved they become, most of us realize that it’s really at least half, if not three-quarters, about our own skills as a trainer. I wanted to ask how you balance teaching good handler mechanics with canine learning in the class and what aspects of handler skills you plan to talk about. Also, if you’d like to mention why they’re so important, that would be awesome, especially when it comes to shaping.

Julie Daniels: In the shaping class we’ll be talking first and foremost about the handler’s job. As I was hinting at, it’s our job to set up the scenario so that the dog can be successful. I just call that establishing operations. That’s what I was trained to call it back in the 1970s. Establishing operations meaning by the time the dog sees the apparatus or the setup, you have created this little microenvironment — and you have a plan, by the way — so that you are able to build, bing, bing, bing, one success on top of another very quickly so that you’re creating this curiosity and this initiative that you wanted to create.

For example, it would be a huge mistake to just crowd your dog into a busy place and say, “Hey, I happen to have some bubble wrap. I think I’ll do a shaping game of squash the bubble wrap.” But if the environment is absolutely wrong for that new skill, developing that new skill, it will not go well, and that is handler error.

It is our job, first and foremost, to set up the operation in such a way to invite success and know what the early steps are going to be, so that we can create, bing, bing, bing, reward, reward, reward, right, right again, bingo, what a genius, ta-da! That’s the first order of business as trainers: we’re going to be talking about how to establish operations in order to inspire success.

And then we’ll be talking about how to … obviously the clicking part, but then how to deliver the reinforcement in such a way to invite another success or more behavior or just a repetition of the current behavior. So we’ll be talking a whole lot about delivery, as well as about how to establish what we’re trying to do. Both those things are important.

Melissa Breau: One of the things that I saw on your syllabus that I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about here on the podcast before is this idea of delivery of reinforcement. I know we have a webinar coming up about that in a few weeks with another instructor, but I wanted to ask you about it anyway. How does delivery of reinforcement influence training, and how do you make those decisions?

Julie Daniels: I’m glad it is going to be. It’s a webinar, it deserves its own webinar, it’s really a very big part of the picture and can influence the success of the dog greatly.

Part of delivery of reinforcement is geared toward inviting the next rep. The very best example I can think about that is in Chicken Camp. Bob Bailey always says, “Click for behavior, feed for position,” and he’s talking about the artful way we move the cup of corn as the chicken is reaching forward and pecking with it.

The same thing happens in agility practices with foundation training. We’re always moving the reward down the line. We want to be continuing forward toward the behavior that we’re trying to create, because necessarily we’ve only got a tiny little piece of it. That’s what shaping’s all about. So we’re trying to build the next step of the behavior, and using the reward delivery is one very, very effective means of inviting a next correct response. Would you like an example, Melissa?

Melissa Breau: Yes, please.

Julie Daniels: One good example would be — this isn’t necessarily in the Baby Genius class, but it was just in the Canine Fitness class that I was doing with my own instructor, Karen Kay; I’m a student as well as a teacher — so I’m a student in Canine Fitness class, and we were shaping — not just luring, but we were shaping — a complete 360-degree turn on a wobbly surface, so it’s very complex, and I was working with Kool-Aid.

Well, Kool-Aid already knows an outside turn, and she knows a spin, and she can certainly follow a lure around in a circle. So I could have gotten that done, probably most anybody could get it done, just by luring a circle with a cookie — can you imagine — and then feeding the cookie. Is that shaped? No, not at all. Have you helped create a behavior? Well, maybe. You don’t really know. But your dog can indeed follow a cookie around in a circle. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I’m not criticizing that.

But many of us would choose to do that, and I think it’s better to choose to do that, through shaping practices. That would look just a little bit different. Even if you did decide to lure the initial turn of the head, you wouldn’t just continue that cookie around in a circle. You would click for that initial head turn before the puppy even gets to the cookie. Then you would deliver that cookie, and as you deliver that cookie — this is the part we’re talking about here — you’re going to move it a couple or three inches further along the circle. See what I’m picturing? And then you’re going to let go.

So what’s going to happen? Well, you’d better click quickly, because what is going to happen — because you now have removed the lure — what is going to happen is the dog is going to turn around back toward you, and that is not the direction we want to go, is it? We’re trying to lure a circle away from us.

So what you need to do instead is click before the dog turns back. Can you imagine how quick that is? You perhaps have less than a second in which to get that next click in, and now, Melissa, here’s where it comes in again. Reward delivery is buying you the rest of the circle. In perhaps ten little increments around the circle, just as an estimate, you get ten repetitions of creating that puppy’s turn around the circle. Instead of one continuous repetition, you get ten repetitions of the puppy learning to turn and move in that circular fashion. That’s why shaping, in that one little tiny example, that’s why shaping is superior to luring in a simple task like that. Sometimes it’s hard to understand that. I’m really glad you brought up this question, and I’m sure it will come up in the webinar as well. It’s difficult to help people understand that they actually should do it that way, because if you can picture in my example, it would have taken, oh, I don’t know, two seconds perhaps, to lure the entire circle and then give the cookie, and it probably took, I don’t know, ten seconds, fifteen seconds, it could possibly even have taken twenty seconds to do it the way I’ve just described.

So I’m hoping, I’m banking on the fact that people will consider the value of shaping as in long-term learning, instead of incidental reps here and there of a behavior, that shaping is more powerful long-term. So that’s why I would suggest doing it the way I’m doing it. Shaping is better for long-term learning. It helps the dog offer behavior and learn from the consequences that he can offer more behavior. It just creates a dog who’s stronger, more resilient, with a measure of self-reliance, learning to operate in the environment in cooperation with the human.

Melissa Breau: Not only that, but in the example you used, he gets maybe ten cookies instead of just one cookie because of the repetition of the behavior.

Julie Daniels: For sure. No small matter, that’s right!

Melissa Breau: In the shaping class, what other skills or concepts are you planning to cover?

Julie Daniels: Well, let’s see. We’ll be doing a whole lot with empowerment-based behaviors. We’ll also be doing a little bit with behaviors that will be useful in dog sports. For example, we will be shaping a tuck sit. But I also — this is a disclaimer for Baby Genius class and for shaping class too — we will use props. When we want the babies to learn a specific skill, we’re going to use a prop to help them get these things right, because babies don’t have the power.

In the shaping class, the dog may well have the power, but rather than use just pure shaping techniques to get what we want just in space, we’ll use those props to hurry those behaviors along and to help the dog learn to initiate onto equipment.

It sounds like it’s hard to wean from props, but it’s not. If you don’t wean from your lures — you know, the primary reinforcer being used as an enticement to behave — that is harder to wean from, if you don’t do it early on. We’ll be doing that part very early on. But props themselves are not difficult to wean from. Once we have established behaviors that have been created through the props, we’ll put them on cue, and then weaning from the props is not difficult. So I’m not worried about that.

But we’ll be using, in shaping class we’ll be using things like platforms and sit targets and maybe some mats, but certainly target sticks. I love to use gear ties and expandable target sticks. We’ll do raised targets and low targets, we’ll do paw targets and nose targets, and sit targets and stand targets.

There’s also room in that class — hopefully I’ve covered everybody’s interests now — so we’ll also have some room in that class to work on individual projects. I don’t think there’ll be any individual projects in the first three weeks of class. We’ll all be geared toward the foundations, and some people and some dogs will be ahead of others, and that’s no problem; I have plenty of material.

But I think in the last three weeks of class, this being a first-time class, I’m going to experiment. Can people go off on their own tangents, and I’ve said yes. Quite a few people have e-mailed me about this. One that has come up many times is that people saw that I was doing the concept of between, beginning in Week 1, and if you think about it, that is the basis for two-by-two weave pole training, so several people have already asked, “Can I use this class to shape weave pole performance?” And I’ve said, “Absolutely, yes.”

This is a great use of shaping, and we are all going to cover the concept of going between two things. There are so many uses for that, not just in agility, but for the people who want to free-shape weave poles, this is a great class. It’s a great class. But you’ll have to be patient with me, because for the first three weeks we’re all going to be working on these foundation skills relating to shaping, and we will be exposed to a lot of different kinds of elements. We’re not just going to do between for six weeks, sorry.

So once you’ve gone through the basic empowerment-related and curiosity-related and skills-related behaviors that we’ll be shaping — which also, by the way, will build your own expertise with the shaping process and the various ways to build an operation, to establish an operation, to run the operation, and to use reinforcement criteria and timing in effective ways — I figure that’s about three solid weeks without doing too much else.

And then I’m hoping that Weeks 4, 5, and 6, people who have very specific individual agendas such as weave poles, such as, for example, drop on recalls, such as perfect front tuck sits, such as parallel path, there are so many good things, heeling, I don’t really have a problem with that.

I think I’m going to experiment with letting people go off on their own individual tangents, and we’ll see whether that works out well as a class or whether we actually need six full weeks just to work on the mechanics of shaping. I don’t think we will, because this class is geared toward being an overview of good shaping practices and then taking those skills to our activities, whether it be a dog sport in specific or just daily life skills such as getting out in public and the like.

I feel like that’s my best use of the class is to be able to help people do what they want to do. I’ll tell you where I went with this …

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Julie Daniels: Through all along my good shaping practices, I’ve been gearing my young dog, Kool-Aid, toward being my seminar dog. So obviously she’s going to have to have a myriad of skills. Agility is my sport, but shaping is one of the best and most fun things I do, and I’ve started another in-person shaping class just last week and I decided, OK, you’re 2-and-a-half, little girl, how about you be my dog now?

So she is, in this class, my one and only demo dog. She is all by herself for the first time. She did not have her big brother there who’s the expert and she’s just the tagalong. No, she’s now the seminar dog, and so for the first time I had a separate dog bed for her, and I put an x-pen around her because, again, I’m establishing an operation where she can be successful. If I just put her in the middle of the room on her dog bed, I don’t even know all of the dogs that are coming into that class yet, that would be a very poor trainer’s decision. So I protected her with an x-pen around the dog bed so that she could see everyone and they could see her, she could not get into trouble, and nobody could bother her.

But she has the opportunity to learn to raise and lower her arousal state according to whether she is on duty or off duty. That’s a really good life challenge that can be built through shaping, which is what I did with this dog. She’s an extremely busy dog, and she, her whole life, has wanted all the turns. So for her now to say, OK, I’m back on the dog bed with a bone, and all the other dogs in class are going to be working this, that’s tough for her. But you know what? She truly behaved like an old pro.

These students, most of them know me, and they know this dog, and they were impressed by what she could do. I think if they didn’t know me and I had told them that this is my demo dog and she’s been doing this work for a year or so, they would absolutely have believed it. She just did a great job, and it’s because she knows how to raise and then lower her arousal state.

By the way, we’ll start this work in Baby Genius. It’s not just all about “Yay, yay, yay, the people are coming.” And I am a person who allows baby dogs to say, “Yay, yay, yay, the people are coming.” I truly allow my baby dogs to be pretty much a happy nuisance around people, because I do err on the side of life happiness and attraction for people and the world in general, like we were talking about earlier.

So that means I’ve got a lot of training to do to get from that as, for example, a 6-month-old to now a 2-and-a-half-year-old who’s already my seminar dog. That’s a lot of training, but it’s all been done through dog’s choice training and through good shaping practices.

So the end-goal behaviors that I want are broken down very finely into manageable steps for this particular dog, so that now I have a dog who looks fully … she’s not fully trained, right? But she looks really good in a crowd when she’s working on behaviors that I have built through shaping.

So even though she had never been in this crowded an environment all by herself being the only teacher’s dog there, she was able to come in and out of demo mode. She was able to raise her arousal state and then lower her arousal state each time she went back in the pen. I know I’m biased, but I don’t believe she complained even once.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Julie Daniels: Yeah, she really had it down about how to behave. I think that’s part of shaping good behavior rather than coercing good behavior either through commands and corrections or just through pressure, pressure, pressure.

This dog wasn’t trained with pressure. When I wanted to demonstrate down on a mat, I just let her out of her little pen and I just — with a flourish, because that’s the cue — flourished the mat and laid it out for her, and she ran, not walked, and threw herself down. And so then I told the class — this is true, so you’ll learn this too, if you take the class — that she’s never been commanded to lie down on the mat. Never. She was shaped.

And any of the students who’ve taken, for example, cookie jar games, we build mat work from scratch. In the fall I’ll actually be teaching a class specifically dedicated toward all these targets, including mats and platforms and sit targets and the like. But just to be honest, this dog was a hundred percent shaped to lie down on a mat. She was never coerced. And that down could not be more reliable.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Julie Daniels: That’s the value of shaping.

Melissa Breau: Hopefully, students have their wheels turning a little bit and they’re trying to decide whether either of these classes is appropriate for their dog. Do you have any advice for those people trying to make their class selection or decide if they should sign up? What’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, how should they make those decisions?

Julie Daniels: I think if a person has already taken one of the foundation shaping classes that have already been offered, then I think you probably already have the background that I’ll be covering in the first three weeks. I’m sure my spin is a little bit different, but the good practices are the good practices, and so you could pretty much move on to another more skills-based class. Baby Genius, as I said, is good for all dogs, but it’s extremely foundation-oriented. There’s a good deal of background classical conditioning in there, a good deal of operant conditioning in there, a little bit about shaping just because that’s the way I do things, but it’s more geared toward all the elements of living with humans as a young dog.

One wonderful thing that Fenzi does now is put up the sample lectures. I do think that’s a wonderful way to get a feel for how a class will be run and what sorts of things the teacher concentrates on.

Obviously it’s only one little tiny lecture. Baby Genius, for example, has about sixty lectures in it, and I use forty of them in any class, so I try to make the class different every time through, and the Gold level students, I think in any class, cause the class to develop in a different way, so it’s never the same class twice. That is definitely the case in Baby Genius, and all dogs are invited to come look at first-level foundation skills.

My shaping class is definitely a fundamental shaping class. There’s nothing advanced about it. It’s the specifics, the basics, and the groundwork of shaping, and my take on it is to put it to use immediately in real-world elements.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Julie!

Julie Daniels: Thanks!

Melissa Breau: As per usual, it’s been awesome … and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Dr. Jessica Hekman to talk about the biology of building a great performance dog, so it should be a good interview.

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.

Mar 23, 2018

Summary:

Nancy Tucker is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She regularly teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training to dog owners, trainers, and veterinary staff in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she’s offering a great class on separation anxiety and a new class on desensitization and counterconditioning for the April Session.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 3/30/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker to talk about desensitization and counter conditioning.

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’ll be talking to Nancy Tucker.

Nancy is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She regularly teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training to dog owners, trainers, and veterinary staff in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she’s offering a great class on separation anxiety and a new class on desensitization and counterconditioning for the April Session.

Hi Nancy, welcome to the podcast!

Nancy Tucker: Hi Melissa, hi everyone, I’m very happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you here. To get us started out, can you just share a little information about the dog you share your life with and what you’re working on with him?

Nancy Tucker: Sure. I have a Border Terrier named Bennigan. He’s not quite 9 months old yet, but he’s creeping up on 9 months, so right now we’re working on helping him navigate canine adolescence. That means we’re teaching him the basics, with an emphasis on things like impulse control, and good, solid recalls, and trying to remain calm.

Melissa Breau: With two classes on the calendar, I want to make sure we get to talk about both of them, but I wanted to start with the shiny new one. You named it “Feelings Change.” What inspired that name?

Nancy Tucker: Well, it was catchy, because we’re talking about feelings and we’re talking about changing feelings. In training, we focus a lot on shaping behavior, and when we’re dealing with behavior issues that are rooted in fear, we need to address the emotions that are driving that behavior. Lucky for us, there’s a way to zero in on those emotions and help our dogs change how they feel about something, and that’s huge.

Melissa Breau: I know the core is desensitization and counterconditioning; I mentioned that during the intro. I think anyone who's been in the dog world for a while has probably heard those words thrown about, or at least seen the abbreviations, usually ds/cc, but can you explain what they actually mean?

Nancy Tucker: In a nutshell, when we’re talking about desensitization, we’re describing a process that involves exposing our dog to something they fear, and that’s done in a very measured and systematic way. We would start exposing them in a way that is completely non-threatening to them. It doesn’t induce any fear at all, and we gradually work our way up from there. That’s desensitization.

Counterconditioning involves pairing the scary thing with something that elicits a positive emotional response in the dog, so now we’re working with building an association. When that’s done correctly, we can actually change the dog’s emotional response in such a way that he’s no longer fearful of the thing that he used to be afraid of. Typically we’re aiming for a neutral response, that he’s just not afraid of that thing anymore, but if we’re lucky, we might even go as far as to create a positive emotional response, which means that he actually now feels good about the trigger that used to scare him.

So we’re talking about two separate and distinct methods here, desensitization and counterconditioning, but together they complement each other and they’re very effective in treating fearful responses.

Melissa Breau: Listeners of the podcast have definitely heard us talk before about the idea of creating a positive conditioned emotional response, or a CER. How is that concept, that idea of creating a positive CER, different from what you’re talking about with desensitization and counterconditioning?

Nancy Tucker: CERs — I’m giggling because now every time I hear the term CER, all I can think about is “ball feelings,” as they’re known at Fenzi, thanks to … for those who don’t know, that was coined on Hannah Branigan’s podcast on CERs.

When we’re talking about CERs, we’re dealing with creating a positive response to something that was previously neutral to the dog. So we’re starting from scratch, basically, with a clean slate. When we’re talking about desensitization and counterconditioning, we’re not starting from scratch. The dog has already formed an association with something, and it’s not a good one.

To give a visual here, if creating a positive CER is like building a brand new house on a vacant lot, with only brand-new materials, desensitization and counterconditioning is like remodeling an old house. You first need to tear down some things, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find when you start knocking down walls. Anybody who’s remodeled a house, I think, can probably relate to that. So maybe you discover you can rebuild a whole new fabulous design on a really solid foundation, or maybe you’ll need to make some adjustments and compromises along the way, and build something wonderful but not quite a brand new design. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I love that analogy. That’s fantastic — the idea of building from scratch versus remodeling. And for listeners who aren’t Hannah fans, Hannah’s podcast is “Drinking From The Toilet,” and I will try and find the specific episode that Nancy’s talking about to include a link to it in the show notes.

To get back to our conversation, the general concept sounds simple enough — the idea that we want to build this positive association — but I know a lot of people really struggle to do this stuff well. What are some of the common pitfalls that lead folks to struggle and to be unsuccessful?

Nancy Tucker: The reason that I want to teach this course in the first place is because of these common pitfalls. The course focuses on the skills and mechanics that we need to have in order to be successful at desensitization and counterconditioning. There are natural laws at play here that we just can’t get around. Things need to happen in a very specific way in order to work. We can’t cut corners, and we can’t speed up the process, and honestly, that’s something that we’re all guilty of when we’re training our dogs. We can be really impatient, and we try to skip a few steps to reach our goal just a little bit faster.

Sometimes we’re lucky and our dog figures things out on his own, so hurrying up ends up being very reinforcing for us because it worked, so we do it over and over, again and again. But, when we’re treating fears, that’s just something we can’t do, and understanding the process better and practicing our own mechanical skills is the best thing that we can do to finally be able to help our dogs overcome their fear. And it’s actually a very rewarding process.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more about the class? How you approach teaching this to your human learners to help them go through that process with their canine partners?

Nancy Tucker: At the start of the class we’ll all be on the same page, so we’ll all be practicing the same set of skills, regardless of everyone’s individual training experience. And you don’t need training experience to do this class.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Once you start to really break down your own mechanical skills — and naturally this is a Fenzi class, so everything is done in the spirit of positivity and support, and there’s no judgment — so there will be nitpicking, for sure, there’ll be a lot of analyzing mechanics, but it’s not about judgment. It’s about helping to perfect these skills. So a lot of nitpicking, but in a very good way. The students’ skills will grow from this experience, and they’ll be able to transfer these skills to their other training projects as well.

So at first we’ll be making sure everyone fully understands the process and practices their mechanical skills, and then we’ll tackle some actual issues. Students will be able to work on changing their dogs’ fearful response to something.

Melissa Breau: I know the other class you’re teaching in April is on separation anxiety. How is separation anxiety different from what we’re talking about here – from general desensitization and counterconditioning – and how does that lead to how you treat it?

Nancy Tucker: Treating separation anxiety definitely involves desensitization, and a lot of it, in fact. It’s the meat of the program. Desensitization is the meat of any program to treat separation anxiety. We very slowly and very gradually expose the dog to the thing that he fears the most, which is being alone or being separated from a particular family member. We make sure the dog only experiences being alone for however amount of time he can handle without experiencing fear or distress. That can be a very time-consuming process, so again, this is one of those things that we can’t rush and we can’t cut corners. But along with some environmental management, desensitization is really the most effective way to treat separation anxiety.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of the time when people talk about separation anxiety, they are actually talking about a few different things. It’s not necessarily one of those terms that has a hard and fast definition in common use. Do you mind sharing what separation anxiety is — your definition — and what some of the symptoms are of true separation anxiety?

Nancy Tucker: We tend to use separation anxiety as an umbrella term for what are essentially a few different issues, so most of the time, we’re using it incorrectly. But it’s so widespread as a label for a common problem that it’s easier to use it. I know that’s not correct, it’s not scientifically correct, but sometimes when everyone misuses a term the same way, it’s just as effective to use the term, if that makes any sense.

In truth, what most people are dealing with when they say that their dog has separation anxiety is a dog who fears being alone. That is more common than actual separation anxiety. He fears isolation and he panics when he’s left alone. True separation anxiety is when a dog experiences distress if he’s apart from a particular person or persons. A dog who suffers from fear of isolation will be fine as long as someone, anyone, is with him. A dog who suffers from separation anxiety will experience distress even if someone else is there with him, if that makes sense.

Some of the telltale signs that a dog is experiencing distress during your absence, if you’re listening to this and you suspect that your dog may be suffering from this, some of these signs — and what I’m about to mention is in no particular order of importance here, and the dog might display one or several of these behaviors, and at different intensities … and before I go into describing what these symptoms might be, I want to point out, too, that the level of intensity of a symptom does not correlate to the level of severeness of the fear. If a dog overtly displays symptoms, it doesn’t mean that he is more fearful than the dog who cowers in the corner and does not move all day. That dog could be equally as in distress. Anyway, some of the signs are vocalization, barking, whining. Actually, that’s how quite a few people learn that there is a problem is when their neighbor complains about barking during their absence. That’s often the first clue. They don’t know until somebody complains about it. So vocalization is one.

Excessive drooling is another. You might come home and find a puddle of drool that some people might mistake for pee, but it’s actually drool. There can be that much of it on the floor, or the dog’s bed is soaking wet.

Anorexia is a very common one as well. The dog won’t touch his food or a treat toy. Sometimes I discover a problem when a client has called me for another issue. When I’m doing my history intake, I ask them how often the dog eats, or when is he fed, and they say, “We feed him in the morning before we go to work, but he doesn’t touch that. He’s not hungry in the morning. He doesn’t eat until we get home.” And I find out that when they get home, the dog devours his food. That’s a sign to me, if the dog hasn’t touched his food all day from the moment that they leave, that there may be an issue there, that he might not appreciate being alone and there could be a problem there. So anorexia.

Obvious signs that the dog has scratched or chewed an area, especially near an exit, near the door that the owner uses to leave the house.

Peeing and defecating, usually a lot of it during their absence, even just a short absence.

And self-mutilation, signs of excessive licking or chewing at the paws.

If you’re not sure what your dog might be doing when you’re not home, set up a camera and video him, or watch a live feed. There’s lots of apps now that we can use to keep an eye on our dogs. Some dogs might pace while you’re getting ready to leave. They’re pacing and then they continue for another five minutes after you’re gone, but then they settle down quickly and they go to sleep without a problem. Or, on the other hand, some dogs might appear perfectly chill for a few minutes after you leave, and then they begin to panic. So you can’t know unless you record it or watch a live feed.

Melissa Breau: Right. And technology is our friend, for sure.

Nancy Tucker: For sure.

Melissa Breau: Do we know what actually causes separation anxiety? It seems like some dogs struggle with it and others are never fazed at all. Is there a reason?

Nancy Tucker: That’s a really, really good question, and I’ll start by talking about what doesn’t cause separation anxiety. Owners. Owners’ behavior does not cause their dog to develop separation anxiety. If you have a dog who panics when left alone, it is not your fault. It’s not because of something that you did. It’s amazing how many people feel, or are told, that it’s because of something that they did. It is not because you’ve spoiled him.

In fact, if you have a puppy, helping him feel secure by responding to his needs will go farther towards building a confident adult dog than if you try to use tough love by letting him cry it out at night. Don’t be afraid to shower your puppy with attention and to provide that sense of security. You do need to teach your young dog that being alone is nothing to be afraid of, but you can do that systematically.

Back to causes. For starters, dogs who suffer from this problem, they tend to already be predisposed to having anxiety issues. Just like people, some of us might be more genetically predisposed to experience mental health issues, and this is true for dogs as well.

It is worth mentioning that there is correlation between a few things in separation anxiety, but it can’t be said for sure that these things actually cause it. For example, dogs who are surrendered to a shelter might display some isolation distress once they’re adopted into a new home. Actually, that’s pretty common. But it’s possible that these dogs had this issue in their previous homes, and maybe that’s the reason that some of them were surrendered in the first place. It’s not always easy to tell. So it’s not always accurate to say that a dog develops a fear of isolation because he was surrendered to a shelter or abandoned somewhere.

Another possible correlation is dogs who are sick as very, very young puppies might develop separation anxiety as adults. And again, there’s correlation there, but nothing to say that this is a cause.

What I see most commonly is after a major change in a dog’s life, like a move or a major disruption, a divorce, or a huge disruption in a dog’s routine or schedule, that can lead to this type of problem. But again, in most cases we’re talking about a dog who is already predisposed to experiencing anxiety. So it’s not ultimately because you moved into a new house that you caused your dog to develop this problem. Rather, the move may have triggered an anxiety disorder that was already there but hadn’t yet manifested into a behavior issue, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. It’s really interesting. I hadn’t realized there were those specific things that were correlated with the issue. That’s news to me, so it’s interesting. I know you’re not a vet, but I know that on the syllabus or in the description you mention that you do touch on meds in the class. I was curious if you’d talk about that a little bit. How do you determine if a student should talk to their vet about their options?

Nancy Tucker: I really respect my limitations as a trainer and a behavior consultant, and I avoid talking about meds, except to say that everyone should do their own research and find out what’s available to you to help your dog deal with an anxiety issue, and there are quite a few options out there. So if your dog is at risk of hurting himself — self-mutilation, or a dog who is scratching or throwing himself through glass, which I experienced that myself, a dog who is simply overwhelmed with fear or anxiety in general — I strongly urge you to look into medication to help him out.

I will say this much: medication can be a huge help. It can create a sense of calm in a dog so that he’s able to learn the new behaviors that you want to teach him. It puts him in a better state of mind to learn and for behavior modification to take place.

A lot of the antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds out there, they will allow for learning to take place, so in other words, they aren’t simply a sedative that can affect short-term memory. So that would be an important thing to discuss with the vet. If you’re looking for medication to help your dog deal with anxiety or immense fear, you want to use a medication that will allow him to learn. The whole point of using medication to treat separation anxiety is to be able to work through a desensitization program so that the dog can eventually be comfortable alone at home.

Melissa Breau: Right. You mention in the class description that, when done right, Gold videos in this class may be sort of … boring, I think is the word you used. Why is that?

Nancy Tucker: This is true. This is very true. There isn’t a whole lot of action going on when you’re teaching a dog to remain calm. Videos are good, and I can still help guide students by watching what’s happening in a video. I can dissect the dog’s behavior and body language, and I can make recommendations based on the layout of the home, because we talk a lot about finding that home alone space, and sometimes it’s good to have a second set of eyes to look at the layout and see what might work, or even based on the student’s own movements.

So video is good. I might see something in the environment that the student has missed. Sometimes you’re just so familiar with something that even when it’s right in front of you, you don’t see it. But the bottom line is that we are literally aiming for the dog to look bored and chillaxed.

So Gold students don’t have to post video, actually, but that’s OK, because we tend to do a lot of problem-solving and creative planning and troubleshooting on the forums through discussions. During this class the discussion boards are really important. If you want to follow a case, follow the discussion, because even without a video there is a lot of back and forth and a lot of troubleshooting going on.

The Gold-level students are still getting a personal coach as they work through this, and because every single case is completely different, all students get to follow and learn from each individual scenario, which is great. In the last couple of sessions we had a lot of trainers join, so I think they benefitted from seeing the different types of cases.

Melissa Breau: There’s certainly nothing to sneeze at there about taking a Gold spot just because videos don’t play a big role. In an area like this, where there’s so often those feelings of, “Oh my god, am I doing it wrong?” or “Oh my god, my dog’s panicking,” having somebody to hold your hand and say, “No, actually, it’s OK, let’s take a step back, let’s do it this way,” that can be a huge, huge help.

Nancy Tucker: Absolutely. It’s great to have a second set of eyes with a problem like this, for sure.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask about common misconceptions or places where students often go wrong when it comes to working on this kind of thing — separation anxiety, that is. Can you share any tips or suggestions?

Nancy Tucker: I think that we tend to circle back to the most common problem of all when treating a behavior issue that’s based on an emotion like fear, and I mentioned it earlier: we move too fast. We try to rush things.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the students somehow feel bad that they don’t have more to show, that they feel they need to push it along in order to look like they’re progressing. But that’s OK, because I know that behavior change takes time, and I am far more giddy about seeing a student take their time and really progress at the dog’s speed, whatever that may be for that dog. When I see that, I know that the student is on the right track and they’ll get there eventually.

So again, the common problem is just moving too fast.

Melissa Breau: If students are trying to decide whether either of these classes is appropriate for their dog, I wanted to ask if you have any advice. How can they decide if their dog is a good candidate?

Nancy Tucker: Now might be a good time for me to mention that the desensitization and counterconditioning class is not for those dogs who might display aggression towards the thing that they fear. For example, if a dog might bite a visitor entering his home because he’s afraid of strangers, this class is not the place for that kind of issue. That’s because I would much rather deal with aggression in person.

Other than that, what I’d like to see are students working on minor issues throughout the term, throughout the session. I’ll bet almost everyone can name at least one or two things their dog is afraid of. Students might think that their dog doesn’t like something because he avoids it, but really their dog might be afraid of that thing, and this class would be a perfect opportunity to work on that. They’ll get to practice their training mechanics on a minor issue, like a dog avoiding the vacuum cleaner, for example, or getting brushed, or getting their nails clipped. Then they’ll be in a better position to handle a bigger issue later on, like aggressive behaviors that are fear-based, for example.

Another important point about the desensitization and counterconditioning class is that whatever trigger the students choose, they need to make sure that they have complete control over their dog’s access to that trigger while they work on it. In other words, if you plan to help your dog overcome his fear of the sound of kids playing and screaming on the street, you need to make sure you can control when and how your dog hears that sound. You can see how that can be really, really difficult. We can’t control when the kids are going to be out playing, but we can maybe try to control the dog’s access to that, to manage the environment or something creatively so that he’s not exposed to that. That’s just an example.

The point that I’m trying to make is that we need to have complete control over that stimulus in order to work through the program, because the only way that desensitization and counterconditioning will work is if we’re able to exercise that kind of control over the stimulus.

As for the Home Alone class, you don’t actually need to have a dog with a separation anxiety issue to take the class. Like I mentioned before, over the last couple of sessions we had lots of trainers take the class who wanted to learn more about helping their clients. It’s also a good match for people with puppies who want to teach their dog to be alone in a structured way. In fact, a lot of the lecture videos are of my own dog, Bennigan, when he was just a puppy learning to be home alone.

Melissa Breau: I did want to dive in a little deeper there , if you don’t mind, and ask if there are any examples that come to mind of students with problems that would be a particularly good fit for the desensitization and counterconditioning class. Are there particular problems that you’re hoping to get, or that you think might be particularly well suited for that kind of class?

Nancy Tucker: Like I said, the two main criteria are that is not an aggression issue in that there is no danger that the dog will bite, so a dog who is extremely … I don’t like to use the term “reactive” because it doesn’t really describe what’s happening, but a dog who might behave aggressively or lunge and bark at the sight of another dog — this is not a good class for that. I believe that Amy Cook has a good class for that. This is not a good class for that because I personally don’t want to be dealing with aggression, except maybe resource guarding.

If a dog is displaying object guarding and does not have a bite history, that is something that we might be able to handle, but again, I would rather speak with a student first and have them communicate with me to see exactly what’s happening, because that might not be fear-based, and when we’re talking about desensitization and counterconditioning, I think that what we’re aiming for here is to help a dog overcome a fear.

So no outright aggression, and to have control over the stimulus. That is the one thing that is an absolute must.

So to answer your question, no, there is no specific thing that’s carte blanche, and if students are unsure, they can just communicate with me and we can figure it out together.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I know that your class descriptions mentioned something about CEUs. Do you mind sharing with listeners — and I’m sure there are some ears that just perked up there who may be trainers trying to get those Continuing Education credits — what the deal is there?

Nancy Tucker: Both classes are approved for 21 CEUs for training for those who are certified with a CCPDT. I specified “for training,” because with the CCPDT — the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers — there are training credits and there are behavior credits. These are 21 training CEUs for each class.

Students can register at any level, whether it’s Gold, Silver, or Bronze, and throughout the term they’ll need to collect some code words that will be peppered throughout the lectures and the Gold discussion forums. So they have to follow and pay close attention to the course as it progresses, the lectures and discussion forums. And hey, 21 CEUs is almost two-thirds of a full recertification, so that’s not a bad deal. If you take both classes, you get 42 CEUs right there.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That’s really a fantastic opportunity for those people who are out there trying to get those.

Thanks so much for coming back on the podcast, Nancy! It’s great to chat.

Nancy Tucker: Thanks for having me, Melissa. Always a pleasure.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our wonderful listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Julie Daniels to discuss confidence-building through shaping.

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.

 

Mar 16, 2018

Summary:

Dr. Debbie Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 years and has both a masters and a doctorate, as well as other advanced certifications in her field.

She currently owns a small-animal rehabilitation practice in Connecticut called Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals. Over the last 12 years, she has lectured throughout the world on the topic of small-animal rehabilitation, and is one of the founders of the Certificate Program in Canine Rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee.

She has been widely published, both professionally and in venues for dog enthusiasts.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 3/23/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker to talk about desensitization and counter conditioning.

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’ll be talking to Dr. Debbie Gross Torraca.

Dr. Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 years and has both a masters and a doctorate, as well as other advanced certifications in her field.

She currently owns a small-animal rehabilitation practice in Connecticut called Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals. Over the last 12 years, she has lectured throughout the world on the topic of small-animal rehabilitation, and is one of the founders of the Certificate Program in Canine Rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee.

She has been widely published, both professionally and in venues for dog enthusiasts.

Hi Debbie, welcome to the podcast!

Debbie Torraca: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you back today. To get things started, do you mind reminding listeners who the various furry members of your household are, and what you’re working on with them?

Debbie Torraca: Yes. I live with two dogs. I share my life with two dogs, but I probably see over a hundred dogs a week at my office. I’m fortunate to have wonderful owners that trust me with their wonderful animals and throw in occasional cat, horse, and who knows what else sometimes, duck. It’s wonderful. My Clumber Spaniel, Bogart, is my little best buddy, and then we have a Cocker Spaniel named Hendricks, and he is my little buddy too. They’re currently staring at me right now, wondering why I’m talking into the computer.

Melissa Breau: I know we planned today to talk about puppies and exercise, and I think that’s one of those topics that I see discussed over and over again. It comes up in the alumni group and pretty much anywhere else that people gather on the Internet to talk about dogs. There is this idea of what is and what isn’t appropriate for puppies, and whenever the topic comes up, people to start talking about growth plates closing and physical development. I was curious if you could explain a little bit about what the growth plates closing bit means and your take.

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely, because I think this is a topic that is always so pertinent and always so important. I’ve spent so much time with puppies from early on, even as early as 2 weeks of age, and watching their development, and have been following right now probably over 110 litters with starting them out on gentle exercise and then following them through.

When we look at puppies, I think sometimes we forget that they’re not just little dogs. They’re growing dogs. The same way that we would look at a child, we would not expect a 3- or 4-year-old child to be able to pick up a golf club and hit a ball a hundred yards, or pick up a baseball bat and fire away. Yet we do that with puppies so often.

I always use the example, getting back to kids just for a minute, that we know the American College of Sports Medicine has been so focused on human athletes but also the growth of human athletes, and together with the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Little League Association, it’s probably one of the oldest rules, but it makes the most sense, and I think it’s something that we can apply to animals.

A child up to the age of 18 is limited on how many pitches he can throw, if he’s a pitcher in baseball. So most of the time we would look at an 18-year-old male or female and think, Oh, they’re grown. But then when we look at them when they’re 24 or 25, and look back at 18, they really weren’t grown. There was so much more physical and mental maturity that took place. And the reason being with throwing is it places a lot of stress on the growth plates, in particular the growth plates in the elbow and the shoulder.

When we think about dogs, and people often ask, “What are growth plates?” I like to use the analogy that they’re little factories that are located at the end of each bone, and these factories are constantly producing more bone and more growth, so they’re working to get the dog to the size it’s supposed to be. At different stages these factories will close down, and certain ones close at different times in a dog’s body.

The way to know they’re completely closed is to do an X-ray. Some people say, “Oh, I can feel their growth plates are closed,” but that’s not true at all. In some dogs, all the growth plates may close up when the puppy is between 10 and 12 months. Some puppies do not have growth plate closure until 40 months — that’s over 3 years of age.

These growth plates are so important because, again, those factories are constantly pushing out, making the bones longer, stronger, more substantial, and if they’re injured in any way, they’re going to break down and they’re going to stop. Injuries can occur certainly by trauma — if a puppy is hit by a car or anything like that — but it can be also injured with too much activity, like for example, too much jumping, too much running, sometimes slipping and sliding. In agility I see it a lot with weave poles — too many weave poles too early on. So there are a lot of things.

It sounds like common sense, yet you have this little ball of energy you want to do things with. People often ask, “I just want to tire my puppy out.” I’ve seen puppies that have different venues. They’ll run their puppies six miles at 6 months of age, which I just cringe.

I also get very concerned when, in agility, dogs can compete so much earlier, between 15 and 18 months, depending upon the organization. But it’s not so much the competing. It’s when do they start practicing. That is certainly a concern. And definitely the medium, large, and extra-large dogs. That’s not to say the smaller dogs you shouldn’t be careful with, but everyone wants to push their pup and make them the super pup that turns into the super dog, but again, getting back to that child, there’s only so much you can push them and only so much you can do. So think about those little growth plates as little machines.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that it can vary anywhere from 10 to 12 months to 40 months. Is there … larger dogs are at one end, smaller dogs at the other end? Is that how that works?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. The larger dogs take the longest to close up. For example, I just saw a 3-and-a-half-year-old Leonberger the other day. His owner had his hips X-rayed, and his growth plates are still open in the pelvic area. You think 3-and-a-half, and the life expectancy is not that long, but his growth plates are still … he’s still going, so he’s still got some growth to go. I think that’s so amazing that some of these large dogs still keep growing. Smaller dogs will definitely tend to close up earlier, so your toy breeds and your small breeds will close up earlier. The growth plates that tend to close the latest are the ones in the lower back or the pelvic area and then also in the shoulder. Those are the ones that take so much stress with running and jumping and stuff like that.

Melissa Breau: Interesting, which obviously is what a lot of our sports require of our dogs is those particular areas. Growth plate closing is the stage that comes up most often when we’re talking about puppies and exercise. But I’m really curious -- are there other stages that maybe are less well known that people should be aware of when it comes to puppy development that impact exercise and what you should and shouldn’t do?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. I really like to educate owners to look at your puppies, and not only physical, because you definitely have to pay attention to that growth plate, but I call it “the common sense puppy thing.”

Your puppies will go through stages. They’ll wake up one day and have forgotten everything you’ve taught them. They don’t know the command “sit,” “stay,” or anything like that. They’re most likely going through both a physical and maybe a mental growth spurt, so I always have owners take a look at that.

The other thing is their maturity. Some dogs, when you look at puppies and they’re so mature for their age, just like some children are, and they’re in control of their body, while others are not.

The other thing is body awareness. Again, some dogs have it all together right from the get-go. They’re great, they can stand, they’re aware, they don’t slam into furniture in your house and knock it all over, while other puppies are major klutzes, so they’re all over the place. This may definitely vary because they’re going to go through these growth phases, typically at 4 months, 6 months, and maybe again at 10 and 14 months, depending upon the breed. During this time, often owners will get frustrated and say, “He did sit, he did have good body awareness, and then he woke up and I’m not sure what happened.”

Then I always throw in, too, the owner capability, because I’ve owned … I think the smallest dog I’ve owned is actually my Cocker Spaniel. But I’ve had large breeds, and in hindsight — and they say hindsight’s always 20/20 — did I do stupid things with my dogs? Yeah. I thought my Bull Mastiff was all done at 18 months, and went on a long hike and made him sore because he wasn’t physically ready for that. Always tuning in, like owner common sense with things, and making sure we look at puppies and their growth, and making sure everyone’s aware of it, of what they’re going through.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the hike. There’s so much differing advice out there, I’d really love to get your take: how do you decide how much is appropriate and what’s too much for a puppy when it comes to exercise?

Debbie Torraca: First, look at your breed, because certainly a Border Collie is going to be much different than, let’s say, a Basset Hound, with their ability and their endurance. So you’re looking at their breed. A large breed is not going to be able to do as much as a smaller breed.

With that said, and if you can factor that in, I like to look at 5 minutes of activity per month. For example, a 2-month-old puppy can get 10 minutes of activity a day. This sounds a little bit off, but forced physical activities, meaning taking them on a leash and walking them. No more than 10 minutes.

Forced versus unforced, if they’re running around the back yard and they’re having fun, most puppies — and I say this: most — are fairly self-regulatory, so if they’re tired, they’ll take a nap. Whereas if they’re on a leash or we’re asking them to do an activity, they don’t always have that option.

So looking again at that 5 minutes, a 6-month-old pup should be able to handle 30 minutes of activity. Again, a Cocker Spaniel’s going to differ from a Saint Bernard, so that Saint Bernard may need less activity, and that can be just used as a guideline.

I always like to look at, certainly if the dog doesn’t want to do something, then not to do it. That puppy could be going through a growth phase and not feel like going on a walk that day, and that’s OK.

If there’s any lameness, because certainly puppies, there’s a lot of conditions in puppies — panosteitis, which is inflammation of the long bones that’s caused by over-activity, some dogs are prone to that, and there’s a lot of other juvenile issues such as OCD lesions and HOD and a few other things that we need to be careful with — if you’re looking at never causing any lameness, and that is during the activity and certainly after.

I always like to look at puppies, whatever you do with them, take a look at them two to six hours after. If they sleep for two hours after the activity, that’s OK, but if they’re comatose for the next day, you’ve definitely overdone it. It may seem like a great idea, the puppies are tired and this is great, but that’s not always a good thing in the long run because you can definitely cause some damage.

My current Clumber Spaniel is just about to turn 8, and I have his hips X-rayed or radiographed usually every year. The first time I had it done, I was embarrassed, because when the orthopedist was reading it, he said, “Look.” He had a case of panosteitis when he was a pup, so you could see that damage in the bone. He said, “Did you overdo it with him?” And I thought, Oh my gosh, I preach this all the time. Did I overdo it with him? It’s something to think about because different breeds and different activity, so whatever we do with them is going to stay with them the rest of their life, both good and bad, and certainly from a physical standpoint and from a training standpoint.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that are absolutely NOT appropriate or never appropriate? Are there things that people should try to avoid beyond just tuckering a puppy out too much?

Debbie Torraca: Every puppy has to endure certain things, meaning they’re going to walk on a slippery floor. It’s almost impossible to not have them walk over something slippery or do stairs or functional activities. You can’t always carry a 4-month-old Saint Bernard puppy up three flights of stairs.

Some things are definitely not to do. You want to avoid extremes of movement until those growth plates are closed up. I’m a huge advocate of not doing a lot of twisting motions, for example, weave poles. Wait until you know those growth plates are closed, and then start with weaving activity.

The same thing with jumping. I hear a lot of times my agility clients will say, “But I really want them to get the foundation down.” Well, there’s so many different ways to learn the foundations. You can use small bump jumps and start working with them that way, but not jumping their full height until they’re completely mature.

Also something that seems fairly benign that can cause a lot of issues is heeling. We don’t often think about it. It seems like, “Oh, that’s a simple exercise,” but when the dog is heeling, their head is up in extension and their neck is rotated, and that is going to place a lot more stress onto the left front leg and the left back leg, and if they don’t have that core strength or the balance, we can see issues come down the pike later on. For example, one of the common things I see in obedience dogs is pelvic asymmetry. The dogs have odd issues with their pelvic area, they haven’t been strengthened well, and they lead to chronic pain and sometimes iliopsoas injuries, so that’s something to think about.

And extreme running or hiking. I always see people out jogging with their puppies. If you go back to that just 5 minutes of activity and working with that, you shouldn’t be out running with your dog or jogging that much until they start to mature. The same thing with hiking and that sort of stuff.

And definitely rough play. I’ve seen some puppies play together and they look like they’re going to kill each other. So getting in and moderating there and slowing it down.

Of course other things like jumping, excessive jumping on and off the bed or the furniture, or in and out of the car, because, again, that jump down could damage those growth plates. So really being cognizant and watching what the pups do.

It’s hard. There’s a lot going into it. I find, too, that so many people are so awesome about their training and every movement they do. I had a client come in two weeks ago that just retired and has a Golden Retriever, and she’s been doing everything with her pup, from dock diving to obedience to flyball. The dog is almost 2 years now, and the dog has really bad hip pain. It can’t hold a sit because it’s so weak. Yet the owner’s been doing all these things, and she was almost in tears when I told her, because she thought she was doing all these great things keeping her dog so active. But the dog never had the strength to do all these things. She never let her pup be a pup. She got right into jumping and all of that other stuff, so it definitely has caused some issues. Fortunately we’ll be able to turn them around, but it’s setting a lot of things back in her life with regard to competing.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned running with a puppy, and I want to ask you about that. Are there general guidelines for when and how much is too much when it comes to running — and you mentioned hiking too — with a young dog?

Debbie Torraca: When you’re putting a dog on a leash and asking them to keep up with you on a jog or a run, you’re not really giving them the option to stop, sniff, or take a break. So I ask owners to hold off on any kind of jogging or running until the dog is at least 18 months old. My preference would be later, so anywhere from 24 to 30 months old to let them mature.

Hiking, if they’re off-leash and they’re able to kind of self-regulate, you can start earlier, maybe anywhere from 10 to 18 months, but again taking it easy. You don’t want to take your 10-month-old pup and go for an 8-mile hike. Again, we wouldn’t do that with a 10-year-old child and not expect ramifications. So there would be issues. Then there would be a lot of whining.

Melissa Breau: I was thinking that. I was thinking you’d get a lot more whining than you would with a dog.

Debbie Torraca: Whenever I take my almost-12-year-old daughter hiking, she’s like, “Really? Are we done yet?” We’re only half a mile in and she’s like, “This is too much!” So I definitely empathize with that.

Melissa Breau: The other thing you mentioned was training. I know we’ve got a lot of training junkies in our audience, but I wanted to ask about differentiating between “training” and “exercise” -- especially the good exercise that we’ve been talking about. Is there too much training? Where’s the crossover there, and where’s the line?

Debbie Torraca: I think certainly with, again, training that there is so much mental stimulation with training. People often do ask, “How do I tire my puppy out?” Well, every trainer and everyone listening probably already knows the answer: make them think. Because when they have to think, that is going to fatigue them more.

As far as starting conditioning with pups, I actually like to start conditioning with pups, if I can get my hands on them, as early as 2 weeks of age, and just starting with little things.

There was a study done that demonstrated pups growing up on a stable surface, starting to do a little balance and essentially core work, had a lower incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia. That’s huge. You think about, for any breeder out there, doing stuff, and you want to start introducing little things to them. For example, just climbing, using their core to climb up to their mom. When they’re comfortable, just walking on and off unstable objects.

I’m huge about any objects that are used. We now, in the past probably three or four years, we know the dangers of phthalates with children, and certainly there are more and more studies coming out linking phthalates to canine cancer and reproductive issues, so anything that the puppies are utilizing has to be phthalate-free because they’re chewing on it, they’re absorbing things through their feet, that sort of stuff. So I go wild about that.

And then just simple things. I remember when my Clumber pup, one of the first things we worked on when he was 8 weeks was just sitting on an unstable surface. We sat him on a disc, and he would sit for a couple of seconds and just go to his tolerance and then take a break and we would do it again. That started to work on his body awareness. When he was comfortable he stood on it for periods of time. Again, just up to his tolerance.

I would not do more than a few minutes a couple of times a day with a growing puppy, so up to 6 months of age I like to keep it at maybe 5 minutes twice a day with this physical conditioning. That’s not including walking outside. This is more like body-awareness exercises such as walking backwards, or even sit and give paw, and that sort of stuff.

Then, after 6 months of age, with the exception of a large-breed puppy, start doing a little bit more. Gradually start increasing it to 10 minutes a couple of times a day and working again on body awareness. I always try to think, What is this puppy going to encounter in their life? We think about it from a psychological training point, like we try to stimulate, get them used to kids’ noises, and loud noises, and bells and whistles, and all that sort of stuff.

And I think about it from the other end, like, OK, they’re going to have to go upstairs. They’re going to have to go downstairs, which is so much more difficult. They’re going to walk on a tile floor or a wood floor. What can we do to start to incorporate that? I love working very slowly and gradually on unstable surfaces and always to their tolerance. So whenever they start to get tired, we take a break. I’m huge over quality over quantity.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little about this already, but having a 10-month-old myself, I know it can be very tempting to over-exercise simply to tucker them out. Puppies can definitely be absolute terrors until they’ve developed -- or maybe are taught, depending on the breed – to have an off switch. I know you mentioned mental stimulation. Any other thoughts or suggestions for how puppy owners can manage that crazy energy level that sometimes comes with a puppy?

Debbie Torraca: Certainly. That’s a great opportunity to work on some stability and some body awareness and core work. One of the things I like to do is start off maybe with ten sit-to-stands on something unstable. It could be a disc, it could be a sofa cushion, something unstable, a dog bed, and then walk them for a couple of minutes, then stop.

Teach them to walk backwards, and while they’re walking backwards they’re thinking, What am I doing here? They’re so excited. Incorporate more sit and stands, because now you’re working on body awareness, you’re getting some strength through their forelimbs, their hind limbs.

If the dog has mastered down, at that stage you can do puppy pushups on different things, and if you’re out walking, you can use different surfaces. Grass is always my favorite, but if you come across sand or anything like that.

Teaching them to put their forelimbs up on something and hold for a few seconds, their hind limbs up on something low and hold for a few seconds, but incorporating a lot of physical and mental activity.

I’ve also found that working their core, working their balance, it’s very hard for a puppy to stand still. They want to keep going. Working on that standing still not only helps them with patience, but also helps them with that physical strength. For example, and we see this a lot in confirmation, owners and handlers want their pups to stand still. We work on it on land or on the flat, and then on something unstable, and start to build gradually, so 10, 15, 20, 30 seconds. It sounds so simple but wears them down. It makes them tired. When my dogs were young, and whenever they were driving me bats or I was having company over, I would make sure I worked their core and did a lot of these activities right before I had company coming over, so they would go and sleep.

Melissa Breau: We’ve talked a lot about exercise specifically, but I also want to talk a little more about the conditioning piece. It’s a blurry line for a lot of people, and I’d love to hear your take on what the difference is between what constitutes conditioning versus what just constitutes exercise.

Debbie Torraca: Great question. I think every dog needs a little bit of both in their life every day. I consider exercise a lot of our walking activities, stuff that a lot of dogs do, except I always find people that have back yards tend to not exercise their dog. Dogs that are just let out in the back yard, owners always get upset when I say, “That’s not really exercise.” Because you don’t know what they’re doing. A puppy can go tear up your back yard, or they can just go lay and sleep. Exercise should be a part of every dog’s life, that sort of stuff.

Conditioning really targets specific areas, and it could be balance, it could be proprioception while a puppy is growing, and their forelimbs are higher than their hind limbs or vice versa. You can work on conditioning, targeting specific areas. For example, forelimbs up on an unstable surface are going to target the hind limbs by putting more weight onto it, but also work the forelimbs and their stability a little bit. These may be more specific exercises, depending upon what’s going on.

Another example is if you have a large-breed dog that’s prone to hip dysplasia, you definitely want to take proactive steps and strengthen up their hips. Simple things to do, conditioning exercises would be sit-to-stand on an unstable surface. Because as they’re sitting and standing, they’re working their butt muscles, their hip flexors, and their pelvic area. The same thing if a dog is prone to elbow dysplasia. There are certain breeds that are prone to it. We can do a lot of stability conditioning for the forelimb to help with stabilizing or strengthening as much as possible.

Ideally, every dog, like how we say to people, ideally everybody should be out walking once a day, and everybody should do some sort of conditioning for their body, for their posture, or whatever, so the same thing.

Melissa Breau: You’ve mentioned a bunch of things as we’ve gone through, like having your front paws up on something, trying to get your back paws up on something, backing up. Just to condense all those into one question, what are some of the things puppy owners can do to help ensure their puppy grows into a well-formed, physically healthy adult? Do you mind running through some of those things in one list for folks?

Debbie Torraca: Usually, probably five key things that I tell puppy owners to work on. One is try to get them to stand still. This can start as early as 8 weeks of age. That is a lot for them. It tells us a lot too. If a puppy can’t stand still for 10 seconds, they’re usually uncomfortable in their body. So even at 8 weeks of age you can sometimes tell if something is off. So standing still and then building up. That could be initiated on land or on the floor, and then worked up to something unstable, like a phthalate-free disc, or a bed, or a sofa cushion, that sort of stuff. That’s the first one.

The second one is simple sit-to-stands. Anybody that’s had a puppy that is in that medium to large breed or giant breed, we know that the puppies go through every funky sit. They’ll sit with their legs out, they’re not sitting very ladylike, or that sort of stuff. But working on a nice, controlled sit. I usually try to incorporate that with mealtimes. Try a set of ten before each meal. They’re good and hungry, they’re usually a little bit crazy, so you can use a few food kibble, you can do that, and then you can progress to them sitting and standing on something unstable. As they are working on something unstable, they’re starting to work those large core muscles, balance, and proprioception.

The third thing is walking backwards. Just learning body awareness and to use their hind limb to move backwards is a key exercise. We could increase that as the dogs become stronger by stepping over things, by stepping onto different things.

The fourth thing is a down, because again, we could turn that into make it more difficult. So going from a stand to a sit to a down, slowly and controlled, and it’s both a down and an up. Again starting this on land and then doing it on something unstable, so the unstable activity will make it more difficult.

The other thing, the fifth thing, is a little bit more difficult. It involves the dog standing still and just leaning forward and leaning back. This would be kind of analogous to you and I standing on our feet and leaning forward and leaning backward. It requires balance and body awareness, but also a lot of strength. I usually start with puppies with this on a platform and ask them to lean forward just a smidge, maybe half an inch or a centimeter, and then have them return. This is fairly difficult to do, so it may not be until they’re 5 or 6 months old. Some of the larger-breed dogs have even a tougher time pulling this together.

Those are the five things that just about every puppy can start on. Once they have those down, then we could add different things and make them more difficult, or that sort of stuff, depending upon what the dog is going to do in their professional career.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you do some stuff with puppies as young as 2 weeks. What age are we talking about for the stuff you just mentioned, for those beginning?

Debbie Torraca: For the most part, starting at 8 weeks of age, and just keep in mind you want to do it to their tolerance, so no more than 5 minutes. But if they can’t handle more than … they can’t do that, then you just wait. Also remembering that there are days that they’re not going to be able to mentally or physically pull it together, and that’s OK. So something you can work on every day, but if they’re growing and just want to sleep or chew on things or something, give them the day off, because it sounds so simple, but it’s a lot for them.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much. I think that’s all the questions I had, so I really appreciate you coming back on the podcast. It was awesome to chat through this stuff.

Debbie Torraca: Thank you so much, Melissa, for having me, and I look forward to speaking with you in the future.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to talk about Desensitization and Counter-conditioning.

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.

Mar 9, 2018

Note: We've rearranged episodes a bit here to better coordinate with guest schedules, so the names mentioned as next episodes in our last podcast was incorrect. Instead of Debbie Torraca, this week we have Esther Zimmerman -- we'll be back next week with Debbie Torraca. 

Summary:

Esther Zimmerman is a long-time FDSA student and has been a participant in AKC events for over 40 years. She’s been teaching dogs and their people since the early 1980's.  

Currently, she is the head competition obedience instructor at MasterPeace Dog Training in Franklin, MA, where she teaches multiple classes at all levels, and coaches many private students.

Over the years, Esther has evolved her own special blend of the art and science of dog training, acquired through years of experience, extensive reading, and continuing education at conferences and seminars. She is well known for her patience, compassion, honesty, and humor, along with an unfailingly positive attitude toward both dogs and handlers.

She feels it’s the trainer's job to have the dogs WANT to play the obedience game, not to make them do it, and that there is no reason to use compulsion for the sake of a ribbon.

Her many high-scoring students are proof of this, as they earn advanced titles, many with non-traditional obedience breeds. Esther herself competes with Schipperke, and she has finished the only Champion/Utility Dog Excellent in the history of Schipperke, and three additional Champion/Utility dogs. She also put three UDX legs on Presto, a Golden Retriever, who died of cancer at an early age.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 3/16/2018, featuring Debbie Torraca to talk about exercises, including exercise for puppies!

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’ll be talking to Esther Zimmerman.

Esther is a long-time FDSA student and has been a participant in AKC events for over 40 years. She’s been teaching dogs and their people since the early 1980's.  

Currently, she is the head competition obedience instructor at MasterPeace Dog Training in Franklin, MA, where she teaches multiple classes at all levels, and coaches many private students.

Over the years, Esther has evolved her own special blend of the art and science of dog training, acquired through years of experience, extensive reading, and continuing education at conferences and seminars. She is well known for her patience, compassion, honesty, and humor, along with an unfailingly positive attitude toward both dogs and handlers.

She feels it’s the trainer's job to have the dogs WANT to play the obedience game, not to make them do it, and that there is no reason to use compulsion for the sake of a ribbon.

Her many high-scoring students are proof of this, as they earn advanced titles, many with non-traditional obedience breeds. Esther herself competes with Schipperke, and she has finished the only Champion/Utility Dog Excellent in the history of Schipperke, and three additional Champion/Utility dogs. She also put three UDX legs on Presto, a Golden Retriever, who died of cancer at an early age.

Hi Esther, welcome to the podcast!

Esther Zimmerman: Hi Melissa. I’m really happy to be here. Thanks for asking me to do this.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To get us started, do you want to briefly just share a little bit about who your dogs are now and what you’re working on with them?

Esther Zimmerman: I’d love to, but I have to start by talking about Jeeves, my Champion UD Rally X1 NW3 Schipperke, who passed away a few weeks ago at age 14-and-a-half. He was really an amazing ambassador of the breed. He was a perfect gentleman with all people, dogs of all ages and temperaments. He was that priceless known adult dog that we all want our puppies to meet because he’s just so good with them. After surviving several serious illnesses as a youngster, he gave me a very profound appreciation of just how much our dogs do for us and with us when playing the games we love. I was grateful every day he was alive and he is really sorely missed. It’s very fresh still because it was only a few weeks ago.

Melissa Breau: I’m sorry to hear that.

Esther Zimmerman: Thank you. Elphaba is my 9-year-old Schipperke. She happens to be Jeeves’s niece. She has her CDX, which, when she earned it, included the group out-of-sight stays. Those were a real challenge for her. She doesn’t like other dogs looking at her. But we persisted and succeeded. She’s almost ready for the utility ring. She’s the first and only nosework Elite 2 Schipperke and is a real little hunting machine in that sport. She also has her Fenzi TEAM 1 and TEAM 1 Plus titles.

Friday is my 3-year-old Schipperke. His titles at this point are an NW1 and TEAM 1, 1 Plus and 1-H. He just passed his 1-H, which was very exciting. He’s teaching me the importance of patience, a trait that I already have an abundance of, but he really requires it in spades. He really does. He can try my patience sometimes, but he keeps me honest as far as that goes. He’s got tons of obedience skills under his collar, but there’s no way he’s ready for AKC competition. I’m hoping maybe by next year.

And then I have Taxi, my 17-month-old Golden Retriever. He’s had a Gold spot in an Academy class almost every semester since I brought him home as a baby puppy. He’s got great potential, like all of our dogs do. I hope that we get to reach the goals I have in mind. He’s a typical, happy, fun-loving dog. He’s a real joy. And that’s the three dogs that I have right now.

Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog sports?

Esther Zimmerman: It’s interesting, because back in the beginning I didn’t have my own dog. I didn’t have my own dog until I was 15, but I’ve been training dogs since I was 5 years old. I grew up in New York City, and every apartment superintendent had a dog that they were more than willing to let me borrow. I read every dog and dog-training book in the library, much to my mother’s dismay, because that’s all I read, and with those dogs, I switched what I was doing based on whatever the advice was that the author of that book gave. So I had a real eclectic education as far as training dogs. Not my own dogs, and I did something different all the time.

The very first dog show I ever attended was Westminster in 1969. School was closed because we had a snowstorm, but the trains were running. Westminster’s on Monday and Tuesday, always has been. So the trains were running and off I went with my tokens, and I went to Westminster. I was in heaven. I had no idea they had 50 percent absenteeism because of the snowstorm, and I thought that the most beautiful dog there was the Basenji. I did not get a Basenji.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: The very first obedience trial I ever went to was the Bronx County Kennel Club, and there I saw a woman in a wheelchair competing in Open with her Labrador Retriever, which just blew my mind. I couldn’t conceive of such a thing, that not only was this dog doing all this amazing stuff, but that his handler was in a wheelchair. She was around for a really, really long time and quite well known on the East Coast and in New England as a competitor.

So I got Juno, my first dog, was a German Shepherd. I got him from an ad in the newspaper — the best way to get a dog, right?

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Esther Zimmerman: She was one of two 10-month-old puppies who were so fearful that they were climbing over each other in their pen, trying to get away from me. So of course I said, “I’ll take that one.” That was Juno. I used the same kind of eclectic training with her, doing something different each week based on what book I was reading from the library.

It did apparently work, though, because seven years later, after I got married and moved to Massachusetts, I joined the New England Dog Training Club, which is the oldest still-existing dog-training club in the country. That summer we entered our first trial, we earned our first leg, and I got my first high-in-trial on this fearful dog

Melissa Breau: Wow.

Esther Zimmerman: And that’s how somebody gets really hooked on this sport. The first time you go in the ring, you win high-in-trial, you want to do that again.

Melissa Breau: Oh yeah.

Esther Zimmerman: And coincidentally, my first paying job as a teenager was as kennel help at Captain Haggerty’s School For Dogs. He’s actually pretty well known. He used to train dogs for movies a lot out in Hollywood. But their training approach was “Break ’em and make ’em.” They would get dogs in there for boarding and training, and they went home trained. They were not happy, but they went home trained. It was absolutely pure compulsion, which as a teenager was really eye-opening and a little bit scary, actually.

Melissa Breau: I can imagine.

Esther Zimmerman: So that’s how I got started in dog sports.

Melissa Breau: Wow. You’ve really been doing it almost your entire life, but in an interesting, different story.

Esther Zimmerman: Yes. Yes.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that it’s been eclectic, and it’s been a little bit here, a little bit there in terms of reading, but what really got you started on your positive training journey? What got you hooked there? Because I certainly know that’s where you are now.

Esther Zimmerman: I think this is a good time for us to talk about Patty Ruzzo, because she’s a big part of that whole journey.

In the early 1980s there was a really tight-knit group of us training at Tails-U-Win in Connecticut, and together we had our first exposures to Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes and John Rogerson and others who totally and completely changed the way we were training and how we even thought about training. We were all attending every seminar we could go to, every clinic we could go to, we were reading dog magazines. I was amassing a huge personal library of dog books. That was all before the Internet, before YouTube, before Facebook.

Patty was an interesting person. She was a really quiet force to be reckoned with. She was a great competitor, she had a great rapport with her dogs, anyone who saw her in the ring with her magnificent Terv, Luca, will always remember what that looked like. They had such a presence about them, and it’s an image I always aspire to. It’s one of those things that if you close your eyes, you can still picture it all these years later.

So Patty was my friend, she was my training buddy, she was my coach. We were determined to pursue a force-free, reward-based approach to training. The first thing we eliminated were the leashes and collars. No more leashes, no more collars. We stopped any physical corrections. As our skills and understanding got better, we were able to even avoid applying psychological pressure to the dogs, and that was a big deal.

My dog at that time was a Schipperke, Zapper. She was a dog that really pushed us to examine what we had been doing, and to see what we could accomplish with this new — to us — approach. She became my first utility dog.

Patty was a really tremendously creative person. She was continually trying and then discarding ideas. It could be dizzying to try and keep up with her, sort of like Denise. Patty passed away twelve years ago. It was a real tragedy for the world of obedience and for me personally.

Several of us from that original group have worked to fill the void by becoming instructors and trainers in our own right. We all made that commitment to stay positive, and I think the group of us really has done a good job of that.

Melissa Breau: Denise brought up the fact that you knew Patty when she and I were talking about having you on. In case anybody doesn’t really know the name, do you mind sharing a just little bit more about the impact she had on the sport in the area, just a little more about her background, or her history, and the role that she played?

Esther Zimmerman: She had multiple OTCH dogs, she competed at the games in regionals and did really, really well at those. She had a Sheltie, she had a Border Collie, and then Luca, the incomparable Luca. And then she got a Whippet. It’s a dog like that that really tests your mettle and your commitment, and she was totally committed to being positive with this dog.

When I tell you that he not able to do a sit-stay of any sort until he was 2-and-a-half, I really mean it, and she just would keep saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll do it. Don’t worry about it, he’ll do it,” and that “Don’t worry about it” is something that I say all the time to my students. “But my dog’s not doing that.” “Don’t worry about it. He will. Eventually.” And she was just like that.

I’ll tell a little anecdote, and this will tell you everything you need to know about Patty and the influence that she had on people. She had two sons. The younger one was about 4 when this happened. They had gone grocery shopping, and they came home and he wanted to help her unload the groceries. So what did he want to carry up the stairs? Take a guess.

Melissa Breau: The eggs?

Esther Zimmerman: The eggs. The eggs of course. So he goes up the stairs, and of course he trips and falls and drops the eggs. She hollers up the stairs, “Are you OK?” He says, “Yes. Six of the eggs did not break.” So just that switch, six of the eggs broke, six of the eggs did not break — that’s how she raised her children to focus on the positive.

Melissa Breau: Part of the impressive part is that back then, nobody was doing that. There weren’t people achieving those kind of things with positive training, and a lot of people were saying it could not be done.

Esther Zimmerman: Right. So the early dogs — it would not be fair to say that she was totally positive with the early dogs. But by the time Luca came along, it was very, very positive, and by the time Flyer, the Whippet, came along, it was totally positive. She didn’t get an OTCH on him, things happened, and then she passed away. But there was and she put it out there in the competitive world the way nobody else was at that point in time.

Melissa Breau: We’ve danced around this question a little bit now, but how would you describe your training philosophy now?

Esther Zimmerman: That’s a good question. My philosophy is fairly simple, actually: Treat the dogs and handlers with kindness and patience. I could probably stop right there, but I won’t. But really, kindness and patience.

Break things down into manageable pieces for each of them. Use varied approaches to the same exercise because dog training isn’t “one size fits all.” The theory, learning theory, applies equally, but not necessarily the specific approach that you use to help them understand.

I try to use a lot of humor to diffuse tension in classes, in private lessons. People are a little bit nervous, or a little bit uptight, so I try to make people laugh. If they can laugh, they feel better about themselves, and what just happened isn’t nearly as important as they thought it was.

I try to be supportive when the dog or person is struggling to learn something. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that, it’s not easy. We’re trying to teach new mechanical skills to people. They’re trying to teach new things to their dogs. That’s a hard combination, and I really respect people who make the effort to do that.

At the same time I encourage independent thinking and problem-solving for the handler and for the dog. I cannot be there all the time when the handler is working with their dog. No instructor can. Even with the online classes, we can’t be there. So if we give the handler the tools to come up with solutions to the problems on their own, now we’ve really accomplished something. Let them figure out how to solve the problem on their own. That’s a big deal to me. I don’t want to be spoon-feeding the answer to every little thing that’s happened there.

So I applaud all their successes, however small. We celebrate everything. My students know that I always advocate for the dog. Whatever the situation is, I’m on the side of the dog, and I urge them to do the same thing when they find themselves in other places, other situations, where perhaps the atmosphere is not quite so positive, or it’s stressful for some reason. Advocate for your dog. You’re the only one that’s looking out for them, and they’re counting on us to do that for them. So I really, really urge people to do that.

And it’s not just about using a clicker and cookies, or any kind of a marker and cookies. It’s about having empathy for a creature who is trying to communicate with us while at the same time we are struggling to communicate with them. It’s all really very simple, but none of it’s very easy. So that’s my philosophy. Pretty simple, don’t you think?

Melissa Breau: Simple but not necessarily easy.

Esther Zimmerman: But not easy. But not easy, yeah.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you’ve been in dog sports in one variety or another for … you said since you were 15, I think.

Esther Zimmerman: A long time, a long time. I was 22 years old the first time I set foot in the ring.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: So now people can do the math so they’ll know how old I am.

Melissa Breau: As someone who’s been in dog sports for that long, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last ten or so years?

Esther Zimmerman: Well, for even longer than that, but the sport of AKC obedience has changed dramatically since I started. Classes have been added and deleted, exercises have been added and deleted. The OTCH — the Obedience Trial Championship — was introduced in 1977, and they added the UDX in either 1992 or 1993. I couldn’t find the definitive answer for that, and I couldn’t remember off the top of my head.

The group stays, as of May 1, have been safer in the novice classes and totally eliminated in Open. They’ve added a new and interesting and challenging exercise to Open. Jump heights have been lowered twice. My little German Shepherd, she jumped 32 inches when we started. Now she would have jumped probably 20 inches. There are tons of exceptions from that, from the … once their jump height now, for the really giant breeds, the heavy-boned breeds, the short-legged breeds, the brachycephalic dogs, they just have to jump three-quarters their height at the shoulder, so that’s a big change.

Now you’ve got to remember all of this has been done with the hope of drawing more people into competition. All of it has been done with the accompanying drama, controversy, charges of dumbing-down the sport, nobody’s ever happy with whatever the changes are. But we survived all these changes, and as far as what changes do I want to see in the sport, I don’t really want to see any more for a little while. I think we need to give things a chance to settle down, I think we need to give people a chance to simmer down, because this was a very controversial thing, getting rid of stays.

And then people need time to train the new Open exercise and give that a try. New people coming up will not know that things were different. The command or cue discrimination exercise won’t be something that you teach for Open. As opposed to people who are in a little bit of a panic now, if they’ve got their CDX and they’re going on to a UDX, or they’ve got their UD, they have to go back and teach a new exercise, and not everybody’s happy about that. But I think it’s all going to shake out in time, as it usually does. People resist change because inertia is really a powerful force, and I think we need to move on.

So that’s how I see the changes in the sport. I’m very passionate about the sport, or I wouldn’t still be doing it, and I try and go with the flow with all these changes that have happened.

Melissa Breau: Do you think, or maybe you could talk about, how the addition of other dog sports has changed obedience in particular? I feel like originally it was really conformation and obedience, and now there’s nosework and tricks and all sorts of things.

Esther Zimmerman: I think that one of the reasons for the decline in obedience entries is the proliferation of alternate sports. When I started, like you said, it was basically confirmation, obedience, tracking, herding, and field. That was pretty much it.

Look at what’s been added, not only in sports in general, but there are multiple organizations now that offer their own variations on some of these previously existing activities. I’m just going to rattle these off. Besides those we have rally, we have agility with various venues, earthdog, flyball, multiple venues for nosework, lure coursing, barn hunt, dock diving, parkour, freestyle, weight-pulling, Frisbee, carting, sled dog, treibball, tricks, IPO, French ring. That’s without even really thinking about it terribly very much I came up with that list. And I’m sure there are ones that I have overlooked. So depending on what part of the country you live in, there are many options to choose from on any weekend.

And some of these sports, at the beginner level at least, seem to offer more immediate gratification with a shorter investment of training time than AKC obedience. This can be quite appealing for some competitors. When you get to the upper levels of almost any of these activities, sports, training matters. It really matters.

But there’s another influence on competition, and I think that’s the advent of the private training center. Back in the day, if you wanted to train your dog, you went to a training club. Once you got out of the puppy class you were encouraged to join that club. In order to join that club you had to attend meetings, you had to help out, you set up equipment, you swept the floor, you rolled up mats in the gymnasium, you stewarded the annual trial, and sometimes you became an assistant to a trainer that was already at the club. You became part of something.

Now don’t get me wrong. Again, training centers like MasterPeace, where I work, offer far more than the clubs ever could. MasterPeace has classes and activities seven days a week, morning, noon, and night. But most of the people come for that class, and turn around and go home, so their exposure to the notion of competition may be more limited than it was when they went to a club.

So only AKC clubs can put on an AKC trial. Without the clubs, there are no trials. Several New England clubs no longer exist because of the lack of membership. They had to just fold up and go away. So consider that. Consider … I want people to consider joining their local club. Support them. If you want to be able to compete, there have to be people working to put on the trials. Another thing: I also want to put in a plug for experienced exhibitors to become judges. I don’t care what your activity is. I’m an AKC Open provisional judge now. In case anyone has missed the stat, the average age of judges is getting higher and higher. Without new, younger judges in the pipeline, competition will disappear, because sooner or later these judges have to retire. They can’t go on forever, and there have to be new people coming up to step up and judge. Competition requires judges.

The other thing is that becoming a judge really changes your perspective of your sport. It’s so easy to criticize the judge from outside the ring: “He didn’t see this,” “He didn’t see that,

“She missed this,” “She did something wrong.” Yeah, try stepping behind the clipboard and see how hard it really is to keep all the rules and regs in mind, to see everything that’s going on, mark it all down. Yeah, it’s not that easy, guys. But I encourage everybody to do it, because how else will we go on?

The other thing: I can only compete in New England. I go to my national specialty occasionally, not that much anymore, but I have traveled. But in this area there seems to be an improvement in the general competitive environment. Experienced handlers seem to be a little more welcoming of newbies, and more supportive of each other, than maybe five years ago.

But those of us in the FDSA world would like to think that training overall is moving in a positive direction. Again, in my area, we have pockets of people devoted to that concept, but we’re surrounded by more traditional training. That can feel a bit isolating. But the ripple effect that we talk about is a real thing. We do reach out to support each other, and we have an influence on what other people decide to do when we show how we behave with our dogs when we’re in public, when we’re at competition. People are watching when you don’t think they’re watching, and seeing you celebrate with your dog, even if things haven’t gone quite well — they don’t miss that, and that’s an important thing for them to see. So yeah, things have changed a lot. Things have changed a lot.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, for sure.

Esther Zimmerman: But I’m hopeful for the future, very hopeful for the future.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned FDSA in there, and I’m really curious: What led you to the Academy? How did you wind up there?

Esther Zimmerman: I first encountered Denise at a seminar, and she’s a dynamic presenter. She’s got all this energy, talks really fast, is very excited, she’s also passionate about what she does, committed to it, and her message just resonated with me in a way that nothing had since Patty. So I started following her blog — there’s a lot of information there. Before FDSA, she offered an online course of relationship-building through play through another organization. I thought the idea was intriguing, but was really uncertain of how that could possibly work. So I got a working spot with Elphaba, and as we all know, it works great. It was a fabulous class, and I’ve been a devotee of the Academy since its inception. So that’s how I came to FDSA.

Melissa Breau: We talked through and you had a ton of experience before that point, so what is it that keeps you involved in coming back?

Esther Zimmerman: This is a really easy one for me. I love dogs. I love dogs, number one. I love training, number two. I personally love how detail-oriented competition obedience is. It’s not for everybody, I understand that, but I love that aspect of it. I love every training session, I love every class I teach, I love every lesson that I give, because every single one of them is different.

I really love how my classes are a level playing field. Everyone who comes to the sport is a newbie, regardless of their professional and personal fields of expertise. I have doctors, I have veterinarians, I have lawyers, I have chefs, I have people who are really accomplished in their respective fields who are all starting at the same place when they come to dog training. None of that other stuff matters in the least.

And I’m dealing with all the different breeds that come to me. That makes me a better instructor and trainer. I think to some degree people like to bring their non-traditional breeds to me since I have Schipperke. I think they think I will have a different sympathy and empathy for the perception of what we can expect from the non-traditional breeds, and to a degree that is correct, because I don’t feel, “Oh, it’s a terrier, it can’t do that.” “It’s a sighthound, we can’t expect it to be able to do that.” Right? “It’s a fill-in-the-blank, and therefore…” Yeah, there are predilections, but we can be successful, if we work at it and if we want it, with most breeds. And with FDSA specifically, I love how we have access to such a wide variety of subjects, world-class instructors from different parts of the world, and we never have to get out of our jammies if we don’t want to.

Melissa Breau: That makes me think of Sue’s competition, her PJ competition, of everybody posting pictures of themselves training in their PJs.

Esther Zimmerman: Exactly. And I don’t know if you saw it, somebody was talking about FDSA swag that they bought, I think it was a sweatshirt or something, and I said, “How come there are no FDSA pajamas?”

Melissa Breau: Yeah, we are looking at that. This is an aside, but I found onesies, pajama onesies, that you can get with your logo on them online somewhere, and I was sharing them with the other instructors, like, “I don’t know, I think this should be what we wear to camp.” I think it got vetoed. But I don’t know, I still think it’s a good idea.

Esther Zimmerman: That might be a little small for some of us.

Melissa Breau: It’s pajamas. Footie pajamas. One-piece footie pajamas.

Esther Zimmerman: Hey, why not? You know some people would take you up on that.

Melissa Breau: Right. This has been a lot of fun, but since this is your first time here, I want to ask you the three questions that I used to ask on almost every episode, but now that people have been on once or twice, we haven’t gone back to them. The first question is simply, What’s the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of?

Esther Zimmerman: I’m not going to limit it to just one. I have a couple of things to say.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: I’m really proud of the titles that I’ve earned with my dogs, with the Schipperke. Some of them have been firsts for the breed, which is really a nice thing to be able to say.

What I’m most proud of, though, is how much I appreciate the partnership that I develop with my dogs as we go along. I have a bunch of candid photos that people have taken, and almost every one of them shows me looking right into my dog’s eyes, and my dog looking right back into my eyes. I cherish those pictures and that feeling that I have. It’s so special, and I can conjure that up at a moment’s notice. I almost get choked up every time I talk about it, because it’s just me and my dog, and everything else just goes away. That is something that I’m proud of, that I have that connection with my dogs.

Melissa Breau: That’s beautiful. I love that.

Esther Zimmerman: Thank you. The second thing is that I love to share in the accomplishments of my students. That brings me so much joy, that they are finding success and happiness in this sport, and I’m just thrilled for all of them, every little thing that they do, and it doesn’t always translate to a ribbon. If a person can come out of the ring when they have not qualified, and come to me and say, “Did you see that drop on recall?” or “Did you see how she worked articles?” when maybe that’s something they’ve been struggling with and the dog did it — even if something else went badly, then I’ve done my job of teaching that person to focus on the positive and not worry about the rest of it, because we can make that better too. Those are the things I’m really proudest.

Melissa Breau: I love that. Our second and second-to-last question is, What is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Esther Zimmerman: I’ve got a couple of things here too.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: I do like to talk.

Melissa Breau: That makes for a good podcast, so we’re good!

Esther Zimmerman: Patty said, “When in doubt, put a cookie on it.” That’s it. That simple statement can address so many issues. When in doubt, put a cookie on it. Sheila Booth said — I don’t know if too many people know who she is, but in Schutzhund circles, IPO circles, I think she’s a little better known — but Sheila Booth said, “They can do at 4 what they couldn’t do before.” So she’s saying what they can do at age 4, they couldn’t do before then, which again speaks to patience and not showing prematurely. I firmly believe the dogs will tell you when they’re ready to show, and don’t rush it. There’s no rush. Take your time, put in the work, and you’ll be way happier. There are Flyers, there are dogs you can take out at 1 or 2 and accomplish great things, but for the most part, not so much.

I have a saying that I say to my students, so much that one of them embroidered it on a vest for me. In class it always comes out when someone says, “How come my dog did that?” I always say, “Too far, too fast, too much, too soon.” Don’t go too far too fast. Don’t do too much too soon. That’s how it got embroidered on my vest. That’s my biggest piece of training advice to put out there. Don’t go too far too fast. Don’t do too much too soon.

Melissa Breau: I love that. That’s awesome.

Esther Zimmerman: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: It has a certain sing to it. Too far, too fast, too much, too soon. Last question for you: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Esther Zimmerman: This is going to sound like a cliché, but I really admire Denise. In addition to being an outstanding dog trainer and instructor, she’s a really smart businessperson. She works harder than any five people I know, she’s created something unique with FDSA, and surrounds herself with other smart people who help keep it running smoothly and efficiently, specifically you, Melissa, and Teri Martin.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, Teri’s fantastic.

Esther Zimmerman: And then Denise’s generosity to the dog training community always impresses me. There’s so much free material and information out there, the blog and these podcasts are free, of course, she joins in the conversations on the various Facebook pages and gives training advice there, she does her live Facebook sessions are free.

I think the scholarships for free Bronze-level classes and the contests for free Bronze-level classes are amazing at making education available to everybody, even if you have limited means. It’s just a wonderful thing to put out there for people.

And then of course the inception of TEAM — that was also just brilliant. It’s brought high-quality titling opportunities to anyone, anywhere, anytime. It forces people to pay attention to detail. There’s a lot of precision required right through from basic foundation skills through the advanced levels. People who do that are pretty well prepared for success in other types of competition. It was a brilliant concept and brilliant in execution.

I don’t know what Denise has in store for the future, but I know she’s been teasing us about something new coming in April, I don’t like being teased like that, but I also can’t wait to see what it’s going to be, because it’s going to be great. I know it is. So I have to say it’s Denise.

Melissa Breau: I will say that she is by far the most productive person I know. She gets more done in a few hours a day than most people do in a week.

Esther Zimmerman: I don’t know. It boggles my mind. It just boggles my mind.

Melissa Breau: You’re not the only one. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Esther! This has been great. I really appreciate it. This has been fun.

Esther Zimmerman: I know it took us a little bit of time to be able to connect. I had a cold. I hope I sound OK, because my voice was shattered last week. It was worth the wait. It was a lot of fun, and I’m very honored that you decided to ask me to do this.

Melissa Breau: Well, I’m definitely glad that you could.

And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Debbie Torraca, to talk about exercise for puppies.

If you enjoyed this episode, I hope you guys will consider hopping over to iTunes and leaving us a review. I know I mentioned this in our last couple of episodes, but reviews really help the show! We’ve gotten a few new ones since I’ve started including this request, like this one from Schout: “Melissa does a great job interviewing accomplished guests. Filled with useful insights and funny anecdotes.”

Thank you Schout, whoever you are!

And, while you’re there, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll subscribe 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.

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